The Great Antidote

Alain Bertaud on Urban Planning and Cities

February 09, 2024 Juliette Sellgren
Alain Bertaud on Urban Planning and Cities
The Great Antidote
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The Great Antidote
Alain Bertaud on Urban Planning and Cities
Feb 09, 2024
Juliette Sellgren

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Alain Bertaud is an urbanist and a senior research scholar at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management. He is the author of a book about urban planning that is titled Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. He has worked as an urban planner in a multitude of cities around the world. 

Today, we talk about his view of a city and what he’s observed as an urban planner. He gives us examples and draws connections between how culture and regulation shape cities --- he means literally; cities shaped by regulation are shaped like donuts. We discuss the problems with central planning from old Soviet cities to today's urban sprawl caused by zoning regulation. He explains how being a "free market urban planner" is not a contradiction and shares personal stories about how he came to this career.

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Send us a Text Message.

Alain Bertaud is an urbanist and a senior research scholar at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management. He is the author of a book about urban planning that is titled Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. He has worked as an urban planner in a multitude of cities around the world. 

Today, we talk about his view of a city and what he’s observed as an urban planner. He gives us examples and draws connections between how culture and regulation shape cities --- he means literally; cities shaped by regulation are shaped like donuts. We discuss the problems with central planning from old Soviet cities to today's urban sprawl caused by zoning regulation. He explains how being a "free market urban planner" is not a contradiction and shares personal stories about how he came to this career.

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Juliette Sellgren

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith

Welcome back. Today is January 12th, 2024, and I'm honored to invite Alain Bertaud onto the podcast today to talk about cities, planning, and more. We're going to be talking a lot about Paris because that's what I know and that's what I'm curious about. But we're going to be talking about cities all over the world. He is an urbanist and a senior research scholar at the NYU Marin Institute of Urban Management. He's also the author of a book titled Order Without Design, how Markets Shape Cities. He has worked as an urban planner in a multitude of cities around the world, and he has traveled so much. Welcome to the podcast.

Alain Bertaud 

Thank you for the introduction.

Juliette Sellgren 

So before we get into cities, and maybe this is related, but what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Alain Bertaud 

I think that during 30 years, probably starting about 1990 to 2020, several billions people get out of poverty. A large part of it was due to urbanization, but mostly an increase in freedom in economic freedom in a number of large country, mostly China and India. This is something I think a few people strangely know, and I lived through that. So for me it's a very important fact, and I'm always surprised to know that young people do not know about that. They have the feeling to the contrary that things have gone wrong or worse during this time.

Juliette Sellgren (2.20)

We're so deep into the things we should be grateful for, right? The second economic freedom and prosperity that I think it's so much easier to just look at what's negative or even to think that things that have been the cause of prosperity have actually not been. And so this is a great reminder. Let's jump in. 

I'm going to assume that everyone listening here today knows what a city is, but your relationship with cities is way more intimate and complex than many of ours. So what is a city to you and how would you introduce someone, say me or anyone on the street to the way that you see cities? How might it be different from how I would see a city a maybe more basic, less complex understanding of it?

Alain Bertaud (3.17)

I think a city is the possibility of meeting a lot of people and seeing a lot of things that you don't expect and the huge diversity. When I mean diversity, I'm not talking necessarily about even culture or ethnicity, but diversity of personality, including bad actors. I think that's what makes cities interesting. When Tyler Cowen interviewed me some years ago and he asked me, what is for you the most urban movie you have ever seen? And I say Casablanca. So a lot of people didn't understand say, well, there's hardly anything about cities in Casablanca. You don't see the city at all particularly. And I say, no. What is interesting in Casablanca is in a relatively small space, basically the cafe, you have a lot of people who are obliged to shock each other to deal with each other. Some are heroes, some are bastards, but that's to me is urban. And something very interesting come out of it, this confrontation of different actors. Were obliged to deal with each other, to survive with each other. I think this from your city. So that's why I consider Casablanca as the term most urban city cities are made of people, and of course we have the monument, we have the building, we have all sorts of things in cities, but it's really the shock of people, of different people which make cities.

Juliette Sellgren (5.04)

And in economics, we look at cities as this beautiful low transaction cost way of putting people together to create communities, ideas, GDP, et cetera. And we use prices and numbers to kind of represent this sort of stuff to represent people and the dynamism of what an urban environment can bring. But what are some of the metrics of success of cities that you look at? And I guess what do you look at when you see a city? You see humans, but is there any way you represent them? When you're planning a city, you're thinking about a city.

