Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next
Greg Lindsay; John D. Kasarda
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
480 pp., 30.00
Noah J. Toly
The Kingdom of Efficiency
With Aerotropolis: How We'll Live Next, John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay have given us a sprawling parable of efficiency that begins with the true story of New Songdo, South Korea, a city already being built but not yet completed. With every square inch wired for the digital age and each residence and workstation equipped for video-conferencing, this "Cisco Smart+Connected" city could be built from scratch anywhere with an Internet connection. According to conventional wisdom, cheap land plus broadband ought to be the recipe for success. If place is elided by advances in communication and information technology, New Songdo—so it might seem—could be built in the middle of nowhere.
But New Songdo's developers chose to break ground in the middle of everywhere. New Songdo is just minutes away from Incheon International Airport, one of the world's newest and busiest hubs and the center of Asian air traffic. Along with its sustainability plan and IT architecture, the New Songdo website highlights the city's accessibility to the rest of the world—"3.5 hours to 1/3 of the world's population"—suggesting that globalization is at least as much about the efficient movement of people and goods as it is about the transmission of ideas. When complete, New Songdo will be "the urban incarnation of the physical internet."
The book's greatest insights are reserved for the seeming paradox of increasing urbanization in an age of globalization. Why is human settlement at unprecedented density occurring at the same moment as an unmatched movement of people, goods, and ideas? What is the relationship between extraordinary concentration and unparalleled diffusion? The answer is that "every technology meant to circumvent distances electronically … will only stoke our desire to traverse it ourselves," and as time is increasingly valuable, so is the ability to travel the globe at record speed. People gravitate toward places that provide the infrastructure necessary for air travel and transport, "crowding closer together so we can scatter across continents on a moment's notice." This union of "the Jet Age and the Net Age simultaneously [favors] aggregation and dispersal," changing the three rules of real estate from "location, location, location" to "accessibility, accessibility, accessibility." Rather than settling in cities principally because of their characteristic propinquity—the density of relations between actors within a community—we settle in cities mainly because of their network of relations to other cities around the world. Today, those networks are connected by sophisticated infrastructure for air travel and transport.
This helps explain the growing populations of existing cities with excellent air-travel infrastructure—Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Singapore, Tokyo. But these "proto-aerotropoli"—cities inefficiently and only incidentally built up around older airports—will not accommodate the burgeoning population of globe-trotting urbanites. The new wine of the global-urban age would burst the old wineskins of these accidental hubs. Anyone who has traveled through Heathrow, one of the world's busiest airports, knows that London cannot sustain large future increases in air traffic without major, and probably controversial, overhauls. What the world needs are hundreds of New Songdos, purpose-driven cities built for access to the rest of the world.
Kasarda and Lindsay make their case in a well-written and fast-paced account of the challenges, dilemmas, and potentialities of organizing human community around a node in the worldwide air transport network. Kasarda is a sociologist and business professor. Lindsay is a journalist who regularly writes about globalization and technology. While Kasarda didn't invent the term "aerotropolis," it's fair to say that he pioneered the constellation of concepts most important to the plans of aerotropolis boosters. In 1991, his "Global Air Cargo-Industrial Complex" modeled urban agglomerations intended to link up once again the factories, call centers, branch offices, and headquarters that had dispersed all over the world since the early 1970s. At the turn of the century, "Plans for the aerotropolis sprang from Kasarda's head fully formed … as a way to explain this, control it, plan for it … and maximize it." Since then, the itinerant Kasarda has formulated and sold plans to dozens of cities suggesting what they must do to obtain prosperity in our globalizing world. Recently, he has collaborated with Lindsay to popularize the aerotropolis concept. Kasarda is the brains behind the work, while Lindsay is the brawn, in a pen-is-mightier sort of way. Together the enterprising pair spreads the good news of Aerotropolis Business Concepts™.
The book is an easy read that sheds light on global commerce, airports, and the shapes of the cities that surround them. The authors' ambition to balance accessibility, clarity, and academic sensibility is both palpable and admirable, even if unfulfilled. Concepts like Saskia Sassen's "global cities," Richard Florida's "spiky world," David Harvey's "spatial fix," and Manuel Castells' "network society," which have sometimes felt too big and too complex even for these authors' own lengthy expositions, predictably confound Lindsay's attempts to relate them in a sentence or two. While it is easy to see the relevance of these landmark works in sociology and geography, such perfunctory treatment merely signals to insiders that the authors have done their homework.
