November 14, 2010  |  permalink

Sleepless in Seoul

As I write this paragraph, it’s midnight. Or possibly lunchtime. I’m in a hotel room in a city which, I am reliably informed, is Seoul. I got here too late for breakfast but in plenty of time to go to bed at 3pm. Does that make any sense? I really am extraordinarily jet lagged.

The South Koreans are very proud that the G20 summit was held in Seoul, but perhaps that is mostly relief that they didn’t have to negotiate in the wrong time zone – no such luck for most of their guests.

This is in the nature of summitry: leaders whose powers of decision are so indispensable they fly all over the globe, exercise those powers of decision in what can only be described as a highly impaired state.

That’s the undercover economist Tim Harford writing in The Financial Times this weekend, musing on how jet travel makes the G20 possible, and how jet lag makes it a bad idea. (It seems the Russians are crafty enough to even use it as a weapon.)


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November 04, 2010  |  permalink

Gone Flyin’

I’m out this week, jetting from JFK to FRA to IAH and then hopping a chart to PHX and PAE (Paine Field, the home airstrip of Boeing) and finally driving over to SEA for the flight home to JFK. At least I’m getting miles for this. Follow my live blogging of the second annual Star Mega DO here, and if you’re wondering what this is all about, read my story about last year’s DO for Condé Nast Traveler, “Triumph of the Air Warriors.” See you next week!


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November 03, 2010  |  permalink

The Boston Aerotropolis That Never Was

In last Sunday’s Boston Globe, editorial page editor Peter Canellos argued at some length that greater Boston—specifically the Route 128 corridor, once famous as Silicon Valley East—blew its chance of becoming the technology capital of America because it failed to build to an aerotropolis. It’s an interesting idea, but does it hold up? Here’s his premise, starting from the premise that global companies want global connectivity:

Such firms are, of course, precisely the type that draw on the innovations created in Boston, but then often move elsewhere. Their major operations – executive offices, high-end manufacturing – get established outside New England. Northern Virginia is one such place, whose growth in high-tech industries has paralleled the Boston area’s decline.

Massachusetts does not have an aerotropolis. When confronted with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a second major airport, 20 years ago, the state passed it up. It was, in the eyes of some economists, a big mistake, the kind that separates the truly global metropolises from the boutique cities.

The reasons were, to a large extent, the usual ones in Massachusetts. Hubris – the sense among many policy makers that economic growth was inevitable, a force to be channeled and, if necessary, limited, rather than given any special encouragement. Local resistance – the belief that any change would harm the quality of life rather than enhance it. And short-sightedness – a sense that transportation was meant to serve those already living here, rather than to be a magnet to attract more.

But there was also a change that few, if anyone, could see.

Corporations that once thought of themselves as rooted in one place began to think of themselves as being everywhere, and wanting a base of operations that was as monolithic, generic, and peripatetic as they were.

They wanted to be at an airport. And while Massachusetts has a fine one, its extremely limited environs are too dense, too crowded, to serve the needs of the most expansive corporations.

That would be Boston Logan, which has shuttle flights and great international connections, but absolutely no room to grow. Canellos goes on to repeat many of the same arguments which appear in Aerotropolis. I won’t rehash them here, but they’re worth reading. I would like to note the similarities between Canellos’ argument and Joel Garreau’s description of the “Massachusetts Miracle” of the 1980s, and the hard landing following the 1991 recession. From Edge City, published in 1990:

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Boston was a fascinating place in which to examine the dynamics of growthas well as the backlash created by its limits. At more than 350 years, Boston’s is the most mature metropolitan area in the United States. It was also the first area in the East to calve Edge Cities the way glaciers do icebergs. From the dawn of the computer age, the Edge Cities along Route 128 became synonymous with the romance of high technology. Companies that made history clustered around the verdant interstates-Digital, Lotus, Wang. The Edge City-driven Massachusetts Miracle of the 1980s in one decade lifted New England from the poorest region in America to its richest. In 1988, New Hampshire posted the lowest state unemployment rate ever recorded: 2.0 percent. Vermont was second in the nation, with 2.5 percent. Connecticut tied for third at 3.0. Rhode Island, at 3.1, was tied for fourth. Massachusetts, at 3.4, was sixth. Some business names that cropped up in Bangor, Maine-of all places-were Advanced Data Systems, Systems Management Services, Professional Financial Consultants of New England. In 1986, grim Worcester got a fashion magazine. Yes, Worcester. It was called Prelude.

