Norman Foster's aerotropolis

Image via Foster+Partners

Norman Foster is working on a concept for a massive new airport complex for London along the Thames Estuary. I first saw this (via ArchDaily) thanks to a shared Google Reader item (alas, no more) from Neil Flanagan.  Yesterday, Planetizen points to an Atlantic piece on the subject, featuring new renderings from Foster + Partners posted on DesignBoom:

understanding the transportation challenges facing britain, london-based practice foster + partners, have collaborated with consulting firms halcrow (international) and volterra (UK) for a self-funded study producing the ‘thames hub vision’, a detailed report that uses scale and strategic cross-sector thinking to design an integrated infrastructure network. the masterplan proposes to replace the existing thames barrier with a new crossing that will extend london’s protection from floods into the 22nd century. it will mitigate the capital from rising storm levels, free up vital land for development and harness tidal power to generate carbon-free energy.

building on existing transportation lines to the north, east and west of london ‘the hub’ will avoid future congestion into the city. an orbital rail system with a four-track, high-speed passenger and freight route will link london’s current radial lines, with a future high-speed rail line to the midlands and the north, the thames estuary ports, high speed 1, and european networks. by minimizing the developmental impact the environmental strategy aims to provides new wildlife habitats landscaped within the spine.

This is more or less the Aerotropolis in a tangible proposal.  John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay’s book spends a great deal of time on Heathrow; the inability of various cities (Chicago, Los Angeles) to build new and needed airports for various reasons; and cities that have done so through planning or via accident (Dulles, Dallas, Denver). Heathrow’s capacity constraints serve as a drag on not just London’s economy, but as a drag on key link in the global transport network.

Having read the book but never gotten around to a review, I thought I’d take this moment to highlight some of the more interesting thoughts I’ve come across regarding the importance of aviation as well as the aerotropolis concept.

Recently, Aaron Renn penned a somewhat pessimistic review of the somewhat totalitarian implications of planned aerotropoli:

A few things jumped at me out of the book. One of them is the close linkage between the aerotropolis and its boosters with authoritarianism (and by extension, similarly for globalization and its boosters). The second is that, despite vast sums of money and authoritarian rule, I didn’t come away with a sense of anyplace in the world that had fully pulled off Kasarda’s vision. Indeed, there are as many or more failures than successes. And even those successes are far from perfect ones.

Renn does highlight the fundamental issue, regardless of Kasarda’s plans and predictions: that aviation is a tremendous force in globalization and the flows of commerce. (For more on the tension between singular vision and democracy, see Alon Levy’s post on consensus and vision)  Back in March, mammoth made the case that the aerotropolis is merely the symbol of globalization.  Air travel might be the sexy mode, but the real work of global trade should probably be symbolized by the intermodal cargo container and all of its associated infrastructure.

It seems to me that the “aerotropolis” (particularly on the more restricted Kasarda definition) is more a symbol of globalization than it is the ultimate instantiation of globalization.  Sea shipping is (and was for centuries before the invention of flight) the dominant mode of global transport.  To get an indication of the difference in magnitude between sea and air shipping, just look at Shanghai, the world’s busiest cargo port by tonnage, and Memphis, the world’s busiest airport by tonnage: Memphis sees about three million tons a year; Shanghai sees around five hundred million tons a year.  This is not a statistical aberration.

(As an aside, Matt Yglesias makes the point that even in the age of global trade, geography and proximity still matter.) Renn also points out that theaerotropolis is ultimately a measure of connections and networks – and the idea of the aerotropolis as a proscription isn’t nearly as strong as it is in description:

The lesson I draw is that while good air connectivity is critical for a city in the global economy – indeed, I almost draw my threshold population for what constitutes a minimum viable city in the globalized world in terms of whether or not it is big enough to support a major airport – the airport is only one ingredient needed for success, not the entire recipe. Cities that pin their hopes too heavily on airport led transformation are bound to be disappointed. And even if you go in with the best of intentions trying to do airport development right, you are far from guaranteed to have success.

Renn’s critique is well put, though I feel it ends up talking past some of the broader themes that Lindsay and Kasarda highlight in favor of deconstructing Kasarada’s specific, proscriptive vision for the future of air travel.  In many ways, their main thesis isn’t anything new, just another example of transportation infrastructure shaping human development.

Also disputing the tone of telling is what we want, Kazys Varnelis disputes the book’s tag line, “the way you’ll live next.”

The answer is that the Aerotropolis is already here and it’s really not all that exciting. I went on two international flights in the last two weeks. Newark International Airport is about a half hour drive from the apartment I rent while La Guardia is about a half hour cab ride from Columbia. Do I really need to be closer? Could I really be closer, like the inhabitants of Kowloon Walled City who had jets pass by a hundred meters overhead?

No. I am far enough away that I don’t hear the noise from the planes too often, don’t viscerally experience the pollution, and don’t feel something is going to crash on my head.

Today, the City Paper linked to some great photos from the National Archives from the 1970s, including one of the District as a parking lot during a 1974 transit strike.  Varnelis’ words echo the last image in the set of a DC-10 on approach into Logan Airport in Boston in 1973:

For more on Aerotropolis (the book), see this excellent interview with co-author Greg Lindsey at BLDGBLOG.

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