Alain Bertaud 2018, MIT Press

A city is the height of human acheivement, a way for humanity’s social nature to be concentrated into an efficient space while enjoying a good standard of living. The author of Order Without Design argues that urban planning can be improved by crossing disciplines between urban planners and economists. Cross-discipline collaboration is valuable because individual specialties can be blind to effects outside their legibility.

This book is packed with stats, especially about New York City and the ins and outs of zoning regulations there. The author starts from the assumption that cities exist for economic purposes: people live in cities for job prospects. Therefore, the city government should focus on facilitating economic activity in cities by maximizing the number of people who can afford to live within commuting distance of those jobs. From these initial assumptions, Bertaud focuses on maximizing density within the city (high FARs) and on ensuring commuters can reach the city from the suburbs quickly.

Bertaud’s solution to the widely documented harms of heavy use of private cars ultimately boils down to Pigouvian taxes leveed through road tolls, registration taxes, and requirements to include parking in buildings. This undermines the book’s core argument though, because Bertaud is critical of city planners’ use of trading FAR for developers’ adding special amenities to buildings.

For me, the way that Bertaud naturalizes economics and the assumption that cities should be economic beings foremost wouldn’t create a city where I’d want to live. The rejoinder of the book, that city planners need ideas from economics, is a way to fabricate reasons for governing while hiding the underlying political assumptions. Take for example the use of a Pigouvian tax to reduce the use of cars and prevent congestion. Cars may seem “objectively” unsafe and undesirable for a city environment, but what about the author’s assumption that the city government shouldn’t use FAR carve-outs to force developers to include public spaces at the ground level.

I would recommend reading this for the analysis of land usage by different dwelling styles, traffic patterns in cities, and effects of zoning regimes particularly in New York City. I would recommend this book if you have an interest in urban planning or play Cities: Skylines. It’s extremely well-researched and covers the challenges facing city councils, planners, and developers well.