OWD #5: The evolution of urban utopias (guest episode from Caos Planejado)
July 10th, 2021
Alain was interviewed by our friend Anthony for a Brazilian urbanism blog called Caos Planejado, and we thought it would be fun to cross-post it here. They discussed Brazilian cities, municipal financing, what it was like to live in NYC in the time of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, how urban planners' thinking has evolved over the course of Alain's long career, and lots more. You can find the original interview on Caos Planejado.
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Devon: Hello, and welcome to the fifth episode of the Order Without Design podcast. Today's episode is a little different from the previous ones. It's a conversation between Alain Bertaud and our friend, Anthony Ling. Anthony is the editor of Caos Planejado, a website devoted to building better cities in Brazil, Anthony's home. Most of Caos Planejado's content is in Portuguese, but this conversation between Anthony and Alain is in English, so we figured it would be fun to share it with you all. In Portuguese, "caos planejado" means "planned chaos", which is very much in the same spirit of the name of Alain's book, and this podcast, Order Without Design.
I'm really excited to share this with you all because Brazil is a country that has a lot of urban growth that is happening right now and frankly a lot of problems that it is working through. But it is also a place with a huge amount of opportunity to improve people's lives through cities. So I'm really happy to share this with you all and for Anthony to be the host of this podcast because he has a really great perspective, having lived in Brazil for most of his life. You can find the original recording of this episode and many more episodes and articles on caosplanejado.com.
I'm really excited to share this with you all because Brazil is a country that has a lot of urban growth that is happening right now and frankly a lot of problems that it is working through. But it is also a place with a huge amount of opportunity to improve people's lives through cities. So I'm really happy to share this with you all and for Anthony to be the host of this podcast because he has a really great perspective, having lived in Brazil for most of his life. You can find the original recording of this episode and many more episodes and articles on caosplanejado.com.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Anthony: Alain, I believe you studied architecture in the 1960s in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris? At the time, maybe Le Corbusier was in his 70s, the Athens Charter, maybe the birth of modern urban planning is from 1933. So how was modernist urban planning and Le Corbusier seen in Paris and urban academia at the time that you were studying?
École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France
Alain: Well, he became, let's say in the 60s, he became part of the establishment, really. Being a dissenter in the 20s and the 30s, he was attacking the establishment, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and in the 60s he was literally a god. I mean he was a bull, everybody was admiring him, going to his conference. To the point that in 1963, the study of architecture at the time were very long, it was eight years, you know after admission, so extremely long, with no intermediary degree, by the way. So in 63 I get a little bored by my study at the Beaux-Arts and I decided to take a year off, I mean nine months off. And I went to Chandigarh to work there because Chandigarh at the time were being built and it was considered to be the best type of planning. So it was a little before Brasilia, Chandigarh started earlier. So I went there, by the way, by hitchhiking from Marseilles which could not be done now. But crossing Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and arriving in Chandigarh. I worked there with a cousin of Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, were there. And suddenly living in Chandigarh, if I had been a tourist, probably I would have been convinced that this was a fantastic city. But I was living there.
Alain: You know, I have colleagues, I had to go to the office every morning and suddenly I realized, oh, all this concept of the self-contained sectors with a commercial area in the center and all these things didn't work, really. Not only planning but the architectural thing, to have what they call brise-soleil, to cut the sun with a slab of concrete, which in fact become like ideators. And also the dust before the monsoon accumulate on this slab of concrete and then the wind blow them up inside the room. I mean, everything was wrong. When I was with my colleague we wanted to go to a restaurant, have a drink or even buy some clothes or something, we would go to a slum area. You know people were building Chandigarh as build a slum because they could not afford to live in Chandigarh. So for me this was an awakening, that all the theory that when i read Corbusier I admired, I think this is completely rational. At the time the utopia was functional, something has to be functional. The shape should follow the function and we should not have ornament or anything, the function itself is the thing.
Alain: So that was a utopia and I realized that it doesn't work, you cannot plan a commercial area and decide what type of shop will be there and where they will be. They happen when... in a way the people who open a bakery or restaurant have more information than the planners, so they know where to put it. And that's why they happen in the slum because then it's not only that it's cheaper, it's because there is a freedom of location. So that was my big thing. And I attended two of Corbusier' lecture there and I found him extremely bitter and negative, by the way. He was a very difficult man. So that was the atmosphere at the time. There was also this saying that, if you believe that everything has to be irrational, of course you have your own rationality from where you are. As a Frenchman of the 20th century, and you think that rationality of course is universal and you should impose it on others who are not... so that's why he came... then a bit later was Philip Johnson or Mies Van Der Rohe or the international style, which said, that, again, is rationality. So it's universal, there should not be an archetype of architectural planning which is specific to Brazil or China or India because rationality, it's like mathematics for instance, we are all using the same mathematics. And so the idea that planning will be like mathematics.
Plan Voisin, a planned redevelopment of central Paris designed by architect Le Corbusier in 1925
Anthony: Yeah, yeah. And Alain, you mentioned back then Le Corbusier, at least when he was beginning, he was let's say challenging the mainstream. What was the mainstream before and how were these ideas seen in Paris? For example, Solly Angel mentions about classic urban planning, right? Commissioners' Plan in New York, Cerdà's, Barcelona expansion. Even Haussmann's renovation in Paris. How were these ideas perceived when you were a student, and what were your thoughts back then?
Alain: We thought they were obsolete. You know? And it's all in a way, it's a bit complex. Because on one hand we were living in Paris and we admired Paris. When you walk through Paris you have so many things which are interesting. And at the same time, when Corbusier say we want to destroy the street, the street should disappear. The idea was so radical that it was attractive, even though it's a complete nonsense of course. And especially when you live in Paris when the streets are, because of the lack of zoning, you have a bakery, a hairdresser but also an art gallery completely mixed up. And that's what makes the attraction of Paris, the variety. So strangely I think people enjoy this anti-establishment, a revolutionary kind of thing. The establishment was still rather powerful, including at Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, but they were paying lip service to Corbusier because those idea were very popular among the young. So they will pay some lip service but continue basically, I would say not classic, but kind of an outcome of Art Deco. But in planning pretty much the continuation of the idea of Haussmann or Cerdà.
