Quick-Fix Urbanism

Are airports really the key to 21st-century economic development?

When I first started bumping into the writer Greg Lindsay, roughly
a decade ago, he was hoping to star in his own reality TV show. The premise was that he’d live in an airport. That project never panned out. Later, when I heard that Lindsay had scored a book deal, something about the airport-as-city, I assumed that he’d be sleeping in terminals, dining on yogurt parfaits, and penning a guide to urban experience as it might be lived by Up in the Air’s Ryan Bingham.

Late last year, an advance copy of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) arrived, and I was surprised by two things. First, it’s not about airports per se. The book is about airports as economic drivers, as the nexus of a newish kind of city, one that feeds on air freight as a more conventional port city once thrived on whale oil or cocoa. Second, the book has a coauthor, John D. Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business-school professor and globe-trotting consultant who has spent the past several decades selling governments on the aerotropolis vision. Kasarda’s name gets top billing, but the division of labor is explained thus: “The words are mine—I’m Greg Lindsay—but it’s Kasarda who provides the framework.” The coauthor is always referred to in the third person, while Lindsay is the authorial “I.”

So what is an aerotropolis exactly? It’s a city that’s built around an airport, the bigger the better, with factories and/or traders, both depen-dent on air freight, close by, followed by a ring of malls and hotels, followed by a ring of residential neighborhoods. The airport isn’t an annoyance, located as far out of the way as possible, but the city’s heart, its raison d’être. The book prides itself on taking a contrarian view of the city, much like Joel Garreau’s Edge City (Anchor, 1991) or Robert Bruegmann’s MSprawl (The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Those two books made an economic case for and social defense of existing phenomena, arguing that circumstances widely viewed as bad were actually good. Aerotropolis attempts to do something more ambitious: to name and encourage an urban form that taps into and facilitates globalization.

Lindsay is a terrifically energetic reporter (full disclosure: we share
a literary agent), and this book’s great virtue is the quantity and depth
of his original research. The air-freight business, whether it’s the UPS hub in Louisville or the Aalsmeer flower-processing facility near Schiphol, has never been so lovingly described. Still, there are moments when you want Lindsay to take a breath, step back, and provide some analysis, but he just keeps piling on the reporting. The problem is structural. If Kasarda were merely the subject of the book, rather than its coauthor, Lindsay might feel freer to critique his theories, something he does only occasionally. He notes some of Kasarda’s failures, like an aerotropolis in his home state of North Carolina that was built in a town with no interstate highway access: “Kasarda was surprised when they took him at his word that location didn’t matter.”

The aerotropolis phenomenon—it’s cropped up in this country, particularly around the FedEx hub in Memphis (and arguably in Seattle, home of Boeing but a city that is conspicuously absent from this book)—is happening with a vengeance in Asia. China, of course, is currently building scores of airports, many intended to shift economic activity away from the factory-clogged Pearl River Delta and to its isolated western cities. The implication is that our reluctance in the United States to invest in new and better airports, and the attendant infrastructure, will condemn us to irrelevance in the global marketplace. This is not exactly news.

The most tantalizing story in the book, one I wish had a more prominent place in the narrative, comes halfway through, in a chapter called “Aerotropolis or Bust.” It’s an account of a trip made by various officials of Greater Detroit, Kasarda disciples all, to the Netherlands to study Schiphol. Lindsay writes skillfully of Detroit’s many maladies while gently poking holes in his coauthor’s reasoning: “Kasarda proposes building cities by corporations for corporations, guaranteeing their survival by tailoring them to clients’ specifications—beginning with the airport. But this is exactly what happened in Detroit.”

The city was tailored to the auto industry, and it’s dying with the auto industry. This book’s solution—consider it a rebuke to the locavore movement—is not farms on vacant lots and abandoned houses turned into conceptual artworks but a zone of “frictionless” (Kasarda-speak) trade surrounding the airport. R & D facilities adjacent to the airport, for example, could allow Detroit’s unemployed engineers to work for Chinese automakers without leaving home. A few weeks after the junket, one member of the group, Doug Rothwell, announced a plan called “Road to Renaissance” that featured an aerotropolis. Later, some architecture students from Ann Arbor came up with a vision, a dense New Urbanist–style development with commuter trains, a big business hub, and lots of solar panels. The chapter left me eager to know what became of this “renaissance.”

In a recent e-mail, Lindsay updated me on Detroit: “Their plans
are going ahead full steam—the tax breaks they needed to lure companies there were signed into law last month; another pair of Chinese automakers are about to announce new R&D operations there—the announcement is in a few weeks.” He added that the ideas from the charrette seem to have disappeared. “No one’s talking about urbanism, however.”

Maybe that’s the thing that bugs me about this book. For a supposed view of the “way we’ll live next,” there’s not a whole lot of actual living. Instead, the book is a build-out of a consultant’s formula for competitiveness. And in that way, it’s not very different from Richard Florida’s books, but because it’s not actually written by the consultant himself (no matter what it says on the jacket), it lacks evangelical zeal. Yes, we should be spending more money on our infrastructure, including airports. And yes, God, yes, it would be wonderful if someone really thought out those messy agglomerations of commerce that generally surround airports. But the type of thinking that might turn an economic “weapon,” as Lindsay frames it, into a workable urban place doesn’t figure prominently among this book’s concerns.

Airports aren’t magic. The successful ones tend to amplify existing conditions: the Dutch were in the tulip business for 300 years before the Wright Brothers took wing, and Hong Kong was a pivotal player in the world economy even when its airport was old, cramped, and frightening. Does the Dutch flower trade benefit from its proximity to Schiphol? Of course. And did Hong Kong profit by shutting down scary Kai Tak and building a world-class aerotropolis way back in the 1990s, complete with a city’s worth of apartment towers and top-notch road and rail links? Yes, it did. But you won’t read about that until page 382 (of 415) because (apparently) Chek Lap Kok was not a Kasarda project. Even Dubai, which seems to demonstrate how a good airport (and a state-owned airline) can make a city materialize from thin air, initially tested the economic value of a free-trade zone on the Persian Gulf by building a state-of-the-art shipping port.

Could Detroit make a comeback by using its airport as a strategic-engineering export facility? I hope so. But the unintended lesson of this book is that economic weapons can always be made obsolete by bigger weapons. Early on, Lindsay mentions a FedEx hub built from Kasarda’s plans at Subic Bay, the former U.S. Navy base in the Philippines. In 1995, the facility was still “Kasarda’s validation.” But just ten years later, FedEx was engineering a move to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, outside Guangzhou, China: “The aerotropolis [at Baiyun] is aiming higher, at the microchip and motherboard makers stranded around FedEx’s abandoned hub in Subic Bay.” China presumably enticed FedEx with limitless tarmac and bottomless freight. So one aerotropolis can easily be outstripped by another. Real cities, by contrast, aren’t so easily interchangeable.

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