Bertaud on City Planning

Alain Bertaud is the former principal urban planner for the World Bank and has written the introduction to the 10th annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. Some extracts:

Are planners in the worst performing cities paying any attention? And are they drawing any conclusions on how to improve the situation? Or do local governments conclude that the best way to increase the supply of affordable housing is to impose new regulations that will mandate developers to build housing units at prices, standards, and in locations selected by the government?

The last approach, under the name of inclusionary zoning is unfortunately the most common response, as recently seen, for instance, in New York and Mexico City.

Urban planners have been inventing all sorts of abstractly worded objectives to justify their plans for our future cities – smart growth, livability, sustainability, are among the most recent fads.

There is nothing wrong, of course, for a city to try to be smart, liveable, or sustainable.

But for some reasons these vague and benign sounding objectives usually become a proxy for imposing planning regulations that severely limit the supply of buildable land and the number of housing units built, resulting in ever higher housing prices. In the name of smart growth or sustainability, planners decide that densities should be lower in some places and higher in others.

Population densities are not a design parameter whose value depends on the whim of planners but are consumption indicators which are set by markets.

Even the Communist Party of China recently declared that resource allocation is best achieved through markets; why can’t urban planners in so-called market economies reach the same conclusions and let markets decide how much land and floor space households and firms will consume in different locations?

It is time for planners to abandon abstract objectives and to focus their efforts on two measurable outcomes that have always mattered since the growth of large cities during the 19th century’s industrial revolution: workers’ spatial mobility and . …

A periodic regulatory audit should weed out obsolete regulations to allow an elastic land supply and to increase households’ ability to consume the amount of land and floor space that would maximize their welfare in the location of their choice. Part of the audit should concern the regulations, taxes, and administrative practices that unnecessarily increase transaction costs when building new housing units or selling or buying existing ones.

The twin objectives of maintaining mobility and housing affordability should drive the design, financing, and construction of trunk infrastructure.

Because the building of trunk infrastructure often requires the use of eminent domain, governments have a monopoly on its design and construction. Here is a new simple job description for urban planners: plan the development of trunk infrastructure to maintain a steady supply of developable land for future development, but leave land and floor consumption per dwelling to the market.

There is no silver bullet to increase the supply of affordable housing. But if planners abandoned abstracts and unmeasurable objectives like smart growth, liveability and sustainability to focus on what really matters – mobility and affordability – we could see a rapidly improving situation in many cities. I am not implying that planners should not be concerned with urban environmental issues. To the contrary, those issues are extremely important, but they should be considered a constraint to be solved not an end in itself.

Urban development should remain the main objective of urban planning.

A lot to agree with there.

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