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Aerotropolis: City of the future?

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1 February 2011 13:51

Alan Davies is a planning consultant who blogs at The Melbourne Urbanist.

The centre of the city of the future will be the airport, according to a forthcoming book written by John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina and journalist Greg Lindsay. In Aerotropolis (subtitled, to remove any doubt, 'The Way We'll Live Next'), they say:

Not so long ago, airports were built near cities, and roads connected the one to the other. This pattern—the city in the center, the airport on the periphery— shaped life in the twentieth century, from the central city to exurban sprawl. Today, the ubiquity of jet travel, round-the-clock workdays, overnight shipping, and global business networks has turned the pattern inside out. Soon the airport will be at the center and the city will be built around it, the better to keep workers, suppliers, executives, and goods in touch with the global market.

Now, I'm sceptical about this claim. Yes, cities have almost always developed around transport infrastructure – first ports and rivers and more recently railheads and freeway nodes. Yes, there are some major concentrations of economic activity in various countries that have sprung up to provide logistics services in close proximity to major airports. And of course, as this Thomas Barnett column about Aerotropolis states, the share of high-value freight carried by air is increasing at a much faster rate than trade generally.

But transport costs for goods have been going down since the industrial revolution, and in the broad sweep of things, notwithstanding immediate issues like peak oil, aren't likely to go up again. While there was a time when factories and offices had to locate close to the port or railhead, now it is much more important to be close to high-cost inputs like workers and specialised technical, financial and legal services.

Workers, in turn, are no longer tied to living close to noisy and dirty transport infrastructure. The invention of the mechanised commute means most of them can live in areas that are more pleasant than the immediate environs of the airport. Of course, some still live cheek by jowl with operating airports, but you can bet they aspire to something better.

As city economies increasingly move toward services and higher levels of embodied human capital, it seems much more plausible that they will organise around moving people efficiently rather than moving goods – it is much more costly to move people than to move even high-value, low-weight goods. There will no doubt continue to be some cities that are highly specialised in aviation logistics because many firms will maintain separation of head office and goods distribution functions. But it's likely they'll be a tiny minority of all cities with an even smaller share of all residents.

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan Caves.

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