This kind of extraordinary growth also resulted in the Boston area being among the first to discover the limits to Edge City in the twenty-first century. Despite-and because of-the velocity of this economic boom, Boston’s growth imploded as the 1990s began. Growth was stagnant. The actual number of jobs shrank. How could such a brainy, high-technology boom collapse? A central reason is that the region from northern Rhode Island to southern New Hampshire simply ran out of capacity. There were few terrific places left to put new jobs and expanding companies.

...If, in the 1980s, you wanted relatively low land costs, attractive housing, good roads, and proximity to O’Hare International Airport, the metal ring would have settled for you in the Chicago metropolitan area somewhere around Schaumburg or Oakbrook, well west of downtown Chicago. That’s why those areas became huge Edge Cities.

...Tysons Corner, Virginia, is not only in the midst of highly valued housing and roads; it is halfway between Dulles Airport and the Pentagon.

...In the Boston area, however, existing companies found it difficult to grow-the fastest growing high-technol-ogy companies in America in the late 1980s were typified by Microsoft, which thrived in Seattle, not the Bay State, and Compaq, which boomed not on 128, but in Houston. And moving a new company to the area from another region was a nightmare. The cost of everything from power to sewers to car insurance became prohibitive. “In almost every category we’re first or second highest in the country,” noted Anthony J. Ferrera, chief of the Boston office of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Boston area essentially declared itself full. The bust, therefore, came. And once again, Boston became a fascinating laboratory -this time, in which to watch Edge City Limits.

So the argument isn’t new, but it may be correct. If proximity to universities and young talent is all that mattered, Boston would have crushed Silicon Valley. There’s no doubt connectivity was in play. The complete text of Garreau’s chapter is here.

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November 03, 2010  |  permalink

Flashback: Singapore

...Singapore’s airport, the Changi Airtropolis, seemed to possess no more resolution than some early [virtual reality] world. There was no dirt whatsoever; no muss, no furred fractal edge to things. Outside, the organic, florid as ever in the tropics, had been gardened into brilliant green, and all-too-perfect examples of itself. Only the clouds were feathered with chaos - weird columnar structures towering above the Strait of China.”

- William Gibson, “Disneyland with the Death Penalty,” Wired September/October 1993

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October 12, 2010  |  permalink

Life & Death at Airports

The largest hubs, like Atlanta’s, see 200,000 people or more pass through on any given day. Statistically speaking, it’s inevitable that someone will suffer from a heart attack or stroke and occasionally die. (New York JFK suffers a fatality each day.) But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an obituary set in an airport:

Solomon Burke, a singer whose smooth, powerful articulation and mingling of sacred and profane themes helped define soul music in the early 1960s, died on Sunday at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. He was 70 and lived in Los Angeles.

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October 12, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: A Q&A With Architect Jan Gehl


(Originally published at on September 16, 2010)

Whatever you think of the Manhattan pedestrian mall known as Times Square (love it or hate it), you have Jan Gehl to thank. The Danish architect’s name doesn’t loom as large as Jane Jacobs’ or William H. Whyte’s or even Andrés Duany’s, but no one has done more in the last decade to retrofit cities for cyclists and pedestrian than his eponymous consultancy in Copenhagen. While visiting New York this week for the American publication of his latest book Cities for People—a kind of manual for making walkable cities—Gehl invited me to sit with him in Bryant Park to observe the sidewalk ballet and discuss what he calls “the needs of the urban habitat of homo sapiens.”

Reclaiming a space like Bryant Park in the middle of Manhattan’s grid is easy; how do you do the same in auto-driven cities like Phoenix or Houston?
It’s not complicated. We can use the example of Times Square. If you look into the fabric of a city, there is so much leftover space–parking lots, or in this case a street. Why have two streets with traffic going in the same direction, and one at a funny angle? We were commissioned to survey how pedestrians and cyclists were faring in the city [in 2007] as part of PlaNYC. Two weeks after Janette Sadik-Khan was named commissioner [of the Department of Transportation], she popped up in Copenhagen to see a city that, since 1962, has done a lot of thing to invite people to walk and cycle as much as possible. It’s a city dominated by people, and not dominated by traffic.

