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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

“Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”

Air Date: Week of

In an age defined more than ever by air travel and global commerce, cities have taken flight – turning the metropolis into the aerotropolis. Greg Lindsay, co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” tells the story of our lives in the sky.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. 2000 years ago - all roads led to Rome. And while Rome wasn’t built in a day - today, it might not get built at all, because roads and riverways no longer dictate where cities are sited. It’s the highways in the sky that'll count, according to the authors of a new book "Aerotropolis: the Way We'll Live Next." It’s by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. Greg Lindsay recently talked with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: So what is the Aerotropolis?

LINDSAY: You know the idea of an aerotropolis is and you know it can mean either a city built from scratch if you’re China or India, or it can apply to the cities we already have, cities that are more connected globally to the other side of the world than they are to their own hinterlands. And, so you know, an aerotropolis can be, Dubai is an interesting example of a place that didn’t exist 20 years ago and only exists by the grace of air travel. Or it could mean a city like - in some ways - I think Dallas-Fort Worth is an example. There is a place - the notion of Dallas-Fort Worth didn’t exist until 1973 when the airport opened.

Air travel has changed the literal scope of our universe as it has made it possible for us to do things that were never possible even a generation or two ago. And I think in Europe that’s particularly more recognized.

There are some estimates that there’s a phantom suburb of a million people of London that basically commute from Spain and the Mediterranean on a weekly or daily basis. And that’s good for both the people who do it because they’re able to command those wages in London, and it’s an amazing thing for London, it makes London even more of a talent-bag, it makes that city even more vibrant and rich.

A plane lifts off from Ludhiana Airport in India. (Photo: Construction Week India)

CURWOOD: I gather this is a concept that was developed by you and Dr. John Kasarda, he teaches entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina. I think Dr. Kasarda sees this more as an airport that revolves around an urban layout, whereas you, Greg Lindsay, see this in broader terms, as a closer relationship with the air - something I think you’ve dubbed: ‘the instant age.’

LINDSAY: Yeah, I mean, one of the ideas that I wanted to sketch out in the book and sort of take Dr. Kasarda’s views a little more broadly, was really to sketch out how air travel underlies our daily lives more than we know.

I think most people tend to think of air travel as, you know, your annual holiday to Florida or California, when really you know that air travel has grown in the last 30 or 40 years into the mechanism that is globalization. I mean, it’s what delivers your iPad to your doorstep from China, it is what delivers increasing amounts of food from the other side of the world. It is this sort of whole system that has sprung up invisibly in the form of FedEx and UPS and others that support what we kind of think of as contemporary life.

Kasarda’s vision of the aerotropolis, so he imagines cities where the airport is the terminals are at the heart of the city and you can basically draw rings around it as functions that need to be close like cargo hangars are in the inner rings and then office parks and then so-on and so-on. That’s exactly what they’re sort of building in the middle of China right now. It’s fascinating.

CURWOOD: Now Greg, of all the cities that you’ve visited and studied in your research for this book, which one strikes you as the most compelling, or perhaps the most meaningful?

International planes parked at Dubai International Airport. (Dubai International Airport Media Center)

LINDSAY: I would say the most compelling to me was Dubai. And I don’t say this in a sort of sense that I enjoyed or I endorse it in some ways, but Dubai strikes me in many ways as the city of the future for good and for bad. And I think Americans should pay very close attention to it. Dubai basically remade itself as the crossroads of what’s being called the new Silk Roads - the trade routes that go from China to the Middle East, India and into Africa. This is sort of the navel of the world on the other side.
And I think it has repercussions for all of us because Dubai is a city that would not exist without America. Either because we kept them out, and also because our driving habit, our gasoline, basically paid for those towers to build. And so by our refusal to engage with those people on the opposite side of the world following 9-11, we basically left them to forge new connections between each other.

And as I touch upon in the book, you can trace those connections by their air routes. You can see how the Middle East has become a giant global air hub. You can see how these traders are moving back and forth through the region and I think it’s something we’ve missed. Too busy being focused on our McMansions and our wars.

CURWOOD: So Greg, what do these cities mean for the environment? You know, what about climate, what about peak oil? I know at this point, air travel is only about 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. On the other hand, it is two percent of global CO2 emissions.

LINDSAY: Well, you know, that’s an interesting thing. With cities, it really coming back to cities. That strikes me as the biggest challenge facing the world is, you know, cities are half of all people but they’re 70 percent of all electricity consumption. The built environment is the largest single source of CO2 emissions. I mean, it’s interesting.

You could look at the notion at the wave of city building, particularly around air travel and look at it as an ultimate negative, the thing that will finally push us over the edge, or, as a number of people have done, you can look at this opportunity to build it right this time. But, really, it comes back to the fact that we are going to double the urban footprint of the earth in the next 20 years and to me the larger question is, when it comes to peak oil and when it comes to climate change, is really the notion of globalism itself.

I just read a report by Greenpeace that the data centers, you know the kind used by Google and Facebook and everything else, is another two percent of all electricity consumption. And that doesn’t count the devices that we actually use. So whenever I read about or talk to people about that we need to cut back on travel, that we need to cut back on flying, the statistics show, you know, historically, that the more we communicate, the more we’re likely to fly.

Massimiliano Fuksas Architetto (New terminal at Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport in China.)

They’re not substitutes, they’re compliments. I do hope that in the case of aviation, that the next generation of biofuels can provide an answer, that we can basically scale this up because if we don’t, you know, I think we’re just going to see people fly regardless and pump increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

CURWOOD: So, how do you get people to go along with your view that the aerotropolis is the way that we’ll live next in a positive sense. I mean, my perspective of an airport and airplanes is that - what - on the airplane there is no leg room, there’s bad food, most people give out a groan when they think about going to the airport and dealing with the airport.

LINDSAY: Well I think the comedian Louis C.K. put it best when he did his classic sketch - you know - everything is amazing and nobody is happy. You know, you’re in a chair in the sky traveling at 600mph at 35,000 feet, I mean, you know, you can cross the country in six hours. Your scope of movement around the world is amazing, and we’re able to keep in touch with friends and family that we never had.

And we’re also able to do business on a scale - it allows people to really sort of market their skills and really engage with the world. I do a lot of flying and I still think that air travel is, at its core, something wondrous, something that is never achieved. It goes back to Icarus, it goes back to myth.

CURWOOD: How inevitable is the aerotropolis.

LINDSAY: Well, it depends on how you look at it. There’s a report that came out by McKinsey that I was just reading. It was called, sort of, ‘mapping the future of cities.’ McKinsey basically predicted that 100 cities by 2050, by 2025 actually, would have a third of all global growth. And the next five hundred would have the next third. So basically 600 cities would have two thirds of all growth going forward, and the rest sort of didn’t matter much, they were in the long tail.

And so you have leaders all over the globe right now, basically trying to figure out how to get their cities into the top 600, because otherwise, they see it as they don’t count. And those are the places that are sort of rushing to build these connections through the air. There will be these cities that are trying to force their way into the global trade route, force their way into becoming a world power, like a Dubai, which basically tried to present itself as an equivalent to London or New York in the span of 10 years. Those are the places that are sort of going to pursue this.

And I think it's easy for us in the United States to dismiss it and I think we fail to recognize to what lengths those aspiring to be, to live as comfortably as we do, will go to in an attempt to build themselves into world powers overnight.

CURWOOD: Greg Lindsay is co-author of “Aerotopolis, The Way We'll Live Next”. Thank you so much!

LINDSAY: Thank you for having me!

GELLERMAN: Greg Lindsay talking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.



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