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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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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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