Last week I had the pleasure of attending another Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs event specifically for Young Professionals. In this case it was a conversation between all-around-urban-intellectual Greg Lindsay and architect Jeanne Gang on nothing less critical than “The Future of Cities.”

Lindsay just cowrote the book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next with John Karsada, which at its most basic is about the coming airport-centric design and planning that will determine the future of cities and the course of twenty-first century urbanism. But even that mouthful of a description doesn’t really do the book justice. Reading Geoff Manaugh’s interview of Lindsay (and also, Lindsay’s of Manaugh), puts the book in a new light and raises a whole variety of additional interpretations to Aerotropolis‘ main theories.

The talk, however, did not focus solely on Lindsay’s book. After a rather stilted introduction from a local Boeing representative, Lindsay launched into a brief overview of the cities of the future. In the next twenty years more “urban fabric” will be created than in the entire rest of human history. And none of them will look like Chicago. They will be born into nowhere, separated from their surrounding regions.

Even parts of Chicago, he pointed out, were created from nothing – Millennium Park is less than a decade old. Cities are the forms of the prevailing economy, and in the case of Chicago that meant manufacturing and transportation. Hence what were once the massive Chicago railyards (and now a park) directly across from the looming citadels of the central business district. David Harvey’s “spatial fix” concept could point the way towards the future – if the Long Depression gave us the railroad cities, and the Great Depression suburbs, than the current network-centric era would certainly lend itself to a constellation of aerotropoli.

Richard Florida’s creative class and clustering also got a mention. (Side note: how cool are these maps?) Lindsay cited a classic mistake: that modernism means “tear it all down.”

Jeanne Gang talked about Hyderabad and the cultural context of buildings there. Much like the mantra of Military Orientalism (culture matters, but isn’t everything), she talked about exporting skills that the West has (hi-rise apartments), while accommodating local norms. The example she gave was the dissociative nature of apartment living as contrasted with the more community-centric Indian way of life. In response: more common rooms located throughout the building.

By the same token, some Western exports can do better elsewhere. Most Chinese housing is government-run, essentially a ‘Cabrini-Green east’. But somehow it actually works there. The problem, then, is not so much one of architecture, but of connectivity on the ground plane. And so we should not abandon the hi-rise, she said. Build the downtown and central business districts as densely as possible. But we should be prepared to recognize that sheer density is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

A rendering of Songdo's Harborview II.

Another thesis put forward by Lindsay was the instant city, a “city-in-a-box” concept that New Songdo City in South Korea represents the cutting edge of. Lindsay talked about Songdo as having the successful elements of many cities from around the world: a sort of reinterpretation of the Sydney Opera House, New York’s grid system, et cetera. The city’s own tagline is “a master plan inspired by the world.” It’s somewhat corporate – it was built as a city for Westerners – but is meant to be a green city, a smart city, and a connected city. As Gang pointed out, though if this kind of replication is too exact, there’s a great risk of staleness and sterility. Variety, after all, is what differentiates our cities. She came up with the idea of letting different companies design different districts of the instant city – more of an ‘accessories sold separately’ approach.

I also had a chance to talk to Lindsay after the event and email him some follow-up questions. With regards to the city-in-a-box (Pentagon planners, take a hint?), I was wondering how intellectual property concerns might play in, especially with these replications of existing buildings, styles, and other constructions. Lindsay’s answer:

As for instant cities, I don’t think New York could trademark its grid, of course, but you’re definitely on the right track — the goal of Gale and his partners is to reduce urbanism to a code which can be replicated infinitely (with appropriate tweaks) like a piece of software. This is arguably one solution to the problems of scale we talked about.

If it’s true, I wondered, that the future aerotropolis will grow up around existing airports, why are the close-in, centrally-located airfields all being shuttered? I was thinking of Chicago’s Meigs Field, or Tempelhof in Berlin – both of which were recently closed and turned into parks, but which would seem to be a natural fit for a modern urbanism. Their closures, of course, also raise the question of how existing close-in airports like London City manage to survive.


Berlin's Tempelhof Airport compared with other Berlin-area airports.

The simple answer, according to Lindsay, is that economies of scale make it unprofitable to operate the smaller-capacity, older airports:

Scattering airports across the landscape leads to decreased efficiencies of scale, which would lead airports into bankruptcy. London City survives on high-yield, and business-class only flights serving the bankers of Canary Wharf…while older airports like Midway or Dallas’ Love Field make a go of it by  attracting discount carriers (namely Southwest).

This, of course, raises a global class question. Is the new prominence of the aerotropolis a result of the increasingly aloof world elite – the “Davos crowd?” If we really are entering a new Gilded Age, the world of Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, then this phenomenon makes perfect sense, catering to that class which feels a greater kinship with each other than with their own countrymen.

London City’s success definitely ties into this thesis, as does the tale of Ram Charan. “Charan is the world’s most influential management consultant, and he’s homeless by design — he spends all his nights either asleep in first class, or aloft.” So perhaps that’s the real class struggle – those at the lower end have their cars, and at the top they have first class. With 13% of American homes vacant, and my generation not planning to buy them, this could be its own vision of the future.

Lindsay also had this to say about urban militarization and securitization, a la Stephen Graham:

I highly recommended Saskia Sassen’s recent work on the subject — this is one of her main focus areas these days, having hosted a conference on the subject last year… Check out my Fast Company piece on IBM’s plans for Rio. The gist: IBM is building a weather tracking system that can and probably will be repurposed at some point for favela surveillance.

As usual, a particularly interesting talk – and an even more fascinating follow-up. Thanks again to the Chicago Council, especially Lesli Profitt Nordstrom. And a special thanks to Mr. Lindsay for putting up with my nonsense. This will also, alas, be my final Chicago Council recap. Details to follow.