This used to just be a marsh. But by 2015 the unlikely partnership of a New Jersey office park developer and the South Korean government will have transformed it into a bustling, LEED-certified, metropolis the size of downtown Boston. Could this become the city of the future? In Aerotropolis, we see how this prefabricated city came to be.
Stan Gale was exultant. The chairman of Gale International yanked off his tie, hitched up his pants, and mopped the sweat and floppy hair from his brow. He beamed like a proud new papa, sprung from the waiting room and handing out cigars to whoever happens by. Beckoning me to follow, he sauntered across eight lanes of traffic toward his baby, New Songdo City, delivered prematurely days before.
Ten years ago, Gale was a builder and flipper of New Jersey office parks. But his fate began to change in 2001 with a phone call from South Korea. The Korean government had found his firm on the Internet and made an offer everyone else had refused. The brief: Gale would borrow $US35 billion from Korea’s banks, partner with its biggest steel company, and use the money to build from scratch a city the size of downtown Boston, only taller and denser, on a muddy man – made island in the Yellow Sea. When Gale arrived to see the site, it was miles of open water. He signed anyway.
New Songdo won’t be finished until 2015 at least, but in August 2009, Gale cut the ribbon on its hundred – acre Central Park modeled, like so much of the city, on Manhattan’s. Climbing on all sides is a mix of low – rises and sleek spires – condos, offices, even South Korea’s tallest building, the 305m Northeast Asia Trade Tower. Strolling along the park’s canal, we heard cicadas buzzing, saws whining, and pile drivers pounding down to bedrock. I asked whether he’d stocked the canal with fish yet. “It’s four days old!” he spluttered, forgetting he wasn’t supposed to rest until the seventh.
As far as playing God (or SimCity) goes, New Songdo is the most ambitious instant city since Brasília appeared fifty years ago. Brasília, of course, was an instant disaster: grandiose, monstrously overscale, and immediately encircled by slums. New Songdo has to be much better, because there’s a lot more riding on it than whether Gale can repay his loans. It has been hailed since conception as the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. A green city, it was LEED certified from the get—go, designed to emit a third of the green house gases of a typical metropolis its size. It’s supposed to be a “smart city” studded with chips talking to one another, running the place by remote control. Its architects borrowed blueprints from Paris, Sydney, Venice, and London, sketching what might become the prettiest square mile in Korea. (Nearby Seoul is a forest of colossally ugly apartment blocks.)
New Songdo isn’t so much a Korean city as a Western one floating offshore. Smart, green credentials aside, it was chartered as an “international business district” – a hub for companies working in China. Worried about being squeezed by its neighbours, New Songdo is Korea’s earnest attempt to build an answer to Hong Kong. To make expatriates feel at home, its malls are modeled on Beverly Hills’, and Jack Nicklaus designed the golf course. But its most salient feature is shrouded in perpetual haze opposite a twelve-mile-long bridge that is one of the world’s longest. On the far side is Incheon International Airport, which opened in 2001 on another man- made island and instantly became one of the world’s busiest hubs.
“They tracked us down, wanted us to build a city in the ocean, and no one else was interested? What was going on here?” Gale told me, still dazed. “Their vision scared everyone else away. It wasn’t until I saw the airport that I understood where they wanted to go with this.” China. His sales pitch to prospective tenants is simple: move here, and you’re only a two – hour flight away from Shanghai or Beijing, and four hours away at most from cities you’ve never heard of, like Changsha. Chairman Mao’s hometown happens to be larger than Atlanta or Singapore. Nearly a billion people are a day trip away. When Stan Gale looks at a departure board, he sees a trea sure map. And when he gazes upon his creation, he sees potentially dozens of new cities, each next to a dot on that map.
“There’s a pattern here, repeatable,” he said that summer, stunning his partners with plans to roll out cities across China, using New Songdo as his template. Each will be built faster, better, and more cheaply than the ones that came before. “It’s going to be a cool city, a smart city!” he promised. “We start from here and then we are going to build twenty new cities like this one, using this blueprint. Green! Growth! Export!” Their jaws dropped. “China alone needs five hundred cities the size of New Songdo,” Gale told me, and he is planning to break ground on the next two. How many will be umbilically connected to the nearest airport? “All of them.”
To the jaundiced American eye, New Songdo and its clones might appear to be fantasies left over from the Bubble. But dismissing them as the product of Asia’s infatuation with all things mega misses the carefully calibrated machinery underneath. It’s a machine the rest of us ignore at our peril as we enter the next phase of globalisation – one marked by the shift from West to East and the trade routes up for grabs in between. It even has a name, which Stan Gale pronounced for me with a flourish: “It’s an aerotropolis.”
