OWD #1: Tea time in Yemen
May 7th, 2020
As I mentioned in my recent post, I'm starting a podcast with my friends, Marie-Agnes and Alain Bertaud, who also happen to be the most interesting couple I know.
Over the course of this first conversation, we traveled all around the globe for a whirlwind tour of the adventurous life they've led together. Here are just a few spots that were on our itinerary:
- We started in Tunisia to hear about Marie-Agnes' childhood, then hopped over to neighboring Algeria, where Marie-Agnes and Alain first met. This is also when Alain was first drafted to work as an urban planner in the midst of Algeria's independence from France.
- Then, we made our way to the US, visiting NYC to hear about how Alain and Marie-Agnes started a family when they were penniless but optimistic immigrants to America.
- Our next stop was Yemen, where Alain and Marie-Agnes worked for three years as urban planners and befriended Yemeni artisans, tribespeople, and farmers.
- Then we picked up speed, zipping around the globe to learn about their experiences working in Bangkok, Port-au-Prince, San Salvador, and beyond and how their identity as foreigners played a role in what they were able to achieve.
- The conversation then moved on to the topic of "city deflation", and how declining populations are a new challenge for cities this century. We made stops in France and Japan, and we visited cities in Russia that lost so much population after the Soviet Union fell that they were formally closed. Then we went to Detroit, where we discussed why the water was turned off and how it's a more nuanced story than is normally told when looked at through the lens of "city deflation".
It was a fabulous conversation, and we're so excited to get to share it with you. Let us know what you think!
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Here are a few photos from when the Bertauds lived in Sana'a, Yemen from 1970-1973.
Here's the full transcript. You can also find it with synced audio here. If you'd like to correct any errors in the transcript, let me know and I'll give you access!
Alain (00:00:00)There are certain things in every city which will surprise you. Why do you have a barbershop at this corner and why would you have no department store in this city? So you ask this question and you try to understand why it is like that. [music 00:00:24]
Devon (00:00:24)Welcome to the Order Without Design podcast. I'm Devon, and my co-hosts are the most interesting couple I know: Alain and Marie-Agnes Bertaud. Alain is an urban planner and economist and Marie-Agnes is a pioneer in mapping and geospatial methods. This project is an extension of their book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities.
With its focus on economic theory, you might not realize that this fantastic book is the product of the adventurous life these two have shared together. They have the most incredible stories from living their nomadic lifestyle. This podcast series is my excuse to hear and share those stories.
This first episode is an introduction to the Bertauds. Later episodes will focus on a particular dimension of their life, such as work, education, mobility or parenting and how those facets of their life have been shaped by the cities they've called home.
The three of us don't really have a grand vision for what this podcast will become. Much like the adventures they've had together, we're not really sure where we'll end up, but I can guarantee it'll be interesting if the Bertauds are involved. We had fun putting together this first episode and we can't wait to hear what you think. You can find a link to the transcript and photos in the description.
So with that let's get started. Marie-Agnes, Alain, thank you for agreeing to do this with me. I'm super excited about this project. Today we're going to focus on your shared work as urbanists and how that's shaped your life and perspective.
So the first question is what was the path that brought you to the adventurous nomadic life that you two have led? I know Marie-Agnes you were born in Tunisia, so perhaps that's a good place to start.
Marie-Agnes (00:02:04) Yes, I was born up out of the financial hole if you can say, because early in my life, I live in Tunisia with French parents in the time where Tunisia was still under the protectorate or the French government and when the Tunisia get kind of independence my father was sent to Algeria at the war started almost as soon as we were there.
Devon (00:02:40) I know you mentioned that you met Alain when you were in Algeria. How did you guys meet and what were you doing at the time?
Marie-Agnes (00:02:48) I was a teacher, and Alain was a kind of Peace Corps volunteer and instead of doing military service. He was sent to Algeria to become an urban planner and he was in charge of a small city in new West of Algeria called Clemson. When before I met Alain I was teaching in Tunisia also and when I saw the Tunisian getting, having problem with the French government, we know that one one day we'll be leaving the country. So we went as with my parents, I went to Algeria and when Algeria started to also rebel against the French, my sister and I both were teacher and we were planning to go to a special kind of teaching abode and we were almost ready to go to Africa where still the French government have a running school in Mauritania, in the Senegal. So we were almost ready to move.
Marie-Agnes (00:04:08) And then I met Alain and that changed my life. At the time I met her Alain, Alain teach me about dwellings and he was an architect or headed to be an architect and I started to be interested in architecture and I move in the same direction and Alain, going during a certain month drawing houses in Algeria and from there I take the opportunity to learn more about mapping and about GIS, geographic information system, to do all the work I've done for Alain book, analyzing land use, analyzing land density in cities and making data available for Alain to process and do this book.
Devon (00:05:07) Wow, what an incredible experience. So Alain, Marie-Agnes said that you really changed her life when she ended up meeting you in Algeria and I know you are originally from Marseille in France. So can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in Algeria and what your path was through school and what you were envisioning the work you would be doing in your career when you were young?
Alain (00:05:32) Very early I wanted to be an architect, probably at the age of 12 or 13 or something like that. And my father would, had a business, engineering business and he would have wished me to be an engineer, but he realized very quickly that I was very independent and things like that and I must say he didn't contradict my advocation if I get good at that. So I am very grateful for that because at the time, this is a long time ago, it was in the fifties. It was normal for parents to impose a profession on their, especially on their son. So I'm very grateful for my parents to be very liberal on that. So after that I finished my degree in Marseilles and then I moved to [Grenoble 00:06:26] to study architecture, but at the time there was only one school of architecture in France.
Alain (00:06:32) It was in Paris and the decentralization system, the French way was that you could study in any town you wanted, but every month and a half you had to go to Paris to pass your exam because there was only one school and there was one entrance exam for entire France, which was in Paris. So it was a strange situation. I went to Grenoble because at the time I was doing competition skiing. I was a downhill icer and so for me when you are 19, 20 sports is very important for a boy. And so I thought so I will study architecture in Grenoble and then with my colleagues every month and a half we will go to Paris and spend a week in Paris passing our exams. Then we'll go back to Grenoble. Eventually after two or three years, maybe when you get smarter as a boy, you lose interest in competition.
Alain (00:07:28) You realize that it takes too much of your time. So then I moved to Paris to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then that's where I reached 25 and that's a time there was a draft in France. So you could postpone your, you could have a deferment when you were a student, but at a certain point when you were 25 usually you had to do your military service. So I was drafted in the army. I did six months of bootcamps and things like that, but I had applied also it was a new program. Algeria had been just recently independent two years before and the French were eager to maintain good relation with Algeria in spite of the very bitter and nasty fight to place for independence and so they started the equivalent of the Peace Corps.
Alain (00:08:23) But for people will be in, instead of finishing their military service in a barrack in France, the one who I had degree in could go to usually Algeria at the time. It was only Algeria to be the equivalent of a Peace Corps. So after six months, certainly I receive my new papers saying that I will be an urban planner in Oean first, the city of Oran. So I went there, spent a few months there to familiarize myself with a job with Algeria, supervised by older Frenchmen who were still there after independence. They're this special kind of a assistant thing and then after that, then I was nominated to be on my own as an urban planner in the city of Clemson, but I met Marie-Agnes in Oran and it's also changed my life because at the time I was interested in many, many things and maybe I was not clearly focusing on a career or I was very much interested in archeology, in artistry, in mathematics also at the same time and I liked very much to challenge my professors, which is not a good way of getting very grade sometime.