What’s interesting about New York is that not much had happened along these lines between Jane Jacobs and 2007. Having worked with many cities [e.g. London, Melbourne, Mexico City, Seattle, and San Francisco] it all comes down to visionary leadership, and the political courage to make a change. It’s amazing that it took this long in the United States when European cities have been at it for 20, 30, 40 years, and they’ve done miracles in Australia. The same things can be done here.

In the developed world, why were Americans the last to embrace this, especially when many of our cities are older and smaller than Sydney or Melbourne?
Ever since planning was professionalized around 1960, instead of adding new streets and new houses to existing cities, they switched to big scale stuff—big buildings, new districts, and handling the influx of automobiles. They were good at handling big blocks, but weren’t paying attention to people. In the book, I talk about three levels in city planning: the big story seen from above; the medium story—the site plans, and the little story—the people landscape seen at eye-level. Planners tended to the two bigger scales, but would not come down to eye-level and see the results. And architects became more and more interested in single buildings and in forms than in society. They were concerned with the skyline than the sidewalk. But the people scale is the most important scale, because that’s where the biggest attractions are—other people—and that is exactly the scale that has for years been forgotten and mishandled. Nobody has been commissioned to look after it in any systematic way.

We know more about the habitat of panda bears and mountain gorillas than we do about cities at eye-level. It’s intriguing why so little research has been done on the urban habitat of homo sapiens in urban settings. Since Jane Jacobs, maybe 10 people have studied it seriously: Holly Whyte; Christopher Alexander; Allan Jacobs and Donald Appleyard among them. Ten years ago, we started our consultancy firm to put all of their theories to work. And we’ve learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work. It’s partly a cultural question and partly it’s a matter of biology and what kind of animal we are—how far we can move, and see. Why is it that shops are four or five meters apart on all the good shopping streets all over the world? Because if you’re walking past, there is a new experience every four or five seconds, which is ideal from a stimulus point of view.

How do social networks, ambient awareness, augmented reality and other communication technologies change our experience of the city? It’s interesting how the surge of interest in walkable urbanism has happened in places where residents pride themselves on their connectivity.
Ever since the emergence of cyberspace, there’s been all these predictions that public space was redundant and cyberspace would take over. We have no evidence whatsoever that this is taking place. On the contrary, I think that all these indirect contacts possible inspire people to experience something themselves, rather than sit and look at pictures of it.

There’s been a renaissance in public spaces over the last 20 years worldwide—wonderful boulevards, parks, and squares. Whenever it’s done properly, we have seen people come by the thousands. If we go back a hundred years, there was enormous activity in the streets because people were forced to be there. They were forced to drag their merchandise to the street, forced to walk, forced to play. The quality of the public spaces wasn’t an issue, because people were forced to be there, regardless. Today, we have a very different situation. Sometimes we call it the “leisure time” or “experience-oriented” society—a consumer society. We live more scattered and isolated, and households are shrinking. In Australia and Denmark, every other household consists of just one person. But the one thing homo sapiens has always been interested in is other people. The number one attraction in any city isn’t the buildings, the parks, the sculptures or the statues. It’s people. First we need people, then spaces, then buildings.

But cities in the developing world are experience just the opposite. Three billion people will urbanize in the next 40 years, and countries like China face a choice of building cities as fast as they can, or else risk cities of vast slums, like Lagos. How do you apply the lessons of Copenhagen and walkable places to cities like Shenzhen or Lagos?
If we’re not looking properly after people here, the challenge is so much more urgent in these developing cities, where every day more and more traffic comes in, and people with no access to transportation become more downtrodden. We’ve seen it happen here in the 1960s and 1970s. As some people became more mobile, others became less mobile.

