There’s a debate in urban-development circles over whether cities should aspire to be cool or just solid. Should they aim to attract iPad-flaunting Arcade Fire fans, on the logic that creative capitalism follows young, fertile minds, or should they focus on getting the basics right — decent schools, low crime, a mix of industries — and let coolness sort itself out?
I thought of the “cool cities” debate while reading two new books on urban affairs, because they also split along cool and sober lines. Edward Glaeser’s “The Triumph of the City” takes the unflashy approach you might expect from a Harvard economist (which Glaeser is). It provides an illuminating mix of history, statistics and polite polemic, while displaying a basic faith that cities are sufficiently interesting to hold the reader’s attention. “Aerotropolis,” by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, on the other hand, fairly strains and sweats in its attempt to be breezy, knowing and of the moment as it makes the case that a new kind of city, centered on airports, represents the future.
Reading them serially is like spending the afternoon at a Smithsonian exhibit, then going clubbing, albeit with smart people. “Aerotropolis” has verve, but it can also wear you out.
Glaeser starts with the basics. A son of Manhattan, he defends the very idea of cities against such noted idealizers of rural life as Thomas Jefferson and Mahatma Gandhi. Cities are not only the engines of the economy and seats of culture, he argues, but founts of happiness: The more urban a country is, on average, the happier its citizens, according to research Glaeser cites.
Crucially, too, cities offer a pathway to the middle class for immigrants and the rural poor. Concentrated poverty has always looked bad, whether in Chicago or Kinshasa, but the situation is almost always grimmer in destitute rural areas. (Another new book, “Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World,” offers a more ethnographic look at what those multi-generational rural-to-urban transitions look like in places such as Mumbai and Chongqing.)
Not long ago, Glaeser’s pro-city stance would have come across as more contrarian than it does now. After all, Americans are returning to cities — or, to be precise, to some cities. They’re embracing Minneapolis, Houston, Boston and Washingtonif not, to put it mildly, Detroit, which lost 1 million people between 1950 and 2008. Since 2000, Glaeser writes, Americans have actually been willing to pay a penalty, in wages, for the privilege of living in the most vibrant urban centers. (Illuminating statistics such as these are a strength of the book.) That’s a sharp reversal from the ’70s, when companies essentially had to bribe people to work downtown.
We should want people to reembrace cities, Glaeser thinks, for ethical reasons that go beyond an appreciation for Kobe beef, cultural elan and entrepreneurial verve. For one thing, there may be no other way to achieve sustainable growth. The average suburban household consumes roughly one-fourth more electricity than the average urban household, Glaeser observes. (David Owen made a similar argument a couple of years ago in his book “Green Metropolis.”) And such averages mask great differences between cities. A household in San Francisco emits 60 percent less carbon than one in Memphis, because of the latter city’s sprawling design.
Yet a daunting array of policies and circumstances militates against luring people back from the exurbs, including poor urban schools, artificially low gas taxes and the home-mortgage tax deduction, whose generosity grows with the size of the house you buy.
Whole shelves of books have been written about each of those subjects, so it’s hard to knock Glaeser for turning scattershot when it comes to policy recommendations. He endorses a gas tax that takes into account the ecological harm caused by driving, tolls to reduce congestion, and school vouchers that would include urban and suburban districts.
His bete noir, however, is the overregulation of land use in cities, which he believes is preventing appropriately dense development and thereby inflating housing prices. There is too much “not in my back yard” sentiment against building skyscrapers, he thinks, and too many untouchable historic districts that aren’t all that historic. Jane Jacobs was a saint to many people for championing small-scale New York neighborhoods; to Glaeser, she was a queen of unintended consequences because restrictions on development, inspired by her writings, have thrown housing supply and demand hopelessly out of whack, limiting available housing and turning large swaths of New York into playgrounds for the wealthy.
But Glaeser is not entirely consistent on this point: He reluctantly concludes that the French are correct to ban tall buildings throughout downtown Paris because of the city’s historic grandeur. But that’s quite a concession; if such a pro-aesthetic, anti-economic judgment can be made on such a large scale there, why not, to a lesser degree, elsewhere, in the kinds of neighborhoods Jacobs championed? Why should downtown Paris become a museum but New York’s Upper West Side a monotonous forest of high-rises? To be fair, Glaeser is not against all neighborhood preservation, just a large proportion of it. And, also to be fair, the Upper West Side could stand a few more very tall buildings.
If Glaeser is coolly analytical, Kasarda and Lindsay are pumped to tell you about the New New Thing. The division of labor that produced “Aerotropolis” is noteworthy: Lindsay was basically the writer, while Kasarda was the guiding spirit, providing the intellectual framework and dropping in, Buddha-like, to sprinkle aphoristic commentary. (The book’s genesis was a magazine profile by Lindsay of Kasarda, a business professor.)
What is an aerotropolis? It’s “the urban incarnation of [the] physical Internet,” the authors say. It “isn’t necessarily a city but a superconductor, a piece of infrastructure promising zero resistance to anyone wanting to set up shop there.” Or, to be plodding about it, it’s a city with a well-integrated airport.
To his credit, Lindsay recognizes the squishiness of the concept. Older cities, such as Chicago, New York and London, have much-used airports, of course — but these are deemed ill-suited for the modern economy, too hemmed in, too much under the thumb of hidebound politicos.
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, on the other hand, is sort of a proto-aerotropolis: It has five times the surface area of LAX, and some 2,000 companies are located in Las Colinas, a corporate-centric planned community nearby. But DFW and its environs evolved organically, instead of springing fully formed from the brow of a business guru. (Dulles is another accidental near-aerotropolis.)
Closer to the ideal are Louisville and Memphis, home to the main UPS and FedEx sorting centers, respectively. If you buy something on eBay or Amazon, your stuff probably passes through those hubs. With Kasarda serving as consultant, the Philippines built a rural airport complex, with a FedEx hub as the main economic engine, into which 100 foreign firms pumped $2.5 billion, the authors report. It’s been responsible for as much as $1.3 billion annually in export sales, they say.
The aerotropolis is basically an economic concept — hence Kasarda’s presumably lucrative consulting gigs. Yet the authors seem to also be saying that a growing number of people want to live near airports; one of Kasarda’s “laws” is that online communication counterintuitively leads to more, not less, travel. But until jets are replaced by something quieter, housing that’s really close to airports will remain undesirable. So what’s new here?
For the most part, the aerotropolis comes across as something that city fathers hunger for but that ever remains outside their grasp. Thai leaders had hoped to build an aerotropolis in the dismal Cobra Swamp, near Bangkok; the overthrow of a strongman scuttled that dream. The fate of Korea’s New Songdo City, built from scratch on a man-made island off Incheon, remains uncertain.
Yet, just when you’re inclined to dismiss the aerotropolis thesis as just more “flat world”-style, business-book hype, you come across a fact that makes you prick up your ears. For example, China plans to build 100 new airports by 2020, at a cost of $62 billion (and it’s not going to let a few dozen villages, or human rights, stand in the way). Embrace the jargony term “aerotropolis” or not. But such a development can’t help but reconfigure the world economy in unforeseen ways that may, indeed, warrant some hype.
Christopher Shea writes the Week in Ideas column for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to the Journal’s Ideas Market blog.