Alain (00:09:56) And then when I met Marie-Agnes suddenly I realized that I have to concentrate on something and that something was in fact urban planning because although my training... At the time by the way at the École des Beaux-Arts they didn't make any difference between urban planning and architecture. For them a city was just a big building, which is of course a terrible mistake. A city is absolutely not a big building. So that means that it should be planning all details in advance and then after that you implement your plan. But my stay, I was always interested in cities because when before going to Algeria before when I was still a student, I will spend most of my summer very often in the Middle East, first in Europe and then in the middle East, looking at because of my interest in art history, looking at ruins usually and the Middle East is full of them, layers of civilization. So I will spend my summer there and because I was traveling in very, let's say I was not going to stand out hotels or similar to that. The type of hotel I would go to where hotels where you are 10 people per room and you don't know your roommates. That's the type of hotels in the Middle East I was staying in. So I get an interest, I was always living in the poor, the poorest quarter of say Istanbul or Ankara or Tehran or Shiraz or Isfahan and so I was interested in the city themselves because I realized that this poor neighborhood that they had a life of their own, which was very different from what I knew and that people knew how to organize themselves with very, very little resources.
Alain (00:11:54) So that was I developed an interest in urban planning at that time or the year I spent in Algeria on the job, in the frontline, not studying, not reading books, not reading article, not making project for the bazaar, but a real problem. Like I explained in the book, receiving building permits every morning, having to take a decision whether to give the permit or not. These were really frontline decision and I found that very interesting. And that's Marie-Agnes is a very practical woman as you have guessed. She encouraged me in this direction. So that decided a bit my career.
Devon (00:12:39) Your practical bottom of approach to understanding cities is really what stood out to me about your book. So it's cool to hear about sort of the turning point when that happened. When you mentioned that the École des Beaux-Arts had this approach that for them a city was just a big building where there's just more details to get right, but at the end of the day you can sort of design the whole thing and you ended up having a very different experience on the ground when you actually were working on real problems in Algeria. What were some of the things that you needed to learn and how did you change your mind over that process?
Alain (00:13:13) Well, the approach of the École des Beaux-Arts is that an architect or a planner is a genius. So everything is in his head and he has to impose his ideas on others. This is the essence of it that in a way the public is uneducated and this job is to educate them and impose these ideas. By living in those cities, by being confronted very early and by the way, before going to Algeria, I have spent nine months in India and working in Chandigarh in the city built by Corbusier after India independence. So that was three years before I did my military service and here I learn also the difference between the theory about a city that you read in books or in papers and what it is to live in a city, go to work every morning, meet your friends and things like that.
"Cities have a physiology which is just like human beings. We have different culture, we have different history, we have a different environment." — Alain
Alain (00:14:13) And then I sought, here I realized that there was a very, very big difference and if you want to be useful in a city, the first thing is to look around and look what people are doing and try to understand why they do it that way and then you can later say, "Well maybe there's a better way of doing it," but first you have to understand why they do it that way and very often you find that they have a very good reason of doing things that way, including by the way things like informal settlement or something like that and former settlement or it's a very clever response of very poor people to situation. It is not something which necessarily have to be eradicated or something like that. So that's what I learned really that way. That's very, very different.
Alain (00:15:05) And so the big difference also that an architect but especially an urban planner is certainly not a genius and should not be a genius. It should be more like a family doctor, somebody who will really look it very carefully about these patient. Cities have a lot of things in common, whether it's a city in a poor country or in a rich country, they have a physiology which is the same really like human being. We have the same physiology. However, like human beings, we have different culture, we have different history, we have a different environment which shaped us.
Alain (00:15:42) And so we have to take into account that. So let's say if I have to use a metaphor for an urban planner, the closest one would be a family doctor. Somebody would try to learn about his patient, their history, what is special to this patient, but at the same time relies on knowledge about the physiology, which is the same for every human being and the same for every city. The city has a physiology where, that's where urban economics comes in. The physiology in fact is explained by urban economics and so you have to go back and forth between the theory and the detail.
Devon (00:16:26) Yeah, definitely. And that firsthand experience gives you lots of stories and anecdotes to really understand with intuition what's going on, but then you can draw those out into broader lessons that you can then bring in apply. And one thing I love about the life that you and Marie-Agnes have lived together is that you've both lived together, is that you've lived in so many different places and experienced them both as residents as well as planners and urbanists. Was that something that you intended to do with your life or did it just sort of end up being that way and in the end you pulled all the threads together?
Alain (00:17:02) Well we certainly, both Marie-Agnes and I, we love traveling and we are absolutely not afraid of a new environment and new, we are not attached to land. For Marie-Agnes, yes it's because she always lived in a foreign country in fact. She knew she was French in a foreign country, so one day she would have to leave. So I think it was natural to her. For me, my father liked traveling a lot. He traveled a lot and kept traveling to his death practically around the world. And so I learned these things about traveling, being an important and observing, looking around was something which was important. So we definitely wanted to travel. It was a bit a romantic thing. It was a bit the romanticism of the explorer of the 19th century, that discovering. I remember reading about René Caillié, the first European went to Timbuktu. For me this was really the wonderful thing.
Alain (00:18:11) Of course it was a little too late in the century to discover Timbuktu, but it was the next best thing in a way to become. So when I graduated, we were trying to apply for a job as urban planner in a foreign country. Probably the, the easiest way would have been a former French colony. We were looking at Cambodia or Vietnam or area like that and then we had a friend was just coming from an American college. She had been in Oberlin College in Ohio and she was French and she had spent one year there and she said, "The United States is so different. It's so incredible and you should at least spend a year there before you go to Cambodia or Africa, whatever." And she somehow convinced us. It was a time, so that was 1967, it was a time, she came back with a record of Bob Dylan and thing like that which was complicated for sure for us.
Alain (00:19:18) And so we decided to do that for one year, go to the US for one year just to get an experience. And then we, in a way the US became our base. We traveled a lot after that, but became our base. I mean it was certainly decision to travel, but to spend a lot or at least a number of years traveling. But there was no real plan and so we arrive in the US at this job, found a job with Philip Johnson, the architect in New York and Marie-Agnes had to learn English there and she learned about few months and she was able to have a job with the city planning commission after that. That's drafting thing and things like that and doing surveys.
Alain (00:20:12) So we integrated. We loved the New York very much, but then there was this, we saw an advertisement for Yemen. I told Marie-Agnes one evening, "Hey, there's this job for an urban planner in Yemen." She immediately say, "Yes, this is wonderful. Let's go." And by that time we had two young children. So that's rather unique because many of my friends or relative sometime the spouse, the man have a drop somewhere because of his career. He has to move from Paris to Leon, Marseilles or whatever. And usually the wife says, "No, no, no. We have a house here. We have our friend. We cannot move." Now Marine-Agnes is opposite. She was absolutely delighted. She had no problem with that. So again, that was not, and then from there so we went from, we spent two and a half years in New York and then for Yemen we had the contract of two years and then we renew it for one year.
Alain (00:21:22) So we spent three years in Yemen and that was under the UN. But again, it was not planned and after we loved Yemen and we loved the job there. The only problem we realize is that we had no cure there. I was the only urban planner, architect in the entire country and the people who like me praised my work, but usually I had a lot of support. Everybody with the government and everybody, I was, we were very popular in a way because we... But we had no feedback professionally. We thought that at the end we will become kind of a notability in Yemen, but maybe we were not doing the right thing because we were just alone. Nobody criticize us for what we're doing. So we decided to... at the time though there was a World Bank project in Yemen the last year, the last year we were there.
