OWD #3: Disney World & other underworlds
August 15th, 2020
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Every place has some dirty secrets, even Disney World. We all have to get rid of waste somehow!
So in this episode, the Bertauds and I discuss methods of sanitation and waste management from around the world, and how these hidden systems shape our cities.
It also includes one of my favorite stories I've heard from the Alain and Marie-Agnes — but I won't spoil it for you. Let's just say it includes appendicitis, a dwindling supply of Novocaine, and a Yemeni surgeon who'd never operated on "a Christian" before.
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Devon (00:00:12): Welcome to the third episode of the Order Without Design podcast. I'm Devon, and in this series, I get to talk to Alain and Marie-Agnes Bertaud, the most interesting couple I know. They are experts in urban planning, and they also have the most extensive experience of living in cities all around the world of anyone I've ever met. You can go back to the first episode for a longer introduction to the Bertauds. The topic of our conversation today will be sanitation and public health, and how decisions about this infrastructure shape our cities. Marie-Agnes, Alain, thanks for joining me again. I always look forward to these conversations. Let's get started.
Devon (00:00:49): To me, the smell that characterizes New York City the most is its famous hot sidewalk trash. Disney World, by contrast, has a high tech system of pneumatic tubes that whisk away trash to a central sorting area, so Disney World is a magical land devoid of stinky curbside trash bags and noisy garbage trucks. My question is what stops New York from implementing a system like Disney World?
Alain (00:01:12): I think in Disney World the type of trash which is put in the trash is tightly controlled, not so much by the staff, but by the type of people who go there and what they have to throw out. It's not domestic trash. But by the way, I know two cities which have this system which is operating. One is Barcelona. It's operating only, I think, in one neighborhood, at the East of the Gothic Quarter, and the other city, strangely enough, is in India. It is in Ahmedabad. It is a new business neighborhood where they have implemented that, and I even visited the infrastructure, the detail of the tunnels to see how it works and all that. It is possible. The only thing that I don't have here is how much does it cost per kilo of trash collected, and how often does it break down?
Alain (00:02:03): In Barcelona, the inputs are limited because, obviously, it kind of looks like trash can, but the size is very limited, so you cannot throw, I suppose a sauce pan or a piece of wood or something, such as an old piece of furniture, but that's I think what limit us there. It's an enormous capital cost to start the whole thing. The other thing is I think it would be difficult in New York as I learned recently that there is no map of everything which is underground in the city. I mean, no accurate map. You have a lot of cables and pipes and things like that, which when you dig, you must detect where they are, and it takes a long time. It costs a lot of money. That can explain only partially why the new subway took so long and costed so much.
Devon (00:02:50): Do other cities have maps like that, and is New York sort of special that it doesn't have one?
Alain (00:02:54): Yes. New York is special.
Marie-Agnes (00:02:56): In Australia, they have a very interesting system for the underground system. When we were visiting Sydney in city center, we could see all the cables located in underground tunnel well distinct from one another’s and inserted in tubes. Technicians maintaining the systems have an easy access to their networks making the necessary changes, adding other connections and cables.
Devon (00:03:26): That's really interesting. If I'm hearing right it sounds like the fact that they designed the manholes and the traps so that it was easy to get in and to understand what's going on, it allows for more change in the future and more maintenance?
Alain (00:03:39): Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Yes. Of course, it's extremely well-mapped. This is a very important aspect, the mapping.
Devon (00:03:46): What predicts whether a city will have good mapping and good design to enable maintenance and innovation moving forward compared to something like New York? Why did New York [inaudible 00:03:56] map this way and Sydney end up that way?
Alain (00:03:59): I don't know. I would have thought that probably extreme decentralization of power like you have in the United States do not allow very much standardization of mapping and things like that, but maybe I'm wrong, because Sydney is probably also related to Anglo-Saxon system, so it is not very centralized either. I am not so sure. In France, which is contrary to the United States, a very centralized power. Of course, mapping is a monopoly of the state, and therefore, everything is done according to a National standards... The mayor has very little to do with it. It's done by the central government. They have a mapping agency, and they do all the mapping, including within the city, so they probably oblige the utilities to provide them their drawing to map them. I assume so.
Devon (00:04:48): That's super interesting. One thing that also makes Disneyland and Disney World different from New York or really any of these other cities is that the whole thing is owned by one corporation, and so they're able to internalize all of the externalities, where if you have a more pleasant trash system, if it doesn't smell like trash when you're walking around Disney World, people are going to enjoy their experience there more as well. Do you think that there's anything to learn from that, in the context of cities, or is that something we'll only ever get in a private development?
Alain (00:05:16): No, I think that there is a lot to learn about it. I'm not sure which is a solution, but I think that, as you say, to internalize externalities like that is something very important, and a corporation can do that, because they see it at the bottom line at the end of the year. A city has also a bottom line, but it is less obvious what will be the benefit, let's say, for a New Yorker of not smelling the garbage. Will it have an influence on property values, for instance, or things like that?
Alain (00:05:50): You could study that, but it's not as obvious to measure. For a corporation, of course, they certainly have to do some regulation to find their bottom line at the end of the year is due to smelly trash or something else, but it's still more obvious to them. Probably, there should be some indicators developed in cities which can mimic the bottom line of a private corporation.
Devon (00:06:15): For New York, what do you think is the most likely scenario for... Maybe they're not going to have fancy pneumatic tubes like Disney World, but what would be the best paths forward so the streets stop smelling like trash at 8:00 PM?
Alain (00:06:27): I think there are traditional garbage removal system, which work better than in New York for some reason, and I am not so sure what it is. Again, if we go back to Sydney, the center of Sydney, the density in office building is relatively similar to Manhattan, some part of Manhattan, and you never see the garbage, and you never smell it. The other traditional garbage system with trucks which come and... But they are probably better designed. There is a better system.
Alain (00:06:58): I have seen also city like Seoul, where they have a very strict discipline in putting the garbage in the street and the truck coming. The coincidence between the two is in minutes or maybe 10 minutes maximum, so again, the garbage is collected immediately. It doesn't have time for dogs or even people to look into the garbage and spread it into the street.
Devon (00:07:22): I believe it's Seoul where they have music that plays, right? They play some song, and then it tells people to come out with their trash bags and to put it in the trash. Is that correct?
Alain (00:07:32): I think that's correct. I remember once I was in a small street in Seoul, which appeared to be purely pedestrian, and the street was entirely filled by outdoor restaurant. There was an indoor restaurant, but all of them are on the sidewalk and even on the street they have tables. It was mostly seafood, so the seafood produced a lot of garbage and the very smelly garbage decomposed very quickly, so they have to remove it quickly.
Alain (00:07:59): While I was sitting there with my friend, suddenly, again, there is a sound, and there is a garbage truck coming. But already before that, the owner of the restaurant knew that the truck was coming exactly at what time by the minute, and he starts pulling the table out backward to let the garbage truck pass, so we have to move, but it was so routine that it was very orderly. There was no panic or anything. Then the garbage truck arrived, loaded stuff, and within a minute, we were back sitting at the same table, in the same place, and the truck has gone further away.
Alain (00:08:37): So that requires, of course, an enormous discipline and also organization. It means that the truck have to come really... if they tell the restaurant, "We are coming at 8:35," it mean that your truck have to come at 8:35. If it comes at 8:50, it's becoming a mess.
Marie-Agnes (00:08:53): The collection of garbage in an apartment building is more complex. Each family is supposed to compress their garbage before throwing them in the dump. The garbage collected by apartment building is at some point controlled for their volume and weight and a charge is applied to the tenants. Maybe this is also a good way to have less voluminous garbage and being more careful separating items before disposing them.
Marie-Agnes (00:09:34): We have also, for example, in France, the triage for selecting garbage. If you live in an apartment or any other places, even in a small town where we go for vacation, you have on the corner of every two or three blocks, different types of containers for disposing the garbage. Paper, newspapers, glasses and plastics are to be dumped in different binds and you need to separate the organic garbage such as vegetables from the others refusals. The general collection in a village is done once a week.
