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The city of the future: built around air travel

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The cities of the future will be built around air travel -- despite high-speed rail and density schemes and telecommutes and videoconferencing. Aerotropolis author Greg Lindsay explains why.

How will we live in the future?

According to Greg Lindsay, it is in cities and regions that are oriented around air travel.

In the 21st century, globalization is well underway -- and our societies are shifting to adapt to it, from the challenges of round-the-clock workdays to the pleasures of overnight shipping.

Your hometown may be a part of a larger region, but it could soon have stronger economic ties with a city halfway across the world -- one that speaks another language and operates in a different time zone.

Lindsay is the co-author of the new book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, along with John Kasarda. I spoke to him (appropriately) after he touched down in Dallas, Texas.

SmartPlanet: Before we begin, define the term "aerotropolis" for our readers.

GL: As originally envisioned by its creator John Kasarda -- my co-author -- an aerotropolis can be defined as a city developed around airports.

Cities are developed around modes of transportation: Boston was a port city, Chicago was a railroad city, Los Angeles was a car city. His vision -- in a truly global economy -- the cities of the future are built around airports.

Otherwise, you get urban planning messes: [Los Angeles'] LAX, [New York's] JFK and so forth.

My vision [in the book] is not just about building future cities from scratch; it's really about how airports have shaped our cities in the last 40 years. It's how our lives are underwritten around global air systems: flowers, food, and so on that we think are virtual and "out there."

SP: Not just vacations, you mean.

GL: Right. When most people think of air travel, they think of flights to Florida. If you're British, you think of a jaunt to the south of Spain or France.

On the materials side, e-commerce as we know it -- that virtual action, that click of a button -- the requirements to do this have resulted in this massive system in Louisville and Memphis, where FedEx and UPS are.

Take the global flower trade: flying flowers from the south to the north, from these regions in Africa and elsewhere. That has also resulted in immense growth in food trade. Seventy percent of the green beans sold in the U.K. actually come from Kenya.

And it's also a sustainability thing -- it's actually less carbon [emissions] to grow them there than domestically in Britain.

These are the sort of weird, unintended consequences of air travel. Look at [Irish budget carrier] RyanAir -- it essentially created the European Union. That's a profound thing. London may have a phantom suburb of more than a million people drawing on residents in Barcelona and even as far as Marrakesh. It guarantees that London is a talent magnet that will remain the economic capital of the world.

SP: But is this really sustainable, in the most literal of definitions?

GL: Is globalization as we know it sustainable? Plenty of people would argue on multiple grounds, no. Like capitalism, which digs itself in, and grows, and rearranges the landscape and doesn't think about sustainability, it's always a question of where that next growth cycle will come from.

This is always how it's been. At every juncture, we've claimed that we can't go on like this. I've read all the critics who claim that it couldn't go on. And yet it inevitably seems to.

Look at China. It's building hundreds of new airports in a concerted bid to retain hold of the world's manufacturing and keep making iPods. [That loss] could trigger a massive real estate crash.

I think of myself as a liberal free trader. I guess that's somewhat Clintonian. Trade is the best way to rise a society out of poverty. What the world needs is better cities to create new jobs and opportunities to lift people out of poverty now.

SP: Let's talk about sustainability from an environmental standpoint. Are aerotropolises green?

GL: Air travel is not the great poison people make it out to be. People villainize it as polluting because as an individual, it's the most polluting act you can do to get on a plane.

But no one can build their own power plant. But there are huge systems that are much, much worse. Becoming vegetarian and living in small communities is a far better solution [than simply not flying].

But yes, biofuels are needed. Energy is needed -- not only for the sake of air travel, but for civilization as we know it.

SP: The aerotropolis is built around air travel. But with many modes of transportation used for different reasons -- feet for short distances, public transit for longer, cars for even longer, and rail for even longer -- shouldn't the future city be built around multiple forms of transport, rather than just one?

GL: Not being an urban planner, and being sort of a journalist and amateur economist -- the most dangerous kind -- it goes back to the notion of the "spatial fix."

Richard Florida has taken this concept and made it safer for human consumption: basically every economy has an urban form and a transportation form that goes along with it. The Long Depression of 1873 and railroads, for example. Or you end up with post-Depression suburbia and the automobile.