Alain: So there was this antinomy. And of course the idea of Corbusier, Corbusier never accept Chandigarh and his possible influence in Brasilia, and never building this city. He didn't have any success in urban planning, really, except in the public housing. The government embraced the idea of Corbusier for public housing. Precisely because the people who live there were not the clients. The client, when you build a new city, are the civil servants who are giving you contracts. It is not the people who are going to live in the city. So there is no feedback.
Anthony: Yeah, and I noticed having been to Paris that Parisian suburbs with public housing and the expansion of the Paris metro area is radically different from Paris and probably has a lot of inspiration in Le Corbusier.
Alain: Yeah that's right, because the government intervened. I don't think that there is a private sector, let's say, response to Corbusier. It's always public because you know in a way Corbusier was asking for norms, uniformity and norms. And that is very attractive for civil servants. When they pass contracts if you have norms, this is simple to administer and life is not simple.
Anthony: And what about Haussmann? Haussmann in Paris, maybe today, is there a consensus view about what was done in Paris? And what are your views? I've seen you talking about maybe what he did, Paris could not survive without it maybe.
Haussmann transformed Paris in the mid 1800s. He sliced through the medieval city's winding streets with grand boulevards to enable traffic to cross from one side of the city to the other.
Alain: Yeah, that's right. You know in a large city you need mobility and before Haussmann it was true that Paris was still a medieval city in a large area. You know to have a real idea, there were very few sociological study, but if you read the novels of Balzac, Balzac described housing. And Balzac wrote in 1830, so you know about 20, 30 years before Haussmann. And he described a lot of neighborhood or people living in some neighborhood. And you see that they were really slum, in the same sense that the slum of London described by Dickens. But the problem was not housing, the problem was really moving around the city. And I think Haussmann solved that in a way. But what was... if you compare Haussmann to, say, Robert Moses for instance in New York, the advantage of Haussmann, Haussmann was a real estate operation, it was not an infrastructure operation. He didn't dig a boulevard just to move, like you would move a highway. It was entirely financed by selling land on both side of the boulevard to the private sector. So it was borrowing money from the private sector in real estate, and that I think is the big difference for Brasilia, for instance.
Alain: Brasilia was not financed by the real estate, it was financed by the Brazilian tax payer. Where Paris Haussmann was financed by people who bought land on both side of the new boulevard, so this had to have value that people would recognize. And that's a big difference between this and public housing built by government in the suburbs. So the charm of Paris, in a way, is that along those boulevard, what was built was entirely demand driven although the boulevard themself were top down obviously. But what was built on both side of the boulevard was demand driven.
Anthony: Right, right. So you mentioned Moses and maybe we can move onto your period in New York, actually.
Anthony: So you say you arrived in 1968?
Alain: Yes, January 1968, yes.
Anthony: I believe that was the year Jane Jacobs left New York to move to Toronto?
Alain: Yes exactly, yeah right. You know she had the trial for rioting or something, and I think she had to pay a fine or something and then she moved to Canada, that year. But say, at the time her fight was very much in the news in New York. There was a newspaper which has disappeared now which was called The Village Voice, but that's a very liberal, you know, everybody in the university or even educated people who read, on top of the New York Times. The Village Voice and there were a number of journalists and also writers who write in The Village Voice. So The Village Voice were really the voice of Jane Jacobs at the time, yes. And their continuation, the...
Anthony: Her works, The Death And Life of Great American Cities is from 1961, The Economy of Cities is from 1969. So she was writing in The Village Voice. Was she already an influence within urban planning circles? Did you read her books at the time?
Alain: No, because they were not published yet. I read them four or five years later. I think she wrote her book when she moved to Canada, if I remember well. I don't remember it. But I read about her and it was more, let's say, it was more anti-Moses than pro-Jacobs, in a way. The theory of Jane Jacobs I think most people became familiar with them about 10 years later. Of course anybody who lived in the village, or was close to the village, you know Greenwich Village and the idea that a highway will cross over Washington Park is... in a way this was not a real estate operation, you see like Haussmann, it was an infrastructural operation. To move trucks or cars from, let's say New Jersey to Long Island basically, that was the idea. The idea that a highway like that I think could be justified if it was underground because it would give value to both sides, for instance.
Alain: But say you cut the highway in an existing urban fabric you will have a decrease in value of real estate. You cut Manhattan into two and probably within a kilometer north and south of the highway you will have a semi-dead urban fabric because all the street would be dead ends in the middle of Manhattan. Where in fact Manhattan is a continuity, it's not even... I mean there are some centers like Greenwich Village or Midtown or Wall Street, but those are linked by a continuity, they are not self-sufficient. It's vectors which goes from Wall Street to Harlem. And if you cut, think, it's like cutting a limb. Some parts would become dead. So the real cost of such a highway if it was justified in terms of mobility would be enormous because you had this, the valuation of real estate on both side. My estimate would be about a kilometer on both sides which would lose complete value. And Manhattan in itself, being cut in two, would also lose value. You will have a fragmentation also of the labor market there because of the difficulty of moving back and forth.
Anthony: We've seen in many large Brazilian cities these urban express ways having exactly this affect and there are some discussions today, maybe tearing down some of them. So this is very close to our reality.
Alain: Yeah, to my dismay I found also that sometimes the BRT, you know the bus rapid transit, has the same effect. I found that in Curitiba, some part of Curitiba, but even more in Bogota. If you look at let's say the real estate on both sides of the TransMilenio in Bogota, you see that it's always very low value, it's equivalent of having a value. It could be maybe solved by some urban design thing which allow more... that's possible. But as it is, I think it is a bit a Robert Moses operation. Although BRT of course branch on people all around, so it has a positive side, obviously, it moves a lot of people at a cheap price. But the real estate issue is not solved in the BRT, especially in Curitiba, I mean some part of Curitiba.
Curitiba in Brazil was the first city in the world to implement a full BRT system.
Anthony: Yes, many of the BRTs we have here are indeed very wide and to cross it they built pedestrian walkways which are not very friendly.
Alain: Right, yeah. So that could be solved I suppose with urban design. In my book I don't treat urban design, the book is long enough like that. But I think it's an important part, a complementary part, you know? Again, a park like Washington Square is very effective although it's relatively small, it's four hectares. Very, very effective because it's a good design. But there are parks which are larger which are not very effective because they are not accessible, nobody goes there. So design is a very, very important part of planning and land use in general.