Devon (00:10:25): I could imagine having that measurement and sort of more of a direct knowledge of where the trash goes and which bin to put it in probably makes you more careful about how much you do, especially if you're paying by the pound, you're going to be sort of incentivized to generate less trash. I've also seen some... I don't remember the details, but there was some study that showed that people who had a meter that showed how much electricity they were using in their house and just counted how much electricity they used, they ended up using significantly less.
Devon (00:10:53): Now, of course, there's probably some confounders there, where if you're the type of person who has a measuring device in your home, you probably are a little bit more sensitive as well, but just having that measure probably makes a significant impact of your perception on the trash and how much you consume of the electricity.
Alain (00:11:08): I'm sure that's a big factor. Yes.
Devon (00:11:10): I know that one big difference between New York City and Chicago is that Chicago's grid was laid out with some alleyways. Whereas, New York City has, I think, only one alley in the entire city, and so in Chicago, they're able to put their trash in alleyways, as opposed to just sitting on the sidewalk. Is that something that once you've designed the grid, you're basically just never going to be able to make that change and New York City is forever stuck not being able to implement the solution that Chicago has done?
Alain (00:11:37): I think, Yes. Once you have divided the limit between private and public, you can never change it, unless you are a dictator, like Napoleon III at the time of Haussmann or Chinese... Now, the Chinese government is doing that in all cities. Suddenly, they're redesigning the entire part of some cities existing thing, but only the Chinese government can do things like that. I cannot imagine in a democracy that it could ever happen.
Devon (00:12:06): Yeah, there's something deeply sad there, where you get stuck in a local optimum, but you can't really go back and change it, because it will ruin people's lives.
Alain (00:12:14): Yeah, it's like the QWERTY keyboard.
Devon (00:12:16): Right. Exactly. Everyone's now learned how to use this keyboard, so you're not going to go replace it, even if there's something more efficient.
Alain (00:12:23): Yeah. The cost will be very high.
Devon (00:12:26): That actually leads me to a whole category of questions about greenfield projects versus brownfield projects. What I mean by that is greenfield being the projects that maybe you're starting a new city in an empty lot or an empty area, and there's no rules, no one really cares, no one has laid claim to it yet, versus brownfield, which is when cities already exist. Maybe it's San Francisco and you're trying to improve bike lanes or something like that. Of course, you just mentioned Baron Haussmann in Paris, and that's the most extreme, or at least one of the most famous examples of someone coming to an existing city and completely changing how the place worked. How do the circumstances of having an existing community change the problem of trying to implement change and implement improved sanitation and infrastructure?
Alain (00:13:13): Ninety-nine percent of the case when you have a problem like that is in an existing city. New cities starting from scratch are very extremely rare. I'm not talking about suburban expansion, because they always rely on existing infrastructure somewhere. But starting cities from scratch, the way the Saudi are doing now, for instance, one or two, is extremely rare. When you have an existing city, you have to deal with the city and their solution, after all. Most of the city we know, whether it's London, Paris, or Rome.
Alain (00:13:45): Rome is exception. Rome had sewers. The sewer, by the way, which was built by the Romans, the Cloaca Maxima. I think it was built in something like 100 BC, the first branch, is still used today. The Romans, by the way, were exceptional in putting infrastructure in cities, including water supply. You still find in area occupied by Rome in France, the [inaudible 00:14:12] Roman area, a relatively small city at the time of the Roman cities, which were about 10,000 people, and they had a very elaborate aqueduct system to bring clean, fresh water to the city, and they had a sewer system. For some reason, this was abandoned in the dark ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, and it took nearly 1,500 years to put them back the way they were at the time of the Romans.
Devon (00:14:36): These problems are social as much as they are technical. What social solutions did the Romans figure out that we had lost later?
Alain (00:14:44): I don't know why the Romans were so interested in sanitation. Is it that they had some plague in Rome sometime or something like that? I don't know. It seems to be a cultural thing. I remember, for instance, in Morocco, there was a project to build a sewer system without running water. They got water from wells. Every sewer expert say it cannot work, because to have a sewer system, you need a minimum amount of water flowing into it, and if people collected from wells, it would not work.
Alain (00:15:17): It happened that the Moroccans insisted in doing it, and the system worked. It will not work in any other city. It means that the people themselves have such a cleanness, so they, in fact, extracted much more water from the wells, because for their domestic use, they were consuming much more water probably not only for cooking, but certainly for washing, that they made the system work. So, you see, within North Africa, you see a lot of difference in cleanliness of cities, and it's not necessarily related to income. It's related to very old traditions.
Devon (00:15:53): In all of the cities that you've lived over traveled, where did you have to make the biggest adjustments in your standards of sanitation?
Marie-Agnes (00:16:01): In Yemen, because there was no water supply, no sewage, very little electricity, and the roads, most of the roads were not paved, the infrastructure was in fact very limited. For water supply, we did have a well. Some people would dig next to their well a septic tank supposed to collect the dirty water. So, with the proximity of the two wells, the dirty and clean water will mix after all and you have to carefully to use a filter your drinking water. Even so our water been filtered we will take the precaution to boils it to kill any germs and drinks mainly tea. Concerning the toilets, few houses had flushing toilets and the local people had another ways or go in the field or in the street.
Alain (00:17:08): I think that there they had the traditional system, where the Yemeni, especially in Sana'a, live in towers. They build the higher possible building, and they live only in the second or, third higher floor, so their bathrooms were close to the top, and whether it was... Let's go into the detail. , what human produced in the toilet would evacuate through a hole in the wall and drip along the façade. There was no pipes. Only a special shallow grove along the façade. It would drip slowly and most of the time dry-up before reaching the ground. In Sana'a or in Yemen in general, the plateau being fantastically dry, the thing would evaporate before it reaches the ground. The solid things would also dry up and converted into dust and fall in the street, which is probably not very hygienic, but at least you do not have something smelly and gross in the street. I'm sure that this had an impact.
Alain (00:18:03): So, you have a toilet system, which was quite elaborate, but it was based on evaporation, and therefore, on very little consumption of water. They start putting water system when we were there. It as the World Health Organization (WHO) who did it, the WHO that US has canceled its participation in just recently. When they did it, it created a lot of problems, because people start consuming, of course, much class="transcript-timestamp"more water as soon as they have running water in their house.
Alain (00:18:34): The system was not ready to absorb all this water, so it fell on the streets, which is mostly clay. The clay, when it’s dry, is extremely good foundation for building, very solid, but as soon as it is wet, it is a terrible foundation. So, a lot of buildings start cracking, buildings which were several hundred years old, which had very solid, strong foundation start cracking, because under the foundation, the clay was becoming humid because of the lack of sanitation. Unfortunately, WHO did the water supply before the sanitation. Again here, it was a political decision. Their priority is to get water, not to get sewer, but the more water you consume, the more sewer you need, of course.
Devon (00:19:21): Because you need a place to collect it so that it doesn't just soak into the ground.
Alain (00:19:25): Right. Yeah. Either it's absorbed by the ground and then it affects foundation, or then it flows on the ground, and this is what's happening in a lot of slums in the world, where the main streets are, in fact, open sewers.
Devon (00:19:38): I imagine that can't be good for the water quality either, right? Because now you no longer have that evaporative effect, where everything just dries up and it doesn't really get mixed in. Now, the solids that come out of the window or whatever, they land in the water.
Alain (00:19:52): Yeah. The wells we had, that Marie-Agnes mentioned, were 30 meters deep. That's nearly 100 feet deep. You see, it was pretty deep, and it was dug by hand, by the way. You have people... It was a job to be a well digger, so they will dig and practically every six months, we will have to call somebody to dig another meter, because the water table was going down constantly. In the beginning of our stay, most people could not afford a pump and used a rope and a bucket. Suddenly, more people had electric water pumps, which of course, then consumes much more water.