Alain Bertaud (5.46)

To me, I have been working mostly in cities which were growing fast in Asia or Latin America or transforming fast the cities of Eastern Europe. And to me, one criteria to see if a city plays its role is to see how long does it take for a migrant coming either from a different country or from a countryside. A migrant with no skill which are directly usable in cities. How long does it take for this migrant to be fully integrated in the economy of the city? So it's difficult to measure, but I've been trying to do it mostly suitcase study. In some cities it takes two generation, two or three generation for migrants to integrate themselves fully with the same productivity of their colleagues in the city. In some other cities, like it was the case in Hong Kong, for instance, in the sixties and seventies, it takes about maybe one or two years. So for me, the shorter the time, let's say when the migrant arrive in a city, I will call that a trajectory, something, they have to adapt it. They are not yet benefiting from the advantage of being in a large city. And so it takes time for them to adapt and it takes because the city also has a tendency sometimes to reject them, to discriminate against them. So the criteria is how long it takes for them to integrate and be fully citizen of the city, fully citizen, I mean in economic terms.

Juliette Sellgren 

And what are some of the conditions that you've seen among different cities? What are conditions that either hinder that or help that process go faster?

Alain Bertaud (07:51):

Regulations. Usually cities tend to regulate the way you settle in a city, how much land you consume and how much flow space you consume. Their very strict regulation would give you minimum. So the city obliges you to, if you arrive in a city to consume a minimum amount of land and flow space, and this keep a large number of people outside, they are still in the city, but outside of society, they are in the informal sector. They're there in a way illegally, not because they're not allowed to migrate to the city, but because they cannot consume the minimum that the city managers consider socially acceptable. So I think that the main discrimination of that working in favelas in Brazil or in Islamabad, in India, in Mumbai or things like that, you see this segregation, but which is purely arbitrary. It's human inflicted. Yes, it's true.

The people who come are poor and in every city, you have people who are poor, but to oblige them to consume a minimum of floor space and land to be admitted legally in a city I think is a terrible thing. Imagine if you have a famine somewhere. People do not eat enough. Would you put a regulation? You think that the best thing to deal with that will be to say, well, from now on we have a regulation which says that everybody should have at least 2,000 calories a day. No, this will be absurd. And this is what we are doing with our regulations. If people are starving, you manage to bring food to them and distribute it to food. That's a way to do it. It's not to regulate the minimum consumption, I guess.

Juliette Sellgren (10.10)

So it's pretty easy to see that this sort of regulation will hurt people who are trying to come to a city maybe to actually benefit from the economic benefits of a city or the culture or whatever it is, and it's hindering those people. But what sort of costs are there to the people who are currently living in a city when new people are not allowed to come in when new economic classes are not allowed to then integrate and benefit? What is the drawback for the city as a whole? And have there been cases where this sort of regulation and this sort of limitation on movement into a city has kind of been the downfall of a city?

Alain Bertaud (10.58)

I think that people, it's very difficult for cities to prevent people from moving. The only one which were successful in doing that, where of course Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, they really pen decrease in population and the Khmer Rouge and so resulted in about what one fourth of the population starving or dying of hunger. So I would say that that was the most extreme case of removing people from cities in general, certainly the cities of the Soviet Union. For instance, in the Soviet Union, to move from city to city, you had to have an internal passport, which was called a ska, which so the government wanted, they thought, well, it's part of central planning to decide which city will grow, which city will not grow. And that was certainly very detrimental to the economy of the country in general. By the way, Russia now is closing 60 cities, which we are creating at the time of the central planning and which are not viable now under normal economic condition.

So you imagine closing, having to close cities because there are no jobs left because they are located in an area that it's impossible to have a real economic life. So that's at the same time, when I was consulting in Russia about 12 years ago, they asked me if I could help on that, and I told them I have absolutely no competence. I have always dealt with cities where the main problem was precisely to accommodate a larger population or to adapt to city to higher incomes, which was the case in Europe, for instance. So that a city which has to be closed is probably one of the most tragic in a certain way. Detroit faced this problem at the same time, it seems that now they are bouncing back, but say the loss of population, which was due at the time for not just discrimination against migrants, but just mismanagement, gross mismanagement of the city, yes, that there is a price to pay.

