By Andrew Nusca
Posting in Cities
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
Apr 4, 2011
While there are some Dancing With The Stars dead heads who will buy into this load your spewing the rest of us have learned to spot BS when we see it. Suburban Sprawl is only bad if your idea of good involves housing people into small spaces like industrial farms do with chickens. This sustainability line of bull had its chance and you and the rest of the fake greenies were not able to convince enough of the populace how we???d be better by letting the masses die off so the rich and powerful along wither scientific stooges could live the good life on Earth. Maybe this kid is believing this scam your selling but that is short lived because once he has to face real life and start paying all the outrageous taxes while watching the so called evil capitalist get into in bed with the liberal politicians and the fake conservatives and get away with off shoring and paying little to no taxes while he has to scrape to get by, he will then see your line of BS for what it is.
Relatively few goods are valuable enough to be shipped by air. It follows that airport centered development is a product of business travel rather than air freight. A relatively small amount of business travel, mostly within companies, has been replaced by teleconferencing. As telecom tech improves & the cost of fuel goes up, more business travel will be replaced by teleconferencing. So I wonder if airport centered development is only a short term trend.
Considering this is such an active tech group and probably an extremely mobile group too, if everyone here pan Greg's Idea, it's probably a good indication. Personally, I don't frankly understand his point except that regardless of how silly, non-environmental, or just plan bad this idea is, its going to happen anyway? Dense living is our future regardless of what we think? I certainly hope not, or at least that I can get out of the way of it....
Not. I won't argue that using an airport as the hub of a new city can't work, at least in the short term; the new Denver International Airport is a remarkable example of this. However, what this should do is work to reduce the number of aircraft flying rather than focusing on increasing air transport. If anyone bothers to go back to the week after September 11th, 2001, they might note that by grounding commercial air travel during that time, all weather forecasting was disrupted--at least in the eastern half of the US, because the vapor trails left by aircraft dissipated and we lost that 'blanket' effect of high-altitude vapors holding heat down on the surface. It was clear proof to me that we are affecting our climate directly with the exhaust of our vehicles and industries; but mostly by the exhaust from our aircraft. That said, if the number of airfields can be reduced by the construction of major air hubs central to several cities and supported by high-speed rail between the airports and those cities, we can reduce the number of aircraft flying for purely personal use and reduce the amount of fuel used by both aircraft and automobiles for middle-distance travel. The new DIA can be a perfect prototype for this kind of infrastructure if the relative transportation connections can be built before the urban expansion smothers it. The different types of transport methods should support each other rather than compete with each other as they have for the last 70 years. With the onset of airfields built on the outskirts of most cities in the '20s and '30s while the rail centers remained in city centers, the two competed from the outset. Adding personal cars in quantity as we saw after WWII, rail basically got taken out of the transportation loop for all but freight, where it still proves its economy for carrying massive tonnage reasonably quickly. Had the railroads shifted their terminals next to or even incorporated with the air terminals back then, we'd likely see a much different transportation environment today in the US, perhaps somewhat similar to what we see in Europe or eastern Asia. Take a look at our air infrastructure today. Nearly every city larger than 100,000 people has a commercial airfield visited by a limited number of airlines. Some of these airfields can barely afford to keep operating and require direct control support from the FAA. Triple the population, and you have a bigger airport with a little more commecial traffic, but the majority of its traffic is still corporate or otherwise private. A city of a million or more acts as a regional hub for all these localized airports. If each of these localized airports supported high-speed rail to the regional hub, thousands of nearly-empty airliners could be transferred onto busier routes or even retired, saving fuel and maintenance costs for the airlines while still offering a travel experience for the passenger as quick if not quicker than the current hub-and- spoke system of airplanes alone. Add to this the number of commuter travelers who often drive 50 miles or more each way to jobs in those city centers, then a combined transportation system could reduce highway traffic and fuel consumption even farther. My point? If you want to build a smart future, you really need to think Big Picture and not one aspect at a time.
Any number of aerial disasters have shown that having large heavy objects moving around above population centers is not a good idea.But even if safety were not a problem, politicians and city planners could not handle the concept of a city that moves in three dimensions. They can barely deal with two.