Anthony: Definitely. So Alain, going back to New York and Jane Jacobs, right? So you mentioned your perceptions today about what was the effect of these expressways going through the city. So back then in the late 1960s, 1970s, were you working at city hall in New York?
Alain: My first job was with Philip Johnson, you know the architect Philip Johnson. And it was an incredible experience because it was in the Seagram Building, you know built by Mies Van Der Rohe, it's one of the best skyscrapers in New York, certainly in terms of design. And coming from Paris where I've never been in a building than eight floors, there were no skyscrapers in France at the time. And also the architects in France at the time wanted to give an image of being bohemian, although they were business like everybody else. So they dressed like Che Guevara and everything like that, and suddenly I end up with Philip Johnson. Philip Johnson was always dressed in the best Italian suits and inside the office you had a thing, there was a Giacometti sculpture at the entrance, there was a Picasso tapestry and a Miró tapestry also at the entrance. It was an incredibly different...
Alain: But I quickly found it very boring, although it looked very good on my resume as an architect because there was again this goal thing, it was exactly the same thing as for Corbusier, people worshiped Philip Johnson and I think he was an interesting guy. He was very witty, but I don't think he had a clue about anything, frankly. So it was very frustrating in a way to work there. So after about five or six months I think I started meeting people and thanks by the way to the American culture which is much... as foreigners, we didn't know anybody but we were very quickly invited by all sorts of people. And so we established a network. We had I think a larger network of friends in New York after six months than we had in Paris after five years. So I found a job then in the city planning department. It was the time of Mayor Lindsay and it was a time of the black panther, black power.
Alain: I think they were... I guess, they never told me that, but I guess I was hired because of my French accent. They were desperate to dialogue with the black community but there was such a, let's say, lack of confidence between let's say the white establishment and the black community. That they found I was a nice intermediary in the sense that nobody in Harlem.... well they were not completely sure I was white and they could not identify me in a box because of my accent. So it was much easier for me to relate there. So first I worked next to city hall in the planning department in downtown, then after that we moved into an office in Harlem and then I stayed in Harlem.
Alain: By the way, trying to sell to the community a completely absurd project. The idea, it was a project designed by MIT professors. The idea was to continue Park Avenue into Harlem and by building a vault over the railway which is under Park Avenue and then moving poor people into this new building on both side of Park Avenue, the idea at the time was very common all over the world was, if you built very nice houses for poor people, then the problem is solved. You eradicate poverty by just building nice housing for them.
Alain: At the time Harlem had a lot of problem, crime and drug addiction was incredible. Basically the building on both side of Park Avenue on you know, Lexington and Madison, many of the building were abandoned and just used by junkies as heroin alley, something like that, the drug alley. So it's not... building new housing there will not solve this problem of crime. Actually it would have been made worse because to communicate between the two part of Harlem, east Harlem and west Harlem, you would have to go under this vault which was even much larger, wider. So will have a little tunnel and tunnels are not very good in an area where are full of crime and drug addicts.
Anthony: So I think Alain, I think by this time Robert Moses was already stepping out of city hall.
Alain: Yes. He was never in city hall, he was never elected. But he was a very powerful, I think the word of [Robert Pierot 00:24:04], the power broker, that's exactly what he was without being elected because he had so many connections with the building industry, the highway industry and politicians. Well, everything he did was not negative, the police had, for instance, so Jones Beach, thing like that were valid things. Except that the highway to go to Jones Beach had very low beaches to prevent buses from using it because he didn't want the rabble of the city to mess up the beaches.
Anthony: So back then you mentioned you were at city hall and some of these projects were still, let's say, we could see them today as a little bit absurd. You mentioned that you when you were at Chandigarh you already had a, let's say, first awakening?
Anthony: So what were your thoughts at the time? How were your views on urban planning evolving and how did you see the way that they were planning Manhattan at the time?
Alain: It was a bit of a continuation from Chandigarh, in a way. When I first worked on this project in Harlem, building this vault and using the air rights to build... there was still in my background as architect, and architects like to build things and especially new things which look different. So first I thought hey, this is great. This is a big project, I can... and again when you live in Harlem and you realize that going, for instance, under the existing railway which crossed Harlem was a dangerous place and people urinated there. You say, my project is going to triple the width of this tunnel. Then you realize, gee, I would not like to cross this. You have to take the subway on Lexington. So I will have to go from my office and go in there. Then suddenly you realize that what looks, as an architects, what looks like a great thing which will make it into a magazine is a terrible thing when you are on the ground. That was a continuity.
Alain: So I started doing things, especially when I was still downtown during my lunch break, I will go to certain place in the Wall Street area and I will try to count how people who were on foot move around the city. When you get out of the subway and you have to go to your office you have an alternative of several routes. Why would you take one route rather than another? So I started following people and noting on a map what they were doing, and I noted that sometime they didn't take the shorter route and they went into the most attractive route. Let's say more diverse where there were more shops, even if they didn't use the shop. So for me this pedestrian view of urban was very important, and I could see that this was something which normally completely neglected by planners. This street view of... for instance say, Philip Johnson built a library for NYU at Greenwich Village and Greenwich Village is interesting because they have so many shops and restaurants and the library, it's a blank wall, very beautiful red limestone. But suddenly it becomes boring.
Alain: So I'm not saying that in the library you should have an opening for a coffee shop or something, maybe you should. The contact between the private space of a block and the street should be as transparent as possible. It should not be a fortress. So I think that's what's interesting and in a way, you mentioned yeah I was critical of some of what my colleagues were doing. And including, by the way, Marie-Agnes, at the time where working also at city hall, but she was working on giving incentives to make plaza like the Seagram Building, I talk about it in my book. Indeed the plaza of the Seagram Building is a success, urban design success, it's wonderful. But you cannot regulate good design, as soon as you regulate it you kill the design.
Alain: So for instance on 6th Avenue, the idea that all the new skyscrapers there will be like the Seagram building with a plaza, so if all the buildings have a plaza there is no plaza, it's just a wider avenue. Then the lawyer take over because the plaza will be private space, that means that if anybody breaks his leg there or do anything the building is responsible for it, not the city, so they can be sued. So the lawyer convinced the architect to make this plaza as hostile as possible so there will be the least people possible, you see? But there is a logic to it, it's not just a conspiracy or bad will, there is a logic to it. And you have to understand this logic, why things do not succeed just through regulation.
