Why City + Airport = the Future

April 12, 2011
United Parcel Service aircrafts are loaded with containers full of packages bound for their final destination at the UPS Worldport All Points International Hub. REUTERS/John Sommers II

United Parcel Service aircrafts are loaded with containers full of packages bound for their final destination at the UPS Worldport All Points International Hub. REUTERS/John Sommers II

It’s no longer ok to be a big city. Globalisation is Darwinian and only the hubbiest of hubs will survive. If we want best-of-the-planet goods to arrive the next morning, we must worship the airport.

So thinks U.S. academic John Kasarda. As his co-writer Greg Lindsay explains in recently released, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, Kasarda’s raison d’être is to “answer the question of what the cities of this age should look like.”

Aerotropolis is a story of hubs and human ecology… and how the twain must meet if we want to get on. Kasarda, whose career has been spent persuading governments and corporations that transportation and communication are the “fastest-acting catalysts for expansion and change,” is given a rapid-fire, real-world voice by Lindsay, who follows him around the world and engages in his own frenetic travels to convey the professor’s message.

An aerotropolis – defined by Kasarda as “an airport-integrated region, extending as far as sixty miles from the inner clusters of hotels, offices, distribution and logistics facilities” – is, we learn, the “logic of globalisation made flesh.” London Heathrow, the closest this planet has to a global air hub, handles more traffic than Britain has citizens. Business travel is a trillion-dollar business worldwide and there are 17 trillion air miles in current circulation (together, they’d get you 2/3 of the way to Alpha Centauri). Airlines’ customers are almost twice as likely to make more than $100,000 a year than those who aren’t; frequent fliers, three times.

But my favourite stat of the hundreds rolled out in this book is that in the first 50 years of commercial aviation, before luggage scanning began, 400 international hijacking incidents occurred with 75,000 hostages.

Anyone too busy or important to stay still for long; those aerial commuters who “fly to work, casually overturning 10,000 years of civilisation before breakfast”, will be among this book’s particular fans – though even they may baulk at the idea of living in airport cities strewn with air trains and aero lanes. They do quite enough of that as it is.

The book’s language verges on sci-fi. I was particularly drawn to the definition of a layover experience – we are “stretched for hours inside concrete sensory deprivation tanks, augmented by jet lag… a limbo in which physics and human experience no longer applied.”

It reminded me of Alain de Botton’s 2009 novella, A week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary, where the author wrote movingly of covered walkways, glazed surfaces, giant potted vegetation and grey tiling. A landing aircraft’s wheels, “having avoided the earth for so long… hesitated and slowed almost to a standstill as they arched and prepared to greet the rubber-stained English tarmac.”

I can never see an air-bridge connecting to an aircraft without thinking of his description: “A passenger walkway rolled forward and closed its rubber mouth in a hesitant kiss over the front left-hand door.”

I digress; the point is de Botton is a man with an unembarrassed infatuation with air termini. I asked him if he agreed with the Kasarda thesis.

“I love the thought that the quality of an airport might really help to determine the success of a city,” he emailed me. “But I think it (nicely) perverse to suggest that its location will decide where a city goes. After all, unlike a ship, a plane can leave and arrive more or less anywhere. So surely airports won’t decide the place. But the authors are right that [they] will be key. He who has a good airport will win…”

It may seem far-fetched to us now, but new cities (and China and India are building over 200 between them), are being planned with airports at front of mind. We’re entering an era where world capitals can appear in former backwaters, where home for many isn’t a street or village; it’s being part of globe-crossing network.

“The age of suburbia is passing,” Lindsay writes poignantly; “just as the economy that drove it – cheap cars, cheaper gas, still-cheaper mortgages and free highways – is passing with it.”

After millennia of fixed dwellings, the world is moving again and that isn’t necessarily going to be healthy. Lindsay devotes ample space to the human costs of living on top of airports, and the community-lite vacuity of frequent air-warriors’ lives, where home life is an afterthought.

For those who live near them, airports take on special significance. Last week I caught Simon Stevens’ play Wastwater at The Royal Court in London. Its characters’ tumultuous lives are all directly affected by their vicinity to Heathrow. One character, an elderly woman living in a village that had stood to be flattened if the proposed third runway was to be built, rues the governments’ decision to halt expansion – it would have given her the chance to start again; another pair seek the solace of an anonymous airport hotel to embark upon an extra-marital affair.

One of most controversial questions asked in Aerotropolis is: Do we retrofit our cities to become future aerotropoli, or save people’s homes? Kasarda takes a tough line. The West, he thinks, must consciously choose to “live in cities built in globalisation’s image – machines for living linked in great chains.” In Kasarda’s dream world, this would happen the world over. Would he, I couldn’t help but wonder, really want to live in the almost fascistically efficient corporate utopia he dreams of?

Perhaps he won’t need to; it seems one has to be a high-functioning autocracy to have a good aerotropolis. China and Dubai have staked everything on the “global triumphing over the local.” China’s “democracy sacrifices efficiency” model allowed its airport in Beijing to be built, Lindsay points out, in the time that the grievances surrounding Heathrow’s Terminal 5 took to arise.

Much of Aerotropolis is given to an Ayn Rand-esque glorification of U.S. airport hubs: O’Hare, which helped Chicago become a “global city”; LAX’s terror of becoming flyover country; Dallas Fort Worth and its generation of 400,000 jobs within a five-mile radius; UPS and FedEx reinventing Louisville and Memphis respectively.

I’d liked to have read more about the Singapore aerotropolis, how Changi International Airport has evolved to become most business travellers’ answer to the question: what is your most seamless travel experience? But Thailand’s still-stillborn aerotropolis, 2006-opened Suvarnabhumi does get a full and very illuminating chapter. We learn that its land purchase by the military junta of the time formed the pretext of 1973’s student massacre in Bangkok and the end to said junta.

Each subsequent Thai coup from 1991 onwards reignited interest in the airport, as if authoritarian rule is necessary for the formation of a hub aerotropolis. In November 2008, swarms of yellow-shirted demonstrators, protesting against their foes being elected yet again, marched on and shut down both of Bangkok’s airports.

The news stories at the time focused on the hundreds of thousands of very annoyed stranded tourists. Lindsay presents the fallout felt by our just-in-time economy; the subsequent closure of many local high-tech factories meant widespread supply-chain disruption, while Thailand lost 3 percent of GDP in a week. Today, factories across the world know the feeling; they’re still reeling from the Japan disaster and the country’s subsequent air traffic reduction.

If Kasarda is right, and in the next 20 years our evolved aviation infrastructure starts to drastically change the way we live, we must welcome a future where “No one will be shackled by the circumstances of birth or upbringing.” On a planet teeming with Airworld natives, the ability to stay still will come at a high price. The rest of us will be stuck in transit.

Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next is published by Allen Lane at the list price of GBP14.99 (US$30)

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/