The book also falls short in communicating governance challenges facing would-be aerotropoli. Choices about where and how to invest scarce resources to advance the common good are complicated. Should resources be invested in education, pollution abatement, community development, or a world-class airport to attract thriving corporations? How do benefits accruing to the transnationally mobile relate to the challenges of cities with large communities of relatively immobile citizens? These thorny issues involve difficult tradeoffs. Yet much of Aerotropolis leaves readers with the impression that the weightiest decision facing planners might be like the dilemma faced by Orange County, California—a choice described by Kasarda and Lindsay as an existential crisis over whether to "become the new Silicon Valley or preserve the gilded country club America imagined as the O.C." How tragic.
Still, the most disturbing aspect of Aerotropolis is its thoroughgoing embrace of efficiency, what French social theorist Jacques Ellul called "technique," or the "one best way." In 2006, The New York Times included "Aerotropolis" on its list of "The Year in Ideas," where it was joined by such inventions and schemes as "The Social Cue Reader," an "Emotional-Social Intelligence Prosthesis" meant to take subjectivity out of human relationships; "Tushology," the quantification of the human backside in pursuit of the perfect buttocks (because "if you stand naked and stare backward into the mirror, you have to confront reality"); and "Wine that Ages Instantly." While they betray the scope of technique, neither relying on gadgets to read social cues nor depending on systems for shapely derrieres portends the sort of dystopian world with which Ellul was preoccupied. And while the longtime resident of Bordeaux would likely have been appalled at "Wine that Ages Instantly," it is the aerotropolis that most troublingly submits to technique as a norming norm for social relations.
An "aerotropolis is an urban machine not for living but for competition," the one best way to organize human life for increasing interconnectedness in the global economy. All other aspects of human community and urbanism are subordinated to this demand for efficiency. For example, we may like to think that cities grow up more or less organically, developing their own aesthetic imprint, but aerotropoli are being built with the aesthetic sensibility of Disneyworld's Wilderness Lodge, where simulacra reign. While Kasarda and Lindsay skewer pre-worn façades and faux neighborhoods, they suggest we will simply have to live with a spooky lack of the cultural depth that typically characterizes even the most antiseptic suburb. Efficiency rules.
The authors are nevertheless sanguine about the contributions of aerotropoli to a sustainable and just future. They admit that the rapid deployment of new cities to serve the needs of global air transit carries massive environmental risks and tends to compromise democratic practice, but they trumpet the aerotropolis as our only hope for sustainability and equity in a cutthroat world where, as Ellul suggests, "Efficiency is a fact; justice is a slogan." In our technological society, only wholehearted devotion to technique holds any promise of saving the planet or the poor. Anything less flirts with disaster.
At this point, Aerotropolis evokes the conclusion of Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, Blood Meridian. Judge Holden, his ruthless band of mercenaries having met its demise, accuses one of its few surviving members, "the kid," of undermining the group's success through lukewarm commitment when only complete submission would do: "It was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man's share compared to another's. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not." Aerotropolis leaves the impression that Kasarda and Lindsay feel the same way about global air-transport nodes. If the future holds social and environmental oblivion, we will have only our halfhearted commitment to aerotropolis, "the logic of globalization made flesh," to blame.
The subtitle of Aerotropolis suggests a descriptive account: how we will live next. But for those with ears to hear, the extended parable betrays a normative argument: how we should live next. According to Kasarda and Lindsay, if we want to compete in the arena of the global economy—and compete we must—then we should organize human community in the service of efficiency, though it may efface all other ends. We should empty our hearts into the common and demonstrate unwavering commitment to making cities in the image of efficiency. Luckily, we will soon have a model of such surrender. The kingdom of efficiency is like New Songdo, and it is close at hand.
Noah Toly is director of the Urban Studies Program and associate professor of urban studies and politics & international relations at Wheaton College.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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