Alain (00:20:25): So eventually, I think, the water table after we left was lower and lower, and eventually, the municipality start digging very deep wells, but according to the geologists, those wells were, in fact, fossil water. It was water, which was below a layer of volcanic basalt, so this water was, in fact, not renewed. It was not part of a water table. It was just there in the same way as oil or something like that is there underground. It was fossil. The day they consume all this fossil water, it will never be renewed, and they will be completely out of water.
Devon (00:21:03): Will they all just be forced to move?
Alain (00:21:05): Yemen, the plateau has a tail of a monsoon, so they have a wet season that lasts about two months, where you have thunderstorm, but it's very sudden. Unless they have a system to recover all the water which falls without too much evaporation, my guess is that they will never have enough water to support the current population. At the time we were there, the entire population of Yemen was evaluated at five million people. Now, I think it's something like 30 million. That makes a lot of difference. At the time, the consumption of water, of let's say an average Yemeni family, was something like 35 liters per capita per day. Now, for people who can afford water supply, it's probably 130-150 liters per capita per day.
Devon (00:21:56): Wow. So it's really accelerating, and they're going to have to figure something out.
Alain (00:22:00): Just to give you an order of magnitude, in California, a household... I'm not talking here about industrial consumption of water, households consume around 400-600 liters per capita per day. In Europe, the average in cities is around 200-225.
Devon (00:22:18): Why is it so much higher in California than in Europe?
Alain (00:22:21): My guess, I don't know, you wash your car a lot and water your lawn. Maybe you take more showers. I don't know. Or you drink more water and less wine. I don't know.
Devon (00:22:31): That might explain it, especially between the French and the Americans. What was the personal impact on your life of having different access to infrastructure for sanitation and water?
Marie-Agnes (00:22:41): You have to be more careful, and we had two young children at that time, everything was very, very controlled. I would check what they will eat, washing their hands very often, making sure that they didn’t eat anything that falls on the dirt since Veronique, our younger child, was still crawling on the floor.
It’s another story when we were in New York. We were living in an apartment, and some tiles felll around the kitchen sink. Yann, our little boy, only one years old, started to eat these things crawling on the floor. Anyway, they were cockroaches, but he thought it was dry raisins, and he was putting these into his mouth, that was not to be too good. Maybe the cockroach in New York are less dangerous!
Alain (00:23:38): There was a funny story like that. At the time, Marie-Agnes was still learning English, and she didn't know the word cockroach in English, so after those tiles fell off and the floor was full of cockroaches, she immediately went to the drug store, but she looked in the dictionary to find which is the English word for cockroach. In French it's cafard, but cafard has two meaning one is somebody who is sanctimonious, pretending to be holy but a hypocrite, and the other is a cockroach, which is called cafard, so she look at the word, and she took the first meaning, which was sanctimonious.
Alain (00:24:12): So, she goes to the drug store, and she says, "I have a lot of sanctimonious in my house. Do you have something against them?" And so, the guy says, "Lady, I don't know what you're talking about." After that she came back. When I came back from work, she says, "We must be the only people with cockroaches in New York, because at the drug store, they have never heard of those animals."
Devon (00:24:36): That's hilarious. I remember when we had dinner a while back, you mentioned that you had appendicitis while you were in Sana'a. Can you tell that story?
Alain (00:24:45): Yes. I was working for the UN, and the UN had a doctor in Yemen who was an Italian, who has been disbarred, or would you say a doctor who cannot exert in Italy. He has been literally kicked out of Italy. We didn't exactly know why, but so he exerted only in Yemen, and he was a very nice guy, very learned man, but obviously, medicine was not his forte. He told us also that he had a disgust for blood.
Alain (00:25:12): Suddenly, I had a lot of pain in the bottom of the stomach, and I went to see him, and he say, "Well, you have certainly appendicitis. You need to probably be operated here, because it could become very serious." So he said, "I know only one surgeon which is worth in Sana'a, and he's a Hungarian. He's working in a military hospital. Why don't you go and see him? So, I went to see this Hungarian, and he received me in his bedroom. He had a bedroom in the hospital, and his office was his bedroom. He looked at me, and he said, "Well, it's better to operate right away," so he told me first, "We don't use general anesthesia here, because we tried and we could never wake up the person, so we don't do it anymore." So he say, "With you, we'll have just Novocaine. I'll give you a shot of Novocaine, but it's not very comfortable"
Alain (00:26:04): So we got to the operation room, which was an ordinary room, and for the Yemeni, it was interesting, because they all told me, "This is the first time we operate a Christian" .The Yemeni divide the world into Muslim and Christians, and they thought that maybe the inside of a Christian was different. By the way, the Chinese also, there werecalled Christians and there were a lot of Chinese in Yemen at the time. Quite a number. There was a large Chinese embassy, and they call them Christians, too, which was probably not the case,as it was the time of Mao.
Alain (00:26:34): They knew also that foreigners were a little keener on hygiene than the Yemeni, so during the entire operation, there was somebody was brooming the room saying, "We want to make sure that everything is clean." Basically, it was not really an operation theater. It was a room with a table, and I laid down on the table, and people were holding me. So the surgeon start with his assistant, and they start operation. He told me, "Okay. Novocaine." So he asked his assistance, "Novocaine," and the assistants tell him, "Well, Novocaine, ma fish! There is none." So the surgeon turned to me and say, "Well, I told you local anesthesia, but we are running out of Novocaine, so if you agree, I will do the operation without anything." And what can you say?
Alain (00:27:17): He asked me, "Are you nervous?" And I say, "Well, no. Go ahead." So they proceeded with the operation. I found it very, very painful, and I was glad when it was over, but the advantage of it was I recovered very quickly without anesthesia. Anesthesia is a shock. I recovered very, very quickly. Four or five days later, I drove my Land Rover and things like that. That was okay.
Devon (00:27:42): Oh, my goodness. Marie-Agnes, what did you think of all of that?
Marie-Agnes (00:27:45): Yeah. When the doctor says, "I will operate," and told me, "We cannot let you in," so I'd say, "Okay. Fine." I went back home, gather bed sheets, towel, soap and some changes for Alain, still hoping that he will not stay too long in the hospital. When I was back he was already in his hospital bed. He just stayed there for few hours and we were back home where our environment was cleaner than this poor military hospital. Alain did recovered after few days.
Devon (00:28:41): What was the risk of infection?
Alain (00:28:43): Probably high, but I was lucky. Maybe being born in Marseilles, I have kind of an immunity against infection. I don't know.
Devon (00:28:51): Wow. What a story.
Alain (00:28:53): When I was born, we were living in the center of the city. We were also filtering water. We had a filter for water. We will not drink the water from the tap. Never. But we were filtering water, because the water was supposed not to be very clean, but my mother was a chemist, insisted that we brush our teeth with unfiltered water. She thought that we would develop an immunity like that by having very small dose of unclean water. I suppose that this probably protected me when I traveled. I'm very, very seldom sick when I travel, and I don't take any precaution. For instance, if I visit the slum and people offer me water, as a matter of principle, I drink it. I don't refuse it. I drink it, because out of courtesy, and I am never sick.
Devon (00:29:39): I went to Bangalore in India about two years ago now, and I walked around the city, as I usually do, and to be honest, I didn't even consider the fact that a lot of people get sick when they go to India, and I just ate all the food off the street. There was this one point where I bought curry in a plastic bag, and I ate it with my hands, and I drank all the water, and I didn't get sick at all. I came back, and I mentioned this to a friend, and he was just like, "What were you thinking? That could've turned out really poorly." Do you think that Americans and Europeans sort of overrate the risks, and that maybe I didn't get so lucky and actually it was fine, or do you think that that was maybe a bad decision and I should've been more careful?
