Aerotropolis

Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next is a simple idea—you can fit it on the back of your boarding pass. The cities of tomorrow, it argues, will be umbilically connected to airports; one enormous urban womb will result, from whence the global economy will be nourished, and will flourish. Those who fail to recognize it will be shut out.

 

This is the shuttle-flight thesis which John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay have engineered into a 767 of a book that weaves together the Silk Road, fatty tuna, Lipitor, Kenyan flower farmers, mangoes, riots against Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin, and medical tourism.

 

The book gets off the ground quickly, with the story of an aerotropolis in Korea called New Songdo, "the most ambitious instant city since Brasilia appeared 50 years ago." But while Brasilia was "grandiose, monstrously overscale" New Songdo—which is being built around Incheon International Airport—will be green, smart (a silicon necklace of chips will run it) and willfully aesthetic.

 

This isn't a one-off curiosity. It's the future. India needs to build 500 airports by the end of the decade. China needs 500 cities as big as New Songdo. That's an unprecedented level of infrastructure development that will reverse the geography that has persisted since the beginning of aviation. No longer will airports be pushed as far from the central city as possible. The airport and the city will be one.

 

The authors call this "the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities." They also call it the "urban incarnation of the physical Internet." They believe—and make a reasonably strong case—that economic prosperity is linked to the emergent synthesis of time and space that the aerotropolis represents—and that China and the Emirates are the sparkling examples of it. The authors cite a mantra that Dutch planners use:

 

The airport leaves the city. The city follows the airport. The airport becomes a city.


Kasarda is an academic consultant, a new breed who crosses tenure with retainer. He is a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina; he also gets hired by governments who require laptopped mercenaries in the global competitiveness wars. Lindsay is a journalist, and in a curious literary conceit it is his voice that narrates the book. Which means Kasarda is referred to in the third-person, although he is listed first author. "Kasarda's mother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers," Lindsay writes. Very odd.

 

Like airport routes, Aerotropolis runs on a hub-and-spoke system. From its conceptual locus it connects us to networked chapters that roll out individual routes to the grand destination. In "A Tale of Three Cities" the NIMBY-mindedness of Los Angeles and Chicago is contrasted with the history of Dulles airport, which silently became "America's wealthiest invisible city." Meanwhile, the book wonders if the dysfunctional calamity called LAX is fatal: "Will it be too late to prevent LA from descending into flyover country?"

 

Other chapters circle from an analysis of the "cool chain" and just-in-time delivery, to the surprising sustainability of jet transport, to the very real possibility that the aerotropolis may save Detroit by turning it into an outsourced manufacturing center for China.

 

"Welcome Home to the Airport" is a provocative chapter that describes the decade-long cycle of airport construction and population shifts in Denver, where Stapleton Airport, which "strangled on its own success" was closed, and a new larger one was built much further away. Kasarda and Lindsay nimbly detail the transformative shift in the local political, economic, and sociological context that made this possible. Nobody wanted to live near Stapleton—essentially a brownfield—but Denver's new aerotropolis is "purely residential" with planned communities like "Reunion" springing up from nowhere. (If new communities sound like they're named by the people who brand drugs, it's because they are.) And in an ironic twist, Stapleton itself is being redeveloped as a New Urbanist model, complete with faux Brooklyn brownstones.

 

Aerotropolis, like many recent theme park books (Freakonomics, The Tipping Point) is adept at the rapid camera zoom. Reading it can be like the experience of looking out the sweating rectangle of a window as your plane takes off, the world recedes, and your view quickly widens.

 

So consider a chapter that starts close-up, at a football game in Texas where a Tongan war dance is underway. Tongan students in Odessa? Then it widens to reveal that there are, in fact, 4,000 Tongans who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolex area. Zoom back again, and we learn their families got there 30 years ago when they got jobs building the airport. Keep pulling back and DFW becomes part of a larger canvas of airport hubs. Eventually we see the whole picture—from Tongan students to beginnings of the aerotropolis, to the structural reason for layovers, to the success of ExxonMobil, to George Clooney in Up in the Air.

 

Aerotropolis is prediction wrapped in manifesto. Kasarda and Lindsay are evangelists of the jetstream; they believe the world is fundamentally changing, and they have little patience for those who stand in the way. This lack of balance undermines, but doesn't impeach, their thesis.

 

So they spend little time reflecting on the social damage that results when strong states achieve aerotropilan nirvana by imposing urban planning solutions on disenfranchised populations. They unilaterally dismiss those who oppose new airport construction as short-sighted. And they attempt to bust the local farming conceit, using experts to make the case that food should be grown "where it grows best" and that "growing food that's good for us matters a lot more than the mileage." Locavore? Not so fast. Whether you're in Brooklyn or in Brazzaville, eating local isn't necessarily sustainable.

 

This is a big and often wobbly book; like a giant jet heading down the runway, it does its share of shaking and rattling. But once it gets airborne, the flying is largely smooth and the views are a dazzlement. High-Def visions of the future always run the risk of a smug certainty, and Aerotropolis does suffer from that barreling conviction. But it is ably researched and creatively constructed, a prismatic display of the future of the global economy through a sharp and revealing new lens. It makes the mind travel.

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