Austin’s Mission is Missing!

COST Commentary: Bill Oaks has just posted a wonderful article, “What Is The Mission Of Austin, Texas – Or Do We Even Have One”, on his blog (Austin Affordability). His article addresses the key question posed by its title. Bill’s long history in Austin supports his extremely well presented articulation of key questions which Austin leaders need to urgently address as the City is facing numerous crossroads and major decisions which will dramatically affect the nature of Austin for many generations.

The article below by Wendell Cox discusses a book by Alain Bertaud, “Cities as Labor Markets” which relates to the question posed by Bill Oakey. A pertinent quote by Cox from his article is: “Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people.” This thought does call into question numerous aspects of Austin’ current development plan, “Envision Austin,” which exhibits many of the shortcomings in the urban planning discussed in this article and in Bertaud’s book.

by Wendell Cox 03/06/2014

Former World Bank principal planner Alain Bertaud has performed an important service that should provide a much needed midcourse correction to urban planning around the world. Bertaud returns to the fundamentals in his “Cities as Labor Markets.”

Bertaud begins by reminding us that without well functioning labor markets, cities will not be successful. This requires mobility, which he defines as “the ability to move quickly and easily between locations within a metropolitan area” and “the ability to locate one’s house or one’s firm in any location within a metropolitan area.” This mobility, he maintains, is indispensable in facilitating growth of the city.

There is just one exception, according to Bertaud. These are retiree cities, which do not principally rely on mobility for their growth. Yet, Bertaud notes that these are themselves products of the much more numerous conventional cities, where mobility has facilitated growth and in which future retirees accumulate the resources that permit migration to the retirement cities.

There are also the planned cities for government, such as Brasilia and Washington. Bertaud contends that they have become successful because “more diversified labor market “was grafted” onto the government activities. “Before that, however: “The ‘cost is no object’ concept presided over their construction and insured their initial survival as they were financed by taxes paid by the rest of the country.” This should give pause to nations, especially in the developing world proposing to build and thereby divert resources from improving the lives of people (see; Unmanageable Jakarta Soon to Lose National Capital?).

Imaginary “Urban Villages”

Bertaud insists on the importance of cities as unified labor markets. Metropolitan areas will be hampered in their development and innovation to the extent that they are fragmented.
He is particularly critical of planning attempts to create “urban villages” within the unified labor markets (metropolitan areas). He contends that: “The urban village model” implies a systematic fragmentation of labor markets within a large metropolis and does not make economic sense in the real world.”
Bertaud does not accept the notion that:

“… everybody could walk or bicycle to work, even in a very large metropolis. To allow a city to grow, it would only be necessary to add more clusters. The assumption behind this model is either that urban planners would be able to perfectly match work places and residences, or that workers and employers would spontaneously organize themselves into the appropriate clusters.”

He is concerned at the “prevalence of this conceit in many urban master plans, “which he characterizes as “utopian trip patterns.”

According to Bertaud, the urban village “model does not exist in the real world because it contradicts the economic justification of large cities: the efficiency of large labor markets. “The cold water of reality is that “… the urban village model exists only in the mind of urban planners.”

Uncontained Self-Contained Satellite Towns

He supports his claim. Seoul’s satellite communities were intended to be self-contained towns (urban villages), in which most residents both lived and worked. Yet, most of the workers employed in the satellite towns live in other parts of the metropolitan area. At the same time, most of the residents of the satellite work in other parts of the Seoul metropolitan area. He cites Stockholm regulations requiring neighborhood jobs – housing balances as having no impact on shortening commute distances even when such a balance is achieved.

My own research using 2001 census data indicated that the London area new towns, also intended to be populated principally by people who work in them, had average work trip travel distances more than their diameter (See: Jobs-Housing Balance and Urban Villages in Southeast England). This means that large numbers of people were traveling to work outside the towns. In London as in Seoul, the planners can conceptualize the self-contained satellite towns, but it is beyond them to force the behaviors to make them work.

Similarly misguided efforts elsewhere, from the San Francisco Bay Area and other California metropolitan areas to Montréal and beyond are destined for similar failures.

Commuting and the City

Bertaud cites research by Remy Prud’homme and Choon Wong Lee at the University of Paris showing that the efficiency of cities tends to increase up so long as a large share of the commutes are less than 60 minutes, though optimal efficiency occurs at shorter commute distances. Lest there be any misunderstanding, American cities have average commute times of approximately 25 minutes, according the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, not the hour or two hour journeys of urban legends.

Defining the City

This large commuting radius makes it clear that Bertaud does not accept the distorted urban definition that would, for example, define the urban form to not extend beyond the borders of New York City, or worse beyond the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers – the boundaries of the island of Manhattan. If the city is limited to dense cores, then the “half urban” world recently announced won’t be here for many decades. The city is the metropolitan area – the labor market, which extends to the far reaches of the commuting shed.

The Bottom Line

According to Bertaud, “Increasing mobility and affordability are the two main objectives of urban planning. These two objectives are directly related to the overall goal of maximizing the size of a city’s labor market, and therefore, its economic prosperity.”

That brings us back to first principles. Cities are about people. Planning is justified to the extent that it facilitates the aspirations of people. The city requires prosperity, which Bertaud shows in a much needed first installment of Urban Planning 101.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.
Note: Alain Bertaud’s “Cities as Labor Markets,” was published by the Marron Institute on Cities and the Urban Environment at New York University and is intended to be a chapter in his forthcoming book, tentatively titled Order without Design.

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