Alain (00:30:17): No, I think that you took the right decision. I think that's American. My experience is that Americans are more sensitive to, let's say, bugs in the water than the Europeans, by the way. I found that in the World Bank where teams were multi national, but still dominated by Europeans and Americans, and the Americans get sick much more often than the Europeans. I think that Americans probably live in a much more antiseptic world than the Europeans do.
Devon (00:30:48): When did Marseilles get clean tap water that you didn't have to filter? When did that change?
Alain (00:30:53): I don't know after I left the city. I don't know. Now, they don't have filters, but... No, maybe not. It must be... Yes. When we moved in a new apartment in '47, we didn't have filters, so it was probably in the central neighborhood where we still had bad water, so it was just after the war when we start having clean water, I suppose.
Devon (00:31:15): What usually precipitates a city upgrading its water system so that you don't need a filter anymore? Is there sort of a defining moment?
Alain (00:31:23): Cholera and plague. In Marseilles, we had an epidemy of cholera in the 19th century, I think, the last one, and it significantly improved things. I've seen it relatively recently in a city called Surat, which is an old city in India in Gujarat, and the city was particularly badly managed, and the bank tried to finance water supply and sewage, but the city was so corrupt and badly managed, we could never get a project going. Suddenly, they had a very bad cholera epidemic. The people then became very, very upset with their own municipality, and within two or three years, suddenly, Surat government became one of the most efficient in Gujarat, and they start having a sewer. Now it's a city which is very well-managed and has a good sewer and water system. So it was a cholera epidemic, which I don't remember now how many died there were, but it was like medieval plague at the time.
Devon (00:32:24): Tragically, it often takes a really serious crisis for something like that to change. One of my favorite books is called "The Ghost Map," and it's about London during the 19th century, when they had a massive cholera epidemic. They had also the disadvantage that they didn't know what cholera was. They thought it was just caused by bad smells, as opposed to something in the water itself, but now that we have better understanding of how cholera works, and I guess, by we I mean science knows this, but do you think that the thing that causes cholera in the world still is people not understanding where it comes from, or is it more the corruption and the inability of municipalities to respond effectively?
Alain (00:33:05): I think it's a capital cost. The obvious thing is water supply and sewer, to separate the two. Most people in many cities still now get water from wells, and obviously, when the density gets high, they are prone to get cholera, so you need certainly an enormous investment, a capital investment. That means you cannot do it incrementally really. You have to do a lot right away to build sewers and to build the water plant also to distribute the water. This is an enormous capital cost.
Alain (00:33:38): If you have a city which do not have access to credit, who cannot issues bonds, this is nearly impossible to get all this capital in a few months or in a few years, so it's really this type of problem. That's why in Yemen, this was financed by WHO, the water system first, and later they did the sewer, but after we left. So the WHO provided the money, and certainly, the Yemeni had to pay some part of it, but probably no more than 10% or 15%. If not, Sana'a would have gone without any sewer system for much more many years without WHO.
Devon (00:34:15): It sounds like the investing in that water supply and also in the sewage was probably the right thing for Sana'a, but they didn't do it in the right order so that they wouldn't create further problems. Would you agree with that, or do you think it would've been better if they had actually just stuck with their more traditional methods?
Alain (00:34:31): No, the more traditional method was incompatible with a higher water consumption. As soon as you have electricity, and by the way, electricity was privately provided in Yemen. Nowadays when electricity come... It was entrepreneur who will have a generator, and they would ask the neighbors, "Do you want to participate?" It will cost that much per kilowatt or something, or you pay a lump sum, and you were connected by this generator.
Alain (00:34:58): As soon as you have that, you have electricity, you can extract water from the ground. You multiply your consumption of water immediately, because you are not limited by the bucket you draw from the ground, especially if the water table is low, like it was in Sana'a, 30 meters. Suddenly, you multiply the consumption of water, and then you need absolutely a sewer system to take care of it.
Alain (00:35:22): Now, it's also this electricity thing increased the difference between poor and rich, because the rich can afford electricity. The poor cannot. So the poor still have a very low water consumption, which probably is not very good either, in terms of personal hygiene, washing clothes, and things like that. Some of my colleagues in Yemen, working for the municipality, were very poor. At that time, I don't think they washed their clothes more than two or three times a year because of the cost of water and soap and things like that. You get a lot of infectious disease because of clothes.
Alain (00:36:00): Some people even think that the improvement of health after the renaissance in Europe was not due to improved sanitation or medicine, but it was due to the emergence of cotton underwear, where people had cotton underwear that they could wash. So that's not eliminated, but decreased very much the amount of parasites which were living in clothes that you never wash.
Devon (00:36:26): I find this also fascinating, because I think when we think of health, you usually think about what kinds of drugs can I take, what kinds of therapies can I have when I have a disease? Certainly, those are incredibly important and have lengthened lives and improved the quality of life, without question, but I think there's this much quieter but possibly more impactful thing, which is public health infrastructure and norms around cleanliness and just knowing... I brush my teeth every night. Most people didn't do that for most of history, I think, and the result is your teeth fall out within a few decades. What sorts of things can a municipality do, besides putting in sewers and sort of the obvious, to push a society towards healthier norms?
Alain (00:37:08): I think that, in a way, I think it's opposite. It's society which evolved and pushed municipality toward healthier norms. I think it has to come from the people. Usually, the elite will try to protect themselves, so their neighbors will be a little better serviced, and then they realize that if they want to manage their health, if half of the city has cholera, and they cannot protect themselves against cholera, even if they have a good sewer system, so they are ready to expend money to expand the sanitation system to their entire city.
Alain (00:37:42): Health is really a collective good. You cannot be healthy in a city where 50% of the people are unhealthy, so it's probably something which is very important. But again, I think it has to come from the people. I don't think that a city itself, just because you have some technocrats who will demonstrate rightfully that a sewer system or a water system will improve the health of the people, that the municipality then will invest the taxpayer money in a sanitation system, unless there's a strong demand already among the people for it.
Devon (00:38:16): A recent example that's quite extreme, of course, is in San Francisco right now, they're responding to COVID by putting homeless people in individual hotel rooms so that they're not interacting with each other and spreading the disease out on the streets. This is something that's been quite controversial, as I understand it, because it's expensive to put people in hotel rooms, but on the other hand is this massive external, where if, let's say we "solve COVID" in the general population, but it's still running rampant in the homeless population, it's only a matter of time before it hops over to the rest of the people as well.
Devon (00:38:51): I don't know about the cost-benefit calculus. Maybe they're putting them in the fanciest hotel in San Francisco. Maybe that's not the right cost-benefit analysis, but I think it points to this problem exactly of, when it comes to health, we're all in it together, and we have to lift everybody else up, because otherwise, you end up getting stuck.
Alain (00:39:11): Right. Yes. Absolutely. This is a very good example of this problem. Health is a public good. You cannot separate it. One illustration of that in this time of COVID-19, Edgar Poe's short story called, if I remember well, "The Masque of the Red Death." It's a story of a bunch of noblemen who try to insulate themselves from the red death. They wall themselves in with a lot of provisions, and they make parties all the time. Suddenly then, the red death appears among them. You cannot protect yourself, even if you are very rich and build walls against bad health.
Alain (00:39:46): This is where the cities intervene. I think the homeless, what you suggest, the example you take here about the homeless in San Francisco is exactly that. People realize that they cannot protect themselves if the homeless remain very vulnerable to the virus.
Devon (00:40:04): At the same time, if it gets bad enough, the super rich will tend to completely opt out of a system. You see this with schools as well, where if a public school system gets bad enough, basically anyone with money will put their children into private school systems, because they just don't want to deal with it. I can't say I blame them. You want to take good care of your children.
