For a while now I've been reading about the "Aerotropolis" concept promoted by Dr. John D. Kasarda of the University of North Carolina and business writer and Fast Company contributor Greg Lindsay. The gist of this—as outlined in Lindsay's and Kasarda's new book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next, is that since air travel is the dominant form of transport for people and cargo, airports themselves will become a central feature of our cities. So I began thinking about why Bucktown (in Chicago) or Southie (Boston), for example, were places I had lived and enjoyed so thoroughly, in contrast to what made me dislike the environs of typical airports.
One article from the Airport Consultants Council describes airports as "non-places"—locations that lack identifiable history, character, or social value to their occupants. Furthermore, those occupants are usually just passing through; they don't have a sense of "belonging" there. Seems to make sense because—think about it—when did something awesome happen to you or someone you know out at O'Hare or Schiphol? Has anything cool ever happened at the William P. Hobby Airport in Houston? Not that I recall.
People don't develop personal histories at these places. So these places don't conjure associations of experiences or value or consequence. The obvious contrast is the once-blank slate of Orlando, imagined by farsighted developers as a future oasis for entertainment, but built on otherwise undervalued and undesirable land. Now, these places are...well, they are what they are. They are destinations whose identity has been manufactured, Vegas being the ultimate example. It is rather amazing.
Lindsay and Kasarda, by contrast, quite correctly observe that modes of transportation have always been the catalysts for the growth of cities—most notably seaports, railroad depots, and, more recently Interstates. Air travel will continue to be a central part of our lives and our businesses. So the idea that the next generation of cities will center on air travel is absolutely logical.
A contrarian point can be made that individuals don't live in libraries or restaurants, either; yet these places can hold great energy and spontaneity. Kasarda's focus on design and usability for business folk, residents, employees, etc., strives to illuminate the attributes that can transform a collection of buildings into something greater than its parts: a community.
We all know how to free associate, and, for "city of the future," my initial thought brings to mind Lando Calrissian and the Cloud City of our shared Star Wars reservoir of celluloid knowledge—a place that facilitates trade and travel. Although it is never made explicit in The Empire Strikes Back, you know for certain that the character played by Billy Dee Williams threw the best parties as administrator of Cloud City. Following the "Aerotropolis" train of thought, it seems to me that a really good place can be shaped by a really good leader—indeed, an airport Cloud City would need one. Interestingly, this is explored in a few possible models in Greg Lindsay's original "Aerotropolis" article in which he describes the relative merits of leaders like our archetypal Calrissian. Lindsay points out that there are certainly contemporary examples of business and social leaders who are choosing to follow the predictions of Dr. Kasarda, if not the larger-than-life example of Calrissian. One is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum of the UAE and Dubai; and the other is Robert A. Ficano of Wayne County, Michigan.
Clearly Dubai is a special place. The optimal conditions exist—credit where credit is due: those conditions were specifically created in Dubai—for social, cultural, and business exchanges between the East and West. Visionary individuals committed to a dream of new, more positive, and advanced pathways have worked very hard to realize their ideas. There is perhaps no place on earth right now that illustrates how much can be achieved by pure dogged persistence.
I enjoy Dubai. But some detractors criticize the city for what makes it Dubai, such as its lack of history or vibe. It feels a bit, well, airport-ish in both its ordered predictability and its just-passing-through occupants. There is no doubt that the sheikh is a prescient business leader and one who has furthered the progress of his citizens and their economy. But maybe his successor should be a different in character, perhaps more of a myth-making impresario. Someone more like the mythical Lando Calrissian.
Detroit is another aerotropolis altogether, and one where we may yet see intelligent people build out a true Cloud City emulating the vision of Lindsay and Kasarda. Evidently, the concept of an aerotropolis-type community has been well-received by the Wayne County folks, because planning is well under way on a Detroit Region Aerotropolis designed to reinvigorate trade and business expansion by wholeheartedly embracing the city planning strategy espoused by Kasarda.
If Detroit's historic can-do ethic is any guide, it may well be the right place for a revolutionary supply chain-driven Cloud City. One could argue that Motor City already possessed many of those attributes. I know a lot of us are pulling for Greater Detroit to make it happen.
It will surely take a generation or two for some of these places to get off the ground (no pun intended). Should it happen, people like me, who pass through airports without much thought as to how they got there, might change our habits. Perhaps at some indefinite point in our flying future road warriors will be able to abandon their negative "baggage" (pun intended) of impersonal TSA pat-downs, kiosks, and carousels, when airports and their surroundings are engineered more around people than tarmacs. Maybe some day, in a galaxy not too far away, aerotropolises will become actual "places" in the eyes of their occupants, and not just stopovers on the road to somewhere real.
www.amadeus.com • Twitter: @tentofortysix
[Image: Flickr user colorblindPICASO]