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Editors' Picks Interviews

A Conversation with Alain Bertaud

Alain Bertaud is a Senior Research Scholar at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management and recently authored the book Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. Bertaud previously held the position of principal urban planner at the World Bank and has worked as a resident urban planner in a number of cities. His research aims to bridge the gap between operational urban planning and urban economics, primarily focusing on the intersection of markets, regulations, and transport infrastructure. 

The Politic: How did you become interested in urban planning and how has the field changed since then?  

Alain Bertaud: I have always been working on cities which were developing fast, and it was important to [combat] the pressure of population growth [by] develop[ing] more cities. However, now there are more cities with stagnant or decreasing populations. These shrinking cities are a new problem that we don’t know how to deal with. I first saw this change 12 years ago in Russia. I was asked to review the government development plan of Saint Petersburg and Moscow, but on the side, they asked me, “Could you help us on something else too? We want to close 60 cities.” I told them that I had never faced this problem before. 

The Politic: How can housing affordability in one city affect neighboring regions? Are there different methods to have a unified solution? 

Bertraud: You find the problem of affordability practically everywhere in the world, [in part due to] a shift in urban planning starting in the ’60s. Planners have begun to design cities [according to] a preconceived idea of what the city should be like. Due to this change, many regulations were imposed, all of which are very drastic in terms of what you can do on a lot. The city is designed too far in advance for the planners to know what is affordable.  For instance, there has been a failure to anticipate the shrinking of household size. There is now a need for smaller apartments or smaller houses, but regulations have not adapted to that. 

The Politic: What do you think are the most exciting developments in urban planning today?

Bertraud: The proliferation of urban transport, starting with shared scooters and rapid trains, which are becoming cheaper. I think that this is the first time in 100 years that we have a change in the nature of urban transport, which will change how land is used. I’m pretty sure it will have a positive impact. 

The Politic: Do you ever worry about the shift from government to private provision of these resources?

Bertraud: I think that this is a positive sign. The role of government is to regulate. The role of the city is not to say, “We want to ban scooters,” but it is to say, “Scooters are providing an interesting means of transportation, so we are going to provide some areas where people can park their scooters.” This is the regulation the city should do.