Alain (00:40:25): Yeah. It's not the same thing, though. Yes, it's true for of a school system. You can have a two-schools system, but health, you cannot protect yourself. If you have a part of the population which has a contagious disease in a chronic way, you cannot protect yourself, no matter how rich you are. Where, for education, yes, you can have a system of education, which is wonderful, and the other lousy, and in the long run, it will, of course, affect society, because you'll have more criminality and certainly less efficiency, if you have only an elite which is educated and the other which is not.
Alain (00:41:01): But this will be longer run problem. In the short-term, it appears that a very good education for your kid and a lousy education for everybody else is okay, that in the short run it's a benefit, but it's only in the long run that it is not. For health, it's different. I think health, the short run benefit of solving the problem is very clear.
Devon (00:41:22): Right. Because even the richest people it the world can't go enjoy downtown New York City anymore. They're not going to the West Village and watching comedy shows anymore. That's done for everybody.
Alain (00:41:32): Yes. You see, you cannot live only among very rich people. You need people to prepare your food, do things like that, and if they are unhealthy, you are going to be unhealthy yourself, especially... I'll say, there's a difference between infectious disease and chronic disease. If they have a chronic disease, if they have heart condition or a bad liver, it's okay, but if they have an infectious disease, like COVID-19 or cholera or something like that or amoebas, you are going to get it yourself, too.
Marie-Agnes (00:42:02): That was the case with tuberculosis. This sickness was very contagious and we were to isolate the people with tuberculosis, not putting them in a hotel like the homeless, but in sanatorium, a hospital specialized for the care of TB patients.
Devon (00:42:23): How did that turn out? I actually don't know that much about the history of TB.
Alain (00:42:26): In my generation, our generation, I had a lot of friends who had tuberculosis. I had the beginning myself, by the way, but it was cured very quickly. That was the generation who grew up during the war. There was no medicine. There was shortage of food. There was a lot of things. So when you were in high school, if somebody had tuberculosis, the kid would disappear, and they will send him to a sanitarium, usually in the Alps, in the countryside, where they will live among kids who had tuberculosis. They would be completely separated from their parents. It was like a boarding school, and they lived among them.
Alain (00:42:59): When I became a student, then I realized among my friends, there were two or three or four of them who had been in those sanitariums and survived. They were different, by the way, from other kids. They more well-read. They had read more books than we had, because most of the time, they were in a bed with nothing to do in the countryside, so they were reading much more. They were much more intellectual, but you imagine those kids told me that about 50% of their friends will die. On their bed, you see a sheet, and they are gone. So they were very different. I still have kept contact with one of them, actually, that we see from time to time.. This, of course, has completely disappeared from the world, but it existed not so long ago.
Alain (00:43:47): Yeah. Vaccination and penicillin. Penicillin was not used yet completely. So that's something maybe we are very old, so we remember this time, but I was struck by that. By the way, the students who were formerly in the sanitarium, their permanent identity... It was on their identity. When we were at university, we had special restaurant for students who had tuberculosis, and they had this special restaurant with better food, because they have been through that. In a way, they were marked for life. We knew about it. Usually, they didn't hide that they had tuberculosis. Actually, they even... I won't say they bragged about it, but they recognized that it gave them a special personality.
Devon (00:44:29): Wow. That's really interesting to hear about the cultural difference. I mean, when I think about children who are growing up right now... You mentioned that your friends who had tuberculosis were generally much better read. We're going through a terrible thing right now, so I want to preface everything that I'm saying with that, that I don't think it's a good thing that COVID-19 exists. I am very interested to see how the children growing up during this period end up turning out differently, because there's a year or two of their life where they don't go to school in the normal, and they maybe are going to be more self-directed in their learning, and they're socialized differently, because they don't get to go to the movies with their friends. How did you feel like the kids who grew up with tuberculosis ended up behaving differently when they were adults?
Alain (00:45:14): Difficult to generalize. I had about four or five of my friends who had tuberculosis when I was a student. Two of them were close friends, so it's difficult for me to generalize. But it has an enormous impact on their life. But it's different, I think, with what is going to happen now. I think that it will have an impact, but completely different, because here, when they had tuberculosis, they were a small group of people, they lived separately from their parents, and many of their close friends would die. They realized they were different from others.
Alain (00:45:41): Now, here it will be everybody. An entire generation will be different. The only thing, maybe, which will make a big difference between them is income. Again, the kids who have access to the internet and have parents who can maybe guide them there, and kids how have no access to the internet and have parents who cannot guide them, and suddenly they are cut out from socializing or anything, I have no idea what the impact could be, but it could be portent, I'm afraid.
Marie-Agnes (00:46:09): This situation will increase the difference between the children belonging to affluent families and the poor children who are left by themselves when parents can hardly provide what they needs for their education such and a computer and access to high speed internet specially when remote learning may be the norm. We will have a lot of problems following the Covid-19 pandemic. We don't know what will be the consequences, but definitely we will see some big changes in our society.
Devon (00:47:08): Yeah. I can imagine being able to send children to school means that every child gets some minimum of attention and some minimum of educational resources, and perhaps, public schools are not the ideal method for teaching people, but at least it's something. Whereas, this is going to increase variance, where I personally had parents who were very interested in my education and gave me a lot of books growing up, and so I think I would've loved staying at home and reading instead of going to school. I think I would've learned more.
Devon (00:47:36): But on the other hand, there are other children in the school that I went to, who their parents were not very interested in their education, or their parents were very busy and couldn't really give them those resources. Yeah. So I don't think they would've necessarily benefited from this at all.
Alain (00:47:52): Yeah, I agree entirely on that. Yeah. I benefited also from parents who were very educated, very attentive to what we were doing, what we were studying. By the way, comic books were forbidden in my home. I read only comic books when I was going to the barbershop. That was the only place where I could read comic books. I didn't like to have my hair cut, but I would go as often as I could just to read comic books.
Devon (00:48:15): Marie-Agnes, you grew up in Tunisia. What was it like if there was ever a medical emergency in your family or someone was feeling sick? What does your family do in those circumstances?
Marie-Agnes (00:48:26): Yes it was a particular situation. My father was working for the French government as an engineer, doing the logistic servicing the boats in the Navy base. We were having access to a well run hospital for the military personnel and the civilians working for the Navy. I was born as my siblings in this hospital and we had no real problems concerning our health, because we had access to the best care. Contrary to the poor Tunisians who were having access only to dispensaries that provided a very minimum medical care. This really made a big difference.
Marie-Agnes (00:49:16): When we moved from Tunisia to Algeria, here the French government was doing much more for the local population, the Algerians. People were more educated. Many of them will speak perfectly French, where in Tunisia, the Tunisians were speaking mainly Arabic. The Algerians have access to decent schools and hospitals. My mother was a nurse at a dispensary caring for the people in a very poor neighborhood. People appreciate very much my mother services as a nurse. Here too we were having access to the best care possible.
D class="transcript-timestamp"evon (00:49:59): That sounds like a good situation. Yeah.
Marie-Agnes (00:50:01): Yeah.
Devon (00:50:03): To change tack a little bit, I was reading a little bit about the Black Plague earlier today, the Black Death, and how it impacted cities. I'm curious, since you both have a lot of knowledge about history, how did European cities change as a result of the Black Death?
Alain (00:50:18): Well, apparently, according to historians, the Black Death was, in fact, it created the end of feudality, because it created a labor shortage. One of the best books about this period, by the way, is written by an American, the historian Barbara Tuchman. It's called "A Distant Mirror." It's a story of Europe and mostly England and France in the 14th century, so at the time of the plague. It's probably one of the best books about society at the time that I have seen, and probably, if you are interested, I would strongly... Barbara Tuchman, "A Distant Mirror."
Alain (00:50:58): It's based on she has been digging into journals, memories, literature of the time, and it's the most complete description of society reacting to both historical and event, and of course, the plague is one of the big part of it. So yes, it had a very big effect. Because of the time, it's difficult to know for sure what was the effect. I suppose that this idea that it's ended feudality, because suddenly, labor became much more important than anything else, because there was a shortage of labor. It's probably true. I have no idea if this current COVID will have an effect on society like that. I don't know.