Many of the things I’m writing about are a mindset, and it costs nothing. The major investment is to simply think about it. We are presently working in China educating planners, because this is a set of truths they have never thought about or heard about. And they never thought it made any difference. They have these ideas that most of them should have a car and that bicycles aren’t a sign of progress. They have forbidden bicycles in a number of cities, but hopefully they’ll start to reverse this. I am absolutely sure that they can never make those cities more mobile in any conceivable way by simply adding more cars. That has already been tried. But perhaps they will have to try for a while before they realize that is not the way forward.

[Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon]

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September 28, 2010  |  permalink

Foxconn’s Latest Factory

From Digitimes (emphasis mine):

Foxconn has started construction of a handset-assembly plant in a 138-square kilometer business park surrounding the international airport in Zhengzhou City, northern China, with volume production to begin in first-quarter 2011, according to industry sources in Taiwan.

This will be Foxconn’s second plant in Zhengzhou, next to the existing one in the Zhengzhou Export Processing Zone that began production in August-September 2010, the sources indicated. While the existing plant currently produces handset components mainly for supply to Foxconn’s plant in Shenzhen, southern China, the new factory will also use these components to assemble handsets, with monthly capacity of 100,000 handsets in first-quarter 2011, rising to 300,000 units eventually, the sources said.

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September 27, 2010  |  permalink

The Difference Engine

William Gibson on nostalgia and globalization:

I’m happiest with people who’ve gotten furthest from traditional ideas of nationalism. I’m happiest in wildly multicultural post-national environments, which most large world cities now are. I’m writing about places I like. Last year I thought about the first time I traveled through Europe, which was in 1970. When I traveled through Europe, each country had not only its own currency but its own brands of cigarettes, its own everything. That was such a wonderful experience. Each country in Europe was a pocket universe. That’s gone. It’s just gone. They all just have EU stuff and a lot of American stuff and a lot of Japanese stuff. It’s not as charming. But it’s the way it is. I don’t really see how we could have kept it the way it was. I don’t feel nostalgia for what it was. I’ve become convinced that nostalgia is a fundamentally unhealthy modality. When you see it, it’s usually attached to something else that’s really, seriously bad. I don’t traffic in nostalgia. We’re becoming a global culture.

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September 27, 2010  |  permalink

“What Masdar really represents…” fact, is the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance.”

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September 26, 2010  |  permalink

China’s “Moon Shots”

In Sunday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman tolls the warning bell yet again about China: “China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say “moon shots” I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports…” The others includes high-speed rail, bio-sciences, and electric cars (which he spends the bulk of his column discussing).

Just how big is that network of airports? I quantify the scale and cost in the book:

Even before the crisis and China’s subsequent stimulus, the central government announced as part of its Eleventh Five-Year Plan that it would build a hundred new airports by 2020, at a cost of $62 billion. The first forty were ready last year. China is placing the single biggest bet on aviation of any country, ever. The vast majority lie inland, hugging provincial capitals and secondary cities bigger than any we have in the States. Full-scale aerotropoli are planned for China’s western hubs, Chongqing and Chengdu, and its ancient capital in the northwest, Xi’an. The others are slated for a mix of historic cities and outsourcing hubs like Changsha, Kunming, Hangzhou, Shenyang and Dalian. Shanghai built two for the crowds headed to last year’s Expo 2010, expected to be the best-attended World’s Fair in history.

Besides airports, China has laid as many miles of high-speed railroad tracks in the last five years as Europe has in the last two decades. The trains, in turn, are meant to keep people off the highways, to which it’s adding thirty thousand miles–enough to eclipse the American interstate highway system. China’s planners have internalized the lessons of America’s Eisenhower-era infrastructure boom, designing a world-class system for moving people and goods quickly, cheaply and reliably across any distance, whether locally by highway, regionally by rail, or globally by air. The plan is to pick and up move large swaths of the Delta hundreds or even thousands of miles inland. There is nothing to stop them.

If China’s leaders want to do something, they just do it. This is both their greatest strength and in the long run their greatest weakness. Remember what they said about democracy? It just gets in the way. This is how Foster’s dragon was built in five years flat, at a cost of ten thousand flattened homes. Multiply that times a hundred, and you have the initial human costs of China’s aerotropoli.


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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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