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Cities in the sky

Published: 02/07/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » July/August 2014 » Destinations » Home » Features »

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Metropolis is a combination of two Greek words that literally mean “mother-city.” In ancient Greece, a metropolis was the home city – the “mother” – of settlers as they colonized new remote regions. The original meaning of the word took on a connotation of a center from which cultural, social and economic activities spread. Over time, of course, the word has come to mean any major urban area with a large concentrated population.

Aerotropolis is a newly coined word that in many ways reflects the old. In an age where the idea of moving packets of data from node to node has become a commonplace concept, the notion of airports as physical nodes that connect physical packets – whether people or cargo – is gaining traction. 

Aerotropolis – an air-city – is a form of urban planning that is centered on and driven by an airport, becoming in effect its own city. The word was first introduced in the November 1939 issue of Popular Science magazine by New York commercial artist Nicholas DeSantis. His proposed 200-story skyscraper was eight city blocks long with a landing strip on the roof, and housed offices, shops, restaurants, theaters and sports venues – a complete city.

If that idea sounds vaguely familiar, the concept – along with the word – was revived some 60 years later by Dr. John D. Kasarda, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Today, virtually all of the commercial functions of a modern metropolitan center are found on or near most major air gateways,” Kasarda says in a report published in Airport World, “fundamentally changing them from ‘city airports’ to ‘airport cities.’”

Today, the phrase aerotropolis is much in vogue among city planners and politicians, reflecting the underlying concept that airports are the connecting nodes for businesses to reach their supply chains, their customers and their partners worldwide. Unfortunately, it takes more than throwing up a few warehouse buildings along the access road to transform an airport into a true aerotropolis.

In the past, airports and the urban infrastructure that supported them have developed along a very different path. Most evolved haphazardly over time, having initially been sited some distance from city centers based on land availability, and a desire on the part of the citizenry to avoid the unpleasant side effects of air traffic – noise, pollution, traffic – in their back yards. 

But in response to increasing consumer demands for greater access to air travel, and the recognition of the revenue streams that airports generate, improved infrastructure soon grew up to support surface transportation access and commercial real estate opportunities. 

Today, having seen how the model can work, a number of newer ‘greenfield’ airport projects have been planned this way from the start to rationalize the growth. 

“Regardless of process,” Kasarda says, “airports continue to transform from primarily air transport infrastructure to multimodal, multi-functional enterprises generating considerable commercial development within and well beyond their boundaries.” 

Catalysts for Growth

The city of Denver, CO, has identified three signature regions that are expected to transform the city while generating billions of dollars and creating tens of thousands of jobs over the next three decades, according to Mayor Michael B. Handcock. Of these, the area between Denver’s northeast neighborhoods and Denver International Airport represents “the greatest concentration of undeveloped land in the city – and consequently the greatest economic opportunity,” the mayor says.

As a result, a major initiative for the city is the rail connection between Denver International Airport and downtown. “This line will light-up development along the 20-mile route, an area I call the Corridor of Opportunity and Aerotropolis,” Handcock says. “I am excited about leveraging the biggest economic engine in the region, Denver International Airport, to drive job creation and growth on a globally competitive scale.”

Denver’s story is one that’s being repeated for virtually every major US city, and dozens more in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Kasarda divides these into aerotropolises and airport cities, and further identifies them as either “operational” or “developing.” 

Using these categories, he has identified 38 aerotropolises or airport cities in North America, 20 in Europe, 17 in Asia-Pacific, seven in Africa and the Middle East and one each in Central and South America. The good doctor himself admits that the criteria are somewhat nebulous, stating, “the subjectivity of these must be recognized.” Nonetheless, from these numbers the global scope of aerotropolis developments is evident.

Job Generators

Las Colinas, TX, a 10-minute drive from Dallas-Fort Worth International, is home to four Fortune 500 world headquarters. The area around Chicago O’Hare has more office and convention space than most major cities can boast. And the size of the retail market in the Washington Dulles airport region is second only to New York City’s Manhattan in the US.

Around the world there are major airports that actually have more office space and employ more people than their city’s downtown business districts. In Paris, the 160-acre Roissypôle complex in the middle of Charles de Gaulle airport has over 2.5 million square feet of office space. The airport hosts around 700 companies that employ a total of 87,000 people. In the entire Paris region, approximately 250,000 jobs are directly or indirectly related to CDG, the world’s eighth busiest airport.

The research leaves little doubt that airports have shifted from a supporting player to a starring role as primary business centers and job growth drivers. Around the 25 busiest passenger airports in the US, research by Kasarda and Dr Stephen Appold found that as of 2009, 3.1 million jobs were located within a 2.5-mile radius of these airports. That represents almost 3 percent of all US employment. Within a five-mile radius of the airport fence, businesses employed over 7.5 million people and 19 million employees work within 10 miles of an airport, or nearly one in five jobs in the US (17.2 percent).

Within a five-mile radius, Chicago O’Hare has 450,000 jobs, DFW 395,000 jobs, and Washington Dulles almost 240,000 jobs. Nearly 10 percent of all jobs in transport and warehousing in the US are located within a 2.5-mile proximity of these 25 airports.

Given the global reach of aviation, it’s hardly surprising to see the aerotropolis effect is a worldwide phenomenon. Memphis and Paris CDG cargo and logistics complexes are among the world’s busiest, while the cargo operations at South Korea’s Incheon airport supports New Songdo IDB, an airport edge city the size of downtown Boston.

“Dubai and Singapore have emerged as a full-fledged aerotropolises with their large leisure, tourism, commercial and finance sectors dependent on aviation,” Kasarda notes. “Both may legitimately be described as global aviation hubs with city-states attached.”

Naturally, the lodging sector gravitates toward the new aerotropolises. Atlanta, for instance, has almost as many hotels within 2.5 miles of Hartsfield-Jackson International as there are in the city center – 49 at the airport, 51 downtown. But other professional, technology and medical corporations are settling in around the airport perimeter as well. All this activity is boosting a host of support and lifestyle services, such as shopping, sports and entertainment, plus convention centers, showrooms and exhibit space.

“We have entered a new transit-oriented development era where cities are being built around airports instead of the reverse,” Kasarda concludes in his Airport World article. “In the process, the urban center is being relocated in the form of globally significant airport cities and aerotropolises.”   


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