Emerging Issues: Big Think Books, Part Two: Cities and Destiny

April 4, 2011

by Bill Barnes

"Transportation is destiny."

"Aerotropolis" spins out the consequences of that prophecy. Urban areas will re-orient - and new cities are even now being built - around airports because air travel is the latest logistical technology (think harbors, river ports, canals, railroads, cars) that determines where and how urban areas develop.

Greg Lindsay wrote the book based on John Kasarda's framework. One third of all goods traded in the world travels by air freight. They claim that flying produces only 2 percent of all the carbon emissions in the world.

An aerotropolis is "an airport-integrated region, extending as far as sixty miles from the inner cluster of hotels, offices, distribution and logistics facilities." China "is building hundreds of airports and dozens of aerotropli." South Korea, the Gulf Emirates and India are also in the game.

A chapter about the Detroit region reports on efforts underway to create an aerotroplis in Southeast Michigan. It would develop between the two big existing airports in the region (Willow Run and Detroit Metro). Right now, what's there are "an interstate and a hundred square miles of more-or-less-empty land." A new airport-centered "downtown" would essentially turn its back on the existing metropolitan area.

There's no room in this book for sentimentality about people and places left behind or about other strategies being carried out; no concern for community or democracy or quality of life. Just speed and access and supply chains and success. It's a world system business strategy with a place-based solution, what Richard Florida in "The Great Reset" calls a "spatial fix."

The authors acknowledge that this is rather chilling. But they insist it's necessary and a Good Thing.

What else is destiny?

The other Big Think Books (BTBs) discussed here and in last week's column mention airports hardly at all. (See March 28 issue of Nation's Cities Weekly.)

Kotkin's "The Next Hundred Million" declares that demography, not transportation, is destiny. (Freud said that biology is destiny, but we won't go there.)

Whatever destiny may be, it seems that a convention of Big Think wisdom is that economic trends are the most significant underlying factor shaping cities. "Aerotropolis" is the most explicit and extreme in urging that cities adapt fully to economic change: Kasarda and Lindsay call for "cities built in globalization's image - machines for living linked in great chains and tasked with specific functions." As E.M. Forster admonished us in a wildly different context, "only connect."

Glaeser's "Triumph of the City" similarly urges cities to adapt to the age of information. Fitting cities into Thomas Friedman's "golden straitjacket" for policy in globalization's "flat" world, Glaser says, in a nice twist on Friedman, the world "isn't flat, it's paved."

A lesson from the examples in these books might be that adapting for future success is a long-term endeavor and requires some luck in the choice of adaptation. So it's not clear how this focus on "adaptation" and on "allowing change" helps guide decisions. To which burdensome trend should cities adapt? Which faddish change should they allow?

One corollary of the economic conventional wisdom is that the United States needs a whole new platform of "the physical infrastructure necessary for basic production and transportation," such as high-speed rail (and airports.)

The less-is-more recommendations in Calthorpe's "Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change" are a direct challenge to this line of policy. His "Green Urbanism" low carbon scenario envisions "a drastically reduced physical footprint" including less infrastructure, less land consumed and less auto use.

Human Capital

Another piece of Big Think wisdom is that "human capital" is a key to cities' success. Glaeser says it's "far more" important than infrastructure but devotes more pages to buildings. His preferred strategy is to "help poor people, not poor places."

Kotkin predicts that America's "most critical challenge ... may be maintaining the prospect of upward mobility." Meeting that challenge depends on getting rid of a "dangerous delusion" - the "single-minded emphasis on non-tangible industries" like finance and "creative" sectors.

The latter is a dig at the recent fad around Florida's "creative class." Florida, having heard this critique many times by now, declares we must "increase the analytical and social aspect of all jobs" especially upgrading the compensation and status of service sector jobs.

There is about all these books a whiff of triumphalism, a clever certainty about what is best, about what the future holds, and about the superiority of the analysis offered. It's a hazard of the genre and can produce a bit of blindness to complexity.

These five Big Think Books also exhibit their authors' broad knowledge, creative and generous intelligence, and their courage to take on large and difficult topics. One could start with any of these quite readable books to engage the provocative, befuddling and absolutely important public conversation about the future of cities.

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org.

To read previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage.