Aerotropolis: The way we will all live next

Choa has been involved in other ‘aerotropoli,’ including one at Hyderabad airport where a hospital has been built between two runways. “If you fly to India for a heart operation you don’t want to fuss around with taxis and things,” he explained.

The aerotropolis is ‘glocal,’ a place that draws on local competitive advantages (like cheap labour) even as it plugs into the planetary I-want-it-now faubourg. It is part of the universe dubbed ‘Airworld’ by John Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s business school, who also coined the phrase ‘the physical internet’ to describe the networks that ensure iPhones and winter cherries are always a click away.

In this speeded-up universe it makes sense to affix cities to airports on the model of the aerotropoli for those Airworld deities — Fedex and UPS — at Memphis and Louisville. Having begun life as an outlying curiosity, where planes taking off and landing were as wondrous as those in children’s picture books, the airport becomes the heaving heart of the metropolitan beast, its raison d’etre.

As the temple was to the Roman city, so the runway is to the Tennessee aerotropolis. The gods have become noisier and more restless.
Kasarda and his amanuensis, Greg Lindsay, have produced a book called ‘Aerotropolis:

The Way We’ll Live Next’ that sets out a hectic vision for the soon-to-be nine billion inhabitants of a small planet. As electronic connectivity demands its mirror image — the physical connectedness of human beings scrambling to keep pace with digital algorithms — the growth will be spurred that keeps us whole.

Already, Kasarda and Lindsay write, the numbers are compelling. While world GDP rose 154 per cent between 1975 and 2005, world trade grew 355 per cent. “Meanwhile, the value of air cargo climbed an astonishing 1,395 per cent. More than a third of all the goods traded in the world, some $3 trillion worth — but barely one per cent of its weight! — travels via air freight.”

Those numbers provide a useful image of a post-industrial world where air-freighted Chinese-made iPads, Ivory Coast sea bass and French foie gras satisfy the needs of the wealthy for instant gratification while those bound to defer gratification — like jobless workers of a de-industrialising middle America — scramble to get in the fast-lane to aerotropolis.

In a rosy view, Airworld serves the winners as it sets losers on an upwardly-mobile path with a basic wage. But I find a darker image insistent: of a frenzied world chasing its tail even as it devours scarce resources.

City-dominated world

Choa sees in the aerotropolis a symbol of a city-dominated world. “In the 19th century you had the apotheosis of empire, in the 20th century of the nation, and today of cities,” he told me. “The Chinese are not remotely interested in what the UK thinks, but they are very interested in London.” New Songdo, an aerotropolis near Seoul, does business with Sao Paulo; the South Korean-Brazilian relationship is but a detail.

All this is true, but where does it lead? The aerotropolis is everywhere and nowhere. Another image haunts me: of untethered hordes dreaming of frequent-flyer perks teeming through the global consumption arcades that are LAX or YYZ or AMS.

Nothing is contextualised in a world of anonymous bonds. As Will Self, the British author of the forthcoming memoir ‘Walking to Hollywood’, put it to me: “Airworld reduces people’s experience to jump cuts, sudden transpositions of scenes with no establishing shots between.” When air freight and travel are the principal economic drivers, disorientation sets in for Homo GPS Device. Self sees the drone as a logical extension of this disembodied mindset — what he calls ‘frequent-flyer warfare.’

His own epiphany came in London some years back when he realised with shock that he had never seen the mouth of the Thames. So began a quest to reestablish where he was in the world “in a visceral and muscular way.”

Self walked from London to New York — that is, he walked from central London out to Heathrow and from JFK into New York City — and found “Manhattan suddenly jammed into the Thames estuary, a continuous land mass forged from walking for two days.” In similar fashion he did a two-day trek from Dubai airport across the city and into the Empty Quarter — a traverse that found him alone among uprooted migrant workers of the ultimate Arab aerotropolis.

Before we commit headlong to Kasarda’s and Lindsay’s vision — what Self in a powerful critique of their work in the London Review of Books calls ‘the redeye flight to apocalypse’ — I recommend that we all take a walk out from our old cities to our airports with their supplicant aerotropoli, the better to measure where we really are, who we are, and where we want to go.

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