Cities as Labor Markets

This article with the same name, from City Journal, is very interesting.

An excerpt.

Crack open your city’s comprehensive plan—intended as a broad vision for municipalities over the course of five to ten years—and you’ll find a document that reads like a timeshare brochure. With invocations of “livability” and “sustainability,” you’ll be led to believe that your town, however humdrum, could transform into a veritable utopia. Policy talk is light, important data are conspicuously limited, and target metrics are altogether absent. Pull up your town’s zoning ordinance and you’ll find the opposite: a maze of rules and regulations with little rhyme or reason. Exhortations about sustainability yield to pseudoscientific requirements for off-street parking; appeals to housing affordability take a back seat to zoning for McMansions. Is there a better way?

In his new book, Order without Design: How Markets Shape Cities, Alain Bertaud draws on over a half-century of planning experience—including a stint as the World Bank’s principal urban planner—to establish a new approach to city planning. Bertaud argues that city planners have much to learn from urban economics, and vice versa.

Take Bertaud’s idea of cities as labor markets. They’re loud, crowded, and expensive, yet people often want to live in them. The reason: specialization, employment opportunities, and knowledge spillovers. The productivity gains work both ways: for all the high costs and added hurdles, firms depend on cities as well—tech needs to be in the Bay Area as finance needs to be in New York. Increasingly, the economy’s key players depend on massive labor markets, along with networks of institutional knowledge, to find specialized workers.

Though considered obvious among urban economists, the idea of cities as labor markets has enormous implications for the work of city planners. Take urban form: current city planners aspire to nudge residents into self-contained urban villages. But if we recognize productivity, and its resulting wealth, as a function of access to large labor markets, we’ll know that people will always travel well outside their local neighborhoods for work. Once city planners acknowledge this basic reality, they can get on with the work of supporting, rather than resisting, natural urban patterns—Bertaud wants planners to respect the natural choices of city dwellers.

Retrieved May 7, 2019 from


About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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