Devon (00:51:41): Just the scale of the Black Death is totally mind-boggling. In five years, between 1347 and 1352, the Black Death killed 40% of the population, which I think COVID is not on track to hit 40%, thank God. But it was really interesting, I was reading this paper this morning about how it talked about how in the short term it led to depopulation of cities, but actually, in the longterm, they found that settlements in rural areas that were far away from cities actually ended up seeing much more depopulation, even though they had lower instances of the Black Death.
Devon (00:52:16): They looked into why that was, and the hypothesis is basically that as depopulation occurred throughout the entire continent, people from rural areas saw better opportunities in the cities after the plague ended, so they moved back into the cities when they might not have previously, because the wages were higher. So it actually ended up encouraging mobility and moving people into the cities.
Alain (00:52:38): Yes. I think it's very likely. Don't forget they were serfs, too. At the time of the plague, many farmers were serfs. That means that they could not move from their farm freely. They were not slaves, but they were serfs. They were attached to the land. The way they kept the system in Russia until 1860, I think, where they abolished it, the farmers were attached to the land, so when you bought the land, when a feudal lord bought the land, it came with people, and the land has no value without the people. The labor was very important.
Alain (00:53:14): The plague apparently abolished the system of serfdom. The cities, at least in France, were under the protection of the king against the lord, so a lot of cities in France are still called Villefranche, free city, and because probably many of them were formed at the time of the plague, where serf just evaded the service of the lord and went into cities, where they were protected by the king. Then they will become bourgeois of the city. They will have a job in the city, and their life will not be dependent on some lord.
Alain (00:53:50): But if you look at the Middle East, more than the plague, I think there were two periods where the invasion of Genghis Kahn... That was earlier. That was the 13th century. Genghis Kahn was a nomad, and he has complete contempt for cities, and he destroyed many of the very brilliant civilizations. After that, you had the plague, which also ravaged East Asia and the Middle East, but we don't have so many numbers on it, precisely because Genghis Kahn has destroyed so many things.
Alain (00:54:22): After the plague finished, then you have Tamerlane. Tamerlane was a Turkish Mongol who was also a nomad against cities, and he destroyed Baghdad. He destroyed Aleppo. His goal was not to conquer. He had the contempt for city life. He thought that nomads with herds were the only noble life. So the Middle East and the Far East up to China resisted better, but the country in between China and Europe were completely ravaged by these two warriors.
Alain (00:54:57): What's interesting is that their descendants created dynasties which created cities again. This culture of destroying cities was only the founder of the dynasty. After that, the Timurid, most of India Mughals were, in fact, created by the descendants of Tamerlane, who created a very brilliant urban civilization.
Devon (00:55:17): What you said about the nomads conquering places and trying to impose their way of life, but then ultimately, creating great cities in later generations reminds me of a quote from a book called "Against the Grain," where the quote goes, "You can conquer a kingdom on horseback, but to rule it, you have to dismount."
Alain (00:55:34): Ah. Ah, that's excellent. Yes.
Devon (00:55:37): So they end up turning into city people, too.
Alain (00:55:39): Yes. Yes. Yes. The descendants of Tamerlane who created the dynasty was called the Timurid, and they created the fantastic architecture of Samarkand that is being seen now, so it was inspired by Persian architecture, but they developed their own.
Devon (00:55:54): One public health menace that people know about but I think continually have underrated throughout history is malaria. I'm curious, how has malaria impacted the evolution of cities, and what sorts of solutions have people come up with that try to reduce the impact of malaria?
Alain (00:56:10): Well, less stagnant water. In the south of France, we had malaria up to the end of the 19th century. For instance, at the time where Vincent van Gogh, who waspainting in Arles, there was malaria and all at the time during the 19th century, people going to Rome on the Grand tour were often catching malaria. Malaria was eventually eradicated by drying up marshlands in cities. You still probably had it still in the countryside for some time, but then it disappeared from Europe.
Alain (00:56:46): In the Middle East, you still have it, but it's a much drier... In India, you still have malaria in India, and of course, in Africa, but it's not completely solved yet. In humid countries, it's very difficult to have only dry land.
Marie-Agnes (00:57:03): Yeah, the Gates Foundation have these mosquito nets that they distributed all over in Africa where malaria is current, and just that, sleeping under a mosquito net, makes the malaria almost disappearing and less common in this region of the globe. Now we have drugs, of course, to cure or temporize malaria symptoms.
Alain (00:57:28): Malaria is special as an infection disease, in the sense that the vector is a mosquito, and the mosquito, to propagate malaria, has to bite somebody who has malaria, so if you manage to eradicate malaria once in a population, then that's it, if nobody comes from another area which has malaria. It's a very collective thing.
Alain (00:57:51): I was thinking of the Henry James novel. There is a Henry James novel... I forgot which one... which takes place partly in Rome, and it's a young lady who will catch malaria and die. At the time of Henry James, people thought that it was just a bad air of Rome. They didn't realize it was a mosquito. Around there were a lot of marshlands, which were dried up by Mussolini, by the way.
Devon (00:58:16): Right. Very much like cholera, there is actually some correlation, where things that smell bad tend to also correlate with bad water, or marshland has the standing water, also sort of is bad air, so they're not 100% wrong. There's something there, but the root cause is misunderstood.
Alain (00:58:35): That's right. Yeah. That's right. Yeah.
Devon (00:58:36): In the American South, especially during the history of pre-Civil War, when there was still slavery, the classic image of a plantation is of a big, white house up on a hill with a bunch of slaves and workers working in the fields below. I've learned that one of the reasons for that was because they didn't understand exactly where malaria came from, but they did understand that if they were on higher ground that was drier, and usually with a lot of sun, they would have less malaria, which I thought that was just fascinating. For me, that was always just a look, an aesthetic, and I thought that they put their houses up there just because it looks pretty, but no, it was because of malaria.
Alain (00:59:12): Yes. Right. Yes. Yes, of course. Yes.
Devon (00:59:14): How has the architecture in other places that you've been been affected by malaria or any other infectious diseases that people were trying to prevent?
Alain (00:59:22): There was malaria in Yemen in the lowland, the coast of the Red Sea. It was endemic, but I don't see that there was any correlation with the architecture, that there was anything which would prevent people from getting malaria. Where it's endemic too in the south of India, there was a lot of malaria in Tamil Nadu, things like that, but it's a very humid country with a lot of ponds, so it's nearly inevitable that you will have mosquitoes, except probably people develop some kind of immunity, not complete immunity, but a lot of people resist better to malaria than people who come from Europe, for instance, probably.
Devon (01:00:03): I wonder if there's other types of... Immunity may not be the right word, but sort of your body reacts, where I lived in Panama briefly in a rural town, and I noticed that the mosquitoes just loved me. My entire body was covered in mosquito bites. Whereas, the locals, the people that I was living with, had maybe one mosquito bite at a time tops, and I just wondered, is there something about my body and my skin that the mosquitoes like more. The locals would say that I had sangre dulce, which means sweet blood.
Marie-Agnes (01:00:32): It's the same problem with Alain and I. Alain gets rarely a mosquito bite. Once we were camping in Yucatan Mexico, and here for some reason, the mosquitoes are of smaller size. They easily can pass through a mosquito net and as a result the children and I did walkup the next morning all red when Alain has no one bite.
Devon (01:01:02): He just doesn't taste as good, I guess.
Alain (01:01:04): They recognize a guy from Marseille. Stay away from him.
Devon (01:01:09): That's hilarious. I have two last questions before we wrap up. Last night I had a Zoom dinner with a friend who also lives in San Francisco. He lives not too far from me. He made the interesting prediction that San Francisco's already highly concentrated tech culture might become even more concentrated after the pandemic. What he meant by that was that there's sort of two rough groups of people in the tech industry in San Francisco.