Juliette Sellgren 

So kind of following this train of thought about Russia and the Soviet planning, is there anything that they did right? Is there anything with respect to cities, maybe the ones that actually would've existed on their own economically that they did maybe better than spontaneous order?

Alain Bertaud (14.09)

Not that I know. I mean, they had, by the way, the Russian had a good education system. Well, especially I mean in science. History or economics was probably pretty bizarre, but I'm not sure how they did it. But they had a good, start the transition when they moved to market, I think a lot of people suddenly were able to use their good, especially in science to develop. But in terms of cities, no, I think it was the main problem they had is that because they had no land prices, it was nearly impossible to recycle land in a city. So where you had, for instance, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, you had a belt of industries which were relatively close to the center. Those industries were developed in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. But because there was no land prices to recycle this old industrial land into housing or services or office building costed a lot of money in our economy.

It's a price of land which finance, recycling or land. If you have an old factory who is not productive anymore, the price of the land it occupies. If it occupies close to the center of the city, it will finance the moving of this factory somewhere else in a more favorable place. And more importantly, the recycling of land into a type of use, which is more in line with the current economy of the city. Cities are changing all the time. They are comfort. So land has to change also, and it's a land prices which are the motor, the engine will make this change, perform this change. So I think that their main problem with that, and that's why by the way, you see the densities in Russian cities were increasing with distance. The suburbs were much denser than the center because precisely there was no way to recycle land in the central area of the city. So that was a major, it increased enormously the time required for commuting. I think a city looking like a donut rather than a pyramid.

Juliette Sellgren (17.11)

So what you said just then kind of made me think of current regulation, especially in cities like DC or just in America, where you are not allowed to continue to build or you're not allowed to build above a specific height. And so especially in the DMV, we see a ton of sprawl outwards where people are moving further away from the city center. So does that kind of mean that whether or not the price system is in charge or is the mechanism that we're trying to use that a regulation on height or how much you're allowed to build kind of works similarly to even not using a price system?

Alain Bertaud (18.01)

Yes, it's exactly. Yeah, it's very similar in a way. So you still have a high price of land. For instance, I was recently in Vancouver, next to the center of Vancouver. You have an area which is a single family house housing area. It's zoned that way. The regulation imposed that. So you still have the price are very high, but say if I remember 75% of the price of a house there is land. It's not the construction. So when you have this proportion of land price, you know that the regulation prevent the recycling of land, but at least you still have the price signal, which as soon as you remove the regulation, will be able to recycle the land. But yes, it's the same thing. In a way, it's a regulation which prevent land use change. And unfortunately in our western democracy, especially I think in the cities which are relatively well managed- Vancouver or cities of Europe or the US, people become very conservative in the sense that they feel that the city is working well and they don't want any change because they think it could be bad.

For instance, in Vancouver, when people argue about changing the regulation of this neighborhood, which has single-family housing next to the center, people say, well, Vancouver then will look like Hong Kong. Well, if it was something completely undesirable, and of course it'll not look like Hong Kong unless the people, there's a demand in Vancouver for a city like Hong Kong, which it doesn't have. So you see, it's very emotional and it's not only the planners who are imposing that there is a support in the population, unfortunately a misunderstanding of what a city is all about. And then let's say the discrimination is not necessarily against migrants because migrants usually in Canada are relatively high income, well educated. It's between young and old. It's a transfer of capital from the young to the old. Older people have bought a house 20, 30 years ago at time where they were affordable, and then they close the door after them. And the younger people, even if they have a degree, good degree or something, cannot afford housing. So they will tend to leave the city for a smaller city where their future will be probably less interesting, but where they can afford a home. So I think that after some time, but it takes time, we will see this effect in the demography of the workforce. You will have a workforce which is aging because the young has been discriminated against.

