Wivenhoe Dam, Qld, at 197% capacity, Jan 2011

The centre of the city of the future will be the airport, according to a book by John D Kasarda of the University of Carolina and journalist Greg Lindsay to be published next month.

They say in Aerotropolis (subtitled, to emphasise its inevitability, The Way We’ll Live Next), that “not so long ago, airports were built near cities, and roads connected the one to the other. This pattern—the city in the center, the airport on the periphery— shaped life in the twentieth century, from the central city to exurban sprawl”. But things, they say, have changed:

Today, the ubiquity of jet travel, round-the-clock workdays, overnight shipping, and global business networks has turned the pattern inside out. Soon the airport will be at the center and the city will be built around it, the better to keep workers, suppliers, executives, and goods in touch with the global market.

Soon the airport will be the centre of the city?!!! I am, to put it mildly, sceptical about this view of the future.

Yes, cities have almost always developed around transport infrastructure – first ports and rivers and more recently railheads and freeway nodes. Yes, local concentrations of economic activity have sprung up in various places to provide logistics services in close proximity to major airports, some of which are very large. And of course, as this preview of the book states, the share of high value freight carried by air is increasing at a much faster rate than trade generally.

Now if some marketer wants to start calling Melbourne airport and the surrounding area ‘Tullamarine Aerotropolis’ or something similar (‘Tullatropolis’?) that’s OK by me. It is after all one of the biggest concentrations of jobs in the suburbs of Melbourne and a fair number of those jobs are doubtless related in some way to aviation.

But arguing that the city of the future will “be built around the airport” is silly.

Transport costs for goods have been going down since the industrial revolution and in the broad sweep of things, notwithstanding immediate issues like peak oil, aren’t likely to go up again.  While there was a time when factories and offices had to locate close to the port or railhead, now it is much more important to be close to high-cost inputs like workers and specialised technical, financial and legal services.

Workers in turn are no longer tied to living close to noisy and dirty factories or transport infrastructure. The invention of the mechanised commute – whether by public transport or car – means most of them can live in areas that are more pleasant than the immediate environs of an airport. Of course some still live cheek by jowl with operating airports – especially in developing countries – but you can bet they aspire to something much better.

As city economies increasingly move toward services and higher levels of embodied human capital, it seems much more plausible that they will continue to organise around moving people efficiently rather than moving goods. Amenity and ‘buzz’ are likely to be much more important drivers of growth than cargo logistics.

There will no doubt continue to be some regions and even whole cities that are highly specialised in aviation logistics if only because many firms will maintain separation of head office and goods distribution functions. But it’s likely they’ll be a tiny minority of all cities with an even smaller share of all residents.

This is a slightly extended version of a piece I wrote for publication in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter on 1st February 2011.

Note: the picture of Wivenhoe Dam is not related to this story.