It isn’t his word. The man who taught it to him is John Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina who has made a name for himself with his radical (and some might say bone – chilling) vision of the future: rather than banish airports to the edge of town and then do our best to avoid them, we will build this century’s cities around them. Why? Because people once chose to live in cities for the wealth of connections they offered socially, financially, intellectually, and so forth. But in the era of globalisation, we choose cities drawing closer together themselves, linked by fiber—optic cables and jet aircraft. Stan Gale is simply taking this idea to its conclusion, building a network of instant ones joined by their airports.
Many aerotropoli will evolve out of the cities we already call home – only their highways and byways will lead us to terminals instead of downtown. For instant ones like New Songdo, Kasarda has drafted a set of blueprints replete with air trains and “aerolanes” connecting prefab neighbourhoods and business districts. They range in size from a few thousand residents to a few million. Aerotropoli designed according to his principles are under way across China, India, the Middle East and Africa, and on the fringes of cities as desperate as Detroit and as old as Amsterdam. In Kasarda’s opinion, any city can be one. And every city should be.
The aerotropolis represents the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities. Whether we consider it to be good or simply inevitable, the global village holds these truths to be self – evident: that customers on the far side of the world may matter more than those next door; that costs must continually be wrung from every piece of every business in a market-share war of all against all; that the pace of business, and of life, will always move faster and cover more ground; and that we must pledge our allegiance if we want our iPhones, Amazon orders, fatty tuna, Lipitor and Valentine’s Day roses at our doors tomorrow morning. If the airport is the mechanism making all of these things possible, Kasarda reasons, then everything else — our factories, offices, homes, schools – will be built accordingly. The aerotropolis, he promises, will be a new kind of city, one native to our era of instant gratification – call it the Instant Age.
The Man with the Plan
If, 30 years ago, John Kasarda had tried telling a mayor to build his city around the nearest airport, the mayor would have told Kasarda he was crazy, and he would have been right, judging by the available evidence. Looking back now, however, the aerotropolis seems inevitable, at least when we stop to consider what a city is, what we want from it, and what we gain from living in one.
I first met him in his office, surrounded by model planes received as gifts from one foreign delegation or another. The only other place I’ve ever seen him is in an airport. You have too, I bet, floating in your peripheral vision: delayed in Hong Kong’s, laying over in London’s, or maybe wending his way through customs at New York’s JFK, back from Bangkok or one of his conferences in Beijing. He’s the one in the noniron shirt and wrinkle- free suit, jet lag stamped on his face. He’s flown more than three million miles in the last quarter century- farther than any of the men who set foot on the moon. He’s up in the air two months a year, flying far enough to circle the globe a half-dozen times. But his numbers are barely half of his peers’. He blends in with all the middle-aged men in first class whom you pass on your way to coach, because he’s one of them – the travelling salesmen recognise him, academic posting or not, as one of their own. They’re his tribe.
Kasarda’s mother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers. Chat him up at the gate and he’ll spit out long strings of professorial verbiage about “spatial friction”, “sustainable competitiveness” and “the physical internet”. Listen closely enough, however, and the technobabble crystallizes into themes that have obsessed him since his teens: our lot in life is shaped by circumstance; our fates are not necessarily ours to choose.
He knew this instinctively growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, near the end of King Coal’s reign in the 1950s. He was thirteen when the miners dug upward into the Susquehanna’s riverbed, which then collapsed. A dozen died, 69 others escaped, and he watched the survivors fail to plug the ensuing whirl pool. “We knew this was the end,” Kasarda recalled. “They couldn’t change that, no matter what they did.” Their fate was sealed long before the flood.
At Cornell, where he studied economics as an undergraduate and simultaneously earned an M.B.A., he clashed with professors more interested in defining deviancy than in divining the order of things. One instructor sneered at his apostasy, comparing him to Amos Hawley, the dissident who developed the field of “human ecol ogy” to ask the big – picture questions his colleagues wouldn’t touch. How do we adapt to our environments? How does this shape the way we start families, build cities, launch companies, found institutions? And how do these, in turn, determine how we see the world? So Kasarda followed Hawley to the University of North Carolina and set to work disassembling the machinery of everyday life. He became a professor himself at the University of Chicago in 1971.
He hadn’t seen any hints of the aerotropolis yet. It would be another two years before Frederick W. Smith moved home to Memphis with his start-up Federal Express in tow. Its airport was typical of the time, with two stubby runways too short for the new 747s, and its most frequent fliers belonging to the Tennessee Air National Guard. If an airline wanted to fly to Chicago, it needed permission from the government; if you wanted to, you called your travel agent, because the Internet was then still just a science experiment.
