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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.