Plane Talk

Plane Talk

Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next
John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30

Atlanta had only been in existence for a few years before its burning in 1864, made memorable in Gone With the Wind. Created at the random crossing of railroad lines, the city had only recently passed an ordinance banning free-range hogs from its streets. But by 1964 Atlanta was famous for its airport—for a time the busiest in the U.S.

That cities are shaped by modes of transportation is also the premise of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, a book by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. As defined by the authors, an aerotropolis refers not just to a city built economically around air travel but one designed around the airport: “a new urban form placing airports in the center with cities growing around them, connecting workers, suppliers, executives, and goods to the global marketplace.”

Aerotropolis is several books, or parts of them. One part recalls such books as Joel Garreau’s 1991 Edge City, looking at urban developments along the peripheral interstate highways. Another part reports on amazing new airports of the Middle East and Asia and astonishing industries, such as the African flower business feeding European markets. We get a good deal of flavor of the “airworld” culture popularized by Walter Kirn’s novel, Up in the Air.

But the book suffers from its odd, double-author relationship. Greg Lindsay, a journalist, is the real writer, and Kasarda, the leading advocate of the aerotropolis concept, is its major subject or character. Imagine that Chuck Yeager had been listed with Tom Wolfe as co-author of The Right Stuff.

John Kasarda was a sociologist who shifted to the business school at the University of North Carolina—a move from analysis to advocacy that led to a career of consulting and proselytizing. For readers short on time, Kasarda’s gospel is spelled out more succinctly on his web site (He does not claim to have invented the word, but discovered it in China.)

Like an airport itself, with its surrounding warehouses, rental car outlets, chain hotels, and fast food places, Aerotropolis the book is sprawling and miscellaneous.

Lindsay frames his reporting in narrative, but much of what he writes of Kasarda applies to the book: his “mother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers”; air routes are the “new silk road”; the new economics turns on “survival of the fastest.” The tone is breathless and relentlessly upbeat.

For all his interest in airports, Lindsay seems to have a pretty skimpy understanding of the history of aircraft and aviation. He writes that when Boeing produced the 707, the first U.S. jet airliner, “the Air Force was first in line” to buy them. But the development of the 707 was famously leveraged off Pentagon funding of a sibling military tanker to fuel Air Force bombers.

We don’t learn much about who will own and operate Aerotropolis.

Airports raise huge social and economic questions. In 2008, the world marveled at the speed with which China completed a new airport for Beijing, in time for the Olympics. Negative comparisons were made with the long and trouble-plagued creation of the new terminal at Heathrow. But how do we balance planning with individual rights to achieve such speed?

Lindsay veers from reporting to advocacy and back. Every now and then, he expresses a note of skepticism about Kasarda’s work or teaching, as in his discussion of the debacle of the aerotropolis planned by the state of North Carolina. But he is more often an apologist for Kasarda’s vision—sometimes awkwardly so. That vision is particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy consumption: can aerotropolis survive future energy prices? Does it abet global warming?

Lindsay offers twisted historical arguments about whale oil and coal. Besides, he tells us, work is advancing to make aviation fuel from algae, supported by Sir Richard Branson. Algae-based fuel not just for airplanes but cars and powerplants would be a fine thing, but it remains largely unproven.

Lindsay and Kasarda might not be the people to invite to dinner with your favorite locavores. Their vision of low cost air transport promises a wealth of fruit from the antipodes—think Gala apples from New Zealand.

The idea of a city planned around an airport might strike many people as a bad joke. Aren’t airports the embodiment of placelessness? Don’t they make us think not just of George Clooney, playing the character Ryan Bingham, trapped in a soulless vision of airport life in Up in the Air but Tom Hanks playing a character trapped in an airport in Steven Spielberg’s Terminal?

How does architecture fit into the story? Marginally, at best, it seems. There are mentions of Rem Koolhaas and Sir Norman Foster but the key criterion for architecture in Aerotropolis seems to be size. Foster’s Terminal 3 in Beijing “could accommodate all five of Heathrow’s terminals….It was the world largest building under one roof before surrendering the title to Dubai’s own Terminal 3.”

The book’s cover shows a notional, cartoony Aerotropolis whose style might be described as high SimCity. Kasarda says more about architecture on his site than the book does. “Placemaking and wayfinding should be enhanced by thematic architectural features and iconic structures,” he suggests, bringing to mind the “theme building” school of airport design.

But the book is often fun. This sort of futurism has a long history. Kasarda admits to admiring Alvin Toffler, the pop futurist author of bestsellers beginning with Future Shock in 1970. It might be argued that such books do little harm and offer useful stimulus for discussion—but they are not be confused with serious economic or social planning.

Transportation is not the only factor that shapes cities. Overemphasizing it is a mistake: we don’t speak of a city centered on a port or river as an Aquatropolis or one built to accommodate the horse traffic as a Hippotropolis.

The vision of Aerotropolis recalls earlier visions of the future, like Norman Bel Geddes’ designs for floating airports or Moses King’s imagined city of the future, circa 1911, in which airplanes flit among bridges linking skyscrapers.

These were inspired by the romance of flight, which continues to intrigue us, despite every indignity of scanner and schedule. But Kasarda seems to have lost that sense. As Lindsay describes him, he has “jet lag stamped on his face.” He has given his speech so many times that he has come to resemble Ryan Bingham himself. “He has spent years aloft by now, and nothing in the glint of silvery wings stirs his blood anymore.”