Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll LiveNext is asimple idea—you can fit it on the back of your boarding pass. The cities oftomorrow, it argues, will be umbilically connected to airports; one enormousurban womb will result, from whence the global economy will be nourished, andwill flourish. Those who fail to recognize it will be shut out.
This is the shuttle-flightthesis which John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay have engineered into a 767 of abook that weaves together the Silk Road, fatty tuna, Lipitor, Kenyan flowerfarmers, mangoes, riots against Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin, and medicaltourism.
The book gets off the groundquickly, with the story of an aerotropolis in Korea called New Songdo, “themost ambitious instant city since Brasilia appeared 50 years ago.” Butwhile Brasilia was “grandiose, monstrously overscale” New Songdo—whichis being built around Incheon International Airport—will be green, smart (asilicon necklace of chips will run it) and willfully aesthetic.
This isn’t a one-off curiosity. It’sthe future. India needs to build 500 airports by the end of the decade. Chinaneeds 500 cities as big as New Songdo. That’s an unprecedented level ofinfrastructure development that will reverse the geography that has persistedsince the beginning of aviation. No longer will airports be pushed as far fromthe central city as possible. The airport and the city will be one.
The authors call this “thelogic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities.” They also callit the “urban incarnation of the physical Internet.” They believe—andmake a reasonably strong case—that economic prosperity is linked to theemergent synthesis of time and space that the aerotropolis represents—and thatChina and the Emirates are the sparkling examples of it. The authors cite amantra that Dutch planners use:
The airport leaves the city. The city follows the airport. The airportbecomes a city.
Kasarda is an academicconsultant, a new breed who crosses tenure with retainer. He is a professor atthe Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina; he alsogets hired by governments who require laptopped mercenaries in the globalcompetitiveness wars. Lindsay is a journalist, and in a curious literaryconceit it is his voice that narrates the book. Which means Kasarda is referredto in the third-person, although he is listed first author. “Kasarda’smother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers,”Lindsay writes. Very odd.
Like airport routes, Aerotropolisruns on a hub-and-spoke system. From its conceptual locus it connects us tonetworked chapters that roll out individual routes to the grand destination. In”A Tale of Three Cities” the NIMBY-mindedness of Los Angeles andChicago is contrasted with the history of Dulles airport, which silently became”America’s wealthiest invisible city.” Meanwhile, the book wonders ifthe dysfunctional calamity called LAX is fatal: “Will it be too late toprevent LA from descending into flyover country?”
Other chapters circle from ananalysis of the “cool chain” and just-in-time delivery, to thesurprising sustainability of jet transport, to the very real possibility thatthe aerotropolis may save Detroit by turning it into an outsourcedmanufacturing center for China.
“Welcome Home to the Airport”is a provocative chapter that describes the decade-long cycle of airportconstruction and population shifts in Denver, where Stapleton Airport, which “strangledon its own success” was closed, and a new larger one was built muchfurther away. Kasarda and Lindsay nimbly detail the transformative shift in thelocal political, economic, and sociological context that made this possible.Nobody wanted to live near Stapleton—essentially a brownfield—but Denver’s newaerotropolis is “purely residential” with planned communities like “Reunion”springing up from nowhere. (If new communities sound like they’re named by thepeople who brand drugs, it’s because they are.) And in an ironic twist,Stapleton itself is being redeveloped as a New Urbanist model, complete withfaux Brooklyn brownstones.
Aerotropolis, like many recent theme park books (Freakonomics, The Tipping Point) isadept at the rapid camera zoom. Reading it can be like the experience oflooking out the sweating rectangle of a window as your plane takes off, theworld recedes, and your view quickly widens.
So consider a chapter that starts close-up, at a footballgame 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 theDallas-Fort Worth Metropolex area. Zoom back again, and we learn their familiesgot there 30 years ago when they got jobs building the airport. Keep pullingback and DFW becomes part of a larger canvas of airport hubs. Eventually we seethe whole picture—from Tongan students to beginnings of the aerotropolis, tothe structural reason for layovers, to the success of ExxonMobil, to GeorgeClooney in Up in the Air.
Aerotropolis is prediction wrapped in manifesto. Kasarda and Lindsayare evangelists of the jetstream; they believe the world is fundamentallychanging, and they have little patience for those who stand in the way. Thislack of balance undermines, but doesn’t impeach, their thesis.
So they spend little timereflecting on the social damage that results when strong states achieveaerotropilan nirvana by imposing urban planning solutions on disenfranchisedpopulations. They unilaterally dismiss those who oppose new airportconstruction as short-sighted. And they attempt to bust the local farmingconceit, using experts to make the case that food should be grown “whereit grows best” and that “growing food that’s good for us matters alot more than the mileage.” Locavore? Not so fast. Whether you’re inBrooklyn or in Brazzaville, eating local isn’t necessarily sustainable.
This is a big and often wobblybook; like a giant jet heading down the runway, it does its share of shakingand rattling. But once it gets airborne, the flying is largely smooth and theviews are a dazzlement. High-Def visions of the future always run the risk of asmug certainty, and Aerotropolis doessuffer from that barreling conviction. But it is ably researched and creativelyconstructed, a prismatic display of the future of the global economy through asharp and revealing new lens. It makes the mind travel.