Anthony: Perfect, yeah the example of the plaza is excellent. So fast forward maybe 10, 15 years. Jane Jacob's books have come out, her work around some emergent order in cities is maybe one of the first to be written in that kind of writing. And to me it resonates a lot with the work that you have published recently, in a different way. Did her work influence you at the time? And how did you see it?
Alain: Yes, relatively little. After New York we went to Yemen where we spent three years. So in Yemen Jane Jacob's books were not accessible although they were published at the time we were there, but we had no access to them. So Yemen, you know in a way what Jane Jacobs talk about, I had observed those things. Again in Chandigarh were more alive, more diversity than the planned city and things like that. But i didn't have a theory behind it, in a way it was a little anecdotal. In Yemen I observed also the density, I mean at the time the Yemeni were completely unplanned in the sense that people were just aggregating things. My main job in Yemen was really to trace new streets because the city was growing so fast and there was no system really, so I was trying... and so I observed a lot of things, like for instance, density decreased when you go away from the city. For me those were just personal observations, idiosyncrasies of cities. And it's only when I went to Haiti and I worked with an urban economist I realized that all these things that I had observed were in fact, urban economists, they have also observed them but measured them and made a theory of them.
Alain: So it confirmed, it gave a theoretical background to things that I had observed and thought positive. And it was the same thing for Jane Jacobs, in particular her book, The Economy of Cities, I think it's in this book where she talk also about the Turkish city built around obsidian, it had become an obsidian center, so the jobs accumulate. Then when obsidian is not more needed then the city disappear. So again that confirmed my view of the labor market, a city based on the labor market. So if you don't diversify, you start with obsidian but if you do not diversify and the city's not particularly that well located except for obsidian, then the city will disappear. I think that that so... so it was, if you want, I acquired slowly I will say, I won't call it academic knowledge, but say theoretical knowledge by other people while observing very carefully what was going on on the ground. Then I found a convergence with it, you know?
Alain: And a complete divergence, of course, with the idea of international style or even ideas like, at the time the big planners, there was a Greek firm called Doxiadis who built Islamabad, who built a lot of cities. I don't know if they did anything in Latin America, I forgot, probably they did.
Anthony: There were a few plans in Brazil.
Alain: In Brazil, yeah.
Anthony: I believe in Rio De Janeiro.
Alain: oh yeah, of Doxiadis. And those were completely... these were really Corbusier type of thing, in a certain way. A complete rationality, built on formula without much observation of how people live in a city. The idea that you have a shopping street in the middle of a neighborhood because it's closest to all part. Like every neighborhood was completely isolated. A city is a continuity, a street is a continuity. So in a way Christoper Alexander I think have a better understanding in theoretical things than Doxiadis or again the continuation of this thing, the unit, the planned unit completely independent and self-sufficient. And the sector of Chandigarh were like that, there were the sectors which were 800 meter, if I remember well, by a kilometer or something like that. And all the commerce were in a little plaza and a few streets in the middle of the thing. Where in fact commerce thrived where people were moving. So it's good to be in the center like that for a primary school, but not good for commerce.
Anthony: And Alain, look at this, let's say timeline, of urban utopias and ideas, right, I see a change in mindset, maybe beginning with garden cities or modernism where urban planners started to try to, let's say, organize city form, right?
Anthony: And since then, maybe Jane Jacobs is the first one to give a different perspective on the problem?
Anthony: But still after she published her works many planners tried to use the qualities and ideas she describes in her observations as a sort of design manual, right?
Anthony: So trying to regulate mixed income in the same buildings or the age of buildings, right, to give the qualities that Jacobs has described by observation and of a spontaneous outcome, right?
Alain: Yes. Yeah this is the sad thing about it. Again it's the same story as the Seagram Building. The Seagram Building was a good design because it was unique there, and suddenly as soon as you start making it a general rule, then it destroys itself. What is important in Jane Jacobs is spontaneity, at the same time she didn't speak about spontaneous order like that exactly but something like that. She speaks about randomness, you know? And this is what's so difficult to accept for planners, randomness. That in a way we get back maybe to the idea of Hayek or even Adam Smith, individual initiative. People have knowledge, again, how to run a bakery, or a butcher in the case of Adam Smith. That planners don't know where to put, you know, how many butcher shop there should be and where there should be. So to make into a rule that, suddenly you observe that in Paris that you have say, a butcher for every 10,000 people and you say, aha, we are going to plan a city where you have a butcher, I say butcher but it could be anything else of course, a shopping center or something.
Alain: Then you get it wrong because precisely this thing is involving, depending on the way demand evolves. People maybe at a certain time will eat less meat or get their meat from somewhere else than the butcher. So the city should be allowed to evolve on that, I think that's an important contribution of Jane Jacobs', precisely this... so you should have a structure, after all the streets of Greenwich Village, if that was a model, were already there and they never change and she didn't want the street to change. But on these streets you build things differently depending on the way people evolve and technology evolve. And I think that's a message which is the most important, you know?
Alain: So you have a spontaneous order that is made of individuals who are pursuing their own interests, let's say again in Adam Smith's theory, and who have special knowledge of their field like Hayek postulates. Then you have still, you absolutely need a structure which is top down, like Haussmann, on which you branch that. Then the important thing is that the communication between the private and the public, which often is very neglected. I reproach very much urban planners now to spend too much time trying to design what is happening in the private sector and not enough in the area where they are responsible for it and not enough in the designing the public space and especially the relationship between the public and the private space. For instance the opening of shops or if you have a garage how it should open so that you have a still maximum of life on the street and things like that.
Alain: There are some progress, I see now some progress in the design of sidewalk in New York in some area, so that's very good, especially when you have a pedestrian crossing thing like that, I think they have improved it. But I think this is new, this should have been, I think, the main concern of urban planners. I get back also to the question of BRT, I think that BRT suffer from a lack of good urban design, to link the station of BRT with the rest of the city and the way the city communicates across the BRT line, which are just urban design problems. I think this has been grossly neglected, but if you look at the New York zoning plan they go into minute details about the height of building, how far they should be from each other, the size of kitchen, the way the bathroom should be connected, I mean... I'm not talking here by the way about safety regulation, you know fire or sanitation. This I leave it to the customer, you don't know, you have to rely on the firemen to know what is a fire-proof building.