Alain (00:22:22) And among all the foreigners coming to Yemen after the end of the civil war, the World Bank was only one I was impressed with. I think the other many of these visitors were a bit amateurs and the World Bank seems to have an approach which was leading to projects, didn't get to lending, to specific project, not just something fuzzy and they had money too, of course to finance those projects. So I thought that was interesting. So after we left Yemen, I went to Washington and I had an interview with the World Bank with my background again Chandigarh, India, Algeria, Yemen and New York, it was a good resume. So they offered me a job because at the time they had just started an urban department, up to that date.
Alain (00:23:24) That was in '74 they had mostly financed big infrastructure like highways, railways, ports, and McNamara decided that cities were important and that a bank should have a special department just for cities. So I was very lucky again here, very lucky to arrive at this moment. So they offered me a job, but at the same time I had an interview with a small consulting firm who happened to have a job doing the master plan of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And again talking with Marie-Agnes she was very enthusiastic about going to Haiti because compared to Yemen, this will be a complete cultural difference, that nothing in common with the two countries certainly.
Alain (00:24:13) And so we decided to accept the job in Haiti. So I called the World Bank and say, "I'm sorry, I'm not taking the job. I'm going to Haiti instead," and they were absolutely furious. They could not understand how you could refuse it, a job at the World Bank for doing the master plan of Port-au- Prince. So I told them, "Well after two years in Haiti I will have more experience in the field a very different country, a different culture. I will be more useful to the World Bank if you are still interested," and the guy on the phone bang the phone and say "After two years in Haiti you will be useless," and then he hang up the phone.
Devon (00:24:51) So you both have spent a lot of time in a lot of new cities and done some really good work in shaping master plans and various rules and regulations. What's your process for understanding a new city? So let's say I drop you in Dar es-Salaam Tanzania, which I understand is a place you've never been before and I just give you six days to get to know the city and ask you to give me recommendations to improve the way it's run.
Marie-Agnes (00:25:16) First thing, when I know where I'm going especially now with the technology, the Google has satellite imagery. I go on the internet and I adjust it before and I just check Dar es-Salaam Tanzania and I get the city of Dar es-Salaam and then navigate in the city and I can realize already a number of things will be very interesting to investigate when before going and I use satellite imagery Googlers in many, many of the new project we are having now and we do that on my computer and I use-
Marie-Agnes (00:26:03) And we do that on my computer, and I use a satellite imagery and all the tools that go with Google Pro, Google Earth Pro, and started to measure and look at the different type of construction, different type of development, where the cities is located. Dar es Salaam is a port, and is in Tanzania, and I check the facility along the port, I check the airport, I will check all the different type of land use, industries, residential. And you can check on the... Dar es Salaam, for example, you have formal and informal development. And just by looking at those images you can already see that there is a huge proportion of the population live in slum, not a slum, but informal development. May not be necessarily terrible, but you can see the shape of the plot, the type of houses, and you can also, on the internet, check for the population of the cities, where are the possibility of, what will be the next population in 20 years or 30 years from now?
"In many of the places we have lived, there was no existing map." — Marie-Agnes
Marie-Agnes (00:27:36) The projection, for example, Dar es Salaam now is four million point three and they projected for 2015, 20 million. So the city will grow as much in less than 50 years in 40 years, and you need to have more development. And I can already check in the satellite imagery where the development will happen. And you can see already on the edge of the city a number of new developments starting land where have been clear. And so you can already before going, do your own work and do an evaluation of what is the city now and what you expect when you arrive there? So in six days I can already before leaving, register a number of sites where I can go when I should go to take some more information concerning the condition of the houses, the condition of the people live in this place. Have they access to water? Have they access to school? Have they access to other facilities? So it's a huge... We are in this, years now, compare it to what, my first study in Karachi was done about the same way as I just described now, is because of the access, before you go, having access to information that it cost nothing compared to the \$10,000 the World Bank pay for the satellite imagery. Here you have any place on Earth in Google Earth Pro. All the information you can get before you step in a place.
Speaker 2 (00:29:41) Yeah. That bird's eye view is so important. I've recently started using this app called Zenly, which it's sort of like Find My Friends, but sort of in the Snapchat age if you want to think of it in those terms. And what it does is it tracks your location around the city and you can see how much of the city you've actually explored. And it's been very surprising for me. I live in San Francisco and I thought I knew this city really well, but according to Zenly, I have only seen 13% of the city because what I do is I go to all the same neighborhoods. My friends tend to live in certain neighborhoods, not in other neighborhoods, and so I've started trying to, now that I have that perspective on the map, I've been trying to explore other parts of the city that I don't go to as much. And so I love your approach here of the bird's eye view of the satellite imagery so that you get more of a holistic sense of what the city looks like as opposed to just getting to know the places that you happen to be on that visit, or the places with restaurants that looked nice to go to or where your hotel or home, where you're staying is.
Speaker 3 (00:30:49) Yeah.
Marie-Agnes (00:30:49) Exactly. And the very good thing I do also like you do when we have to visit a friend and we don't know the place. Okay. You go to Google Map, but also you have with Google Map the satellite data. And if you zoom in the place at the location you're going, you know before in advance where the people live is a house, is an apartment, is it next to a subway? If you don't drive, what are the means of transportation you can get, you can have, to go to this place? So, so much information now is available compared to when we started say, how many years now? 15 years ago where we were working on cities and before you were related only of books or maps, existing map, but many of the place we have been, you know in a developing world, there were no map, no existing map, and I remember when we arrive in Sanaa, Yemen, Alain has no map and maybe he can tell you the story but he took his Land Rover and goes to the next mountain next to Sanaa.
Marie-Agnes (00:32:14) There's a huge mountain and he go up to there and took out his camera and took photo of the city. But we have located now all the planners and when we teach at NYU now, and people start to look at the data we have gathered and I said, "Look, you are lucky you are living in a data driving society and you should use the data." In the US, you have access to all the data compared to when we are in India or someplace, and we can derive a lot of information with a satellite, with existing data, managing information as I do with the satellite imagery and map. We match information for population, land value, location of school, network for public transport, access to the public transport according to the network of transport.
Marie-Agnes (00:33:28) And so you can match population who can have access to a metro station. For example, calculate around the metro station, say a kilometer around this metro station, how many population can be having access to the station in less than 10 minutes walk? Before to do a study like we are doing now with the computer, it will take six months. And now with the technology we have on hand, with your graphic information system, satellite imagery, existing map, merging data, it can done in one month.
Speaker 2 (00:34:12) I imagine this doesn't just change the quantity but also the quality of the work that you do.
Marie-Agnes (00:34:18) Absolutely. Before we were, like in Karachi at first, in order to have access to those aerial photo, I have to prove that I was having already this formation in hand. I came with a big print of the satellite imagery that I carry with me and when they see what I was having as already information, they let me dig in their door.
Marie-Agnes (00:34:50) If not, I will have asked three or four officers and then be accompanied to security guard just to open the door of the aerial photo of the city.
Speaker 2 (00:35:06) Why were they so protective of that data?
Marie-Agnes (00:35:08) At that time and still now, they have a potential of war between India and Pakistan. And they thought if we have access to those aerial photo, someone, a spy like me, they thought maybe I may be a spy that can take picture or copy of the photo and target and if the coordinate of these place and if someone targeted this place with bombs or anything.
Speaker 2 (00:35:38) I see. So given aerial photography or looking at Google Maps and once you've sort of done your homework before going into a place, how do you decide which sites you want to go to and how do you get around the city?
Marie-Agnes (00:35:50) In the Google Earth now, I will check the coordinate of different type of development, land use development, housing development, and infrastructure, location of schools, and all these services. And after that, I will maybe survey, go to the site and survey maybe 20 place in less than six days. You can do that, no problem. You just order a taxi or an interpreter if you don't speak the language. That was the case in Karachi, few people speak English. So with an interpreter, a driver, and myself, we visit in less than three days, 20 site. Took measurement, question the situation of the people for what to supply, problem, et cetera.