Juliette Sellgren (21.32)

And I recently took a course at college on the history of Paris, and it was taught in French. And so this is kind of, and I just was in Paris. And so I've been thinking a lot about this. And I know we talked about this a little bit before the podcast actually, but Paris is an interesting case first because it kind of has this museum element, we call it David Mu, is it. But then there is also something that you mentioned, and I kind of want you to get into this, is the fact that in a way they have more freedom to build within the structures that already exist. But we've also seen that there are some statistics showing that people are leaving Paris, especially young people, and they're moving outside of Paris, and we see this sprawl where even if they're staying in the places around Paris, the little almost cities that are getting created around Paris, like a donut kind of, they're not staying in Paris because it's really expensive and maybe culturally there's this disconnect. So I don't know what is this tension? What can we do about that? Is there something to be done? Because Paris is beautiful, but if we can't afford to live there, but there's so much history,

Alain Bertaud (23.00)

Yes, it's exactly what is happening in a way within Paris will not have survived so well with the freezing absolutely of the amount of flow space, which is when I say Paris, I mean the municipality of Paris intramurals, the historical Paris. It has survived relatively well economically precisely because there is this freedom to transform inside the building, to transform the use. You can relatively easily go from an office building to an apartment. It can be transformed into an apartment or the opposite, or you can open commerce anywhere, including even on the first floor or second floor of a building. So there's no zoning in the American sense, but there is a complete freezing of the amount of floor space, which is within Paris. So at the same time also, there are a lot of monuments which cost a lot to maintain, and the government is spending not a municipality, but all the taxpayer of France are spending a lot of money maintaining those monument, which I think there is a consensus for that. If we had the vote, I think everybody will agree that it's a good idea. For instance, though, a building of Notre Dame is a good idea. Certainly nobody will want to see demolished, but all this money being spent in preserving those monument in the pristine state make Paris extremely attractive. And therefore we are triggering an enormous gentrification of Paris in doing so.

This is a trade off. You cannot, if you wanted to have a more, let's say, diversity of income within Paris, you will have to build some skyscraper somewhere. They've started a bit in the 15 arrondisement, but it's very little compared to the demand, let's say. So Paris will be very different. What I will suggest that the solution is to develop the bond year, but in a way that allow a much more easy transport and fast transport between Paris and the suburb, and also between the boundary of themselves. I think that's very important. A lot of the jobs now have moved just across the boundary of the municipality in the Val, and precisely because the job they want still to be close to Paris, but cannot afford to stay in Paris. So Paris is now building 200 kilometer of new subway, and for the first time, instead of being radio concentrate line like the area, it's a ring line along outside Paris, but entirely in the denser barrier. And that I think might probably be the best, let's say the best attitude without the other will be of course literally to demolish Paris. So I don't think that will be acceptable not only to the Parisian, but to the French in general

Juliette Sellgren (26.52)

Or to the world. Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, and since Covid, it just hit back towards the numbers of visits per year that it was at before then. And I don't think that's going to change. 

Alain Bertaud 

Well, it'll not change if Paris maintain its policy of maintaining its monument. Having a good Paris could deteriorate in 20 years very quickly if the money was not spent to maintain those things. Or let's face it, if also the regulation were entirely removed so that you could replace any building in the Marais with a skyscraper.

Juliette Sellgren 

So I guess it seems to me as though there's a balance where the city benefits from these historic monuments and the way it looks and all of this heritage, but that it also, there needs to be transportation and growth in order for it to actually be sustainable. Is that kind of like a good…

Alain Bertaud (28.14)

Yes, yes. You see, a city is a labor market before now. It's not only a labor market, but the labor market is a foundation on which a city economy is built. So for this labor market to work, it means that especially in a large city, it means that every citizen should be able to reach within less than one hour in a job available in the metropolitan area, not only in the center, but in the metropolitan area. They are more and more jobs in every city, by the way, not only in Paris, which are moving to the periphery. For instance, in metropolitan New York, which has also a very strong center, Manhattan is an extraordinary place and very dense and a lot of jobs, but 70% of the commuting trips in Manhattan are from suburbs to suburbs. And so you need a transport system to allow the economy to work.

And usually we are a little slow for developing those system from suburb to suburb. The car is the best way to move around. Unfortunately, the car consume a lot of real estate, which is unpriced. So again, it's an inefficient means of transport in this sense because of the real estate to consume. But ideally, we should try to develop a type of transport which will have the advantage of the car without consuming as much real estate. So that could be smaller electric car on demand, or there have been some experiment there done by Toyota in particular, but other company. And it's possible that we are going through now a revolution of urban transport because of the technology which to have transport on demand. So imagine instead of having those enormous buses that you have in cities now, you could have much smaller nearly minivan, which will be on demand the way you have a Uber on demand.