Alain: But anything which is space-use, how much floor space you consume and how it is organized I think the consumer is the best judge to do that. And the shop-keeper too, in New York for instance, in many shop there is a minimum and maximum floor space for some reason. I don't know where it comes from, magic numbers that are coming from a...
Anthony: Yes, exactly. So we've seen, since then, since Jacobs' we've seen a sort of explosion of new utopias, right? From new urbanism and even transit oriented development has a final view on the shape of how the city should look like, right?
Anthony: And my question is, I mean we've seen this since... I mean the garden city, it's like 120 years already right? And when Jane Jacobs came along with these new ideas but her ideas got lost somehow in the middle of the process and we're still not, let's say, in the path of going back to, let's say classical urban planning and I would like to know your views on why this happens. Sometimes I think, is it the fact that we learn urban planning and architecture as the same thing? Is it something else? Why do you think these ideas have endured for so long?
Alain: Yes I think it is very, very difficult for architects and engineers and basically cities are built by engineers and architects and lawyers. It's very difficult for them to admit that there's spontaneous order, that there are certain things that they may not know and they should leave the maximum flexibility of land use because they want to optimize everything. It's easier, for instance if you want to optimize transport, I remember a case in Indonesia where the Japanese were planning a light rail through Jakarta and they have very competent, of course, traffic engineers. They calculated that to make this light rail viable they needed a density along the light rail of say, I forgot now, but say 250 people per hectare on the corridor of say one kilometer of both side of the light rail.
Alain: So there idea was not to maximize mobility in Jakarta, it was to maximize the financial viability of their infrastructure. Now I am not saying that a light rail was not a good idea in Jakarta, but then the objective is a little different. So if the objective is to make the light rail work, not to make it optimum for moving around the city but to make it work, then of course they need to have this higher density there because there was no demand for this high density yet there, to say the area which are not around the light rail should have a mandatory low density in order to... which is a bit, by the way, the plan of Curitiba, in a way it's the same. So you try to maximize the efficiency of infrastructure, you decide on the infrastructure first, then you say the people around this infrastructure should be grouped that way so that my infrastructure will be very efficient.
Alain: This is not the right way to do things. In a way, although a transport system is public sector, but it's the same thing as when General Motors say, what's good for General Motor is good for the country, it's not necessarily true. So what's good for the light rail, the type of land use which is good for the light rail is not necessarily good for Jakarta. So at the same time in Jakarta, another example like that, and I think it answers very well your question, why we had the problem. The World Bank, by the way. We had very competent sewer engineers and drainage engineer and they look at Jakarta and the soil condition and they say, you know in a tropical country like that we do not need... we could get away without having a traditional sewer system, we could have oxidation ponds which are local and a seepage pit. But in order to do that the density would need to be less than 50 people per hectare. So they say the planners should plan a city of less than 50 people per hectare, then we will save a lot on the sewer. You put it in reverse here. Of course you should have a sewer which is the least expensive possible, but to serve the people where they are, not to design a city around a sewer system.
Anthony: No, that's a great example. The example you mentioned with the light rail in Indonesia, I would say it's basically the dominant idea in Brazil today. So the latest Sau Paulo master plan is based on this idea. So they allowed higher density but not that much, [FAR 00:45:12] of four-
Alain: Yes, that's...
Anthony: ... around the main rail and BRT lines. But said okay, outside these areas we will want lower density and within the high density lines we will incentivize smaller units so we will have more people occupying these buildings and we will restrict the amount of parking, so people will also not use the car, they will use the rail or the bus system.
Alain: Yeah, you know again strangely enough, you see at the end of my short article there on the 15 minute city, I have a quotation of Tocqueville which in a way, when you look at the regulation you describe in Sau Paolo, it's people where they're really concerned about making things work. Then they establish rules so that the thing they designed will work without really considering why people in San Paulo some of them will have to use cars. Maybe a doctor, maybe a plumber obviously has to use a car. They say, well it would work so well if everybody walked, you know? And I think that then they put rules which seems not too tyrannical in a certain way, to say, well we are going to reduce parking, mandate... you know again I think parking should not be compulsory. It's a part of real estate and it should be operated privately because in many cities, subsidized parking. And in a way, if you, like in many cities of the world, you say for a shop of this you need that many parking lot. You are subsidizing it because you are obliging people to afford that. So I think it should be a part of real estate, in the same way as you should not decide how many bakery you have in a city, you should not decide how many parking space.
Alain: But it should be market driven, that means it should not be subsidized, if there are people, then... then you should certainly be very careful about the urban design aspect, all this private parking lot where they will probably be underground, communicate with the city so they don't clog the city or be dangerous for pedestrians or anything like that. So that's an aspect that should be regulated, the urban design and the link between the two. But again to me the urban design is mostly in the public area which are not driven by markets, which are not driven by people preferences. You can observe the number of pedestrian in the street and say, well we need wider sidewalks. But the market is not going to give you wider sidewalks, there is no mechanism for that, even if there is a high demand. So here it has to be top down in a certain way. A lot of attention should be given to that, but much less to the size of apartment or things like that, which I think the people can decide by themselves. Certainly there should not be regulation to say what is the number of apartment of this size, of this size.
Alain: In New York we have in fact the opposite, we have, for each block, we have the maximum number of apartments which can be built in each block which is based on a number which was invented in 1962 based on densities at the time where the average household size was around five people. Now it's 1.3 I think in Manhattan or something like that. So it's a completely arbitrary number just coming out of nowhere, like if it was coming from the sign of the Zodiac or something.
Anthony: It's amazing, we still have a long way to go and I think your work is a huge inspiration for us. So Alain, I think your comment on the 15 minute city gives us a good hint for us to move onto questions of some of our supporters. So [Ivandrew 00:49:20], he sent a question through message. He asks if the argument for the 15 minute city couldn't work in fact as a marketing strategy, so maybe not for Paris where that city has already optimized for 15 minutes where it can, as you argued in your article. But maybe in Brazil or United States, Parisian suburbs that have not reached this level of accessibility or mixed use. So his question is maybe this concept would be a good way to summarize a goal for citizens who are not trained as urban planners.