Speaker 2 (00:36:52) So Alain?
Alain (00:36:53) Yes.
Speaker 2 (00:36:54) What's your process for understanding a new city? Say I drop you in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and give you six days to get to know the city, and then I ask you to give me recommendations for how to improve the way it's run. Where would you start?
Alain (00:37:07) Well, do you drop me within an institution or do you drop me just like a tourist, like saying, so that's quite different actually. So you see if you arrive but you have already contacted an institution, usually you have a contract with a municipality or something, with your company or... So, the first thing is a contact with this institution. But on the other hand, you could work in a situation where you don't know anybody and you are just asked by some other institution, maybe international, give me a quick assessment of what the city is like. You know, what is its potential or something. So, that's two different things. You know the approach will be a little different in either situation.
Alain (00:38:02) So, if I am dropped there and say well, let's say you are an international institution and say what is Dar es Salaam like? And of course, normally you would have read something about it, but if you are not, the first thing is to go look of course now at the satellite imagery, as Marie-Agnes has said. But for me, really, a lot of it is just to walk through the streets. On the satellite, you will select some neighborhoods you absolutely want to visit. And if you can have a local contact, it could be a taxi driver, it could be somebody you meet in the street, or in a cafe, start asking question. But the most important thing is to just look. Look what happened. And if you are experienced in looking at cities, there are certain things in every city which will surprise you. You know why do you have a barbershop at this corner? And this is unusual. Why would you have no department store in this city? There are cities, for instance, which have no Central Business District (CBD). So you ask this question and you try to understand why it is like that.
Alain (00:39:29) Also, what is important is to observe, there's a wide area of incomes within a city and you should have a complete sample of what Marie-Agnes has called the topology, the type of housing where these different people of different income live. Many people will visit the city, usually stay in the most comfortable area. You have to go everywhere. And so again, before the satellite imagery, when you have just a plan or a tourist plan, you had to discover those neighborhoods a bit randomly by walking around. I had a methodology before, was to start from the center and then walk, say east, or west, or south, for two or three hours until I reached the outskirt of the city. To have a complete cross-section of the city, at least in several axes, in order to see how it is.
Alain (00:40:39) And then you stumble there on, obviously, maybe randomly, but on very low income neighborhood, middle income, high income, and you observe how much land they consume, how tall are the building? If they are well-built, if they are not well-built and things like that. When you are experienced enough by having seen many cities, you could even, by looking at the neighborhood, roughly assess to the density, the number of people per hectare and usually you are not wrong, maybe you are wrong by 10% but not much more.
Speaker 2 (00:41:19) As you walk around, do you have a particular rubric or particular categories that you are trying to keep an eye on and sort of fill out a list? Or is it just whatever catches your eye, you'll note it down and then think about it later?
Alain (00:41:31) Yes, whatever catch my eye. But say, the way people use land, if you have a lot of commerce in the street. On the country, there are cities which are completely shuttered in, you see very few shops, or the shops are all concentrated in one street and the rest are entirely residential, for instance. So those things are very important to observe because they usually, sometimes people are obliged to do something in a certain way because, for regulation or poverty, but most of the time it's a choice they are making. They are making a trade off. And you have to understand this trade off and you have to be completely, in a way, do not judge it by the standard of your own culture. If you judge by comparing cities to another as one being... Say, if you live in New York and say, well New York is really a wonderful city and you go to Dar es Salaam, you will always say, well, there's no grid, the buildings are too low or things like that.
Alain (00:42:49) So you have to completely abstract to judge it, to say, well this is the way people do things. Now, there are certain things that you realize are, for instance, if you see an open sewer in the middle of the street, you know that this is not because people like it that way. It's because they are too poor to pay for a sewer. Or maybe because the municipality is so incompetent that they are completely unable to put a sewer there. So you don't take that as it's a cultural thing that they enjoy the sewer, but there are certain things that are cultural and you have to respect that, and not infer your own culture on it.
Speaker 2 (00:43:31) What do most people who develop cities, including urban planners, urban economists, mayors, other local representatives, what do they not pay enough attention to? And what do you think that they pay too much attention to?
Alain (00:43:43) They don't pay enough attention to mobility first. You know the way people move around the city. Many planners, or even mayors, consider that mobility is a bad thing. That if you could work and live in the same place, it will be wonderful, which is not mobility. Mobility means that you can move around the city and maybe work at civil jobs or something that and change up. So they consider that, very often, mobility is the enemy, where in fact mobility is a friend of the city. And the other thing is affordability. It's important that there's enough supply of land so that everybody, whatever his income, can afford a house. And it's a necessity in a city. I mean it's a reality that you have a wide array of income within the city.
Alain (00:44:48) In my book I describe civil income distribution curve. You should not divide the population into low income, middle income, and high income. You should have a complete income distribution curve. Some planners have a tendency when they work in developing country to feel also that poverty is a necessity, not a necessity, but it's fate, and that the city should be designed entirely for the poor. Implying that development, economic development, is not important, that you have just to get it to the poor. Others have just the opposite saying, "Well everybody should be rich and even people who are too poor maybe should not live in a city." So you see you have those two extremes. For politician, they are very reluctant usually to admit that a lot of people in their city are poor and that it will take time for them to become non poor, to reach a middle class.
Alain (00:45:56) And so they tend to hide it, or to even wish that those people will go away by making life difficult for them. So, that's even the worst thing they can do. Because for me, the job of a city, especially a city in a country which is developing, which is urbanizing, it's a machine for taking people with low skill from rural area, where they have skill in a rural area, but their skills are usually not very useful in the city. So take those people with low skills, and within maybe half a generation, if you are successful, or one generation, transform them to citizens who have an urban job, who are very productive in the city. And the faster you integrate those people in the city life, the more successful is a city. And the success of the city should be measured by that, how fast you integrate this.
Alain (00:46:56) For instance a city like Hong Kong, or even Singapore, but Singapore is a very special story. But Hong Kong, I knew on Hong Kong, I visited Hong Kong in what 1977? I think '76. The first time and they were still have slums in Hong Kong, really bad slums. And the city managed, because they were a lot of refugees coming from China, people were escaping from Mao China, and arriving in Hong Kong with just a shirt on their back. And the city of Hong Kong was able, within half a generation, to integrate these people in city life, in an urban life. And that's again for me, that's the success of the city. That's integration here.
Alain (00:47:45) Now, these are cities which are growing. In this century now, we are going to see a lot of cities which are not growing, or even shrinking. The cities of Europe are going to shrink, unless they take care of immigrant. And it's possible that if you stop the flow of immigration in the US, you will have also shrinking cities. So, that's a very different problem. But you will still have a lot of cities growing extremely fast like in Africa and Asia, so you will have this duality where in all my career, I was always dealing with cities which were growing fast, either growing fast because you had migration from the countryside, like India or China or Indonesia, or because incomes were going up. And so the city, that was the case in Paris for instance the '50s '60s, income was going up very fast, household size were going down. So that means that the city has also to develop and change very fast to accommodate those changes. So but now we will see cities which are, I have visited such cities in Japan. Cities which are very affluent too, which are very nicely designed, very nicely managed. But their main problem is losing population. And this is something, it's a bit like, in monitoring a field, you know to deal with inflation. Nobody knows how to deal with deflation. And it will be a bit the same thing for a city. I could see the struggle of those mayor who have shrinking cities, very competent mayors, very competent with disparity, running the system extremely well. And I had no idea to solve these problems. You know, once, when I was in Russia, that was about 10 years ago, and I was doing a study on, they asked me to do a study on the new master plan of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And then they asked me, "Could you help us? We are going to close 60 cities in Russia and could you help us to do that?" And I told them, "I have no idea what to do."
