Is it really, REALLY, the case that urban planning has not incorporated enough economics in practice?

Alain Bertaud has a book out called “Order Without Design” from MIT Press, and it’s a nice enough look back at Bertaud’s career as a bit of a planning consultant at the World Bank and other powerful institutions. Instead of calling himself an urbanist, as he has done throughout what I know of his career and in his online materials, Bertaud calls himself a planner here. The cynical part of me thinks it’s because he wants to lend more credence to his critiques of the profession more than anything. Maybe he sees no difference between the terms, but I do.

I really don’t have an investment in defending the boundaries of the field from Bertaud–so much of his work life has been spent doing planning that he can certainly take the mantle as far as I am concerned, it’s just that I am aware of my own past weaselly conflicts with the labels urbanist and planner that it makes me ask these questions, so maybe I am just projecting.

Here is a template for all critiques of urban planning from all other disciplines:

Planners work in and wish to improve cities.

But cities are imperfect.

Therefore, planners have failed, and thus cities need moi.


I don’t know how to answer that other than to say that if applied the same logic to economics or engineering, we’d have quite a bit of grist for the mill. Economists have failed to perfect the business cycle and nation-states, so now the rest of us should take those over? All righty then.

This proof has created a cottage industry for scientists and other types to engage with urban topics and the truth is, we probably just ALL–planners, economists, scientists, etc– ought to have the intellectual humility to admit that some of the things we’d like understand, like cities and societies and economies, are just plain bigger than us most of the time. We’re all just here in a political economy of forces that lead to various outcomes, which all of us, experts and nonexperts, are trying to influence for the better. We win some, we lose some. We lose a lot. Maybe it’s not worth trying, maybe the whole Enlightenment project was a bust, but I feel like I have seen things get better sometimes, and so I’m sticking with it.

Bertaud’s point is that planners don’t understand urban land markets sufficiently well to work with them in an optimal way, especially regarding growth controls. I don’t think this is a shocker for anybody, but I do have an answer: it’s not a planner’s job to be an urban economist. It’s urban economists’ jobs to be urban economists. If economists want to influence city policies, then they can get out there and get busy, take some of those lousy paying planning jobs you’d be so much better at than us at doing, run for office, show up to public meetings, and do all the gruntwork and housekeeping that goes into governance.

It’s not like most planning programs don’t have one class in micro; some even have public finance (public sector economics) classes. No, it’s not sufficient training to have a comprehensive understanding of urban econ, but it is a toe in being able to read in the field.

If anything, planners get more education in economics than they do any other outside field with the possible exceptions of architecture or engineering, depending on the program. There are other fields that deserve a place in the curriculum: marketing and communications, political science, area studies like women’s or Black/Latino/Asian studies, anthropology, and sociology.

But the working degree is a master’s degree, and we only have so much time, and believe it or not, there are some skills in actual planning we’d like to convey. That’s one reason why I like to see young people come into the field with undergrad degrees or experience from any of the aforementioned fields, including (like me) economics.

Of the various ways planners have failed to incorporate economics, Bertaud cites what are for me mystifying examples because I really have not experienced many planners doing the things he describes. For instance, the idea that planners ever got all interested in the optimal city size concept long after economists “debunked” the idea. Um. I’ve never seen that discussion, and it may just be that it dominated the planning literature before I showed up, but I remember it happening in econ. And honestly…..I still think it’s an *interesting* hypothetical, especially when thinking about the scale economies associated with different urban service types.

Certainly, the growth controllers have their group of true believers who are very dogmatic about claiming to know the future and the Right Way To Do Things (viz Smartest Boy Urbanists), but don’t all fields have those types? I don’t use the gold standard crowd to represent all economists, and honestly any field where Milton Friedmann has been as influential as he has really strikes me as living in a glass house in res dogmatism, no?

This book will appeal to the libertopians that just plain do not like planning because the field represents state intervention to them, and they have strong preferences against regulation. I honestly don’t know what to say to those types, other than to say, stop shooting the messenger. If Aristotle and Hobbes are to believed, and I think they are, state institutions and regulations emerge from social processes just as organic as the human behaviors that create markets, and the fact that planners themselves are employable in a labor market that incorporates the state and its interventions into development should tell you a little something about whether the role has value in economists’ own terms, and independent of economics.