Alain: Yeah I mean it's wonderful to have even a 10 minute city, my problem is not the goal, my problem is the way you achieve it. I think that you achieve, let's say the 10 minute city or the 15 minute city for things like food, schools or things like that. By removing regulation which prevent demand from being met. Do not forget that the 15 minute city depends on densities. If you look at all the plans around the world for zoning, the zoning prevents densities. You never have a zoning which... all the zoning limit densities. Either by floor ratio, by a minimum-maximum number of dwelling unit per hectare, by setbacks, by all sorts of things. So if you want to increase accessibility you have this trade off that you have to have low density to meet demand. There is demand for low density too, there are people who enjoy having a backyard and squirrels in their backyard. So those people are making a trade off and they know if they live in an individual house and they prefer it, they know that their bakery or their grocery store will be at 20 minutes, you know well they can use a bicycle for it if they want.
Alain: But that's linked together, you cannot have a 15 minute city without dealing with supply and demand. So my problem with the planners is that it seems to say, well we are going to plan it that way. You don't plan it that way. And the same for schools, you know I was a... when I read the 15 minute city of Moreno there, I didn't know how schools were built in Paris, frankly. So I checked in it and it was very interesting. It seems that they are very competent civil servants because the schools are state run. By the way, not a municipality but the ministry of education. We are a centralized... you know, Louis XIV's country, we are very centralized. Those civil servants are very, very responsive, and you find more schools in denser neighborhoods of Paris and less school in neighborhood where people are aging. You know? There are much less children. They are very responsive and they close them and they open them depending on the change.
Alain: So I was happily surprised here, they had some good... in a way they were doing good planning. So the 15 minute city. Now if you say, for instance, you should have, especially in the dense city, access to public transport within 15 minutes walk or I would say even 10 minutes walk, I completely agree with that but then you should have a program of that. This is not what Moreno is all about, Moreno's say we have a way, we're designing the city so you will find your job within 15 minutes. I believe that if you move to Sau Paolo or to Paris or to Shanghai it is not to take a job within 15 minutes. You select the best job in the entire metropolitan area for Sau Paolo and the employer is also looking for selecting the best person in the entire metropolitan. So this trade off has to be understood. A job is not an indifferent job, it's not one job. You have a choice and you should have a choice of many, many jobs.
Anthony: Perfect, thank you, thank you Alain. So Maria asks a question about urban transformation in urban fringes. So when rural areas are subdivided into lots or maybe vacation homes are transformed into residential areas, excessively and intensively occupying areas that were once low density. I believe you mentioned some of this in your book about the value of land but maybe you can comment about this to answer her question.
Alain: Yeah I think that again here you have, let's say I simplify. We have two cases. Either the state will not intervene at all and you have spontaneous development but including spontaneous development of streets and major streets. When it's a small access street to a lot it doesn't matter. But let's say if you have new suburbs created in the fringe of a city, one of the most important things is that this new suburb has to be linked to the rest of the city because again, the people who are moving in this area are part of the labor market and they are going to have to work somewhere and not necessarily in their neighborhood, probably not in their neighborhood. So the state here has to intervene and it's a top down thing. To integrate this new neighborhood with a network of transport which links with the entire area of the city. This idea that the city could grow within a self-contained area, you know sometimes you have that in, for instance I've seen that in Korea where they build new cities and they think those new cities next to Seoul are going to be self contained, that people who live there will work there.
Alain: It's not true. It's never happened that way. So you have to link, the state has to establish a link with the rest of the city. Now, that's done, the way that land is subdivided should be, again, entirely demand driven. Once you have ensured that you have set apart the space which will be not under the market which will be devoted to main streets the rest should be demand driven. The problem we have, either we have complete failure of the state who do not develop the infrastructure to link those neighborhoods to the rest of the city, then also you have what you call haphazard development. Which I don't believe, there is nothing really haphazard. You have all sort of building and in a way they respond better to demand because there is no regulation. But then they lack transport. So in the long run that will not be very good for the city. Or you have then the way many American cities or Europeans expand, you have an imposition in advance of one pattern, one type of density which is arbitrary. You don't know what will be the demand for, say, three story walk-up apartment compared to individual houses or townhouses. I think that you should have a type of regulation which should allow the consumer to make a choice to live in a suburb but live in a townhouse, rather than an individual.
Alain: Or, on the contrary to live on a lot of a quarter of an hectare and let's see what happens. I don't see why the state should decide on the consumption of land in any area of the city. Engineers would tell you, ah, but the infrastructure is not there. The job of the state is to provide the infrastructure to support where the people are, not the opposite.
Anthony: With this idea in mind do you think there is a tension between the necessity of the state to provide infrastructure to all areas? And the fact that an individual decision to move into the outskirts of an urban area will, let's say, create a public necessity right? At a higher cost.
Alain: I mean let's say, why will somebody go... the state could say, this is our plan for infrastructure in the future and we are going to expand. You will not get a road here before 10 years, that's possible. But if somebody, let's say, densify an area which is relatively far away from the border of the urban area. Again, you have to ask why would they do that? In a way it would be better for them to be closer, that will give more value. So why do they do that? Sometimes they do that because precisely, I've seen that a lot in India by the way, precisely their regulation at the fringe which oblige them to use more land than they wanted. Then they have to jump over... or sometimes you have a green belt, so on the side of the greenbelt the land is too expensive because they know it's a green belt, it's the last land left...
Alain: So you have to find why the people do that. The idea that people are vicious and are building things in impossible places just to annoy planners is not true. Again very often, sometimes in The World Bank report you see haphazard development. Development which is not under control. I argue with that, any development which happens has it's reason and you have to find why it is there. It is to find cheaper land, why is land so expensive somewhere else? And maybe there are people who are poorer and they settle there precisely because they cannot afford land. So by preventing them from building them you don't make them richer. So how do those people want to participate in the labor market of the city, where do they settle?