Alain (00:50:13) I mean it's an interesting problem. We are ready to look at it, but I have no experience at all. My experience is just opposite, closing cities, I don't know. And they had to close cities because of demography, and cities which were badly located at the time of communism. So they were a city of 200,000 people. We had to just close them and bring people back to two cities which had the economic potential. So I don't think we will close cities in Western Europe, but I think that they will be very, very serious demographic problem unless we consider that immigration is not just being nice with people, or something like that. But immigration is in fact an economic necessity.
Speaker 2 (00:51:06) In cases like Europe and Japan where cities are depopulating but not necessarily going so far as closing, what happens to the city when it loses population? Why is that bad?
Alain (00:51:18) Well, first, when it loses population, it means usually that it's aging. You know that you have a lot of old... The active population become a smaller part of the total population. Those cities usually are affluent, and therefore they have a welfare system. There is a lot of transfer between active people to inactive people. And when the inactive people become more numerous and the active people, it's a burden. It's a tax burden on the active one, which is unbearable. That's why they moved to larger, usually larger cities where they... That's a case of Tokyo first. Tokyo is still growing, it-
Alain (00:52:03) That's the case of Tokyo, first. Tokyo is still growing at 1% or 2% a year, but it's growing not because of natural demography, it's growing because it's taking the young people from smaller city which are losing population.
Alain (00:52:17) The problem with that, for instance, in Toyama, one of the city where we spent quite some time, we spent about a week there, two, three years ago, the problem was that there were entire area where the houses were abandoned. If you have a shrinking population, you have houses, and there's nobody to buy those houses, so they stay empty. So you have, in a way, the same problem that they had in Detroit at the same time, when they lost population, too. That those houses are deteriorating. You have to bulldoze them.
Alain (00:52:57) The municipality in Toyama was trying to consolidate whatever people were left in those neighborhoods, to try to move them back to the center of the city, because it's very difficult to run services in a neighborhood where half of the houses are empty. Your sewer system and all that doesn't work very well anymore. Your schools, you still need some schools, but the schools have only two or three students per class, so you have to consolidate them. It's a very, very big problem.
Devon (00:53:31) If I'm understanding correctly, you're saying that leaving the houses abandoned is not just a problem of now the houses deteriorate, but also the services don't scale as well across the rest of the community, and so it becomes more expensive for everybody. Is this part of the reason why, in Detroit, people's water ended up being turned off, because it was just too expensive for the city to serve their half-empty neighborhood?
Alain (00:53:56) Yes. I think that's one of the reasons. One of the absurd reasons, too, in Detroit that I found, I don't know if it's still true now. I learn it about last year, is that the city, when a building was abandoned, the city will still charge whoever was legally owning this building the property tax. So anybody who wanted to redevelop this building, it was usually not in good condition, would have to pay all the arrear of property tax. And that made it uneconomical to develop it in a way.
Alain (00:54:40) So I think that, in a way, one of the problems in Detroit I think was really the attitude of the municipality. The municipality should consider property tax as a ... it's a tax on productivity. If the lot has no production, it's not productivity. Well, you have no reason to tax it. I'm a big fan of property tax, by the way. It's not that I think that it should not be. But I think that the city should realize the impact it has when ... a lot of people will be attracted to go to a city where land and housing is extremely cheap. You could buy a house in Detroit, I suppose, at some neighborhoods for probably $ 50, $100. So it's a good bargain. But if you have to pay \$50,000 of arrears in property tax, it's not a good bargain, because you're ... so then you end up continuing the problem.
Alain (00:55:45) Well, that's Detroit problem. But say, Toyama, the city we visited in Japan was losing population. Didn't have this problem. But their problem was, in a way, when they move people from a suburb to the center, the value of the house in the suburb is zero, even if it's in good condition, because there's no taker. So you see, you have a loss of the value of capital assets. When you have a shrinking city, this is the problem you have. Where, normally, a city is thriving because of the value of capital assets, if your capital assets are shrinking, and shrinking not only by losing value but shrinking in terms of size, the size of the city, then it's a huge problem.
Alain (00:56:42) Again, the older utilities, all the infrastructure of the city, which is the major capital expenditure of a city, sewer system, transport, schools, hospital, are based on these certain densities. If this density go much lower than the current, you have a big restructuring problem, and if you have still, let's say, 300 inhabitant in a neighborhood, and you close the school, and you don't maintain the water very well or you cut it, then it become uninhabitable, and those people are not happy, obviously. You have to take care of them. They are just like if they were homeless, although they are in fact middle class people who had a very nice house. But you have to take care of them like if they were homeless.
Devon (00:57:30) In these cities, as they're growing, when Detroit was in its boom town, as Japan's population was growing, they made certain assumptions around how many people would be in a particular place, how much investment to make in the infrastructure. And now you still have to maintain the infrastructure, but the assumptions are now wrong. And so you're in this position where the value added for the cost is not as high, but people are depending on that infrastructure for their life.
Alain (00:57:56) And in a way, if you ... I don't know if you have followed the gilets jaunes, yellow vest riots in France last year, but one of their, let's say, one of their complaints was that in smaller town, or some rural area, the population was shrinking, and therefore the government was canceling a lot of service. Post office will close, school will close, small dispensary hospital will close. If you ... maternity, for instance, before, a woman was delivering a baby will be within 20 minutes, let's say, maximum from an hospital with a maternity, and suddenly became an hour and a half.
Alain (00:58:45) This was, again, because of a shrinking population in a rural area, in small towns. You have to say, "We are going to tax more the people who are more productive in the cities, in order to maintain people in non-productive area, where they cannot be very productive." But we have to maintain a maternity in an area where they will deliver maybe 15 babies a year, which is not financially feasible. Or it's a big luxury, if you do that. So the taxes for the other are increasing, and to maintain people who are in the location which are not very productive.
Alain (00:59:34) Again, I'm thinking aloud here, because I think nobody has tackled this problem really. Probably the Japanese now are starting to look at it that way, and the Korean are next now. And the Chinese are going to be next, in the next 20 years, probably they will have the same problem of Japan's.
Devon (00:59:56) I have sympathy for both sides of this equation, because on one hand, you don't want to cut off maternity service to a family that has built their life around being in a particular place. On the other hand, you want to be able to help as many people in a society as possible, and if you're expending a lot of resources to help one particular household, when potentially you could support 10 at that same price point, it makes sense to try to encourage people to move to the cities.
Devon (01:00:23) Have you seen any efforts by various cities or societies that try to encourage people to move to the cities with some sort of incentive? Or not necessarily to cities, but to places where the infrastructure costs are more reasonable?
Alain (01:00:39) The only place I've seen is Japan. Yeah. The Japanese are doing that. Yes, yes. But to do that, they still need subsidy from the central government. Again, you have this question of, do you maintain services in area which ... the resources of a country are limited. If you maintain those services in those empty area, or nearly empty area, you have to decrease the services in the one which are productive. There's no ... or you increase the taxes enormously. But it means a very large amount of increase in taxes.
Alain (01:01:20) And there are some services when you cannot increase productivity. For instance, I think all the medical service, where you can computerize all lot of things, but it's very labor intensive. A teacher, for instance, you cannot, so far, unless we manage to teach children entirely with computers, but normally, a teacher productivity cannot be increased. But that's not true of some services.
Devon (01:01:53) Yeah. And it'll be interesting to see how different countries and different cities approach these problems. Because in the United States, we have some similar challenges, though not just with depopulation, but also we've spent generations paving roads, building highways, far into the wilderness, that costs a lot of money, to create that much roadway over such a large country, instead of investing in core cities. That's sort of, in my opinion, a bit of a self-imposed problem. But then also, to compound that with the fact that those towns that we've built roads out to maybe depopulating even faster now.
