Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next

Instant cities and a not-so-Jetsonian future.

As a kid, I took it for granted that by now we’d be riding around in space cars, á la The Jetsons, flying from place to place with our feet hardly ever touching the ground. According to John D. Kasarda, professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Greg Lindsay, writer and co-author of Aerotropolis: the Way We’ll Live Next, daily air travel is here – though not in the way we once imagined.

Instant cities with matching airports are popping up at record speed, drawing vast pools of money and people, but it’s hardly the Jetson vision of high-speed space bubbles propelling people across town. An aerotropolis, says Kasarda, is defined as “an airport-integrated region, extending as far as sixty miles from the inner clusters of hotels, offices, distribution and logistics facilities.” No futuristic fantasies here, just a new approach to how we get to and work with cities.

Kasarda has spent hundreds of hours up in the air, touching down just long enough in places like Bangkok and Detroit to discuss cities of the future with eager entrepreneurs and government officials.

Since ancient times, cities have been built near transportation centers, whether they are on rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates, ports like Bordeaux, or the railroad yards of Chicago. Kasarda and Lindsay’s book makes the case that a city like Chicago is what it is now because of O’Hare (up until recently, the busiest airport in the world).

Yesterday’s Chicago is today’s Dubai, or Shenzhen, or Memphis. Yes, Memphis, thanks to Federal Express, which had no small part in turning the area near Graceland into the cargo capitol of the United States. Cosmopolitan Dubai is practically old news, though it’s interesting that New York University now has a campus in this Gulf state.

Dubai’s Atlantis Hotel is considered an architectural wonder.

Shenzhen is a textbook aerotropolis. Located on the Pearl River Delta, north of Hong Kong, it is easily accessible by train, plane and ship. A former fishing village, its port is now strewn with containers carrying electronics and other goods leaving and coming to China. The airport is a major hub for commerce and inter-Asian travel. It has had its own stock exchange since 1990 and is a modern city in every way, serving as a model for future aerotropolis’s in China.

Downtown Shenzhen

Other Asian nations are racing to create efficient, prosperous urban dwellings. New Songdo City, a green, LEED certified city, is being built on a man-made island off the coast of South Korea. By the time it is finished in 2015, it will have a replica of New York’s Central Park, a Jack Nicklaus Golf Course, South Korea’s tallest building and all the business and lifestyle amenities needed to attract foreign businesses. One of its most important features is that its airport will serve as a gateway to the rest of Asia and South Asia without being terribly far from Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

The authors believe the most futuristic cities will be ones modeled on the aerotropolis, with the purpose of providing jobs, creating growth and adding to national prosperity. For builders and planners in renowned cosmopolitan cities like London, New York and San Francisco, this rise of the aero-city may sound inauthentic, perhaps even fatal to the city as we know it. But given that 80% of the world will be living in one by 2050, the notion of what makes a city hospitable is bound to change.

Image: rickyqi, Lori Greig, Phil