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Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 April, 2011, 12:00am

Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next
by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay
Penguin HK$195

Hong Kong people are well aware of the importance of airports. For generations we learned to shut our ears to the din over Kai Tak while a growing number of us traipsed the check-in aisles for days or even weeks at a time, long before George Clooney's Up in the Air character Ryan Bingham.

More of the world could follow in our tracks, say John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in their collaboration Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next. They predict a burgeoning world of wired-up 'knowledge-worker' Binghams living in an interlinked network of increasingly densely populated 'aerotropolises' that are a 'combination of giant airport, planned city, shipping facility and business hub'.

Kasarda, a University of North Carolina business professor, first heard the word 'aerotropolis' used in the mid-1990s to describe an airport city earmarked for Zhuhai but was never built. His globe-trotting journalist-researcher Lindsay highlights how politics can get in the way of even the best projects. The construction of Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok, he writes, was criticised by mainland politicians as a 'final binge by the colonial government to practically bankrupt the city ahead of the handover'. But, the authors say, in truth it was Hong Kong's last chance to install the infrastructure vital for its continued prominence.

The authors also reveal after only four pages of their 448-page opus that neighbouring cities are jealous of Hong Kong's infrastructure. New Songdo, a sparking US$35 billion new city next to Incheon Airport, is South Korea's 'earnest attempt to build an answer to Hong Kong', a green hub 'for companies working in China', a two-hour flight from Shanghai or Beijing.

Kasarda and Lindsay say the 'biggest build-out in human history' is about to 'reset the global pecking order' from West to East. Governments are 'poised to spend US$35 trillion on infrastructure in the next two decades', they add, with 27 megacities of more than 10 million people in 2025.

The mainland is also building 100 new airports that are due to open in western China by 2020. Any city can become an aerotropolis as long as it understands Swiss architect Le Corbusier's adage that 'a city made for speed is made for success', the authors say. Cities are created around whatever the state-of-the-art transport device is at the time, 'from camels to galleons to railways', wrote Edge City author Joel Garreau, while sociologist Amos Hawley noted that people preferred to live their lives within 60 minutes of home.

Travel also increases when communication improves, the authors say, adding that Kasarda's 'law of connectivity' states how each development meant to span distances electronically, starting with the telegraph, only stokes people's desire to traverse it themselves. The number of airline passengers worldwide has risen 83 per cent in the internet years, Lindsay writes, because every message we send raises the chance of a face-to-face meeting.

The authors relate case studies of attempts by cities to hasten the development of aerotropolises. Even Hong Kong's future as an aviation hub may have been dented, the authors say, by Fedex choosing Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport as its regional hub. But the former chairman of the Hong Kong Airport Authority, Li & Fung's Victor Fung, remains confident about the city's role in orchestrating the global 'flow of goods'.

Aerotropolis is an often informative, thought-provoking read, but it is also one compiled by a consultant with an interest in planning airports, aided by an enthusiastic scribe.

Their pitch flies too low and fast over the debate on whether retailers should fly fair-trade friendly naturally grown roses from Kenya, or stock locally grown, fuel-heated hothouse versions instead. Questions about the impact of declining oil on air travel are bumped off with references to Sir Richard Branson's wish for all-composite planes, tests on a babassu coconut oil blend and the hint of Solazyme's genetically tailored strains of algae.

Aerotropolis also gushes jargon about 'frictionless airports' that are more likely to develop under the bulldozers of authoritarian regimes. 'That is why Dubai is so dazzling to Kasarda; China too,' Lindsay says. 'It took as long to air the grievances over Heathrow's Terminal 5 as it did to build Beijing's epic new one from the ground.'

While the authors predict that 115 million Chinese tourists will travel overseas by 2020, they overlook how many may return more inclined to travel individually rather than in groups, as Hongkongers did in the 1990s - which may not be good news for the authors' authoritarian government connections.

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