I’d like to thank everyone who contacted me about my last article, which discussed why the aerotropolis model doesn’t work. Dozens of planners, consultants, and real estate developers shared the many challenges that they’ve encountered at airports in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Across these very different contexts, a consensus seems to be emerging that the aerotropolis model simply doesn’t meet the demands of today’s airports.
This article introduces a new approach to airport-area development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. It outlines the AU model’s basic objectives, and discusses why it differs significantly from the aerotropolis. In a follow-up post, I’ll demonstrate the AU model’s potential through some examples drawn from specific airport areas.
Airport Urbanism: a people-focused approach
Back in the ’90s, advocates of the aerotropolis concept emphasized the airport’s role as a node within the global economy—and used that idea to advance an inflexible planning model for airport-area development. They proposed constructing entire new urban districts from scratch, made up of predetermined building types like office parks, convention centers, and logistics hubs. They also argued that this model could be replicated anywhere, regardless of local social, cultural, and economic factors.
That turned out not to be true—and many aerotropolis projects failed.
By contrast, airport urbanism focuses on an airport’s unique user profile in order to identify site-specific planning and design guidelines. These creative development strategies aim to match the needs of an airport’s particular passenger mix with the existing strengths of local communities and skill sets of local residents.
Simply put: airport urbanism focuses on people.
Why? Because at the end of the day, the economic dynamics at the airport and in the airport area revolve around three sets of actors:
- the airport;
- the passengers; and
- the residents of local communities who live near the airport.
Between these three actors we have three sets of relationships:
A basic relationship is between the passenger and the airport: passengers depend on the airport for their transport needs, while the airport relies on passengers as a crucial source of revenue.
Another basic relationship is between the airport and local residents. Take for example, the case of someone who lives in a town near the airport and works as a baggage handler. That’s an example of a mutually beneficial relationship, where the airport creates employment for local communities, and those towns provide a reliable source of labor.
Until now, most airport development focused on those two relationships: between the airport and passengers, and between the airport and local residents. But we haven’t considered the productive potential embedded in the third set of interactions—that is, between passengers and local communities.
Strengthening the relationship between all three actors—airport, pax, and residents—is a powerful tool for developing design guidelines that facilitate airport operations, improve the passenger experience, and benefit local communities.
Moreover, strengthening these links addresses two fundamental challenges that airports face today: one inside the terminal, and one on the airport’s edge.
Let me break those challenges down.
First, the demographics of air travel are changing fast. Not only are there many more passengers than ever before, but they’ve become much more diverse in terms of age, income level, travel purpose, and cultural background. The result? An ever-expanding list of pax types. To name just three examples: middle-class passengers from China, medical tourists, and business travelers who fly on budget airlines.
Each of these passenger segments has highly specialized transport needs, taste preferences, and spending habits. With more travelers than ever passing through the terminal, it’s crucial to offer a targeted experience to each of these different passenger types.
But airport design and operations aren’t keeping pace with these demographic changes.
That’s the first challenge.
The second challenge is the widening gap between airports and local communities in the airport area. In many cities, we find an airport that is growing very quickly but that is surrounded by a hinterland whose population is sinking economically. The benefits that the airport provides to its catchment area as a whole are missing in the communities just beyond the fence. Efforts to encourage growth—by, say, building office parks and business meeting facilities—often don’t work.
And that’s because this kind of strategy isn’t thinking about airport development in terms of the people involved: it isn’t matching passengers’ needs with residents’ skills.
Take a proposal for a new international trade center next to the airport. Here you have to ask yourself: is there really enough demand from arriving business travelers, or is that demand already being satisfied by existing facilities that are within, say, a half-hour drive of the airport? And do local residents really have the social and technical skills needed to work in a formal office environment? Often, the answer to both of these questions is no.
Thinking about the relationship between passengers, residents, and the airport empowers us to see more clearly what passengers want, what residents can offer, and how airports can increase their non-aeronautical revenue.
These insights, in turn, can help us to create innovative development strategies that are both economically viable and socially sustainable.
The takeaway here: a one-size-fits-all approach to airport-area planning doesn’t work. Development guidelines need to take into account the needs and desires of your airport’s unique passenger mix, and the particular skills of the people living in the communities around the airport.
Focusing on site-specific strategies, the AU model doesn’t rule out building an aerotropolis-style office park and convention center—if that’s what local market conditions really call for. At the same time, airport urbanism opens up a whole range of additional development strategies that are excluded by the aerotropolis’s narrow focus on office space, conferences, and logistics.
My next article will give some examples of these alternative strategies, drawn from specific airport areas.