The Aerotropolis … Cities designed for trade war

There’s a fascinating interview with Greg Lindsay – co-author of Aerotropolis. Lindsay notes that the modern city is built around its defining transportation mode. You get places like Dubai – effectively leveraging air travel as a means of swinging broader economic victories down the road. Below is a snippet that prefaces one of the more disturbing observations about these types of spaces:

Yes, the aerotropolis—as Kasarda preaches it and as has been implemented in places like Dubai and elsewhere—is less about urbanity than repurposing the city as a “machine for living,” to quote Le Corbusier.

The aerotropolis is basically an economic engine. Planners are looking for ways to make these cities as frictionless as possible in terms of doing business—which means that, in places like Dubai, the tax-free zones and enclaves such as Dubai Media City and Dubai Internet City and the Jebel Ali Free Zone can basically wage an economic war of all against all when it comes to competing cities. They were designed as weapons for fighting trade wars, and their charter—to be duty-free and hyper-efficient—reflects this. So it’s interesting in the sense that these cities are infrastructure-as-weaponry, which Rem Koolhaas wrote about in “The Generic City” [PDF]—“City X builds an airport to kill City Y.” They’re competing rather than complementing.

China’s cities, in particular, are building infrastructure not as a way to improve urban living across these larger regions, but basically so that they can do battle against one another for attention and investment.

The Aerotropolis is often the product of very particular kinds of political rule – namely dictatorships. The term coined by Lindsay’s co-author – Kasarda – is “high-functioning dictatorship”.

He goes on to note:

Basically, the aerotropolis, or any kind of instant city project, seems to be enabled by autocracy. That’s the case whether you’re building an aerotropolis in Dubai or whether you’re building one in Beijing, or whether you’re building smart cities in Saudi Arabia.

I’m struck by the way these new economic cities differ from their predecessors. Athens, the Italian trading republics, New York, these are places which have, to some extent been imbued with democratic values of some sort. At least, in the western sense. There are many examples I suppose that might contradict my perception, but for the moment, let us accept the argument that in the past economic cities have at some level been premised on a degree of governance by the governed. My criticisms of the democratic project stem from its failure to extend far enough, to imagine freedom differently. But what is being practiced in the aerotropolis is something else – not an expansion of liberty, but rather the constriction of human life to satisfy an economic imperative, rather than the other way around. And I do believe that the latter situation is the correct one – economies can only exist to service the needs of human beings and are not ends in and of themselves. If human life is destroyed or in some way impoverished by economic activity then we have a fundamental failure to realize the proper order of things.

Carpentry does not exist to fulfil the desire of a nail to get hammered into wood or for a saw to cut something. No, the tools exist to fulfill the requirements of the trade or craft. Economies are much the same – they are tools for realizing improved lives. They are useful only in so far as they do this.

So back to this notion of a city purposefully designed to enrich a very narrow group or for the soul purpose of generating economic activity without due consideration for its human inhabitants. Why? What the hell is the point?

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2 thoughts on “The Aerotropolis … Cities designed for trade war

  1. Greg Lindsay says:

    Thanks for the mention and I don’t disagree with you, but just to complicate your point a bit: New York City (neé New Amsterdam) was founded as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Dutch East India Company, and the Italian trading republics were effectively oligarchies (or at least Venice was), nakedly ruled by the 1%. Only time will tell if these gigantic infrastructures will be similarly repurposed for broader aims.

    • aspearce says:

      Good points. Since posting, it occurred to me that NYC was a poor example. The history of Hong Kong also comes to mind as one of these economic-entrepots-turned-metropolis. I do not think anyone would mistake HK for anything other than the creation of autocratic imperatives.

      Also, mulling over the prevailing models of liberal democracy, these too are largely oligarchies in the traditional sense. Yes political participation trickles down, but the range of possibilities remain tightly constrained at the top. Looking at Athens even its democracy teetered atop a foundation of a labouring population 10 times the size of its politically active citizenry. Added to this the political structure of the city fluctuated between oligarchy and democracy numerous times.

      Perhaps the city form is the manifestation of an autocratic impulse. And on that note I’d better grab a cup of coffee before I get too depressed.
      Thanks for the comments!

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