Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next

June 2, 2011

As a scholar of scientific and technological utopias, I have read countless visions of the allegedly perfect society. It has long been common to depict a future society in which transportation is crucial to effecting and maintaining a vastly improved way of life. Faster, larger and more comfortable trains, cars, ships and not least aircraft are the typical suggested improvements. But strangely, John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay demonstrate no familiarity with the rich utopian tradition of which their book Aerotropolis is only the latest instalment. Like most other visionaries, they naively believe that the future begins with them and, implicitly, that history is unimportant.

This is not a wholesale indictment of their provocative, perceptive and quite readable account of what they believe is The Way We'll Live Next. But it does dampen my enthusiasm for what they insist is a wholly original work. In the past, they tell us, airports were usually built on the periphery of cities. In the future, however, giant airports will constitute the hubs of cities, with scrupulously planned housing, office and shopping units surrounding them. These new cities, some already being created, constitute the latest stage of globalisation. Notwithstanding our unprecedented ability to communicate instantaneously, people still need to travel and to ship goods, faster than ever before.

Kasarda is an internationally known management expert at the University of North Carolina who coined the term "aerotropolis"; Lindsay is a veteran writer for leading business publications. Their book is an unusual mix of Lindsay's analysis of Kasarda's research and consulting activities. This "co-authorship" works, but Lindsay's relentless praise of Kasarda quickly gets tiresome. So, too, do the many breathless accounts of meeting powerful entrepreneurs and political leaders in China, Dubai, the Netherlands, South Korea and elsewhere.

Amid their detailed case studies comes Lindsay's arresting comment that Kasarda's vision "isn't necessarily a city but a supercomputer, a piece of infrastructure promising zero resistance to anyone wanting to set up shop there". What's more, an aerotropolis "isn't an airport either, and building one isn't a matter of having the longest runways or the largest land mass". You could have fooled me!

Also distressing is the almost complete absence of attention to the long-term quality of life in these new airport-centred cities. Save for Lindsay's occasional qualifications, both authors mistakenly assume that the immediate accessibility, efficiency, comfort and sheer excitement of these megaprojects will suffice. I am reminded of similar questions raised about Buckminster Fuller's famous visionary designs for land-based cities covered by geodesic domes, tetrahedronal cities floating on the sea, and cloud-structure spheres floating in the air. Once the thrill of living in these generally pleasant environments is gone, what happens next? What sustains that initial enthusiasm?

The authors are enchanted with the prospect of huge new airports in Detroit, Memphis, Hyderabad in India, and 100 new Chinese cities. For Kasarda and Lindsay, cities such as London and Los Angeles are quickly losing supremacy without such airport megaprojects. The cultural attractions of those two cities just don't cut it, we are told, in the global economy.

Not surprisingly, one of the chapters is entitled "Up in the air", in tribute to the popular 2009 movie starring George Clooney as a successful corporate downsizer who happily spends much of his life flying to his various corporate targets and, in the process, becomes an expert on frequent-flyer miles and the perks that accompany them. Lindsay himself spent three straight weeks "up in the air" while researching this book. The telling difference, however, is that the character played by Clooney ultimately recognises the sad, even pathetic, nature of his isolated existence and finally wants out of that endless round of travel and airports, whereas Lindsay and Kasarda clearly relish these experiences. Boarding passes, please!

Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next

By John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. Allen Lane, 480pp, £14.99. ISBN 9781846141003. Published 3 March 2011

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