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.


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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