Aerotropolis is a book about globalization; about how the rise of jet travel changed the meaning of distance and the way cities are built. Ever since the first commercial jet plane took off in the 1960s the world has been taking to the skies faster and faster, going farther and farther, and flying more and more often.
But, jet planes do more than ferry people around—they make our just-in-time world possible. Thanks to the magic of air freight, corporations have perfected the art of international connectivity: the logistics of FedEx and UPS, supply chains of Wal-Mart and 747s of Boeing have combined to dramatically accelerate the speed of business and radically redefine the meaning of distance.
About a quarter of the way through Aerotropolis, Kasarda’s Law of Connectivity is introduced. It states that “Every technology meant to circumvent distances electronically… will only stoke our desire to traverse it ourselves” (112). This can be taken as the central premise of Kasarda’s worldview. It has a corollary: “for every message we send… there’s a chance it will lead us to meet face-to-face” (112). The implication of this Law is that international air travel will grow because of, not in spite of, the Internet. Thus, the aerotropolis—Kasarda’s vision of a city built around an airport.
More specifically, the aerotropolis is a new kind of city—spatially larger, sprawling and orbited around a major international air hub. They have existed in America for a long time—we just did not know it. One prime example is Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD). When it was built, the five-mile corridor of interstate that connected it to downtown was swampy emptiness. Today, “it has more hotel rooms than residents, and more office towers than downtown Kansas City” (46). The city came to the airport. Aerotropolis finds the same story in Los Angeles (LAX), Dallas (DFW) and Northern Virginia (IAD).
The underlying message of Aerotropolis is that airports bring economic growth, but that development must be managed or else the city will choke off the airport. (Case in point: Heathrow.)Thus, it is not simply enough to build an airport. In order to have a real aerotropolis there must be planning and zoning to efficiently allocate space for the office clusters, cul-de-sacs and malls that make up the aerotropolis.
If there were ever a perfect recipe for an aerotropolis it would be Asia’s export-led growth, rising middle class and authoritarian governments. China needs more than 100 new airports. Many are being built in the image of Kasarda’s aerotropolis. The Government of South Korea has commissioned New Songdo City, a pre-fab aerotropolis built by and for corporations. New Songdo City will be built on reclaimed land across a brand new bridge from Incheon International Airport, its raison d’être. It hopes to become the Hong Kong of Northern Asia—a place for expats who can take day trips to Bejing, Singapore and Tokyo to do their business.
While Asia builds, the West must learn how to manage the airports it already has. LAX and Heathrow have been sabotaged by NIMBYs, and have no room left to grow. Their respective cities, Los Angeles and London, have tried to build new airports elsewhere but have been unsuccessful. And herein lies the aerotropolis’ toughest challenge: those who build the airports are not those who use them. Ultimately, this becomes a communication problem: how to explain to various stakeholders—be they governments, corporations, farmers, unions, etc.—what an aerotropolis is and how it will help them.
Kasarda employs a utopian message, a vision of a world that is wholly connected. His aerotropolis is solely a hub in a global web of connectivity; connections that radically alter how we relate to each other: “As aviation increasingly connects the world’s people and places, we will simultaneously observe global homogenization and local diversification… Fashion, food, entertainment, gadgets, families, and work will diffuse even more rapidly throughout the world, creating strikingly observable commonalities among widely dispersed places while enriching the variety of products and services in those places.” (413).
As one reads Aerotropolis it becomes clear that the main character is a new type of citizen: one who spend the majority of his/her time flying from one country to another—from customer to customer—and only nominally lives anywhere. This is the person for whom an aerotropolis is built. All around the world, this new international citizenry is living in countries that are not their own, drawn to the opportunities of globalization and international trade, comforted by knowing their homes are only a short flight away. Ultimately, Kasarda is predicting that all citizens are becoming citizen diplomats; that the unyielding drive of connectivity will pull more and more people from their countries of birth and place them anywhere within 25 miles of an international airport.
David R. Mandel is in the Master’s of Public Diplomacy program at USC Annenberg