Book Review: Aerotropolis

The Way We'll Live Next

By John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp, $30

If only Ryan Bingham had read Aerotropolis. Perhaps then the corporate hatchet man, portrayed by George Clooney in Up in the Air, would understand the global forces keeping his lost soul aloft—and relocate to a fledgling city in Asia. A collaboration between John D. Kasarda, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina, and Greg Lindsay, a journalist who has written for publications including this one, the business-cum-sociology tome describes how the airborne movement is reshaping business and urban life from Chicago to Shenzhen and almost certainly redefining our future.

Although he receives credit as lead author, Kasarda darts in and out of the book as a central character, portrayed in the third-person. Occasionally awkward narration is just a small flaw, however, in an otherwise fascinating and important work. An evangelist of sorts, Kasarda travels the world preaching to companies, cities, and countries that they must embrace the new rules of commerce or risk getting left behind. These rules center around the "aerotropolis"—some combination of an enormous airport, planned city, shipping hub, and futuristic office park. The Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, designed in the 1970s, became a proto-aerotropolis and generated economic growth in that sprawling metroplex, the authors say. Among the burgeoning aerotropoli are Dubai and South Korea's New Songdo City—proposed finish date, 2015—which will serve as an offshoot of Inchon International Airport, a ginormous facility opened in 2001. Companies are already moving offices and employees to New Songdo's prefab precincts, only a two-hour flight from Shanghai and Beijing.

The 20th century Jet Age, the authors argue, was channeled by airports constructed on the peripheries of cities. The 21st century Instant Age—with its ubiquitous travel, 24/7 work schedules, and global supply chains—will require a reconfiguration. Cities, they write, will need to be arrayed around airports in concentric circles of business and residential zones, as they are in New Songdo and Hyderabad, India. They believe the economic and technological forces driving this transformation are too powerful to resist. Smart Western executives and urban planners need to get with the program, they warn, since South Korea—not to mention China and India—are already on board.

Aerotropolis follows in the tradition of works such as Edge City (1992) that blend jargon-free scholarship with shoe-leather reporting to tell readers why they're living and working as they are. In Edge City, Joel Garreau traced how transportation has molded urban life (CliffNotes version: Donkeys defined hilly Jerusalem; sailing ships made Lisbon; railroads powered Chicago; and mass-produced automobiles begat metropolitan Los Angeles). Garreau also charted how asphalt, airplanes, and networked computers combined, in the 1980s, to produce exurban population centers in places such as northern Virginia. In essence, Kasarda and Lindsay pick up the story from there, pointing out that Reston, Va., and other Dulles Airport feeder-cities can be seen as immediate precursors—or even early iterations—of a full-fledged aerotropolis.

That Kasarda and Lindsay are onto something big seems beyond dispute. Yet the best material in Aerotropolis is the often-poignant case studies of established cities too sclerotic to adopt the Kasarda Doctrine. Progressive thinkers in Chicago, Detroit, New York, and London know it would be better if they could knock down congested airports, build new ones with better runways, and connect close-in businesses and commuters via high-speed rail lines. Yet inertial politics, incumbent commercial interests, tight budgets, and not-in-my-backyard activists impede change. The authors suggest darkly that failure to evolve spells doom for older cities. Still, New York and its aging brethren—other than Detroit, which has its own special problems—somehow seem to have life left in their overburdened boulevards and even their delay-ridden airport lounges.

The authors are vague about whether the airport city of the future is an upgrade or a fresh circle of hell. Exactly who wants to live in a tract home on a former wetland near Seoul's monster airport? Just what precisely life is—or will be—like in New Songdo doesn't become entirely clear in Aerotropolis, but the hints aren't encouraging. The authors enthuse about how New Songdo and its "clones" in China will be assembled by a consortium that includes Cisco (CSCO), 3M (MMM), and United Technologies (UTX). "We're trying to replicate cities," Cisco's chief globalization officer, Wim Elfrink, tells them. "We have no standards. Every city is a new project." Whatever that means, many may feel reluctant to move to the aerotropolis Cisco is helping build on the outskirts of Chongqing in western China—even if there is a billboard in the arrival hall that says, in several languages, "If you lived here, you'd be home by now."

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