Alain (01:02:32) Right, yeah. But, you see, in the US, you have also the way your political structure is organized, around state, and the density of the state is not taken into account. It's only ... so that will compound the thing, in a way. You have two senators per state, so every state wants the same amount of roads. But that's beyond my ... I must say this is a political organization which is completely beyond my competence, but ...
Devon (01:03:07) And the structure of the politics, and the way that institutions are formed really affects the way that these decisions can be made. I imagine in Japan, because so much is centered around Tokyo, and it's such a central part of all of Japanese society, whereas the US is a much more distributed country, and states have a lot more decision-making power.
Alain (01:03:28) Although Japan has still a number of cities like Osaka who are still very dynamic, but there are only three or four left, yes. Right. Yeah. With trust-
Devon (01:03:39) Right. And many more decisions are made at the national level. I know the zoning laws are basically determined at the national level.
Alain (01:03:47) More stunning, though, by the way ... it's very specific to the US to have this extreme decentralization of zoning law. The, let's say, many country, the mayor takes decision whether an area is residential or industrial, that that's done at a local level. But usually the definition of what is residential, that forces what will be the density, what will be the standards, is usually national or regional. And here in the US, any city can decide, or to calculate floor ratio, any town can decide or to calculate floor ratio, or to calculate the height of a building. If you have maximum heights. In my town, in Glen Rock, the way you calculate the height of a building is different from the next town of Ridgewood, which is just across, you know ... so this extreme decentralization is specific to the US, by the way.
Devon (01:04:47) Yeah. I could list an endless list of disadvantages of that approach. But I'm curious, what do you see as the advantages? What are the plus sides?
Alain (01:04:56) Well, the plus side is, of course, the feeling that the citizen are in charge. But I think that if you have very small boundaries ... there is some literature on that. Some economists say, "Well, all those small town, say 8,000 people, 5,000 people, are just like clubs. So they decide how much tax they want to use, and they decide their infrastructure or their standards according ... the same way as you have club, you have rich man club and you have poor man's club." So if we want to adjust to what ...
Alain (01:05:33) I am not very convinced by that, because, at the end, especially if those cities, these towns, are part of a larger metropolitan area, they tend to be very ... I won't use the word egoistic, but say, in a way, they don't want any large hospital, for instance. They don't want certainly anything to process waste. And because they know they can use it at a metropolitan level, somebody else will have it. They don't want people slightly lower income than they have, so they will adjust their zoning so that nobody with a lower income than them could come, by imposing, again, minimum floor size or things like that, or a floor ratio.
Alain (01:06:26) I'm not sure it's a such a good thing. You know? What is optimum size? I don't know. I think that many decision on land use should be taken at the metropolitan size. Even with a referendum and something ... in a way, the way the Swiss are doing, where a lot of decision in Switzerland are taken at the cantonal level, canton is ... sometime it correspond to a city, but very often it's a group of villages, really. And you vote for everything. But it's relatively large, compared to a town in the US.
Devon (01:07:14) Yeah. Something I find quite frustrating in my own metropolitan region of San Francisco, the Bay Area, is that there's a lot of people who I think think of themselves as standing up for minority rights, for poor people's rights, and things like that, and being very progressive, but actually, they're ... and they certainly are, they generally vote that way on the issues that they realize affect those people. But I think they then will push for things like minimum floor size, or not allowing an apartment to be built in their neighborhood, not having access to ... yeah. Pushing out waste facilities to poorer towns nearby, without really thinking about it in those terms.
Devon (01:07:57) Instead, they think, "Oh, well, of course I don't want my child to have to walk past a sewage facility." No one wants to make their child do that. But by having more political power and time, and pushing those things out, and saying, "We don't want these problems within our neighborhood," it then ends up impacting people, I would argue, actually more than some of the other issues that people may push for.
Devon (01:08:22) Something I've been trying to figure out how to do is how to ... one of the things I'm excited about for this podcast is how you and Marie-Agnes have this great view of human flourishing in general, beyond just the most obvious hot button issues, but also how the shape of the city ends up really impacting people's lives.
Alain (01:08:43) Right. Yes, yes, yes. Certainly, yeah. Those trade off, and in a way, some decision I think will be better taken, I think, at the metropolitan level, just using, in a way, a non-political view, but just a technocratic view. But other decisions are better at the political level. I still, I think, as a planner, we have to recognize that, at the end, it's an elected mayor, who established the priorities. There is no scientific way of establishing priorities. These are political decisions.
Alain (01:09:26) Now, as a technician, you can also of course try to influence a mayor, saying, "Well, you have a really bad housing problem, and we had better deal with it before it become really even more acute," and you can document it and probably convincing. I am a strong believer in convincing people, by the way. I think people have reason, they use reason. They use passion, but they use also reason. And I think that sometimes we neglect a bit this aspect, that if you have a well well-informed argument and you are not pompous about it or pedantic about it, you can convince people what is the right thing to do. And it's easier to convince a metropolitan population to do the right thing than to convince a neighborhood.
Devon (01:10:19) As you've lived in all these different cities and worked in all these different cities, it seems like you've built really strong relationships with many of the locals, both just normal residents, but also people within the government, and with NGOs, and the UN. How did it feel to work with other people in each of these places, and how did the work culture differ?
Marie-Agnes (01:10:41) We, in Yemen, for example, I was the only woman working in the office, and because of being a woman in a country where men and women are separately, I was having some advantage here, because I was a foreign woman. I could go in the two society, the women and the men. And women have different way to see life than men. The men are entertaining themself, and the women stays in between themself.
Marie-Agnes (01:11:17) There are two way to entertaining, to be entertained, but they love to receive. And I was all the time when we were invited to a party or to a gathering, the women have nothing to do with the life outside the house. So I was, when we go inside a house, I will all the time let the men go first, and the men normally goes up to the top floor, where they receive the guests, and the women are living in the first floor, second floor, third floor. So I will be working behind the men, and turning my head, and the women will grab me by the hand and drag me to their kitchen or to their room, and then with my poor Arabic, I was still able to converse with the women, and see the situation they were living in.
Marie-Agnes (01:12:18) For example, in a kitchen, the women are cooking with charcoal and wood, and there were no evacuation for the smoke. So most of the women, after cooking in front of the fire, get conjunctivitis, red eyes, and there was a little problem there. And so we realize that it was an obligation for the future house to have a kind of evacuation for the smoke. And we build in our house, we build a little fireplace with evacuation, and a fireplace with an evacuation, and people will come to visit our house. And they will see that we have a made an improvement in a way we should have the kitchen be having a smoke evacuation for the fumes.
Marie-Agnes (01:13:22) But this is in Yemen. In other place, women participate. I works in Indonesia and the women are having, in Indonesia, a lot to say and they are participating in the work, in the office, and be, again, a woman, it was the same thing as in Yemen. I could talk to the women more about women problem than men can talk, especially in Muslim country, like in Indonesia. They are not all Muslim, but the majority are.
Marie-Agnes (01:14:04) Also, the work with NGO. There were few NGO in Yemen, when we were there, because the country was not yet in the map for many people, and the only NGO were the few NGO was working with the embassies. So there were people were just there for few days, and doing some data gathering, but they have nothing to do with what we were doing, most of the NGO. But in Indonesia the NGO are very active, and when you visit a site in a slum ... not a slum, they call a compound, it's a village who have been integrated to a city, who receive ... where the government give some very infrastructure, like the water, the sewage, garbage collection. And they also monitor the school.