By 1960, as much as a third of the U.S. economy was dedicated to the car.

In the 21st century, we're ending up with an ideas economy, and an information economy. Human capital is your most important thing. Then services and goods -- the high-value product associated with our economy. It's not [the material] steel -- it's planes.

That ties into the notion of what Ed Glaeser talk about in his new book [Triumph of the City] -- cities are the best at creating ideas.

In my book, there's the notion around cities are realigning themselves. In the 21st century, we need cities that are locally dense and globally connected. This is the opportune time to do sprawl infill. We need denser communities built around transit. Walkable communities. Bicycling.

In America, we're never going to build another airport. The task at hand is how to densify the area around our airports. The number of auto plants build around airports in the U.S. boggles my mind.

We need better transit to the urban cores we do have.

SP: Can you think of any modern examples?

GL: I can think of three:

  1. Tysons Corner in Virginia. The original edge city. It's all auto-driven sprawl. What created northern Virginia is the infusion of defense dollars in the Reagan era. Tysons is densifying, and they recently approved a plan to extend the Washington Metro System out to the airport and make [the area] into more dense walkable urbanism.
  2. Dallas-Fort Worth. There's more occupied office space near DFW [airport] than in downtown Dallas. They're putting up light rail infrastructure and coming up with land use plans to densify corridors and use rail as the spine to densify.
  3. In Denver, the same thing. They're building not only homes, but a downtown.

To me it's not a question of, "Do you build it all next to the airport?" but rather using [the airport's existence] as an excuse to do all those things.

SP: How do you avoid blight? New York's Penn Station is a major transportation hub nearly in the center of a major city, but the area around it is less-than-pleasant.

GL: In America, that's two problems wrapped up into one. It's the classic crumbling infrastructure problem: who fixes it?

Airports are worse. [In New York,] JFK was the worst possible example of any airport you could have ended up with: the "pearls in a necklace" situation where every airport builds their own terminal. It's just a question of investment. There, we asked airlines to front it. We sort of built airports before we knew what to do with them.

But more people traveled last year than they did in the 1960s [as a whole].

In Chicago, Mayor Daley was desperate to push through changes to O'Hare. The airlines sued him -- they settled since then -- because they thought the cost would be pushed on them.

The contrast is a place like Singapore -- the airport is beautiful and modern. It's still classic generecism, but it's world-class, light, verdant, like a theme park inside. Singapore recognizes its airport and national airline as assets. It's part of their competitive advantage in the battle between nations.

America doesn't need to nationalize airlines -- that'd be the worst. But airlines shouldn't be despised, but invested in, with long-term strategies.

SP: So what's the situation in the United States? Can we really compare ourselves to Singapore?

GL: It's a fallacy to look at overseas examples. Emirates and Korean Air -- those are airlines based in city-states. They're long-haul carriers. They're using newer planes. They have cheaper labor. They're the classic disruptive influence. Emirates wants to connect east and west: Manchester to Bangkok. There's a whole restructuring [going on].

From an American perspective, there are two problems:

One thing is that there's paralysis in government. The number of NASA initiatives and technologies that exist and are being researched -- they're there, but not being implemented in any way. The current system is based on technology that goes back to the 1930s. It's very expensive to implement and install this technology: $40 billion, I've seen. It vastly improves the experience. There's inertia in government. Next-gen is always 15 years late and still 15 years away. There needs to be actual leadership.

It's a classic sort of thing: air travel today is a hardware-driven experience, and we're not instituting the software to make it better.

The other problem is price. People don't want to pay. The average airfare today is $50 lower than in 1995. That was done at a cost of taking out the hot meals, the blankets, the perks. I don't know what to tell them. The RyanAir model is the most interesting in the end, because it's all about the trip.

So you end up with Southwest, which rails against baggage fees, and you end up with JetBlue, and the rest are just names on the sides of planes.

SP: Financing this technology upgrade is clearly an issue in a cash-strapped economy. To grease the wheels of government, do airlines need to investigate revenue sharing, much like cities are doing with public transportation overhauls?

GL: I think so. The public-private model is what India is doing on a massive scale with its development. They're doing a rash of these partnerships, but in India, if you want to build an airport from scratch? Done. India is building aerotropolises, but they stumbled into it.

