Aerotropolis

Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay is a fascinating book; and although I suspect readers will either absolutely hate its thesis or be absolutely intrigued by it, either way it demands a thoughtful reaction.

The underlying premise is undeniable: cities are fundamentally shaped by transportation. The oldest are organised around water, a navigable river or port, Victorian cities were expanded and shaped by train lines, and since the early 20th century automobiles and major road networks redrew domestic trade and commuting routes, and enabled the spread of suburbs – especially in the US with its sprawling 'Edge Cities'.

Aerotropolis argues that in the age of globalisation, air travel has already altered choices about work and home locations and about business location – and will only continue to do so. The question is whether urban authorities go about dealing with this in a haphazard way – as in London, where finding agreement about where and how to expand capacity seems impossible – or in a planned way with a sufficiently large international airport connected to residential areas by convenient public transport and with sensible mixed-use zoning nearby.

The book has many interesting examples – mainly from the US but other countries too – of both approaches. I'm convinced that the haphazard approach, hostage to the pious pretense of some environmentalists that we're going to stop flying and the NIMBY-ism of those living near airports (no matter how much they fly), is inferior.

One reason is, in fact, that the environmental impact of airports can be much better managed if realism reigns. Better by far to embrace the airport and its benefits, and ensure that the public transport links are built, for example. Ed Glaeser's recent book, Triumph of the City, also sets out the possibly surprising environmental benefits of a wholehearted embrace of urban life.

The second reason is that the economic benefits of physical connectivity are often, I think, underestimated. The productivity effects of information and communication technologies emerged first and most strongly in distribution and logistics – FedEx and UPS, WalMart and Tesco, clothing retailers such as Zara and their Chinese suppliers are all characterised by their ultra-efficient supply and logistics chains. The economic development officer in Memphis, which reinvented itself as an aerotropolis to house FedEx, makes this point in the book. At the time, he says, other cities looked down on 'distribution' as a low value, low-paying alternative to the vanishing traditional industries. But over time, being a superb hub for distribution – and also for globe-trotting executives – has brought in high value activities. The climb is reflected in the job titles, he says: from 'warehouse manager' to 'assistant manager of logistics' to 'senior vice president, global supply chain'. (pp81-82)

Many people have also certainly made the mistake of assuming that the technologies substitute for face-to-face contact, when in fact they complement each other. As Aerotropolis notes, the highest-tech industries clock up the most executive travel. “Trillions of connections yield billions aloft. The more wired we are, the more we fly. …. At the current rate, the Internet will render business travel obsolete at about the same time it replaces paper.” (p113)

I'm not sure how far reason will ever reign in urban planning, including the planning of transport. Passions run high and property prices are at stake. The romanticism of environmentalism conflicts with the reality of profitable global supply chains and global careers. I for one enjoyed the vision of the gleaming, bustling aerotropolis. It will all be a bit too J.G. Ballard for some, but I write as one who lives close to Heathrow and rather enjoys the experience of battling with London Transport and BAA security to have a leisurely coffee in a crowded and over-retailed departure lounge while watching all the world's people go by.

One odd thing, and it does get in the way, is the authorship. Journalist Greg Lindsay has done the writing, and the book is well-written with vivid reportage. Professor (and uber-consultant) John Kasarda is, however, billed as the author because his ideas have inspired the book. It got me surprisingly confused about the status of the authorial voice. A minor complaint. This is a fascinating book stuffed full of information.

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