Narita International Airport: Various Curious Scenes of Airplanes, Yamaguchi Akira, 2005

From London Review of Books:

While John Kasarda shares the title page of this scientific romance masquerading as a work of urban theory, Aerotropolis was written by Greg Lindsay alone. Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s business school, may be a peculiar sort of Johnson, but Lindsay, a business journalist, is nonetheless his committed Boswell. A Boswell who, in search of his subject’s zeitgeist wisdom, once mounted a three-week exploration of ‘Airworld’ – as Kasarda calls it – by jetting from terminal to terminal around the globe but never exiting through the door marked ‘arrivals’. Why? Because it is Lindsay’s belief that Kasarda is the most important urban theorist alive today, a man who has fully anticipated the shape the future city must have and who has moved to make it a reality.

From the outset Lindsay’s breathless pen-portrait of his sage is hardly inviting:

He’s the one in the non-iron shirt and wrinkle-free suit, jet lag stamped on his face. He’s flown more than three million miles in the last quarter century – further than any of the men who set foot on the moon … He blends in with all the middle-aged men in first class whom you pass on your way to coach, because he’s one of them … They’re his tribe.

Even more of a turn-off is Lindsay’s sketch of Kasarda’s rhetorical style. His mother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers. Chat him up at the gate and he’ll spit out long strings of professorial verbiage about ‘spatial friction’, ‘sustainable competitiveness’ and ‘the physical internet’. Listen closely enough, however, and the technobabble crystallises into themes that have obsessed him since his teens: our lot in life is shaped by circumstance; our fates are not necessarily ours to choose.

In fact Kasarda is curiously – or perhaps inevitably, given his drip-dry velocity – physically absent from the pages of Aerotropolis. Rather, Lindsay tracks Kasarda by his spoor, which takes the form of his attempts to persuade politicians and urban planners to massively expand airport infrastructure, integrating it with more traditional aspects of the city to create ‘aerotropoli’. Kasarda’s first drop zone was Kinston in North Carolina, where a prototype ‘transpark’ was built in the 1990s at his suggestion. The aim was a ‘self-contained factory town with assembly lines literally ending in the bellies of waiting planes’. Kasarda didn’t actually choose the duff site for the transpark, but it haemorrhaged state money for a decade before getting on track. No matter, because in the meantime internet commerce had come online, and Kasarda’s blueprint had been taken up by FedEx and UPS, who built viable aerotropoli at Memphis and Louisville, in the trapezoid of mittel-America where flying times to all destinations allow for next-day delivery.

As Lindsay tells it, the internet is the key to Kasarda’s vision – although unlike other scientific romancers he was hardly avant la lettre. He coined the expression ‘the physical internet’ to describe the network of airports, factories, warehouses and fulfilment centres that serviced global luxury trade after the dotcom boom and bust. And it is primarily luxuries that fly. Lindsay excitedly crunches the numbers: ‘In the 30 years between 1975 and 2005, global GDP rose 154 per cent, while world trade grew 355 per cent. Meanwhile, the value of air cargo climbed an astonishing 1395 per cent. More than a third of all the goods traded in the world, some $3 trillion worth – but barely one per cent of its weight! – travels via air freight.’ This promethean fireball of iPads, Peruvian blooms, farmed salmon and Amazon Prime deliveries is what these ardent neoliberals view as powering the world’s growth: like it or not, we are all in the comet’s supply tail, so we’d better build the necessary runways-cum-instant cities to serve it.

“The Frowniest Spot on Earth”, Will Self, London Review of Books