The Aerotropolis, continued

In the comments from yesterday’s post on Norman Foster’s aerotropolis (and the idea of the aerotropolis in general), author Greg Lindsay dropped a note in the comments asking for me to expand my own thoughts on the idea and the book.  So, here goes.

Lindsay did note one specific comment from Aaron Renn’s review: “this is one of the best overviews of globalization I’ve read.”  I can’t disagree, and would certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in cities, infrastructure, globalization, economics, or any number of related fields. The challenge is to separate the various threads that weave through the book.  There’s the descriptive element, providing the overview of today’s airborne flows of commerce;  there’s the proscriptive element, taking Kasarda’s ideas and baking them into tangible proposals; and there’s the analytical element that assesses the implications of these trends and ideas. Most of the negative reactions to the book I’ve read seem to conflate these elements together instead of teasing them apart – and for whatever flaws the aerotropolis-as-business-plan might have, the descriptive and analytic elements of the book are invaluable.

The book’s descriptive elements are fantastic. BLDGBLOG’s interview with Lindsay highlights one example of the book’s explanatory power, showing how these systems work in our day to day lives:  “One of the things I tried to touch on in the book is that even actions we think of as primarily virtual lead to the creation of gigantic physical systems and superstructures without us even knowing it.” The descriptions of the logistics operations in Memphis and Louisville for FedEx and UPS are fascinating.

UPS WorldPort, from Bing maps

The accompanying narrative of aggolmerations of air freight reliant businesses near those hubs is equally fascinating. I write this having just placed an order from Amazon that I need delivered tomorrow, knowing the intricate dance that order will trigger. Knowing the physical processes behind a shoe order with Zappos is revealing, particularly given the level of automation and coordination required for fast delivery. The ‘cool chain’ explanation is equally intriguing.  Simply from a standpoint of understanding how things work, the book does an excellent job of pulling back the curtain.

Beyond just the work behind the consumer’s experience, Lindsay and Kasarda do a great job of explaining the clustering and agglomeration of various industries around these nodes of connectivity – the physical mark they leave on a place. The explanation of what an ‘organic’ aerotropolis looks like is fascinating, offering a tantalizing description of something we’ve all seen many times with our own eyes.

The proscriptive elements of the aerotropolis are less convincing.  There’s an element of the worst parts of civic boosterism built in.  Others have hinted at the tendencies towards authoritarianism.  Perhaps the more concerning aspect is the seeming simplicity of the application of the idea.  The book’s own cover art evokes the simplicty of SimCity, even after the preceding detailed explanation of the various exceedingly complex networks and agglomerations of the aviation system.  To be fair, neither Kasarda nor Lindsay advocate for a ‘build it and they will come’ approach, yet it’s hard to not come away with that mindset from some of the Chinese ‘instant city’ anecdotes.

The formulaic nature of Kasarda’s concept almost seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the powers of agglomeration and networks. It’s clearly not a matter of just building it and they will come, no matter how much transportation might be able to shape development and growth.  As critical as trade may be, there’s more to it than just that. Likewise, as mammoth notes, airborne trade is but a small fraction of the overall flows.  Even if the flows of capital, knowledge, and skills matter a great deal, there is still a physical component to all of this – and the dominant mode of that flow is still the intermodal container.

Problems with the aerotropolis aside, Lindays’s analytic discussions of the shortcomings of air travel are robust.  The discussion of peak oil and climate change is particularly compelling, given the frequency of this critique.  Assertions that the aerotropolis is irrelevant because of peak oil and/or climate change is just as absurd as the denigrations of high speed rail in the US based on some notion that any American system must also be a transcontinental one – neither critique expresses an understanding of the comparative advantages of the technology.

I hope that people don’t dismiss the book off-hand because of some notion of globalization or of climate change. The explanatory value alone is well worth the read, both in documenting today’s conditions as well as in discussing the implications of global networks more and more reliant on air travel and just-on-time logistics.

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