So they could be collective of five or six passengers or individual, but that will, I think probably be the most important revolution in transporting cities. We still have the same transport system that we had 200, no, sorry, 130 years ago. Subway were there, cars appears also about 200 years ago, and buses too. And we have about the same system, so they perform a little better. A modern subway perform better than the subway built in 1900, but basically it's the same system. I think we have to move to something a little different, and I think the technology will allow us to do that.

Juliette Sellgren (31.33)

Sounds like inevitably out of need, these innovations and these changes are also going to be more eco-friendly, right? Dense cities with this sort of transportation will benefit the world as a whole. And so there's something about this freedom and growth that really will just lead to benefits that people don't necessarily associate with them, right?

Alain Bertaud (32.03)

Yes. Well, first of course, to move from vehicles which are moved by electricity rather than diesel or gasoline is an enormous advantage because in high density cities, you have enormous pollution to transport, which is going to disappear very soon. We are still in a transition because electrical is still a little expensive for many people, but that I think is going the right direction. And electric bicycle and scooter also will make a lot difference. There are cities, for instance in Vietnam, culturally people are ready to ride motorcycle In Vietnam, you see grandmother riding motorcycle, you're a teenager on motorcycle, everybody's on motorcycle. Now the problem with the motorcycle is the noise and the pollution, especially if you still have some two stroke engines. But as soon as you move to electric motorcycle, then you remove a lot of, you remove entirely the pollution, I mean the local pollution at least depending on where the electricity come from. And so the only thing would be to manage the transport for two wheelers. And this is not, the city manager are not ready all the way streets are designed. They're designed for cars. And you could remove a lot of, let's say, the danger associated with two wheelers. If deliberately we try to make cities safe for two wheelers.

Juliette Sellgren (34.01)

So I guess as this conversation has progressed, I've developed a better understanding of what you take the job of being an urban planner and what looking at cities really means. But how would you describe it yourself and how would you kind of explain the tension between the word planning and the word urban and kind of this innovative, spontaneous, yet preserved nature of cities and this balance?

Alain Bertaud (34.37)

I like to drop the word planning. I like to call myself a urbanist. I see myself a bit like a family doctor, but a family doctor for cities. That's why, for instance, very often I criticize mayors who pretend to have a vision. If you go to see your doctor and you have a bad knee or something or headache, and you don't want the doctor as a vision for you and say, oh, you should be a musician, or you should aim to have a Nobel prize in physics or something. You want them to just cure your knee. And I think that we don't need cities with a vision. The vision is the people who live in the city individually have vision, and this is the sum of those vision which create the city. The people who manage the city should realize that their role is to be a good janitor.

They should look at what the city is doing, what the city require, and then provide the infrastructure which support the vision of the individual citizen rather than somebody on top having a vision that it imposed on the citizen of the city. So that's a way I see my job. And I think I came to this conclusion mostly because I work mostly outside of my own country, particularly inclusively outside my own country. So I realized very quickly that culture is important and cultures are different. People make different trade-off depending on their culture. So I had to switch off my own culture in order to be able to deal with cities in different culture. And I think that's different. So you have just to look at the very specific problem and try what is the best solution for it, but never impose a vision. Do not have a vision on other people's cities in the same way as you don't want a doctor to have a vision for you. You want the doctor just to cure whatever is wrong.

Juliette Sellgren (37.07)

And this seems to kind of elaborate and explain why even if Vancouver builds some skyscrapers, instead of having single family homes very close to the city center, why it wouldn't look like Hong Kong because it's culture, right? 

Alain Bertaud 

That's right.

Juliette Sellgren 

So what have you seen to be more of a driver? Obviously regulation plays a big role and culture plays a role. What is the relationship between these two?

Alain Bertaud (37.39)

Well, culture is the type of trade off people make. There was an interesting paper written by one of my colleague some years ago, which was titled, if I remember, well, Why Rich people Live in the Center of Paris and Poor People in the Center of Detroit at the time when Detroit was. And then it shows that rich people in Paris make the trade-off of living in a relatively small apartment by American standards, an apartment of let's say 60, 80 square meter to be in the center of Paris because they value enormously the amenities of Paris, the concert, the exhibition, the cafe, the restaurants. And where other people, for instance, if you take a city like Atlanta, people who value a house which is much larger, which has more than being close to amenities, by the way, in the center of Atlanta, you do not have a concentration of amenities. You have, but they are spread all over the city.