Marie-Agnes (01:15:06) So the compound in Indonesia are very organized, and many work are done by the women there. So we connect with those women, and we get to to work with them, for doing some surveys in the place, or something like this. We have, Alain and I, some kind of loners, some people think, because we are a team, and we work together, and the people let us work together because they know we are very efficient, and we connect with the other group of people. If it's the World Bank, we connect for the other information we need, and we have good relation with all the people in the field, with the local people we have to work with, or with the people that works with the World Bank, or professional who are working with us.
Marie-Agnes (01:16:10) The professional in Yemen, they give me so much lead. One time, I wanted to get Yemeni promote the artisanal production. They were doing a number of beautiful thing, like pots, and embroideries, and they were starting to have some tourists coming to Yemen. And I discussed with the people in the ministry of tourism, and I propose to make a little shop where the tourists can buy things that are interesting for tourism. The little pottery or little fabrics and dresses that the Yemeni do embroider, and they give me free lead, and give me cash money, to do all the things I was supposed to do, without any discussion about how I'll operate or anything.
Marie-Agnes (01:17:28) The Yemeni were very keen on having people doing the work they thought they couldn't immediately figure out. So I did that in less than two months. I built a little art shop next to the post office in Sana'a, and we gather all the things that tourists are interested, and the shop was successful, but the Yemeni are not good for maintenance, and I was not interested in-
Marie-Agnes (01:18:03) ... and I was not interested in doing all the managing of the place and we couldn't find anybody to take care, so fortunately things fall out. But we are very easy... I mean I connect very easy with any people. I speak some Spanish and some Arabic and we managed to speak some Thai, even though Thai is more difficult.
Marie-Agnes (01:18:36) But we all the time have very easy, I mean we have a lot of friends, so much friends in Yemen that we will blush to pretend that we are not there. We will close all the windows. And there was one home where we have a skylight, with the children at night we will retreat in a room without any window in it and we have light, just a low light and we will not respond to the bell because they were coming at any time.
Marie-Agnes (01:19:15) The Yemeni have no hours and they come early morning, they can come at 10 at night and the Yemeni, they are very hospitable. When you visit someone, they all time serves tea or cake or they quickly gives you something to eat. So I was doing the same, I will offer tea and cookies. And so they will stay for hours and hours and we have the children with us, so we wanted the children to go to bed. So we have to do some kind of trick so people will not come at certain hours.
Devon (01:20:01) You were a newcomer to many of the places that you worked. What were the challenges of doing your work as an outsider to those communities and what were the advantages?
Alain (01:20:12) Let's start with the advantages. The advantages was that because I was a foreigner, they consider me to be more even ended in my opinion. That if I, say for instance you have to develop your sewer, they didn't infer that my brother-in-law was a contractor making sure and that's why I was advocating that. So there was a naivety of being a foreigner, which I think is a big advantage. It seems that you are really an honest worker.
Alain (01:20:44) The disadvantage of course is that you may ignore certain things which are important either in the culture or in politics. And sometime you may say things that you don't realize you are entering a minefield or something like that. So you have to be careful about that. For instance say, you may ask question about there was a project to bring water to the slum, but I see that it has never been done. And why is it? What was the problem?
Alain (01:21:24) And suddenly you see everybody kind of freeze because there was a big corruption problem and the Mayor is involved in it and so they cannot say anything without attacking the Mayor or something like that. So if you are aware of it, if you were aware of the local story, then you will ask the question in different way, you see. But so again, being a foreigner that way, sometime you do naive things or certain things you don't quite understand, even if you try to understand. But again, one of the big advantage is to be an honest worker, to have no... In Yemen, it was a very, very clear things.
Alain (01:22:11) One of my job that I decided was the most important job was in fact to establish, to trace new streets in the suburb of Sana'a. And the farmers who were owning the land there, like me to do it because they knew I had no idea what tribe were there, who was owner of this. I will propose something which made sense from the way to link all this piece of land with a network of transporting in Sana'a. But they knew I had absolutely no dog in the fight and they told me so. They liked it for that, there was kind of a naivety who protected me.
Alain (01:22:58) And where they will have assumed that any Yemeni doing that will have in the back of his mind saying, "Well, this is good for my brother-in-law who wants that," or something like that. In this tribal society, there is always a suspicion of corruption. I mean they will not call it corruption by the way, they will call it... It's a way of defending your tribe which is normal. It's a tribal patriotism I will call it. And in a way if you are not suspected of that, it's a big advantage.
Devon (01:23:36) You had the credibility to come in and they assumed that really when you made a suggestion it was what was globally best for the whole community as opposed to someone trying to claim that credibility.
Alain (01:23:46) Well, one thing which I think they appreciated very much is first, they see if you are working hard, a variable. And even if it's hard, you say, "I'm going to trace those streets." You are there with your transits, you trace them, you are there in the full sun and you don't complain. And they appreciate enormously hard work. And then the other thing is to be interested in the country and their culture.
Alain (01:24:19) If you learn something about the local poets, the local writers, if you have read if it's a country which has writers and things like that, then you read a translation, you know the local writer, they appreciate enormously that you make this effort. And it will give you more credit than if you were a local and of course you knew about it.
Devon (01:24:43) I imagine it's very important to show that you respect their culture and their history, so that, as opposed to coming in and saying, "This is the way things have to be done. This is the way we did it where I'm from." But at the same time, not having all of the baggage and the potential for corruption and you don't have necessarily a horse in the race, you can make more fair judgements as well.
Alain (01:25:08) That's right, yes.
Devon (01:25:09) So you've had a really interesting career. That was really showed through your book and one of the reasons I was so excited to meet both you and Marie-Agnes.
Devon (01:25:19) If you wanted to give advice to a young urbanist who wanted to lead a career like yours, though of course not following perfectly in your footsteps but sort of paving their own path, what three cities would you suggest they live in? Imagine they have a year and they're going to live in each city for four months each. What are the three cities that you would send them to?
Alain (01:25:42) Well, it's a difficult question. Because again we did most of our career in Asia, Eastern Europe, Russia and a little Latin America and a little US. But things are different now. The real dynamism is still in Asia I think. And but it's in Africa. And Africa, I must say I avoided it except South Africa. But I avoided it because I thought again there was not much urban tradition and I felt the few contact I had when I was surprised to go there, that the corruption was so high that it was beyond my ability to solve problem there. And so I avoided Africa.
Alain (01:26:34) But I think now, you cannot avoid Africa, you have to move. I think it has done a lot of progress too. Africa, in the seventies or eighties were still in the decolonization period. And by the way, being also a member of a nation which was a colonial power, was I think in Africa was a liability. I told so to my colleague in the World Bank when sometime because I spoke French, they wanted me to go to Africa. And I said they had French there for 50 or 100 years, they would like to see somebody else. And I think it's a little unfair.
Alain (01:27:24) This is a World Bank, it's international. They have so many already french assistance that they get to another French, whatever, exactly the same idea. Because it's true. The French and their colonies, contrary to the British, wanted really to establish a French Republic there. So everything was imitated; the French administrative structure, department prefet, all the administrative. Where the British, there was somebody on top but then they were more using the local structure for instance to collect taxes. They use for instance in India, they use the local structure.
Alain (01:28:13) Whereas the French will create a little France there. You see it even in the cities. If you go to Vietnam, you go to Hanoi, you see the main Plaza of Hanoi is exactly like a little French town, with the post office, the church and city hall on the street side. And then the opera, a little next thing. So that's why I thought that it was not a good idea for me to go in a former French colony in spite of my beginning in Algeria.
Devon (01:28:49) I see. You felt like the advice that you would give would not be very interesting to the city because they would already know.