Twenty years later, by now a professor at North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, Kasarda had seen enough of NAFTA to know that factories were headed overseas, and call centres, branch offices, and even headquarters would soon follow. They would all need to link up again somehow, and faster than before. “The Global Air Cargo–Industrial Complexes” was his first stab at explaining it in 1991, imagining factories lining the runways someday. FedEx saw these schematics and called seeking his help — it was grappling with something called e-commerce. Amazon.com and its ilk didn’t exist at the start of the nineties, but by the end they had transformed both FedEx and Memphis. New business models begat new companies, new jobs, and a new way of life for the quarter of the city’s one million residents now in orbit around the airport.
Plans for the aerotropolis sprang from Kasarda’s head fully formed at the millennium as a way to explain this, control it, plan for it… and maximise it. Suddenly, he held the plans to build an airport that was more than just an airport, and the world beat a path to his door. Memphis called, wanting to double down and remake itself as “America’s Aerotropolis”. Detroit, searching for life after the Big Three, wondered if its airport held the answer. Kasarda’s brainchild first made him a regular on the Chamber of Commerce luncheon circuit, then attracted offers to chair conferences, and then meetings with foreign ministers. Soon, he was being summoned to China, India, Taiwan and Thailand, where he emerged from closed – door meetings with “aerotropolis” dripping from bureaucrats’ lips. He is the rare scholar whose ideas have consequences, for whose ideas governments have staked billions of dollars on his instant cities and strategy. His vision draws on de cades’ worth of data showing the trend lines creeping steadily upward.
There is still a bull market for business gurus, and Kasarda’s stock has steadily climbed as “competitiveness” became the idée fixe of not just CEOs but also mayors and presidents. The Econ 101 approach of “I’m a Mac” vs “I’m a PC” doesn’t hold water anymore. Half the battle in any market is now fought by invisible armies of suppliers, any of which might be arming both sides. “Individual companies don’t compete,” Kasarda told me. “Supply chains compete. Networks and systems compete.” And so, it follows, do the cities and countries they call (for the moment) home. Kasarda is probably shuttling between Taipei and Bangalore right now, following the herd whose paths he’s already traced. Not that he’s enjoying it. The man hailed by trade ministers as the prophet of living our lives aloft is disinclined to fly, if only because he does so much of it. There’s no irony in this. His finding isn’t that we should take to the skies in a perverse reprise of the Jet Age, but that we must, or else this flat world we’ve gotten used to will remember its former shape.
You don’t need to see New Songdo for a vision of this future. Visit Kasarda at home in Chapel Hill, which forms one side of the urban triangle that lends its name to Research Triangle Park. The park opened in 1959 as a magnet for high – tech talent, which was then in short supply. A few years later, IBM arrived with the first group of some eleven thousand employees. Monsanto, GlaxoSmithKline and dozens of other companies followed, sloughing off pieces of themselves to Tobacco Road, a five-hour drive from Washington, six hours from Atlanta, but only an hour’s flight from Manhattan. When Lenovo bought IBM’s ThinkPad line six years ago, it moved its headquarters there from China. The CEO’s office is exactly three minutes from the airport (I’ve timed it), and needs to be, considering how often he flies to Singapore and Beijing.
“Despite all the talk of the service economy, of health care and software as our national industries, ours is still a goods economy,” Kasarda once explained to me. “Even most ser vices are concerned with paying for goods. And the people performing those ser vices need iPods and computers, which create manufacturing jobs somewhere – today, in China. Aside from education, entertainment, and health care, we consume very little in the way of pure ser vices. And health care is increasingly about the goods given to the patients.
“A large and growing proportion of these goods moves internationally, as a consequence of trade and modern supply chains. Components are made in a dozen different countries and assembled in a 13th. They move by air either because there’s an emergency, because it’s too valuable to sit in a ware house, or because it’s perishable, like flowers, fish, and pharmaceuticals. All of this passes through a physical Internet, the network of hubs and planes for trading and transporting goods – and people – almost as quickly as the internet itself. And it’s arguably more important- the Web can’t move your box from Amazon.
“The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of this physical internet; the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions- and to observe the consequences. The three rules of real estate have changed from location, location, location, to accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost. And if you look closely at the aerotropolis, what appears to be sprawl is slowly evolving into a system reducing both. It’s here where we can see how globalization will reshape our cities, lives, and culture.”
Excerpted from AEROTROPOLIS: THE WAY WE’LL LIVE NEXT by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. All rights reserved.
Images of Songdo International Business District are the courtesy of Gale International
John D. Kasarda is a professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Greg Lindsay is a journalist who has written for Time, Fortune, BusinessWeek, and Fast Company.
Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next is available from Amazon.