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Aerotropolis: A New Model for Cities?

Imagine a city where the airport is not located at the urban periphery but in the center of the city. All other facets of commerce and life flow from that central point, the city’s economic nucleus.

That is John Kasarda’s vision, known by the catchy appellation “Aerotropolis.” Kasarda’s futuristic airport city is premised on the notion that in a globalized economy, access to world markets is paramount. Since airports provide the fastest mode of shipping, he posits, they should be the figurative and literal city center, with businesses, cultural amenities and even homes organized around them.

That vision is attracting adherents in the Middle East and Asia, and the U.S. as well, most notably the city of St. Louis, which has been looking at the model as a potential avenue for economic and urban revitalization.

Is the Aerotropolis the city of the future? Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile has read Greg Lindsay’s new book “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.” The book raises important points about the nature of cities in a era when location can be reduced to a figure on a balance sheet. But ultimately, Renn is not convinced:

I think this is a great summation of perhaps how we got to where we are with globalization. Globalization is often portrayed as an inevitable, inexorable process that sort of came about as an emergent property of advances in transportation and communications technology. But as the aerotropolis – a master-planned environment conceived and dictated from the top down – illustrates, globalization is in fact a man-made creation, one willfully brought into existence by the efforts of various parties.

As for Kasarda, the impression I get from the book and various articles I’ve read about him is less of a man interested in getting rich than of someone who is looking for someone to implement his new vision of the aerotropolis city. In the video above, Kasarda quotes Le Corbusier in the title slide. Corbu famously proposed demolishing much of historic Paris in order to build a city of freestanding modernist towers. He was more than willing to sweep away the entire urban order in order to remake the city in accordance with what he thought was a better vision – his vision naturally.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the aerotropolis. Even where the nominal ingredients were in place (including authoritarian government), there seem to be precious few places where the aerotropolis has been pulled off successfully. In fact, the book probably relates as many failed as successful ones, and at no point did I read a case study and come away going, “Wow – that’s it.”

The aerotroplis, inhumane as it may seem at times, has its merits as an abstract idea, but the reality is likely rarely to match up to Kasarda’s expectations. As Dietrich Dörner put it in his classic The Logic of Failure, “Because planning involves only imagining our actions, we are essentially free from the irksome conditions of reality, and nothing prevents us from simply ignoring the conditions necessary to carry out an operation.” Indeed.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Matt Yglesias comments on Occupy Wall Street’s Brooklyn Bridge protest and the intersection of civil disobedience and public infrastructure. Straight Outta Suburbia says the 2009 Household Mobility Survey by U.S. DOT tells a different story about cycling and walking than the latest American Community Survey. And Bike Delaware puts pressure on its state DOT to do a better job sweeping street shoulders.

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