Prof. Alain Bertaud on Markets and Design

The lecture talked about the important role that urban planners should play
by Vidhi Bansal
16 February 2018

Prof. Alain Bertaud, a highly reputed urban planner and senior research scholar at New York University, delivered a most exemplary rendition of his research, here at CEPT University, on the 19th of January, 2018. His grand professional experience of over a 30 years extended to Europe, Asia and America.

He spoke about the necessary interactions between urban forms, cities as labor markets and about regulations to be maintained by urban planners to achieve the required efficiency in urban planning. His lecture also rendered a brief overview of his upcoming book, “Order Without Design”, which is an analysis of 49 metropolitan areas around the world. Bertaud has feathered multiple impeccable achievements to his hat. He started as a young planner in Algeria, shooting off to work under Philip Johnson’s office and later under the Ministry of Housing and Development in Bangkok. The prime of his career reached when he worked as the urban planner of World Bank with other planners to improve cities. He has been a researcher his entire life, and knows India like the back of his hand. Having observed a lot of change and progress in the right direction, he developed ideas on how
cities functioned and how one could intervene with them for their betterment.


“Urban planners don’t pay enough attention to

people, they don’t know what is going on,

and don’t take responsibility for it either.”


Prof. Bertaud carries a staunch belief that urban planning today is facing a major crisis.

“Urban planners don’t pay enough attention to people, they don’t know what is going on, and don’t take responsibility for it either.”

Urban economists, he believes, have an entirely different attitude towards cities. He further believes that urban planners have a very important role to play, but this role ultimately always turns to words and not action.

“I am well aware that every year I’m learning more about the city. It changes every year; and you are left to adapt to it.”

Economists and urban planners are on the frontline, he claims. However, they zone into FSI issues and neglect the market, and how it reacts to what they want to achieve. Bertaud strongly believes that efficiency in urban planning will come only by understanding the market and its function.

“Cities are labour markets. If we accept this premise, only then can efficient urban planners enter.”

By then deciding which aspect of planning would be governed by market and which by design; you can begin to truly understand urban city planning. Population density carries an exponential curve, totally governed by the market.

Arterial road construction and introduction of various toll roads in Jakarta has had a combined effect on its market forces and densities between 1950 and 2013.

Coming to the main aspect of his discourse, Bertaud stated with conviction that cities become more productive with increase in size

size of their labour markets. Pattern of trips in a metro area explains the function of labour markets. Their growth and prosperity is driven by these markets. The government has a strong antipathy towards the city. It was anticipated that cities of about a million in population would be unmanageable; however what is bizarre now is that cities of a population of about 20 million exist in most scenarios.

“Stop big cities from growing; start smaller cities.”

Large cities may require more maintenance; however empirical data shows that by looking at the wealth a large city generates per person, it can be found that people are more productive despite the congestion in larger cities. A fluid market with efficient mobility systems opens gates for more job opportunities and makes way for greater efficacy in urban planning.

Looking at Paris as an example of a labour market, seventy percent of all trips are from suburbs to suburbs which forces the use of individual cars, as suburbs are too dispersed to be bound by transit. There are many instances where the job opportunities remain constant but population increases with time in city centres. If no system of mobility is provided, it turns into an ugly problem. Mobility depends on each mode of transport serving a different segment of labour force.

“Transport in a metropolitan area is a real estate issue.”

Bertaud opened up a wide expanse of issues by raising the point of transport being a real estate issue. Unpriced use of roads for commuting and parking creates congestion thereby decreasing urban productivity, as well as giving away extremely vital real estate. The share of different modes of transport evolve with changing 

“Cities are labour markets. If we accept

this premise, only then can efficient

urban planners enter.”


changing incomes, commuting distances and investments in new modes of transport. Parking should definitely be counted as real estate, and the municipality should never give free parking. Planners should strive to find a solution to this conundrum of urban transport. We live in a time where even underground transit will be as congested as on road systems!

Transport systems vary with cities and the variation in planning. For example, Beijing has an advanced system of transit which is the major mode of transit, followed by individual cars. Vietnam has no motorcycles. The reasons for this are varied and it is the responsibility of urban planners to understand them and find solutions accordingly.

However, sustainability solutions are not to be followed blindly. Advocacy of bicycles is a must, but not at the cost of irresponsible space consumption. Otherwise, transport will always remain a real estate issue. A reality that planners must face is that individual travel time is always lower than transit or public transport systems.

Housing affordability is different from other products. If you cannot afford a house, you are still living in other parts of the city. It all comes down to what kind of house you are living in. The current typology of housing stock can be matched with households income. Migrants coming in will occupy low income groups and that have to be provided for.

Diving into the proper role of urban planners today, Bertaud explained that they have to develop indicators, showing how these change continuously with time. If these indicators are not considered, there is no point in talking about resistance or resilience. What is important is that you come clean to the impacts, outcome, output and input behind these indicators. Planners hardly ever think about the impact, which is the most important governing factor for good planning.

“It is not easy to talk about how things didn’t work out- about your failures. But have courage to do so, because there is nothing wrong in failing. In fact, what is wrong is hiding that failure and that is what we have been doing.”

Bertaud, extending toward the future of cities, spoke next about how people must be brought back to cities where the labor markets are still alive.

“It is not easy to talk about how things didn’t work out. But

have courage to do so, because there is nothing wrong in failing.

In fact, what is wrong is hiding that failure and that is

what we have been doing.”




The discussion was surmised by the audience asking some important questions -



Why are cars so popular, and how could that be addressed at a policy level? Or is it a larger problem?

Bertaud: Each city is different. The technology has changed heavily, when you initially entered an area, you payed a fee; now you pay according to how much time is spent on the road. Just as a free move would have too many people swarming the theatres, similarly paying for roads would help control traffic congestions.



What could be done to better the conditions in Venezuela, as an Urban Planner?

Bertaud: I believe that unless the government is good, there is nothing that can be done by an urban planner.



When you spoke about different models, the fourth one was ideal with multiple nodes of activity. Why?

Bertaud: If you are closer to the higher density of the city, you are automatically closer to the jobs.


What is your perspective on Delhi and its transit system that has managed to release a lot of roadway traffic? And the concepts evolved regarding live, work and play. What is your perspective?

Bertaud: Delhi is a cluster city, numerous cities have come together to form it. Planners are urbanising it without planning it that way. These clusters are a de-facto result of markets making it necessary to create such commercial areas.

If the government understood the importance of these clusters, then they would also understand the various transport systems.



What is your viewpoint on the new technologies and the electric self driven cars that have been proposed? Despite the expense, do you think they are viable options for the future?

Bertaud: It is a visionary idea, however until it is built and in the works, I cannot say anything about it. Neither can I say that they will solve issues of the future since there is always a scarcity of good spaces. A normal car is a wonderful way to bring families to picnics, otherwise they are too bulky. Smaller vehicles are more efficient. This idea, however innovative and sustainable, will not solve the idea of public transport.