The Aerotropolis: Will the Cities of the Future be Giant Airports?

To most people, building an entire city around an airport probably seems like a terrible idea. First of all, airports just aren’t fun — especially in the US, they’re irritating places and filled with never-ending lines, over-priced food, and irascible TSA agents. And that’s to say nothing of the pat downs. Second of all, they’re usually sprawling, aesthetically offensive, and loud — most cities go to good lengths to relegate its airport to the outskirts for a reason.

So why does John D. Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business-school professor, author and consultant, think that the cities of the future will be built around airports? Why does Kasarda insist that today’s successful metropolises will become tomorrow’s aerotropolises?

It really boils down to a single idea: he believes that cities with major airports and air-shipping capacity will become the next great port cities in coming years, and that cities can flourish if they’re built with the aim of producing and moving air freight. Kasarda describes his vision in an upcoming book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. According to Metropolis magazine (which reviews the book here), an aerotropolis goes something like this:

It’s a city that’s built around an airport, the bigger the better, with factories and/or traders, both dependent on air freight, close by, followed by a ring of malls and hotels, followed by a ring of residential neighborhoods. The airport isn’t an annoyance, located as far out of the way as possible, but the city’s heart, its raison d’être.

And it looks something like this:

We already have a few cities in the United States that roughly adhere to this model — Memphis, our nation’s major FedEx hub, and Seattle, the home of Boeing. But as the book notes, the idea is really gaining ground in the place you’d expect, the place where giant cities are being built before our eyes at feverish rates. China, of course: “The aerotropolis phenomenon … is happening with a vengeance in Asia. China, of course, is currently building scores of airports, many intended to shift economic activity away from the factory-clogged Pearl River Delta and to its isolated western cities.”

Aerotropolis planned for Wuhan, China

On its face, the concept of the aerotropolis seems like a solid, adequately ambitious vision for the cities of the future — yet it’s anything but. Metropolis pokes a few holes in the economic theory behind the concept, pointing out that aerotropolises will essentially be glorified company towns, whose economies are pegged to the corporations that produce goods and ship them out there. If the industry wired to the air freight infrastructure declines, so does the city, and we’ve got a bunch of futuristic Detroits on our hands.

While the vision of a city based around an airport may seem novel, there are such aerotropolises already in existence, like Ecuador’s capital, Quito (pictured above) — and it’s considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world due to the difficulty of landing planes there (it’s also at a high elevation). Especially with our nation’s aging fleet of 747s, I’m not sure how enthusiastic we should be about putting airports in the middle of our major cities — the design inherently leaves quite a lot vulnerable to human error.

But that’s really just a quibble — the real reason that aerotropolises aren’t feasible is that they simply don’t look far enough ahead. Much of smart money is now arguing that planes, as a means of commercial transportation and moving freight, are on their way out — jet fuel is already extremely expensive, and its fluctuating costs make our airlines dependent on federal subsidies to stay afloat. Airlines are already on shaky ground, seeing year after year of declining profits — as oil grows scarcer, and with no alternative fuel (algae, biomass) approaching viability, it appears we’ll soon be looking for alternative means of transporting goods and taking vacations. Which means the cities of the future are more likely to run on high speed rail than airplanes.

So until we find a more sustainable way to power our planes, it’s unlikely we’ll see too many city planners commit to the vision of the aerotropolis.

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Image: PSFK, Metropolis

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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