Alain: In my book I gave the example, if I remember well, in Mexico City of an informal development on the slope of a volcano which probably should not be built, I agree. But you have to find out why will people build their informal settlement, accessible by motorcycle to the labor market of Mexico City. Why would they build there? If you prevent them from building there and you may have a good reason to do it, I'm not denying it. But then you have to provide an alternative thing so your reflex should not be to prevent things which you find disturbing, but to say why do people move there? Can we provide an alternative at the same price? So you have to monitor the price of this informal settlement and say, if they move closer to the city they have to consume much more land. Then you should have, closer to the city, the possibility of consuming very little land for these people.
Alain: So you have to look at the problem that way. The same way as when people want to close completely the city to cars you have to look, why somebody drives from Manhattan? It's not fun to drive through Manhattan, so why would they drive through Manhattan? And you have to find an alternative, could some of them be provided with an alternative to that? So again the idea that a city is made of people and you have to find out what is best for them rather than design the infrastructure and say the people have to adapt to my infrastructure because really this will be optimum if they do. Sorry, it was a long answer.
Anthony: No, no problem. Do you have time for a couple more?
Alain: Yes I have plenty of time, yes.
Anthony: Great. So we have two questions around this concept of infrastructure and informal housing. One of them is how to address urban areas that have been consolidated with, let's say, favelas and the urban expansion was unplanned. What is the best benchmarks to bring infrastructure to these areas? And another question by [Chris Journey 01:01:43] is, what about areas that maybe are environmentally sensitive areas? We have in Brazil for example houses above lakes or rivers. Do we bring infrastructure to these communities or are these cases where a relocation would be justified?
Alain: Yes. So the first question, it's possible... so area which are already densified, let's say favelas and surrounding area. I think that one of the main problems here is, again, to link those areas with the rest of the city in terms of first providing basic infrastructure. I don't think, by the way, especially in a tropical country or a warm country that housing is as important as infrastructure. So the best thing you can do, in my opinion in a favella, is to bring infrastructure, you know clean water and also the possibility of moving through the favela relatively fast and to access public transport. It might not be possible within the favela to provide it, but say at the fringe of the favela. I think that's the most important thing. So it is possible that in some areas you may have to do a Haussmann operation. In order to link, again, this large area... I can think of that in some area of Mexico City where you have large areas, very dense population and most of the streets are about six to eight meters, no more than six meters. Those people are penalized by lack of access of the large labor market of Mexico City.
Alain: So you may have to have a Haussmann operation here and again, you will have to do it not by cutting a street but probably also relocating people on site by doing a real estate operation at the same time, you know? Not concentrate on the street so that people are relocated on site and that will be part of the cost of the street in a way but you will create wealth at the same time. You create fixed capital. So it's a bit complicated, I'd rather discuss that maybe on a drawing or on a map but that I think... the linkage of a poor area with the rest of the labor market by fast transport is very, very important. Very poor people who cannot afford transport very often are very limited to taking jobs relatively close to where they live, then their salaries are much lower because of that and they have much less also possibility. You know you learn a lot on the job and they have less possibility of learning on the job. So I think that easy access to the rest of the labor market is very important.
Alain: The other question, environmentally sensitive areas. Now there are two possibilities. Either it's area which will always be flood or are necessarily because of... so again if people settle there, certainly it's not because they enjoy spoiling the environment there, it's because it's the only cheap land. So can you provide somewhere, land which is as cheap and is as well located, the question is that. If you don't you expel the people from this area but you have not solved any problem. The area looks better without the slum on it and maybe even ducks will be there or something, it will be very nice. But what about those people? Those people will be worse off. So you have absolutely to find an alternative solution. Don't forget that if they go there it's not because they are ignorant or anything it's because they look around their entire city and they find this. Although maybe they are flooded all the time, maybe they are full of mosquitoes and things like that, not very comfortable.
Alain: But they found that from their point of view this is the best place in the city, so can you find for people like that with this income something which is equivalent and which is not in a sensitive area? So that's the thing. Now, in some area, I remember a case in India where there was a large slum on an area which was regularly flooded and again, the people knew it was flooded. But because it was flooded the land was cheap and that's why they settled there. It was relatively close, they have a good access to the city center through this area. So the city first decided to remove them and put them somewhere far away from the city, where in fact they were relatively close. Then we found if you have a good engineer, we found that by building a [bunt 01:06:29] around this area in fact it will be much cheaper to prevent this area from flooding without relocating people and bringing clean water and a system to remove garbage from this area and things like that.
Alain: So that was also done quite a number of times in Indonesia in the Kampung project that I speak about. So again here you should see if some civil work will not solve the problem of flooding, for instance. If the area is not otherwise sensitive. But some area should stay wet, you know? If they're a wetland or things like that, I have no problem with that obviously. Or say, the slope of the volcano around Mexico City probably should not be built because of the difficulty, the drainage problem that it causes and things like that. So here you have to... but always think. You know the problem sometimes when you address this is to beautify the area and kick the people out and these people are not going to disappear, they are not going to go back to their village, they are going to go somewhere else in the city and create another problem so unless you address the problem of the people, in particular affordability. Land affordability and access to jobs, you are not going to solve the problem.
|Flash floods in Jakarta's kampungs
Anthony: Amazing, amazing answer, thank you Alain. I think we have a couple of last other questions. Andrea says that there is a 2004 paper in which you explain that the city of Bangalore restricted FAR in central areas because they believed it would be too costly to build infrastructure large enough to accommodate a large population. Of course this caused the population to spread outwards which increased the demand for infrastructure. Do you know of any cities where this density restriction, because of financial concerns, would make sense? And he believes that many people in Brazil argue against density saying that the cost of improving infrastructure would be too high.
Alain: Look, it's very simple. Look at the cost of land and look at the cost of infrastructure and very often to save, say $10 million in infrastructure, you blow up $100 million of real estate. So there could be a situation where infrastructure in some area is so expensive because, I don't know, mud maybe or earthquake or something. But my experience is always that infrastructure is, when there is demand by the way. The problem is that sometimes planners build infrastructure in the middle of nowhere where there is no demand, then the infrastructure becomes, indeed, very expensive because there is no demand for it. But if you are in a downtown area or say suburban area where there is a lot of demand for housing or whatever, office building, my experience is that it's always cheaper to bring pipes there or to increase the sewer system and things like that. Look at cities like Manhattan or Paris, they had no infrastructure, the infrastructure was built little by little. If Manhattan had decided gee, in the 19th century they had no sewer by the way, so we don't want to spend on infrastructure, the city should expand or you should move to Baltimore or something like that, it doesn't make sense.