I think the United States could definitely use something like that. Some sort of bringing-in of the private sector to upgrade the area around airports and bring in investment. There are often turf battles between cities around airports.

It's also about working with the larger region. What our notions of what regions and boundaries are are outdated. Airports serve areas far beyond borders, and we don't have the structure to deal with that.

Take downtown Amsterdam -- talk about classic urbanism! But they built a whole new district for business that sits on the railroad line that runs to the airport. There's planning, private investment, urban integration there.

They have no incentive to innovate. I sat in a meeting with U.S. Airways and it was the most dispiriting thing I've ever experienced. All they do forever is soak passengers with baggage fees and make money and maintain a steady state of profitability by destruction.

If you purposely set up to make air travel horrific, you will invite people to telecommute. This has led to the push for high-speed rail in this country, which is hugely complementary to air travel. But on the other hand, it's this shiny thing that we haven't screwed up. High speed rail is the future in America. It's a chance to correct these mistakes we've made; there's this talismanic thing about it.

Trade flows are being rerouted. The whole world is integrating with itself. Air travel is how most immigrants enter the United States, with the exception of our land borders. It's talent -- how we get them to come to this country in the first place.

SP: How does immigration and the global economy impact the economies of cities?

GL: It doesn't really matter what we think in the United States, because this is the world's middle class and it's just reaching the point where it can afford air travel and discover this world -- and there's nothing we can do to [politically] discourage that.

Travel will go on the long run, and it is a direct result of having the incredible communication we have. People always make the mistake that digital communication will replace air travel. I quote Cisco executives in the book who say it won't -- it will just change it.

You won't be flying just to attend a meeting. But it triggers this urge to travel. For every communication we have, there's a fractional chance we're going to travel. It will lead to more travel. I don't think there's anything that can turn back this tide. How do you accommodate it? Mitigate it? Make it sustainable?

For cities in the West, it's a question of infill. Accommodating airports without wrecking the urban fabric of our cities. The urban footprint of Earth is going to double in the next 43 years. People need eco-cities.

Songdo [in South Korea] is what's going to happen, in several representations. It's good urbanism, especially in the context of Korea. But what is it? It's a generic city composed of borrowed elements of places we love.

In the 21st century, the greatest luxury may be a sense of place. City as a luxury good. The bulk of this world will be something built in the last decade.

The problem with the localized manufacturing model is that it's an agglomeration of economies. You want maximum concentration of talent and skill. [Urban theorist] Jane Jacobs defined this: talent evolves and grows in a very organic way.

China is already beginning to overtake the United States in innovation because they're much closer to the metal [needed to make electronics]. It's engineering know-how. One of my favorite things about China is the counterfeiters -- they're creating so much that it becomes accidental innovation.

SP: Will the eventual push-back against the faceless megacities of the world be a return to heritage? Allison Arieff recently alluded to this in a New York Times piece.

GL: The city is a luxury good and a lifestyle item -- I think it was [The Big Sort author] Bill Bishop who first suggested this.

You end up with places like brownstone Brooklyn, where prices spiral out of control and there's an exodus of the middle class. There's only so much walkable urban core. We're going to live in new areas of old cities.

If you try to make something overnight, you can't make it as organic as you like. In China they are going to make the mistakes we did.

SP: You're beginning a book tour promoting Aerotropolis. What's one question no one's asked you?

GL: Everyone assumes that I think this future is a great and bright and shiny one. I don't think that at all.

I'm describing in this book the outcome of what we have. We're trying to build a world that can accommodate that for everyone and clamp down on problems in the world. You are going to end up with instant cities and giant infrastructures.

I don't think an aerotropolis is beautiful. But I'm not endorsing this idea because I think we should tear down our cities and build this. I'm describing the outcome of what millions of people want from the world. These are pressures we need to cope with.

There are societies that have staved off resource collapse, such as medieval Japan. [Jared] Diamond notes in passing [in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed] that they could do this because first, it was a feudal society, and second, they could plan for decades and several generations because life would essentially be the same as now.

I could not think of two more non-operative ideas now. That strikes me as impossible. Aerotropolis is describing a new world that's only been seen on television for the last 50 years. The book is more relevant now than when I started writing it.

America now has no choice but to engage with this emerging middle class. We need to trade. We need to engage. We need to trade to stay on top. We're not going to do it over e-mail.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure