Author Greg Lindsay on the future of cities, globalization and DIA

When most people envision the future, they probably think about the awesome products we'll have to make our lives easier, but author Greg Lindsay is more concerned about how those products get to us. It's no secret most manufacturing has moved overseas, and with that move, a global economy has risen that won't be easy to step away from. Because of this, cities and airports have become intertwined in many places, and in Lindsay's new book, Aerotropolis, he describes the ways these cities could work. Lindsay will be on hand tomorrow night at the Tattered Cover to do a mini-lecture and answer questions, but we caught up with him on or own to clear up a few things first.

Westword: Can you start by just talking a little about the premise of the book?

Greg Lindsay: I wanted to write -- for lack of a better word -- a globalization book. What I find interesting is that most discussions of globalization are technology based; they talk about the internet and telecommunications. So when I set out to write a book about globalization, I wanted to look at the more physical side of it.

Eventually, I came across the work of John Kasarda, who twenty years before there was this large scale internet and everything else, decided that air travel was the key to the global economy; ergo, we'd build cities around airports.

As a description of how cities could evolve it's interesting. If you look at the history of American cities, airports went from being in the middle of nowhere to cities popping up around them. So he went and started to sketch a schematic for how we could build cities around them on purpose and has been selling them to governments around the world. It's not the best quality of life, but they're designed to do well in a global economy and create economic advantage.

It's sort of the urban coalescence of globalization as cities rise up around these places. It's literally master planning a city around an airport. Or in a larger scale, it's more about cities that have a relationship with other cities around the world. It's the notion of a new Silk road, which you can see in the form of air routes over Asia and the Middle East right now.

WW: This sounds like an old coal company town in a way.

GL: To some extend, yeah. Humanity is officially an urban species -- more than half of all humans are living in cities now. I've seen reports that the urban fabric could double within fifty years, which means everything we have now would be built again.

The economist Paul Romer has come up with the idea of charter cities that are designed to create jobs. That's the whole point. And a lot of technology companies are getting behind this idea of the "smart city," built around their business. You're seeing corporations building cities designed for their needs. These aren't cities that are coming around organically or by architects -- these are people looking around and saying, "what can we build to accelerate the process?"

So you end up with cities where the starting point isn't, "How do we make this a great place to live?" but really, "How do we dial into the global economy?" WW: The whole idea seems slightly dystopian.

GL: There are certainly dystopian aspects to it. Globalization, as a phenomenon, can be good and bad. China has a plan to build more airports, and they've built their economy on the idea of exports. Look at FoxConn, which employs over half a million people. They build every single iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Playstation and more -- and they do it from one place where they can ship to anywhere in the world.

That's partially because the jet engine makes it possible. After the suicides last year and the world finally discovering how terrible these factories were, FoxConn is basically dismantling and rebuilding in Western China where these massive new airports were just built and they can find people just off the farms who can work for less. Labor is the biggest cost, not shipping.

The flipside of that is that China has raised 600 million people out of absolute poverty.

WW: You talk a lot about how this has worked in Asia and the Middle East, but how do you envision it in the U.S.?

GL: I don't think we'll see a new, major airport in the U.S. ever again. They've been trying in San Diego for years -- I was recently talking with an architect on the project, and he said the latest proposal is to build it on the Mexican side of the border, which is a hilarious to think about.

One thing is the notion that we systematically under-appreciate how much air travel affects our lives simply because we hate flying. We always get the lowest price for our tickets, which enables us to fly, but we've also driven the airlines to a point where they can barely fix the planes. Last year was the most profitable year for airlines in the U.S. and almost all of their profits were off of baggage fees. They're flying you at a loss so they can make money off your baggage; that's how weird the airlines have ended up.

Air travel underlies all commerce. When we think of the greatest invention of the Internet -- ecommerce -- it all depends on these hubs in Memphis and Louisville where FedEx and UPS are. All these companies have moved their warehouses there so they can ship quickly. It transformed these cities, and they're two of America's true Aerotropolis.

My prescription for the U.S. is two things: One, we need to invest in our airports and our air travel. Our air traffic control goes back to 1930s technology -- I have GPS in phone, but we can't get it in a plane because we're using outdated radar.

Then, for the cities -- we traditionally build our airports in the middle of nowhere then cities grow up around them, like in Los Angeles for example, or we put them out there then we surround them with the worst industrial things around them. Most of them have no good way to get them, no train connections. If we plan these things with living in mind, with train lines and everything else, we'd get better results. WW: Denver has a plan to get a train out to DIA in the near future...

GL: What I find interesting about Denver is that Stapleton airport is a classic example of a 1920s airport that was considered too far from downtown when they built it, and then was swallowed by expansion. Then Peña and Romer managed to push through the creation a new airport that could never be swallowed by sprawl. DIA might be one of the last new airports we see in America.

I think Stapleton, ironically, is a model of what we could do with an airport. The community around Stapleton was a model of what could be done.

WW: So why didn't Stapleton last?

GL: Well, it worked for a long time, it was a major hub and a major chokehold point.But there was a generational shift, and after Aurora sprung up around it -- which was lead by the interstates -- it started to lose its appeal.

They built highways to and from Stapleton, but because of that, Aurora came up on the side. I talked with one of the first guys to move into Stapleton. He grew up two hundred feet away from the runway and he described that experience to me and what it was like there. We're never going to do that in the United States again.

WW: Did you meet any of the people currently living in the "new" Stapleton?

GL: When I was there I saw this row of faux, Brooklyn style brownstones. It was weird to me because I was thinking, "Who moves to Denver to live in a Brownstone?" So I started knocking on doors, and I only came up with a few people. One woman had come out here from Washington, DC, and another guy was a transplanted from New York. They just wanted something they were familiar with.

WW: Where do you see DIA's future?

GL: Well, cities are founded, basically, for trade. It's a place for people to exchange goods and ideas. The form and look of cities comes from the state of transportation at the time, so Denver grew up as a mining town and eventually brought in the railroads, and you can still see that.

One of the great anecdotes about Denver is that it was basically left off the transcontinental railroad, and one of the officials described the city as "too dead to bury" after that. So the city's founders panicked and built the Fur line as quickly as possible.

So the equivalent of that today is to be a travel hub and having routes to Asia and Europe and having global trade. Denver is an example of town that was sort of founded as a mining town and it expanded from there.

The big thing with DIA was that they didn't make the mistake of leaving Stapleton open -- but DIA is kind of just a continuation of Denver's roots, and that's what it will continue to be.

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