The Magazine

Up in the Air

They have seen the future, and it whirls and tilts

Jun 13, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 37 • By RICHARD STRINER
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Aerotropolis

Old Airplane

The Way We’ll Live Next

by John D. Kasarda
& Greg Lindsay

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
466 pp., $30

Aerotropolis is a new example of a very old genre, the would-be prophetic book. John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay offer up a vision of “the way we’ll live next,” as they put it, a vision of the world that blends globalization, urbanism, and aviation. Their thesis: The city of tomorrow, and the rising city of today, is an aviation hub in which every other aspect of urban life revolves around an airport.

By the way, this is actually a book that Lindsay wrote. The supposed senior author, Kasarda, is spoken of throughout the book in the third person. Who is John D. Kasarda? A business professor and consultant who travels all over the world to promote and guide his all-consuming vision of our “aerotropolis” future. Lindsay, a writer, has followed him (or retraced his steps) to see the “way we’ll live next” at first hand while researching every possible theme that could bear upon the vision of Kasarda. This lengthy volume is crammed with historical ruminations, stories of airport locales, tales of business ventures (both successful and unsuccessful), and, most unfortunately, hype.

There is surely much truth in the proposition that airports have played a key role in the development of modern cities and that international air traffic is, and will continue to be, a great determinant of where—and how—new cities will be built throughout the world. It would surely be possible for Farrar, Straus and Giroux to market a responsible and exciting new book that would present this theme for mass readership.

But that is not the kind of book this is. Both Lindsay’s text and Kasarda’s quoted statements bespeak the kind of temperament that leads to hyperbole. There are doubtless many readers who will snap up the volume and devour at least some of its contents: business executives, planners, architects, people in the aviation world. But beyond these fields—and within them as well—any reader with a penchant for critical analysis will gag (or giggle) at the following sorts of formulations: “The 20th-century city is over. It has nothing new to teach us anymore. .  .  . Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago are the sum of their airports. .  .  . It no longer matters where your business is based, so long as it’s a few minutes from a major airport. .  .  . The city is the airport,” etc., etc.

Why do otherwise intelligent authors (and editors) produce such simple-minded gush? Because hypesters get ahead: Think of people like Le Corbusier and Marshall McLuhan, whose outrageous and attention-grabbing slogans led to fame. But fame can lead to infamy when slogans are untenable. And it isn’t just the childishness of the sound bites; the lengthy ruminations that are scattered throughout are often worse than the fast-paced sayings.

After telling some tales about the controversies surrounding proposals to expand Heathrow Airport, for instance, Lindsay offers up the following all-or-nothing choice that he believes is becoming unavoidable: “Do we retrofit our cities to become aerotropoli in the future, or save people’s homes? The consequences of each choice are equally stark: Either we risk weaving a competitive disadvantage into the very fabric of our cities, or we begin unwinding the fabric itself.” Surely, dozens of cities in every major nation can be viable without such a choice.

Good editors can sometimes find diplomatic ways to get an author to confront (and if possible modify) an over-simplified conception. Alas, the very best editors are fighting a rear-guard action when the author has an attitude problem. And like many of the would-be prophetic books, Aerotropolis—for all of its hip New Journalistic tone—is based upon a child-like compulsion to believe in utopian premises. Let Greg Lindsay speak for himself as he presents (apparently without irony) the vision of John D. Kasarda:

The future he envisions is one of nearly limitless choices—where to live, whom to love, what to eat, how to act—even if the total effect of those choices is to erase our differences. It’s a world in which all of our leaders’ promises have been kept, in which we are fitter, happier, more productive. Everyone will be connected—by plane, by WiFi, by high-speed rail. Everyone will visit Disneyland and the Louvre. Everyone will roam farther, work harder, go faster. No one will be shackled by the circumstances of birth or upbringing. And the common denominator is aviation.

 Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Supernatural Romance in Film: Tales of Love, Death and the Afterlife.

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