Full Title: Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next
Category: Non-Fiction, Futurology/Geography/Architecture – Paperback: 466 pages – Publisher: Penguin – Source: Public Library
First Published: 2011
I wasn’t sure whether to review Aerotropolis here and, once I had decided to write about it, I really wasn’t sure about it being my first review of the year… but here’s the thing, while I read books I enjoyed far, far more last month, this is the one I have talked about and waved my hands over most. It’s the one that sticks in my mind, the one that got under my skin. And I think that means it has to be included here.
So, here’s the book’s premise: The smart way to design cities now and in the future is as transport hubs centered around a vast airport at the heart with an inner circle of businesses that need instant access for shipping/warehousing around it. Where the flight routes go, the money and the jobs go next. It looks something like this:
It’s the idea sold by John Kasarda, a North Carolina professor who now serves as a guru to various cities, businesses and governments keen to try and control particular markets or trade routes. However, while Kasarda’s ideas and words are littered through this book he didn’t actively take part in the writing of it – this is journalist Lindsay’s vastly expanded version of an article he wrote on Kasarda for Fast Company. By following Kasarda’s projects and examining case studies in the US, UAE and China Lindsay tries to build a case for ‘aerotropolis’ hubs being what the book’s sub-title proclaims, ‘The way we’ll live next’.
It makes for a frustrating, unrealistic read for several reasons.
In the book’s defence, there are genuinely fascinating facts included here. Did you know there is a National Eyebank Center next to the airport in Memphis, the so-called ‘hub of eyeballs’ and it serves as a way station for 3500 human corneas every year? They’re all being routed from deceased donors to blinded recipients around the US via the hub’s ‘cool chain’ to make sure they arrive in perfect transplant-ready condition. Or how about the fact that between 1969-78 there were 75,000 hijacked flight passengers worldwide? Which is astonishing when you start wondering what percentage that was of all passengers who flew…
And there are a few valid questions asked here, even if they are poorly handled. For example: who’s going to tell 100 million Chinese folks that they can’t enjoy weekend city breaks because the rest of the world wants to cut emissions?
The case studies make for eye-opening reading too: the town of Wilmington where the DHL hub provided 7000 of the town’s 12,000 jobs until the company moved elsewhere, the logistics of how the Netherlands has managed to keep control of the flower trade by controlling the air routes and supply chain from hot houses in Africa to the massive auction house in Amsterdam, the speed at which China is building cities with little (or none) of the hand-wringing about creating communities we’d see in the West.
But the book suffers from two fatal flaws: the author has got far, far too close to his subject and both the author and subject lack the ability to consider the implications of their worldview.
For a start, it’s 100 pages too long. There are rambling sentences and the structure seems lost under poor signposting to the reader and research that has been poorly melded together. Then there’s the fact that Lindsay refuses to respect or engage with Kasarda’s critics – those who object to any airport being built are NIMBYs regardless of their reasons – and there’s no real discussion of the fact that for all Kasarda’s work and consultancy (and that of others like him) it has led to the building of not one true aerotropolis so far, anywhere in the world even though he’s been at it since the early 1980s.
My hand-waving and inability to quickly forget the book have come from something else though, the implications of the future these two authors want to create. It chills me and, more infuriatingly, it neglects to consider any of the social issues caused by such re-shaping of urban environments.
What are the consequences of helping totalitarian governments and regimes like China and the UAE design cities for maximum efficiency and zero humanity? What are the ethics of helping the wholesale physical restructuring of foreign societies with limited or near non-existent democratic mechanisms to debate or revise those designs? Apparently neither Kasarda or Lindsay ever think about it.
What about the environmental impact of building all this infrastructure for a specific mode of transport? The book opens with the argument that cities have been based around ports, canals, railways and motorways in the past so airports are the logical next step. Why then can’t the authors see that air travel might have a life-span too? They do consider the argument that flight is fuel intensive and a luxury and rightly counter it with the fact that air fuel these days is much greener and only accounts for 2-4% of global emissions. But this is a little disingenuous when you are proposing the rebuilding and re-purposing of huge cities across the world and fail to factor the impact such rebuilding might have into your calculations for whether aerotropolii are green or efficient.
‘The airport leaves the city.
The city follows the airport.
The airport becomes a city.’
But ultimately it’s the social questions that interest me more and they are glaringly absent from this book. Who gets to fly? What does it do to the social dynamics of a nation or a region? If people are routinely living and working a lifestyle that resembles the one portrayed in Up In The Air, what does it mean for relationships, class divisions and race issues? What happens to cities when they specialise and become hubs to the extent that Kasarda advocates? How fragile does that city’s security become if it spends all that money on infrastructure and gambles on becoming a hub? How many hubs does any nation need?
The more people travel, the more small-scale issues seen in every city become huge issues in specific cities. It’s an inevitable consequence of globalisation that has become more and more visible in the last decade or so. Gentrified neighbourhoods that price out the original locals on one hand (San Francisco, Istanbul, London), entire cities being seen as a ghetto on the other (Newcastle in the UK, Detroit in the US). Press attention has been more focused on these issues in the four years since the book was written but it’s not like they were invisible when Kasarda and Lindsay were working on it. But you’d never know it. Apart from pointing out that Michigan was great at educating its youth but the brain drain from Detroit was huge, there’s no mention of these ideas or how the aerotropolis deals with them.
Finally there’s the relationship angle. Again, as I am sure you have guessed, this is never mentioned in the book either.
Long distance relationships are on the increase, both from the increase in possibility (people meeting online and then realising a plane ticket is cheap) and the increase in necessity (those who have to move from their partner for work or study). There’s even a term for the specific situation of a couple where they are both highly trained or work in niche industries and can’t get a job in the same city – the ‘two body problem’. An example might be two academics who can’t find one university to employ them both or two scientists working in fields where their specialisms both have hubs… and the hubs are at opposite ends of the US. The financial, property and social implications of such split couples and families is a pretty big issue but Kasarda and Lindsay have a world view that entirely disregards it. They envisage male ‘road warriors’ going off to the office on Monday by plane and a sort of updated 1950s suburbia.
(Lest you think I am exaggerating: there’s a mention of a generous grandmother flying from one city to a neighbouring one to babysit for her busy daughter. That’s it. That is the only use of the air transport network by a woman included in the whole book. When Lindsay talks (finally) about the possibilities of the aerotropolis bringing him closer to his family… it is via him catching a flight so the menfolk can go to a baseball game in another city while the women stay home.)
What more aerotropolii might mean for fragmented families flying to and fro across the country and juggling different geographic needs along with everything else or what increased business travel by air might mean for sexual or racial equality in employment are just more of those interesting questions completely disregarded by the authors. (Anecdotally, having worked through two recessions in jobs that required frequent air travel in Europe and the US, every time the economy dipped the passenger mix on my flights got noticeably less diverse, more male and more firmly in the 40-50 age range.)
There are fascinating facts in here. There are interesting case studies to consider. But they are buried in a book that is too long and poorly edited, written by a journalist who has gotten to close to his subject and lost his objectivity. More importantly, it’s a book and premise that rarely, if ever, considers what it is like to actually live in the kind of cities Kasarda would like to cover the world in if you are not a (very) privileged, middle class man. Ultimately the questions it didn’t ask were far, far more interesting than the ones it did. Perhaps that’s why I’ve struggled to let it go so much…