Alain: You have to adapt. The problem of course is very often you do not have mechanisms to recover the cost of infrastructure so you have a municipal budget for sewers and you have no mechanism to get it back and it's possible if you increase density you have something like an impact fee or something which will pay for that additional infrastructure. Or you have the system that you have in Texas where you have bonds which are repaid by property tax in the long run. But there you need a relatively sophisticated financial system of course to do that. So I think that it's not that infrastructure is too costly when there is demand for area, it's just that you have no mechanism to recover the cost of infrastructure. You know, it comes from one pocket where the money's going in another pocket, so you don't do it. I cannot imagine a case where there is a high demand for infrastructure where the price of the real estate will not largely compensate the cost of infrastructure.
Anthony: Alain, your answer was on point as I think our last question was exactly on this topic. So Arthur asks about Latin American cities with budget constraints and how could infrastructure be provided. You gave us some light on it already. What do you think about selling building rights, other finance mechanisms cities could use.
Alain: Yes, let's say... the problem of course when it's the government who sell it, all to establish a price which would kill the market, because you could price it in such a way that it doesn't kill the market, then nothing happens. I think that now if we talk about Brazil there is a financial system in Brazil which is deep enough to be able to finance cities. Cities I'm sure are able to issue bonds, for most cities, and probably this is the best way to finance. This means that you have a property tax or some income which will guarantee the bonds of course, on which the bonds will be placed. So I'm not really an expert on municipal finance, frankly, but it is true that the financing of infrastructure is a very important thing and very often cities are broke. When in fact you look at the price of real estate in the city you don't have the feeling that people are broke, after all if they pay this amount for real estate there is money circulating there and there is no doubt they should pay for infrastructure.
Alain: I think that one example, again I'm not an expert on that, but one example that I find very convincing is what is used in Texas. I think it's called MUD, municipal urban district, and it's a way of issuing bonds which do not necessarily cover a specific... it can go over even several municipalities. But the bond covers the infrastructure. So when you are in a suburban area you have a district, the district is specific to the infrastructure which may go across several suburban boundaries. And this seems to work very well and that explains in large part why housing in general in Texas is much cheaper than in other parts of the United States. Because of those bonds you are able to develop enough infrastructure to... and by the way, they also, in the city of Houston, they revise periodically also now the land use so that they increase sometimes density if they feel there is a demand for smaller apartments or smaller plots, they are able to do that.
Anthony: One of our supporters Eric just messaged us saying that municipalities are restricted from issuing bonds in Brazil.
Alain: Oh really? Ah yes.
Alain: Because the state do not think that they are able to repay them, right?
Anthony: Maybe, maybe.
Alain: So maybe there are other mechanisms than bonds but I think that when cities are able to issue bonds and they know that they will not be bailed out by the state, I think that might be the best, look maybe I'm biased, again I'm not an expert on municipal finance.
Anthony: There is an instrument in Brazil which I find interesting that cities can specify an urban area and they sell building rights and with the proceeds they will invest in that urban area and the price is not set nominally by city hall, it's an auction and these building rights titles are sold in the open market, so that's an interesting way to avoid the price definition.
Alain: Right, yeah, that's interesting. And I suppose that in those areas then they establish also standards of urbanization, right? Because the building rights are based on the private parts of the development, obviously.
Anthony: Yes, yes.
Alain: Yes it's a bit like what Hong Kong used to do, I'm not so sure now in the last three years, if they skipped doing it. But that's Hong Kong used to do in the past to develop and that's why you had suburbs in Hong Kong with very high densities because that's what people were ready to pay to get as close as possible to the center of Hong Kong and to public transport. Because with the density of Hong Kong, Hong Kong can function only for about 80% of people who use public transport. Let's say about 500, 600 people per hectare. So yes, that's a solution. I had a case, strangely enough in Iran, I work in Iran after the revolution, and there was a mayor of Tehran who was desperate for money and to respond, again, to density. He did exactly that, he auctioned the rights to build and he financed infrastructure like that and the central government was critical of it but I look at the outcome of it when I was there and I felt it was... it's a little primitive, let's say, but it works in producing an enormous amount of floor space which was obviously affordable because it was all private.
Alain: People are always asking for a compact city. It created a compact city by itself without having to regulate it or things like that. And the fact that it was auctioned, if it was set by the government you will always expect that there would be an area where there is no demand and they put a very high price but here it was obviously demand driven. So again, being demand driven is very important.
Anthony: I'm personally surprised about these mechanisms because with all of the density restrictions most big cities are sitting on a pile of cash, right?
Alain: Yes, yes, exactly.
Anthony: They could easily finance themselves in many different ways.
Alain: A guy like Trump, the way he made some of the money was to buy land in Manhattan which was zoned for industry or something like that. The steel industry land in Manhattan and they thought you will be crazy to create an industry in Manhattan. So this land has very little value, it's used usually for storage. And if you know how to change, so you buy it, if you know how to change it so it has a potential value of hundreds of millions of dollars but you buy it for $50 million. You wait, it takes maybe 10 years with very expensive lawyers to change the zoning if you know... I'm not implying corruption even, just a process you know? The board president, the community, whatever. After 10 years suddenly it becomes commercial or residential and you have made a bundle. But it all goes to the developer and the lawyers because you have to have very skilled lawyers to do that. But the city was sitting on it and not doing anything with it.
Anthony: Yeah, yeah. And the cities have a lot to learn with real estate developers.
Alain: Why do New York maintain manufacturing in Manhattan where there is no demand for manufacturing? Again, some people believe that manufacturing jobs could come back to Manhattan and that you will have... so the union, a number of people believe, well if we maintain them then we will have good jobs, manufacturing, instead of having only services. I mean it's a myth, it will not not happen. It just transfers money from the city to developers and lawyers. I apologize for the lawyers here. I have great respect for zoning lawyers.
Anthony: Well, that's fine, that's fine. Alain, we're passed the time we had scheduled, but it was a great pleasure to talk to you.
Alain: Same here, thank you.
Anthony: We're done with questions for now, but I don't want to take too much of your time. It's always an honor to connect with you and we have many big fans of your work here with us, so thank you.
Keep in touch!