The Way We’ll Live Next: Near Airports?

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<!-- missing image -->By Olga Khazan

Of the many complaints often made about airports – the lines, the body scans, the baggage fees – one you don’t hear every day is that airports aren’t close enough to our houses. After all, LAX is across the city from downtown, necessitating a well-planned shuttle ride, an expensive cab or a kind friend to reach it. But Greg Lindsay, author of the new book “Aerotropolis,” believes we’ll soon see the end of hard-to-reach airports hanging on the fringes of sprawled-out cities. The future, according to Lindsay, belongs to dense, well-planned cities – with airports at their core.

On April 5 at the A+D museum, Lindsay shed light on his vision of a world in which cities sprout up around airports, rather than the other way around.

The term “aerotropolis” is a portmanteau that describes a major metropolitan area that’s anchored by a major airport. The term was coined in 2000 by John Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Kasarda, a co-author of the book, predicted that successful 21st-century cities would do their best to build near and around airports, using them as major financial and distribution centers rather than banishing them to the outskirts of town.

The thinking is that major cities in history have flourished thanks to ports, railroads or other infrastructure by allowing people and goods to move freely. L.A. itself grew from 5,000 to 100,000 people within a few decades at the turn of the century after it connected to the Central Pacific Railroad. Much like it made economic sense for New Orleans to be at the mouth of the Mississippi and for Chicago to be connected to railroad lines, Lindsay argues, it makes sense for today’s big cities to be built around today’s major transport centers: airports.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon already taking place across the globe. Dubai, Lindsay pointed out, is

Globalization at work in Dubai's busy international airport. From ghada on Flickr.
Globalization at work in Dubai's busy international airport. From ghada on Flickr. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

essentially a main hub on the “new silk road” between China, India and the West. Its success stems almost entirely from its development of Emirates Air, one of the fastest-growing airlines in the world.

Another example from abroad is Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where rail lines connect office buildings to terminals, and business professionals are never more than a few-minute train ride from their flight to a trans-continental meeting. Think airplane noise would scare off prospective tenants? Rents nearest to the airport are some of the highest in the Netherlands.

In L.A., we see examples of communities that have grown around airports in Santa Monica and Burbank, both of which owe much of their residential development to the presence of airports nearby. (However, some of these residents are not as thrilled to be living near air traffic as the Dutch might be.)

The idea of an aerotropolis is also becoming more important from a commercial standpoint as the economy continues to globalize: Medical tourism has become increasingly more popular among Americans looking for affordable surgeries. Apple products continue to be produced in Chinese factories and shipped to the U.S. as fast as American consumers can snap them up. London has a “phantom suburb” of hundreds of thousands of workers who fly in on weekdays via RyanAir and other inexpensive European airlines.

Lindsay doesn’t see this air-centric trend relenting any time soon. In fact, it is expected to progress as non-stop workdays and overnight shipping become expected in today’s economy. But in order for these airport-cities to succeed in the global marketplace, there would need to be some major changes in the way we plan cities.

First, in order to sustain air and other types of travel without depending on oil, we need to develop more biofuels, Lindsay said. And not just the corn variety – yeast and algae apparently can be used to make energy as well.

Second, “automobile-driven sprawl has run its course,” Lindsay said. (Sorry to all you content supercommuters of L.A.) Instead, we need denser cities constructed around walking, biking and public transit. Essentially, we would live and work in mixed-use development, and we would take trains to get to the airport.

“Cities are the engines of innovation,” he said. “And dense cities will do better than others.”

If that’s the case, then L.A. has some work to do.