@adaviel I believe that research indicated contrails may be cooling the earth more than predicted. So it counterbalances, rather than exacerbates CO2 related global warming. The author's thesis is unlikely because fuel will continue to get more expensive, making air transport less realistic, until renewable generation and electric storage gets cheaper, and we get over our obsession against nuclear. At this point more ground based transportation can be accomplished with electric rather than fossil fuels. Conversion costs of plant material to biofuels will be cheaper as well, and this will relieve some of the fossil fuel supply and demand constraints we are currently faced with. Then there is the issue with TSA overreach. I love traveling, but I actively consider whether TSA harassment is worth each of my trips, and I certainly drive more than I ever did.
Huh... last week, bicyling was the key to the city of the future. Now, it's air travel. Dang. I guess I better sell my new $1,200 bike and get an airplane. Bummer. Wait, do you think I can carry my bicylce on board the plane? Then he quotes DFW as a good example. DFW was built on a vacant plain. Then people moved out there, and complained about all the noise. So, his vision [in the book] is about building future cities from scratch. Good. Go build one. If it's worthwhile, people will want to live there. Maybe Barney Franke or Chris Dodd will give you a government-backed loan with no income veification requirement. That worked pretty well for Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac. Air travel may be the future of Sim City, but airplanes have a hugh carbon footprint and burn so-called "fossile fuels". I think this guy just wants to make a buck selling his book. Go for it. Lots of people made a lot of money selling books about Y2K and 2012.
First, If your grasp of technology and science is a good as the concept drawing above the article - you're doomed to obscurity. Vortexes from high buildings and airports are proven not to mix well. Unless air traffic becomes exclusively VTO (extremely fuel inefficient) airport safety will dictate that they remain miles from tall buildings and cities. Secondly, no intelligent long term planner - urban or otherwise is going to bet against peak oil prioritization - let alone environmental prioritization. Non-critical air travel will be one of the first economic casualties of diminished oil production and higher prices as fuel prices rise. And, don't expect biofuels which all dependent on peak petro-chemical and peak phosphate fertilizers at any significant product scale to ever have any substantial impact on replacing petroleum in non-critical air travel (or any other industry). Strategically, you are arguing that air travel should and will compete with human food production - and while human stupidity certainly knows no bounds - even the dullest will admit that using food for fuel - is a self-limiting problem. Unless a light wt. energy source is developed - air travel as we know it today - is already past tense. The extremely limited perspective assumptions of Aerotropolis as described in this article are scientifically and technically - willfully ignorant, and or at best naively silly.
There is an alternative to cities not mentioned here, and that's small town America. As someone who's resided in all types of living arrangements, I have to say that small towns have it over both cities and suburbs. Our town (pop. ~ 3600) is economically viable, unlike all the big cities and suburban areas. There's much less crime because everyone knows everyone else's business. It's a cleaner environment with better schools and friendlier people. A small town has all the benefits of urban/suburban living without any of the detriments. I think that all the factors that originally led to big urban environments developing have been mitigated by modern technology. The mega city has seen its day. Now, if we could only get a handle on our population growth, we could set about to make the planet a much better place!
In the 50s, we thought we'd be cruising along in our personal spaceships by now, living the life of the Jetsons. We just didn't consider the setbacks that were in the way of this glorious future. Yesterday, I received a pamphlet from some people touting crynogenics. Yes, I want to be freeze-dried so that I can wake up in some futuristic paradise. I wouldn't take a bet on that rosy future. There are still too many setbacks in the way. As for air travel, it was still pleasant to fly by plane in the early 80s, but even then one could see the decline in service. Since 9-11, every passenger is viewed as a potential terrorist. Plane travel is only pleasant if you like being scanned or groped, enjoy sitting like a sardine in the middle of a packed cabin, and have no problem with limitless delays and cancellations. But I suppose in the future, it will be different? Good luck to that.
Not only has the time for a lot of air travel come and gone, with all the restrictions ("gropings", radiations, limited quantaties of "personal" items, etc.), air travel has gotten to be more of a hassle than it is worth. SCREW the TSA!
Unless there is some ground breaking invention around packing enough energy into batteries that will allow for airplanes to travel without using any gas, we will never get to a stage where cities are built around air travel. It is simply not yet the common case to optimize for it.
"futurists" have been telling us that the future city will be built around air travel since the 1930's. yah, good luck.
Interesting that this appears the same week as a study saying that contrails may be a more significant climate problem than aircraft CO2 emissions. Increasing air travel is not sustainable and I don't see any zero-emissions aircraft in the works. Besides, with decent transit (e.g. high-speed rail) there is no need to build around airports.