So there is no, in a way that represents a different culture, but also that people maybe do not value being close to amenities as much, and they'd rather make a trade off having a larger house. It's completely understandable in a certain way, but it represent culture and culture evolved by the way. Things could change over time, but it's a slow things, and you have to take into account, you cannot project your own culture or your own preferences on a city. You have to acknowledge that those trade offs are completely honorable. It's not. So some people, for instance, some of my colleague advocate higher densities or lawyer densities, I don't think it's something which should be advocated. I think if you remove the regulation, which constrain consumption then lets people decide where to live and how much they want to consume. And whether density or not a city like Atlanta or Houston, which have very low densities, provide as many jobs as others with high density like say Hong Kong or Paris. So it's an alternative. Personally, I prefer cities with high density, but that's my personal choice, not you cannot demonstrate that a city like Houston, for instance, is less efficient than a city like New York with much higher densities in a very prominent center. You can't.

Juliette Sellgren 

So your understanding of all of these issues and all of these interconnected aspects of cities and of cities across the world comes from your work and the fact that you've lived in so many different cities and have worked in so many different cities. So what have been some of your favorites or even some of the most influential ones, whether your experience was great or not, can you tell us a few stories of your time around the world?

Alain Bertaud (41.35)

Yes. Well, one of the, for me turning point was when I was 23 and I was still studying architecture and at the time in France where lasting eight years, so I was not even halfway, and I decided to take a year off and to work in Chandigarh, was building a new capital, the new capital of Punjab for she, it was started in 1958, I think the whole project. So I went there, he choked my waist from France to India, which at the time was relatively easy to do. And then so I had read about Chandigarh in the book of er, the big admiration about this top down thing that everything was projected. You knew exactly all where the schools were and everything was planned in advance. And then when I arrived there, I start working at the planning department of the city there.

And then because I was living there, I realized that everything which was planned didn't work as planned at all. There were no, in the planned part of the city, there were no nice restaurants, there were no restaurant I could afford. By the way, most of the most interesting shops were in fact in slum, which was developed because the people building she could not afford to live in. She. So there was a large slum just at the limit of the city where most of the people were living there. And so I realized that within this spontaneous settlement, then you could find all the shop, all the cafe, all the, that you needed including to buy new clothes for instance, or to meet your friends. Where in the planned city it was completely sterile because again, the problem of central, a city like Chandigarh entirely planned like Brasilia has a same problem of a centrally planned economy that it does not allow for the flexibility you need for human life. It's a mineral thing rather than being a living thing. So for me, I think that if I had visited Chandigarh as a tourist and spend few day there, but visiting the building, the government building built and the strip, I would've thought probably it was great. But by living there then you realize the shortcoming of, again, the top down a city which do not allow individual initiative to flourish.

Juliette Sellgren (44.43)

What advice would you have then for people like me or just people traveling around, I have a lot of friends who are traveling, who are studying abroad this semester in various countries in Europe. What advice would you have to us who might be visiting a city for a few days, not getting the chance to live there so that we can have the full experience that you've had, or at least a taste of it instead of just looking at maybe what the planners want us to look at so that we see the full picture of a city that we're experiencing.

Alain Bertaud (45.19)

Go to the suburbs. If you go to Paris, of course you have a list of monuments, you'll have to see less than Chappelle or I don't know, the Acton for the Louvre or something. So it'll seem a shame just to take the subway or a bus and go to the boundary. But I think that it's part of the experience is that what I find interesting, for instance in a city like Tokyo, that very often the boundary is as interesting as a center of the city because you see the life again. You have a lot of spontaneity within the boundary that, so yes, of course for me it's a little different because I'm a professional, so I, I want to learn a city to see all the aspect of it.

Before Google Earth was available, I will go, if I arrive in a new city that I didn't know, I will walk from the center to the periphery sometime to take me two, three hours, four hours in order to have a cross section of what happened when you move from the high priced area to the low priced area to this cross section is important. By the way, the advantage of traveling by land, as I did going to India was that you have also a cross section of sculpture when you go from, you start with Turkey, then you go to Iran, then Afghanistan, you cross borders, but you cross culture too. And you see this slow change in the built area, which are very interesting. And you can see this transition when you arrive in a city by plane, suddenly you are completely disconnected, let's say from the contact, but it's of course very convenient to do. But so I think that what traveling by land when it is possible is a very good thing on long distance.

