Book review: Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next by John D Kasarda and Greg Lindsay

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Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next By John D Kasarda and Greg Lindsay Allen Lane, 480pp, £14.99

IMAGINE an airport city - gleaming, state-of-the-art, and with the airport at its centre surrounded by excellent transport, fine restaurants, designer shopping and nearby corporate suburbs connecting workers umbilically to the global marketplace. The aerotropolis, Kasarda and Lindsay insist, isn't just an architect's dream but will soon become an economic paradigm. No nation in this age of fast-paced and highly competitive trade can long survive without airport hub cities built to spec.

To Kasarda, the aerotropolis is to the 21st century what the port was to the 16th, 17th and 18th: an indispensable building block upon which nations, economies and cultures will rise or fall. The "biggest build-out" of cities "in human history will reset the global pecking order," Lindsay writes, adding that, to Kasarda, the aerotropolis offers an "antidote" to overcrowded megalopolises while "imposing a hierarchy of needs on cities so that they openly and honestly express their true purpose: creating work for their inhabitants and competitiveness for their nations." But hang on - London, Paris, Rome and New York have managed to survive without being proper aerotropolises. And some of the existing aerotropolises - Louisville, Memphis and Hyderabad for example - may have beautiful runways and spectacular warehouses, elegantly appointed suburbs and gleaming corporate parks but nonetheless fall a few watts short of electrifying "global cities".

Which is not to say that the authors fail as provocateurs. Lindsay explains well, for instance, why Los Angeles airport is, like Heathrow, now too crowded for its own good, and in danger of becoming "flyover country" as cargo planes seek somewhere more congenial to land. Nor does Lindsay shy away from pointing out the underside of the aerotropolis.

He describes the proliferation of "relovilles," suburbs populated by "relos", the corporate-ladder-climbing men and women regularly uprooted by their employers. In relovilles, "homes, subdivisions, office parks and even cities become disposable," Lindsay writes. "Life ... has about as much permanence as a plane ticket. In the aerotropolis, that's not weird, it's normal."

He also draws an effective portrait of the alienated life of the airport-hopping corporate manager.Although you might think, "I've seen this George Clooney movie before," Lindsay explores the ramifications of the itinerant lifestyle sensitively, suggesting that our "freedom" to live anywhere with wireless internet service and a great hub is a bittersweet gift.

Aerotropolis is bracing in its dissection of the conceit of locavorism, the insistence that locally produced and consumed food is suffused with moral virtue. To forgo heavily air-miled coffee from Ethiopia or roses from Kenya is to condemn millions of African farmers to a short and brutish life. African roses, "planted in the earth and left to bloom under the equatorial sun," use far less energy than northern roses raised in greenhouses with fertilizer drips. The virtuous shopper risks beggaring the poorest of the world's citizens.

Lindsay is less persuasive when discussing air travel's effects on global warming. Taking on theories about peak oil, scarcity, carbon emissions - anything that might argue against flight - he concludes that "aviation's contributions to our well-being are larger and growing more rapidly than its carbon emissions." But this is too breathless. He omits research suggesting that jet contrails's impact on climate change, particularly in certain regions, is likely to grow as air traffic increases. It would have been enough for him to note, as he does in a section called "The Doom-slayers," that James Hansen, the Nasa climate scientist, has said that coal-burning plants and buildings are vastly more damaging than airplanes, and that grounding planes as a solution to climate change would be terrifically disruptive.

More problematic is Kasarda and Lindsay's tendency to stand causality on its head. They offer a string of factoids to establish the predestined centrality of the aerotropolis: that vast numbers of us live within a short distance of the busiest hubs; or that businessmen fly because they trust best those whom they can see. But couldn't it be true that airport hubs tend to grow up around busy cities? That meeting face to face isn't always best for business?

Kasarda's impatience with human agency is no less troubling. Nations, he says, can ignore his counsel, but a penalty attends. Nimbys in Britain fighting the expansion of runways are shoving their way into history's dustbin, he argues, soon to be surpassed by avid aerotropolis adopters in Amsterdam or Dubai.

"High-functioning autocracies such as Dubai's don't faze him," Lindsay writes. "If anything, they're the only ones who move fast enough." It took as long for the English to air their grievances over Heathrow's Terminal 5 as it did for Beijing to wrest an aerotropolis from raw earth, Lindsay notes. To create its city, the Chinese government also flattened 15 villages, forcing 10,000 people to resettle.The Chinese ministry in charge of the project noted that "democracy sacrifices efficiency." Kasarda, we are told, was "awed" by this rationale.

The authors of Aerotropolis are perhaps to be congratulated for their bluntness and their provocations. But I could not shake the sense that something had gone missing from their vision of our future - something like a soul.