The cities of the future will be built around airports.
Yesterday I interviewed John Kasarda, the coauthor of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next and the chief adviser at the Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone (which is one of the most kinetic new urbanization projects out there today), for a couple of articles for Forbes and the SCMP.
John could be classified as a visionary. A visionary isn’t just someone who comes up with some kind of innovative idea for how humanity could better progress in the future, but also provides a road map for how that idea can be realistically implemented as well as the enthusiasm to get other people on board to make it happen. John has all three.
In brief, the aerotropolis concept revolves around the idea that we live in an age where speed and efficiency has become an invaluable commodity in and of itself and air travel, our quickest means of transport, is taking on an increasingly elevated role in how we live, work, and get the things we need and want. John posits this as the fifth wave of evolution of transport-centered economics:
We once built our population centers around ocean ports, then moved inland to river and lake ports, then along railways, then along highways, and now the cities of the future will be built around airports. Each move in this evolution extends the reach of economies farther into the interior of land masses and enables more places to be kinetic hubs on the global trade network, to develop and compete. It’s a way of extracting the full economic potential of the planet.
Air travel is fast and more expensive, which means that the materials, products, and people being flown regularly are typically of the high-value type, which disproportionately raises the value and importance of the transport method. Today, the social and economic value of this form of transportation has grown to a point that it makes sense to begin centering our cities around it, like we did around the seaports of another age.
Basically, the typical urban design model of, and attitude towards, airports in the West is obsolete. We tend to view the airport as something pernicious, loud, and polluting that should be relegated to the extreme fringes of our urban areas, out of direct daily view of anyone but the working class shits who are unfortunate enough to have to live near them. But in the cities of the East the airport is now being embraced as a catalyst of connectivity that is essential to their economic competitiveness.
So in places all through Asia the aerotropolis model is being put into practice. There are places like Singapore and Dubai — which John referred to as city-states hanging off of airports — as well as cities in China like Zhengzhou and Chengdu and Seoul who are building up massive new cities around their airports.
The idea is to increase the value of the city as a place to do business and produce products by making it as easy and efficient as possible to access whatever is needed right from the airport — the city’s prime gateway. So factories are placed right next to the airport, corporate offices are erected right next to the airport, and the residences of people who are essential enough to need to fly regularly are right by the airport.
It’s a way of mitigating the great irony of air travel: we developed this extremely efficient, almost fictionally fast form of transport and then intentionally put it in inconvenient places that take a long time to get to. Flight time, in and of itself, is irrelevant; what’s important is porthole to porthole time: how long does it take to get from the office/home/factory/warehouse of the origin city to the office/home/factory/warehouse of the destination city. Placing airports far from the urban core is to severely hamstring their functionality.
During our conversation John laughed about how it used to take him two hours to get to O’Hare from where he lived in Chicago just to take an hour long flight across the country — which is a normal side effect of our current urban design conventions, but doesn’t mean it’s still not ridiculous.
The old adage that time is money is no better applied than to our current age where the stomping grounds of pretty much any big company isn’t a single country but an entire planet. We need to cover more distance faster and more readily than ever before, and it is the places that make this possible that are going to be the ones leading us into the future. China knows this, Singapore knows this, Dubai knows this.
We no longer live in an age where New York merely competes with Chicago or LA. New York competes with Chengdu and Baku and Kathmandu. Our global milk jug has been shaken up, and the cities which rise to the top will be the ones that give us what we need in the 21st century. And in the 21st century what we need is the same thing we’ve always needed: better connectivity, which is now best provided by the airport. The cities that don’t give us this will become about as relevant as a silted-up seaport.
In the future it will be the city that’s remote from the airport, not the other way around.
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