Juliette Sellgren (47.53)

Yeah. So if you were to recommend for my lifetime, for the life of listeners, what are the few cities that we must visit in our lifetimes?

Alain Bertaud (48.14)

I think I would not recommend any. I think that every city is interesting. Cities are like people. If I take your question seriously, then I will recommend, imagine that cities are people then who are the people you should meet in the world? And you'd say, well, you should meet Nobel Prize, or you should meet a movie actress or actor or something like that. And yes, or a musician, but

I think that you should consider cities as people that you want to meet. And the most prestigious cities, they are interesting. We're seeing probably, but I think that you'll be surprised to live in cities which are maybe nondescript and you'll find them interesting. I think that think about your friends, your personal friends. Some are maybe very successful, some are not. But they all have a personality, which is interesting as soon as you know them. And also depending on what you want to do, if you want to go to a concert, you have probably a certain kind of friend you will go to concert with. But if you want to go hiking for five days in the mountain, probably you will have another friend. So I will consider cities like that, that I will not give a list of cities to visit unless you are interested by something special like gothic art or architecture or something. Then I could give you a city then to visit there. I think that in general, we could find charming cities wherever they are.

Juliette Sellgren (50.37)

I feel like I could ask you a million more questions, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to end us here. I have one last question for you, but first, thank you so much for taking the time to share your stories and your wisdom and your observations with us. It has truly meant so much to me and I've learned so much, and I know my listeners have as well. So thank you for that. What is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why? I know you shared one with us already about the nature of top-down building and how that isn't necessarily the best way, but is there something else?

Alain Bertaud (51.15)

Well, that's in a way related, yes, being an architect, being trained as an architect during a long time, I thought that design was the answer to everything. And that if you have slums, for instance, which are very defective, it's because those poor people didn't have access to a good architect, the service of a good architect. And I think it was a terrible mistake. Design is important, but you can find design at every scale and not necessarily by famous architect. So I think that this idea that design can solve social problem is of course not true. So it took me a while to do that. And the first project I work in New York, when I was working for the city planning commission at the time of Mayor Lindsay, it was 19 68, 68, 69 was exactly that. At the time, Manhattan had a problem of drug and crime, which was pretty serious.

And the city had projected a project which was, by the way, designed by professor and student Columbia University to build over Park Avenue using the air right of the train, which come out in Harlem to build a skyscraper, two line of skyscraper on both sides, basically over Lexington Avenue and Madison Avenue. And the idea that you'll destroy those two blocks, which were usually used a lot by drug addict and many, many have been abandoned before. And that by putting those people in nice apartment in skyscraper, that will solve the problem of Harlem. That again, the idea that design solved this type of problem, and when I was working on it and then I had to contact the community, discuss it, I realized what it'll have cut all, in fact, even more in two, the train line, which cuts separates, east Harlem and Central Harlem. But it would've been even worse because there would've been a tunnel of about at least 80 meter long to go from one place to another. So it would've been a terrible thing again, if we had implemented this project, RMM would've been much worse. By the way, it's bounced back eventually, but it bounced back because of the people of rm, not because of the architecture we created there.

Juliette Sellgren 

I actually, I am going to ask another question, and you kind of started to answer it already at the end, was that it was the people of Harlem and not the design. So if it's not the design, then what about the people? What does it take for a people or a culture to overcome these sorts of problems? If design is not the solution?

Alain Bertaud (54.44)

Freedom that they should be able to start activities or to organize themselves in a different way without having so of course, land use regulation in one part, but it's of course the ability to organize except the ability also to move around, the ability to accept newcomers in their communities. I think that it's a very complex thing. I mean, it's not, again, there's no silver bullet. It's to solve any problem. Usually you have to deal with hundred variables at the same time, and successful society are the one who've been solving these hundred or maybe thousand variables, have a convergence of good value for those thousand variables at the same time. So you end up with Florence at the time, Renaissance, something like that. And so it's very, you cannot recommend it. You just see it when it happens. But it's a very difficult things to, again, it cannot be planned and randomness play. Also a very important thing, I think in a very important role in these things. Anything which is planned in advance is bound not to succeed. You need introduce accidents like in the theory of evolution. You have random variations. Our genes will sometime are bad, sometime are good, but eventually the good give an advantage in prevails. But again, it's very, very complex.

Juliette Sellgren 

Once again, I'd like to thank my guest for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to The Great Antidote Podcast means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great Thank you.

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