Is aerotropolis Songdo really the city of the future?

Songdo from above. Image: Fleetham/Wikipedia.

The ‘aerotropolis’ has been described by U.S. business consultant John Kasarda, the pioneer of the concept, as the “city of the future”. The notion of building a city around an airport, not the other way round, has been deemed to be crucial for economic development. Just as urban areas sprawled around railroads in the 1800s, and highways in the 1900s, the thinking is that business and commerce will jump at the opportunity to be based near a world-class, international hub.

Amsterdam Schiphol and Seoul Incheon have been widely seen as the two poster children for the concept of the aerotropolis. But are airport cities really that glamorous in reality?

Fast forward eleven hours from Heathrow, and one lands in the stylish Terminal 1 of Seoul Incheon (IATA code: ICN), a routine prize-winner in the "World’s Best Airport’ awards. Every time I have landed there, there is some new addition to the hi-tech gizmos on show in the arrivals lounge, whether high-tech sanitation in the restrooms, a high-speed railway linking Incheon with the rest of Seoul, or, on my recent arrival, automated robots making sure the floors of Arrivals were polished to perfection.

Yet much of the attention has focused not on ICN, but its aerotropolis of Songdo, officially the Songdo International Business District. A ‘smart city’ built from scratch on reclaimed land, Songdo was destined to be the prototype cosmopolitan aerotropolis, the city of the future: home to international university campuses, globe-trotting businessmen, multinational financial firms, as well as a place for high-end tourism. The 2012 Presidents Cup golf tournament was played at the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in Songdo. What better way to attract an international clientele?

Yet have a look around Songdo, and it feels like a ghost town. The students are there, businessmen come and go, restaurants and department stores open their doors, yet something is missing.

The lack of footfall and sporadic numbers of ‘cosmopolitan clientele’ were crystal clear as I walked down the deserted streets. Songdo is no exception to South Korea’s obsession with high-rise life, but more apartments are being built than tenants moving in. In what looks like a half-hearted attempt to emulate the epitome of global urban cosmopolitanism, New York, the high-rise apartments encircle a designated park named Central Park.

Central Park. Image: Dongjun Kim/Wikipedia.

Songdo also promised environmental and technological progress. Amongst the city’s many accolades, it has claimed the title of the world’s first ‘smart’ city: sensors have been placed throughout the area to gather information on traffic flows, and apartments are fitted with the latest technological accouterments. The frequent-flying businessman can make video calls from the televisions in the apartments, and the global student can attend university classes remotely. Trash is collected and separated automatically, sucked out of apartments by a vacuum chute, and, within the blink of an eye, arrives at the sorting facility.

These are hallmarks of an efficient city – but only if there are car users for whom tracking pollution levels and traffic flows may be useful, if there are businessmen who actually make use of the LED television screens to conference call, and if there is enough trash to be recycled and sorted, come to that.


Speaking to those who live in Songdo and its vicinity, the hype all seems a bit much. With South Korea increasing in its technological innovation day-by-day, the ability to host a conference call from one’s LED television screen is no big deal. Similar waste collection has been tried tested in Singapore, amongst other cities: again, nothing to get excited about.

And most of all, when I asked where the cosmopolitan citizens are, the reply was simple: “They are all in Seoul, and will stay in Seoul.” Something has clearly gone wrong for Songdo, not least the fact that the city’s construction on reclaimed land has attracted its fair share of criticism from environmental groups – but a big problem is that it has failed to attract the globetrotting, frequent-flying, citizen-of-the-world.

There are plenty of airports around which commerce, retail, and residence are becoming ever more numerous, which raises the question of whether the aerotropolis is actually something new. Just as it is nothing out of the ordinary that businesses sprawled along the railroads in the 19th century, maybe the airport is just the railroad of today: it is only natural for urban life to blossom around it.

Maybe we should pay less attention to the new ‘cities’ springing up around airports, and more on the airports themselves. They may seem like mere waiting rooms to some – but they can be rich sources of architecture, technology, big data, and fascinating places in their own right. Incheon’s Terminal 2 opened in January of this year. It promises to be just as glamorous, efficient, and technologically-embedded, if not more, than Terminal 1.

So next time you see someone checking-in to a flight with an ‘ICN’ tag on their luggage, you may know one thing. They may be flying to Incheon, but chances are they will not set foot in Songdo.

 
 
 
 

To make electric vehicles happen, the government must devolve energy policy to councils

The future. Image: Getty.

Last week, the Guardian revealed that at least a quarter of councils have halted the roll-out of electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure with no plans to resume its installation. This is a fully charged battery-worth of miles short of ideal, given the ambitious decarbonisation targets to which the UK is rightly working.

It’s even more startling given the current focus on inclusive growth, for the switch to EVs is an economic advancement, on an individual and societal level. Decarbonisation will free up resources and push growth, but the way in which we go about it will have impacts for generations after the task is complete.

If there is one lesson that has been not so much taught to us as screamed at us by recent history, it is that the market does not deliver inclusivity by itself. Left to its own devices, the market tends to leave people behind. And people left behind make all kinds of rational decisions, in polling stations and elsewhere that can seem wholly irrational to those charged with keeping pace – as illuminted in Jeremy Harding’s despatch from the ‘periphery’ which has incubated France’s ‘gilet jaunes’ in the London Review of Books.

But what in the name of Nikola Tesla has any of this to do with charging stations? The Localis argument is simple: local government must work strategically with energy network providers to ensure that EV charging stations are rolled out equally across areas, to ensure deprived areas do not face further disadvantage in the switch to EVs. To do so, Ofgem must first devolve certain regulations around energy supply and management to our combined authorities and city regions.


Although it might make sense now to invest in wealthier areas where EVs are already present, if there isn’t infrastructure in place ahead of demand elsewhere, then we risk a ‘tale of two cities’, where decarbonisation is two-speed and its benefits are two-tier.

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced on Monday that urban mobility will be an issue for overarching and intelligent strategy moving forward. The issue of fairness must be central to any such strategy, lest it just become a case of more nice things in nice places and a further widening of the social gap in our cities.

This is where the local state comes in. To achieve clean transport across a city, more is needed than just the installation of charging points.  Collaboration must be coordinated between many of a place’s moving parts.

The DfT announcement makes much of open data, which is undoubtedly crucial to realising the goal of a smart city. This awareness of digital infrastructure must also be matched by upgrades to physical infrastructure, if we are going to realise the full network effects of an integrated city, and as we argue in detail in our recent report, it is here that inclusivity can be stitched firmly into the fabric.

Councils know the ins and outs of deprivation within their boundaries and are uniquely placed to bring together stakeholders from across sectors to devise and implement inclusive transport strategy. In the switch to EVs and in the wider Future of Mobility, they must stay a major player in the game.

As transport minister and biographer of Edmund Burke, Jesse Norman has been keen to stress the founding Conservative philosopher’s belief in the duty of those living in the present to respect the traditions of the past and keep this legacy alive for their own successors.

If this is to be a Burkean moment in making the leap to the transformative transport systems of the future, Mr Norman should give due attention to local government’s role as “little platoons” in this process: as committed agents of change whose civic responsibility and knowledge of place can make this mobility revolution happen.

Joe Fyans is head of research at the think tank Localis.