Watching Emirates Flight EK001 from Dubai approaching Heathrow one Sunday morning reminded me of a book review I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. I have a very good view of the landing path from my back garden, and the giant Airbus A380 seemed almost close enough to touch, yet was surprisingly quiet, unobtrusive even, given the plane’s size and proximity. A good omen, perhaps.
Heathrow, of course, is becoming very congested these days, with no immediate prospect of a third runway, and thus represents a potential choke point for international companies and entrepreneurs intending to do business in London. In that way, I suspect that the Greens (and their green-hued proxies currently enjoying power) are making good on their promise to turn the UK into something resembling an economic backwater.
And this thought ties in neatly with the theme of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, published last year. Greg Lindsay is a journalist specialising in business stories, while John D. Kasarda is an academic and a designer and promoter of aerotropoli, (according to Wikipedia, he is currently the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.) My feeling is that Greg Lindsay (here’s his website) did the vast majority of the writing, although both are listed as co-authors.
What is an aerotropolis? I can’t recall it being ever fully defined in the book but basically it’s an airport with a city built around it, as opposed to an existing city with an airport tacked on. Dubai (from whence came Emirates Flight EK001, that Sunday morning) is one example, and another is New Songdo, a city currently under construction (to be completed in 2015, I gather) on 1500 acres of reclaimed land in Incheon, South Korea. The airport (and thus connectivity to other airports around the globe) comes first, and the city’s business and residential districts are planned around it. Greg Lindsay has described it as “a pure node in a global network whose fast-moving packets are people and goods instead of data.”
This book is mostly a very interesting read, at times, though it does have some rather slow patches where the authors get bogged down in all the detail. What particularly amazed me was the sheer size, efficiency and complexity of businesses that rely on delivering stuff by air, from UPS and their gigantic Worldport hub in Louisville, Kentucky, to the “cool chain”, whereby fresh flowers are flown to auction in Amsterdam and then delivered to destinations across the globe, perfectly refrigerated every step of the way, to state-of-the-art hospitals in Thailand that fly their patients in from the US.
In fact, reading this book it is difficult to escape the notion that the authors are describing some sort of futuristic parallel world, and some of the touches would not be out of place in a William Gibson or Douglas Coupland novel. Take, for instance, a passage about Somalis working at the UPS Worldport, which seems like the stuff of urban legend:
UPS has so thoroughly de-skilled the Worldport that even desert nomads could work there now, and they do. Several hundred members of Somalia’s Bantu tribe have resettled in Louisville in recent years, working mostly in and around the hub. They’re part of a larger influx of immigrants recruited to meet the needs of the companies drawn here. The Bantu’s lack of English (or any form of written language) hasn’t deterred UPS from hiring them.
Or take this thoroughly odd description of an aerotropolis-type community in Reunion, Denver, where everything is new, yet some features are not so much designed to look like pre-existing traditional buildings, as they are meant to resemble the ruins or remnants of old structures that never existed there in the first place.
“We created a bit of a backstory about a ranch here, and a farm,” Marty explained, “and as you drive in the entrance of Reunion, you’re supposed to be going through a historic farmstead. The walls are supposed to represent the foundations of farmhouses no longer here, the tree plantings represent an orchard, and even the streetlights have a gooseneck that harkens back to the galvanized fixtures that were on every farmhouse in northern Colorado. We did it really because this is a blank slate.”
This rather strange fabricated backstory leads to an interesting question, though: is this the way people actually want to live – in an instant suburb appended to a new mega-airport complex? The second part of the book’s title is a confident assertion – “The Way We’ll Live Next” – and the authors depict a furiously busy world of competing aerotropoli populated by armies of migrant workers and presided over by an elite class of globe-trotting executives (or “road warriors”, to use the authors’ expression). While many people across the globe are increasingly having the sort of nomadic globalised lives the authors describe, I think there will be many who, given the chance, would baulk at it and aim for a more settled sort of existence. Few would wish to have the life of Ryan Bingham, the main character in Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air, who is a permanent resident of “Airworld”, the artificial and expansive yet, at the same time, curiously claustrophobic world of planes, terminals, lounges and club rooms.
I find myself in two minds about the aerotropolis concept. A great many people want to live in cities – this is well-attested by the fact that urban populations worldwide are fast growing. Jobs, opportunities and networks abound here. But there are cities such as London, where I’ve spent almost the last 20 years of my life, that are not only modern places but have their traditions and monuments and ancient corners, too. People value these, as well as, and often more than, the promise of new buildings, new shops, new workplaces. Without innovation, a city would become a mausoleum; where there is nothing but the new, people start to hate it and feel the need to create traditions, monuments and backstories, even if they have to cut them out of whole cloth, like the Reunion farmsteads that never were.
Undoubtedly aerotropoli, or places very similar, will spring up here and there among the fast-developing regions of the globe. Some will succeed, others will fall by the wayside, and ever-increasing quantities of goods and people will flood through this “physical internet” like blood cells through some vast circulatory system. Many people will be attracted to and will settle and work in places like Dubai, New Songdo and their future counterparts. But – as a keen but occasional visitor to Airworld, myself – I cannot help suspecting that many will not, and that the older cities, for all their awkwardness and congestion and rickety infrastructure (not to mention the danger of becoming economic backwaters), will remain popular and worthwhile places in which to make a living, for a long time to come.