Alain (01:28:56) Oh yeah, no. Myself, I think I was... Let's say I had traveled enough not to impose the French model. In a way, in Algeria, in my book I explained why I thought for instance using the French law in Algeria was a big mistake and I tried not to do it. But the perception is very important. As I told you, in Yemen this perception that I was a naive, uninformed foreigner was very good when dealing with land.
But if the perception was that... In Yemen, it would have been an agent of Nasser or maybe the British Intelligence Service, they were a friend of the Brits. It will have really put me in jeopardy. Or let's say not dangerous, but it would have been a lack of confidence. Saying, well he is saying that because of this.
Devon (01:29:54) I see. So who you are really matters for your ability to get the job done effectively. It almost doesn't matter how smart you are in some cases.
Alain (01:30:02) Well you see, there was this example when I start working for the City Planning Commission, so that was in '68, '69, in a way it was a time of the Black Panthers. There were riots. And the city wanted to do something in in Harlem, and they asked me to take charge of the project because my French accent will put me... When I worked with the black community there, my French accent was such that they couldn't locate me. They had already put people in boxes.
"When I worked with the black community in Harlem, my French accent was such that they couldn't locate me... Because I was a foreigner, in a way that was an advantage. Again, the naivete—they knew I had no axe to grind." — Alain
Alain (01:30:40) White people in a white liberals, for instance they were in a box. And then they were the white racists were in another box. And in a way here I was really a foreigner and in a way they liked it. I didn't get the type of crap that my white colleague would get when they were trying to deal with the black community there at the time. Because I was a foreigner in a way was an advantage. Again, the naivete, I had no axe to grind in a way. I think being a foreigner sometime is a big advantage, if you work with empathy, if you are not arrogant if you never talk about your own country as a model.
Alain (01:31:29) Even if you think that your country sometime is doing good things in certain area, I think you should never mention it as your country usually. Maybe use a idea but not... And then they say an implication of arrogance. And that's completely destroy the advice you will give that you are imposing, you think you are superior. Arrogance means that you are not looking at their own problem, you are already projecting what you know from outside and say this is what should be done. And so you lose credibility.
Devon (01:32:07) Yeah, that really mirrors my experience in the work that I do with open source software communities, where I am a software developer and I've contributed to some open source projects, but I don't have deep roots in any particular project.
Alain (01:32:47) That's right. Yeah. Yes, yes, yes. Exactly, very similar problem. Yes, yes. Yeah. Impartiality is very important when you give advice. And the appearance of impartiality, even if you are impartial but you have people suspect that maybe you may not be, then it destroy your credibility. And again, this ability to reason and communicate and convince. You have to convince people and so to convince people you have to have credibility.
Devon (01:33:14) Absolutely. Okay. So if you have to pick three, it sounds like you would pick one in Africa, one in Asia. Which specific ones would you pick and what would be the third?
Alain (01:33:25) I will pick a city like Lagos which mesmerized me. Although I've never been there, but I look at it on Google and it's an amazing place. It's a complete mess in a certain way from the outside, but it's still work. And Lagos, in Nigeria. Lagos. Yeah, yeah. In Nigeria. The problem also is government. For instance, a city like Cairo is fantastically interesting, but I will not... The form of government right now, I don't think you can do anything. I had this theory before that if you are a planner, you can always... Planning a city is such a human thing that even the dictator, you could convince a dictator to do the right thing.
Alain (01:34:24) And our experience in Haiti at the time of Duvalier convinced me that I was wrong on that. There is a cutoff. If a regime is so dictatorial and such a bad dictatorship, you have to avoid working there because you will lose your time. You may learn something by the way, by working in a dictatorship, but you will not be able to do anything useful and you may even compromise yourself. So I will put Egypt in this. In Nigeria, there's a lot of corruption I understand, but it's a big mess. So if it's a big mess, I think it's all right in a certain way, you can work. If it's not true, where you have a dictator really control everything. Like I think it's a case now in Egypt. It was not the case in the time of Mubarek. I think you could still do something in the time of Mubarek. But now it's Sisi, I think.
Alain (01:35:32) The way I see it, I will not advise to work there. But again here, the situation is in a way we were very lucky to be born the years, at two years interval when we were born, because we were a first a generation. We were just before the baby boomer. We were six years before the baby boomers, so our generation was empty. It was in terms of Europe or even in a certain way the United States, but it's in Europe. We were an empty generation. We were few of us because... And then it was a time of decolonization.
Alain (01:36:14) So that's why all these countries were desperate to have some kind of expertise coming. And even if we were relatively inexperienced like when I went to Yemen, you had more responsibility that you would have otherwise. When I was in Yemen... Yeah, I was 30-years-old. A young guy of 30-years-old will never have the job I had in Yemen now. Where Yemen is a special case. But say in another Arab country you will be very junior assistant of somebody.
Alain (01:36:54) And so we were very, very lucky. And we also lucky to be able... We could travel that way because of that, because of this expertise we had in a decolonizing world. So people were ready to employ us without question.
Devon (01:37:15) Right. Those demographic shifts, the demographic trends make a really big difference in what opportunities are available.
Alain (01:37:22) And the political situation. The history of the world is changing, has changed. Colonization was a big, 19th century and just until the mid 20th century was a big thing, and decolonization was... Now this is over, the whole country's been free for a long time. So they have developed their own expertise. And so it's a different situation. So again, I am not so sure in what... As you say, it's not to just duplicate our career, it can never be done.
Alain (01:38:03) But we have to realize that we are in a very specific period. We live in a specific period and things are different. So, but I still think that for anybody interested in cities, living in many different cities is very important. I take again the simile of the doctor. You will not want to see a doctor who has seen only one patient in his whole life.
Alain (01:38:35) And so I think to be able, and to live... You see what is also important I think is to be in a city, not to do a study in a city. I mean you always learn something if you do a study, but to be in an executive position. To be the assistant of the chief planner or to be the planner or something where you have to take decision every day.
Alain (01:39:05) It's very different from saying, "Well, I'm doing a study and I would like to get your data." And you talk with the planners, you talk to them. And you may spend six months there, you may know the city pretty well, have friends there and that's nice. But you have to be in a position where you have to take decision, where you are really part of a local administration.
Alain (01:39:34) And this we had the luck to be in this position. When we were in Thailand, in Bangkok, we were working for the Housing Authority, which was purely Thai operation. We were the only two foreigners there. They were about 4,000 employees. But we were there not doing a study, we had a job there inside that. My job was to select a new land for low cost housing in Bangkok and to inference a policy of the Housing Authority. So this is what's important, other than to come and say, "I'm doing a study, could you give me your data?"
Devon (01:40:17) Yeah. The fastest way to learn is to have some responsibility, to have to actually answer a question and take action because it really sharpens your focus and helps you understand what you're trying to do.
Alain (01:40:29) And you see how decision are taken. You see the constraint.
Devon (01:40:36) Thanks so much for tuning in to our first episode. You can find a link to the transcript and photos in the description. The next episode will focus on the Bertaud's experience as parents and how raising children shaped how they saw the city. Thank you to the hundreds of helpful people on Twitter who offered feedback for this first episode.
Devon (01:40:56) I especially want to thank Michael Kleyn for volunteering his audio engineering expertise and to my friend Wheezy for the kick ass intro music. Special thanks also to Scott Hanselman, Daniel Compton, and Sonal Chokshi who helped me learn the basics of podcasting. If I make any mistakes, it's because I didn't listen to them closely enough.
Devon (01:41:19) And thanks to Market Urbanism for offering to financially sponsor the podcast. It was incredible to see how much unsolicited help we got just from sharing what we were doing on the internet. I'm continually surprised by how learning in public is always even better than I expect. See you next time.
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