The Cities That Aircraft Built

Technology 2013-06-14

There is a common attribute of most of the cities we live in according to the majority of speakers at the excellent Future Everything conference. These conurbations are “The cities that cars built when we weren’t looking”. Truth be told, you can see what they mean. Ask yourself; does your city work better for you, or for your car? Are the endless flyovers, the uncrossable highways and the alien subterranean tunnels built with the person in mind? Whether you see it as a misplaced faith in the promise of the automobile, or a more cynical capitalist drive by automobile makers, it’s not hard to argue that the last half of the twentieth century belonged to the car.


All of which was, on many counts (social, economical and environmental), a disastrous move.


So when the next raft of city development sees air travel at its centre, it’s easy to be as excited as it is afraid. It promises to flip the model of the city on its head. No longer will the gridlocked centre see a jerky stream of traffic flow lifelessly out to the stranded, remote airport. With business being truly global in our time, no longer is the quickest motorway to the nearest city the most important route. The most important route now is whichever one gets you into the air quickest.


Dr John Kasarda, author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”  analysed the economic impacts and business benefits of our current relationship with air travel, started the movement for the airport city around the turn of the millennia. As is explained neatly by this quote, “By attracting businesses that need frequent and easy access to airports — delivery-fulfillment centres, exporters, web commerce companies, biomedical manufacturers and other time-sensitive enterprises — other clusters of businesses that cater to existing companies will be formed, Aerotropolis advocates say. Projects, such as entertainment and residential complexes, will soon follow, forming a city whose core and economic engine is the airport”. Or to paraphrase: if you build it, they will come.


With developing countries, and the associated lack of existing dated infrastructure, increasingly city builders are offered a blank canvas. While it’s the logical evolution from shipping lanes and railroads, through highways to air travel, it’s hard to predict the impact of new digital frontiers on the transmission of information and the distribution of products. Nevertheless. without getting too carried away in future-proofing, it’s easy to see how a better connected central hub leads to greater economic benefit for its host.


The airport city as a concept faces a unique duopoly of options, one being it overlays the cities already thriving with business and industry as an addition to their offering, in the face of global competition. Meanwhile their current competition is brand new cities, rapidly evolving under the demands and benefits of having the airport at its heart. “We need to treat airports and airlines as key infrastructure to compete in a global economy. It might take 50 years. But we [USA] must do that, or we’re going to fall behind in competition to India, China and Brazil,” explained Kasarda.


As the ‘City’ itself as a concept undergoes a complete revolution in the face of technology, digital and physical, that redraws lines that were previously solely answerable to physical location. What must be taken from the fate of the automobile-centric city is not a warning or an advertisement, it’s proof that the city development must see a more holistic approach with a better appreciation of long terms goals and effects. In the way roads were previously the veins supplying the beating organs of the country, now airports are paths supporting one global entity, socially and economically. With these paths there is potential for a better connected world and more evenly distributed connections across the globe. However these are still paths upon which we must tread carefully and lightly as our global obligation extends far beyond economic gain.


Looking forward we must ensure these are the airport cities we built under a watchful and fair eye, not the cities aircraft built when we still weren’t bothering to look.