Devon (01:01:34): There's one group that cares really deeply about creating new businesses and being on the frontier of technology and social changes, and then there's another group of people who are very talented and skilled, but they're primarily there because there's kind of a gold rush right now, and there's a lot of economic opportunity, but they don't necessarily identify with those of Silicon Valley itself. What he was sort of claiming was that second group doesn't feel quite so tied to the city, and once the economic opportunity and the value of physically being there is not quite so high, they just leave. What do you think of that prediction?
Alain (01:02:09): That's interesting. I never thought of that in that way. Yeah, it's quite possible, actually. There's no doubt that techies attract other techies. Well, you must know that. Yes. I never thought of that, but I think that's quite a possible scenario. Of course, I'm sure something will happen, some change will happen. We really don't know. We can make predictions saying, "I think that." My prediction for cities is that some people will leave, but they will be immediately replaced by others, because the housing stock is still there, the attraction is still there.
Alain (01:02:44): The only worry I have about that is that the attraction of cities like San Francisco or New York is not only that you meet other people who are interested in the same thing as you are, but it's also that they are attractive in terms of a lot of café, restaurants, a lot of meeting place, where you are more able to have this random encounter that you may not find. The social life is very important.
Alain (01:03:09): Now, imagine that because of the hardship of trying to maintain a restaurant or café in New York or San Francisco that most of them close and get out of business before they can recover, and then during two or three years, you have streets boarding up, all these cafes are boarded up, there is nothing there, then suddenly maybe those cities lose a bit of attraction in itself. New York without the café and the commerce and the street can be very dreary, so I wonder...
Alain (01:03:43): My recommendation for the municipality there is to remove all the very complicated zoning requirements. In New York, if you want to convert a small commerce retail shop into a restaurant, you have to have also to... It may take two or three years for the conversion to do it. If you do that, then you will ruin the whole thing. My recommendation is to allow zoning to have the type of zoning that you have in other countries, like in Japan, for instances, where this is any commerce which is not obnoxious... it's not a slaughterhouse or something like that... is allowed by right in a residential area. I think that's what New York should do and San Francisco, too, if they want to survive as an attractive city.
Alain (01:04:31): If you have during four or five years, cities which have no place of social gathering at all, that you have still condemned to meet your friends at home because there is nothing else or at the office, but our zoning law prevents this flexibility at this moment.
Devon (01:04:48): Yeah. Some cities are experimenting with allowing for easier permitting of using sidewalk space and that sort of thing. I wonder, though, what the magnitude of those changes are. I'm seeing all these articles that make me happy of cafes spilling out onto the streets, just like it was so hard to do before, and bike lanes coming out. But how big of an impact actually is that right now?
Alain (01:05:10): I think it will be limited, because in New York, at least, eating outside is fine for about six months of the year, but six months of the year you can't. It's too cold, or it's too warm, or it's snowing. Then to survive, restaurant, it's a very competitive business, and to survive, they have to have the maximum number of clients, and suddenly, you decrease their client by half practically. It's a good idea to liberalize that, but I'm not sure that it will have such a big impact.
Alain (01:05:40): By the way, when we arrived in New York in 1968, there were very, very few restaurants on the sidewalk, very few. I don't even remember any, actually. I was struck by that, compared to Paris, and those restaurants developed in the years after. It's interesting, it was eating on the sidewalk, which is, to me, very attractive, when the weather is good... much more attractive than being inside... is a relatively recently acquisition, I think, in the United States.
Devon (01:06:10): I'm also a bit concerned about small businesses compared to big businesses. It seems like this sort of crisis on relative terms is better for larger businesses that have a lot of capital and money in store, so you might see all of these small businesses fold, and then the big chains can come in and take up the cheaper rents on the big streets. I have sort of a gloomy prediction that we're going to end up in a place where you walk down the street, and instead of seeing a bunch of charming, little local restaurants, you see a Taco Bell and a Chick-Fil-A. While I like my junk food just as much as anybody else, it takes away from the specialness of that particular city, of course, right? You can get a Chick-Fil-A in any state.
Alain (01:06:51): Yeah. I think the beauty of cities, and especially cities like New York or San Francisco, which have a relatively... The private space is divided into relatively small lots, so that allows the small restaurant, which is specialized in something, which does Basque food or something like that, or South Indian, and to survive, because it's a small... they catch it with small clientele, and it's a small thing, and I am afraid, yes, that the chain has a very big advantage. If the scenario you described, which is possible, happens, it will really make those cities much less interesting.
Devon (01:07:31): I guess having those smaller shops, where Tokyo being one of the most extreme examples, where the lots are really tiny, compared to, I'd say, San Francisco has bigger ones versus Austin, Texas, which has huge blocks, would you predict that the cities with the smaller lots will probably maintain small businesses better than the big ones?
Alain (01:07:51): Yes. Yes. Definitely. Yeah. I think the size of the lot has a lot to do with it. Yes. That's one of my critiques with my Chinese colleagues. When they expanded the cities in China, they tended to give one developer a very large chunk of land. The city has a monopoly on land development, but when land is developed... Let's say the basic infrastructure is developed, then they auction the land to a private company, and instead of auctioning land by small lots, they auction them by very large lots, sometimes several blocks at a time to one company, and that, I think, is very detrimental to city life and the diversity we expect of a city.
Alain (01:08:32): One, I think of the major positive side of the grid in Manhattan was the size of the lot which were very small,. So you can always, if you want to have a department store, you will aggregate those lots, but the unit is a small lot, and that allows a lot of variety and small entrepreneurs to try their luck. It doesn't mean that they will succeed, but eventually, there will be a Darwinian process. The more lots you have, again, if you follow a Darwinian process, the more initiative there will be, and some will be successful. Where, if you have few lots and you end up with a kind of an oligarchy of restaurants or services or commerce, which is not very good.
Devon (01:09:15): Why do the planners in China tend to do bigger lots?
Alain (01:09:19): Because it's convenient. If you auction the lot... Auctioning is a difficult process. You have to follow rules, and it takes time, so it's much easier to auction one square kilometer at one time, and you deal only with one person, than to auction this same one square kilometer, auction to 20,000 people. Twenty-thousand, it will be more difficult, certainly. Yes. But to the detriment, what is difficult is not necessarily bad.
Devon (01:09:50): Right. Just because it's a little bit more difficult for the people making the decision doesn't mean that it's the wrong decision.
Alain (01:09:55): Yeah. And they don't see, where precisely if you see the older parts of the cities in China, the lots are small also, and that's part of their attraction is precisely that, that the lots are small, and therefore, you have this huge variety of commerce and especially restaurants. In China, there are many specialized restaurants and different types of food. That's possible, I think, only if you have small lots. Eventually, you'll have a large restaurant, which will acquire several lots. I'm not against sometimes large restaurants or even chain restaurants, but the unit should be a small.
Devon (01:10:34): I wonder, if it's so much more interesting to have smaller lots, why don't these big developers who get multiple blocks go in and then create multiple smaller shops within that, if it's better?
Alain (01:10:45): Well, it does happen in malls, especially, by the way, California. Usually they have anchors, having larger lot for something like Macy's or Bloomingdale or whatever, but they usually optimize within the mall. But somebody, a developer, was running a mall has a knowledge of what he wants or she wants for the mall, which is different from a developer with very often an intermediary who buy the land, and then will say, well, we will do office building there or we will do housing and try to simplify the operation at maximum, particularly there is a question of cash flow.
Alain (01:11:25): The operator of a mall is conscious that he has to attract people in this mall, customers,. They know that the customers have tastes which are changing, so they try to adapt to those customers. Where, I think that a developer in a large block in China is very often, by the way, it's a financial company. It's not somebody who has any experience in development, where the developer of a mall is very, very experienced in mall development. It's not somebody who's just saying let's do a mall there. They're very specialized. So this lack of knowledge, if it's a financial company, they say, well, we have already two or three takes for office building. Let us build just office building, and shops, in a way, are a hindrance to that. They will complicate things, so I think that's what happened.
Alain (01:12:18): I have seen that also in India, by the way, this thing happen in large developments in India. In Delhi... Sorry. In Mumbai, in the '80s, they developed a new business center, which was extremely well-located in the center relative the city, and unfortunately, they decided that it will be a financial center, and they allow only banks or financial companies to locate there. There was never one... If you wanted to eat there, have lunch, you will have to take a taxi to go outside the zone, or you'll have to send somebody with a taxi to buy sandwiches somewhere else. It is still the case in this area whilein the rest of Mumbai there are a large variety of small shops of all sorts.
Devon (01:13:02): Wow. That doesn't sound like the most pleasant place to work, but then I guess if they measure it by economies of scale and efficiency, it's probably way better on some regards. But then they're not thinking about all of the other pieces that make up a day to day life, like I have to get lunch.
Alain (01:13:17): Well, I think it's a full vision of city. They come with one parameter, which is, yes, financial companies, they do better if they are next to each other. This model of Wall Street. That's fair enough. But they don't realize that you don't optimize a city with just one parameter. There are about at least 100 parameters to take into account. The same way as you could decide a city which would reduce the cost of sewer by 50%, but the sewer system is not the central part of a city. It's a very important, but you don't design a city around the sewer system. It's absurd.
Devon (01:13:53): Right. Yeah. I guess there's a lot of examples of cities that are over-optimized on one thing. The one that urbanists love to rag on, and I'll pile on right now, is when you optimize for through traffic, and you make it so that cars can cut through, it is good to be able to get to places quickly and not... But when it means that highways are now cutting through neighborhoods and making the place unpleasant, sometimes you have over-optimized on that one variable.
Alain (01:14:19): Yes. Yes. That's why you have to keep your eye on markets in the wider terms. Markets is a way to balance all of these things together. That's why, in a way, the development of malls, the inside of malls, and the way land is allocated in a mall between small shop and large shop, restaurants and retail usually reflect the desire of the people. It does really reflect markets.
Devon (01:14:45): I suppose if you have that smaller granularity, then markets can work their magic more. Whereas, if it's at a bigger level, it's harder.
Alain (01:14:52): Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. But that's not due to their design. It's due to retail. The anchors in the malls are usually Macy's, Bloomingdale, or... Those anchors are not doing very good business because of the competition or online shopping.
Marie-Agnes (01:15:11): Yeah, but remember the Singapore mall. There, in Singapore the malls have not only retails, but you find also dental office, notary public, Kidengarden School, dispensary and all sorts of activities. Up to now and in general the concept of a mall in the US is for mainly shopping. You may have food court and some restaurants, but nothing like a real city where you have all sort of business.
Alain (01:15:56): Yeah. But those malls in Singapore are on subway stations, too. They are built around subway stations.
Marie-Agnes (01:16:01): Yeah, but the malls here in the US are on big parking lot, and many are now closing. More may be transformed to accommodate sort of Disney World with skating ring and amusement park like here in New Jersey.
Devon (01:16:30): It's very interesting to see how malls in Asia... The ones I'm thinking of particularly are Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. Those are the ones I'm familiar with. They have very different malls. Yeah, you got what you're saying, Marie-Agnes. They have a much wider range of activities, and so I imagine that they're a lot less fragile to macroeconomic changes or particular changes in a particular industry, because sure, maybe you're not buying as much clothing in a mall, but if you're still getting your notary signed or you're still getting your teeth cleaned from your dentist, you're going to still keep doing that foot traffic.
Alain (01:17:01): Yes. Yes. I wonder if the zoning in our countries, the zoning is not for something in it. For instance, if a dentist wanted to settle in a mall, whether the zoning rule allow it, I don't know. I'm not so sure.
Devon (01:17:16): The last question I'll ask and then let you get to your dinner is sort of a long one. We'll wrap it up after that. Shelter-in-place reduced the positive impacts of agglomeration, and this reduces the advantage of being in cities in the short term. I'm personally not in San Francisco right now. I'm in a house in the countryside, because my apartment in San Francisco is just one room. That was great when San Francisco was a thriving city where I could go see my friends, I could meet new people in my industry, but right now, I can't do that, so why would I stay in a super expensive apartment and not have a lot of space?
Devon (01:17:50): So that's the downside. But on the other hand, I think there is a silver lining for this, which is that it is creating a more even playing field for people who don't have access to those cities. Like one example is that right now Zoom is the only way that I can interact with friends. The three of us had a video call a few weeks ago, and that was just lovely. We had dinner together. Usually, we would only have dinner if I came and visited you in New York, and sure, Zoom was possible all along, and we easily could've done it, but when it's sort of competing with the people who are physically around you, you're much less likely to do it.
Devon (01:18:23): This is the preface of my question, which is if we're looking at the bright side of this gloomy picture, by reducing the potency of physical agglomeration in cities, what new opportunities does this create for people who don't usually have access to those opportunities, like for jobs and for social? How can we make the most of it?
Alain (01:18:42): It's possible that some of the people who do not have these opportunities have also little access to the internet, in the US at least, so their advantages reduce on that. But I think, too, that what you mentioned, if you go back to San Francisco now, you will have no opportunity to meet your friend in a restaurant, so you may as well be where you are now. This is temporary. I cannot believe that we will not find a solution or even get used to social distance or better hygiene, maybe, inside a restaurant, and that this will resume. I cannot believe that this COVID thing will completely eradicate several thousand years of urban civilization in one go.
Devon (01:19:28): I totally agree. I plan to go back to San Francisco as soon as it's healthy to do so.
Alain (01:19:33): Right. Yes. Yes. As soon as you can resume.
Marie-Agnes (01:19:36): But there is a positive things with Zoom. We are now connected with people that we will hardly have the chance to meet specially with the pandemic. Alain was in conference call with Moscow colleagues this week and with Vancouver. With Zoom we reconnected with my sister and my brother in Paris. We have now more chance to virtually connect with my family than we have before.
Devon (01:20:17): Totally. My job has been remote for a long time, actually. I work at GitHub, which has offices in San Francisco, but employees are all around the world, and most of my team are not based in California. It's actually wonderful in one sense, where the people who use the product that we build are all around the world. I think if my office were purely based in San Francisco and all of my co-workers were there, I would have less of a habit of talking to people all around the world, but because my co-workers are remote, too, I have this habit of using the Zoom call to talk to all sorts of different types of people.
Devon (01:20:53): I've had calls with users who are based in Zambia, in China, in the Netherlands, in New York. The list goes on and on and on. In a way, it has gotten me to think a little bit more broadly, beyond just the place where I live. Whereas, I feel like if my entire social life were entirely rooted in San Francisco, I might only talk to developers and programmers who are from California. I agree.
Devon (01:21:18): I think my most optimistic prediction here is that we have learned through this new tools, and we have new capability to reach new people around the world, and then once we're able to all come back together, we will be even better than we were before. Because now, we can connect with people over really long distances and also see people face to face, so I'm hoping that it brings us together ultimately.
Alain (01:21:40): That is very simple. Before, I was even reluctant to use Skype. I found Skype very often clumsy or didn't get the connection and the image was not good. I found that Zoom works very well every time. I think that the technology has improved, and certainly, Zoom will improve, too, over the years. That will be a positive side. In fact, we may gain by having the two aspects, the opportunity of face to face contact when somebody visits New York, and at the same time, keeping more intimate contact with people in different countries that we will not have met otherwise. That's possible.
Devon (01:22:18): Well, I should let you two get to your dinner. Thank you for taking so much time to talk with me. These are always really fun.
Alain (01:22:23): Thank you. We enjoy it very much.
Marie-Agnes (01:22:25): Thank you.
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