A plane flying over the city, in Singapore

A plane flying over the city, in Singapore

Infrastructure  |  Mobility  |  Cities

"The new century of the Aerotropolis": the urban shape with the airport at its centre

The airport should be placed at the centre of careful urban planning at regional level, as a catalyst for economic activity and a new form of metropolis development, towards the new ‘Aerotropolis’ model. The airport should therefore not be located in the suburbs, but in the heart of the city space, according to John Kasarda, an academic and expert in aviation infrastructure

Turning the airport into a destination, rather than just a place to catch a plane, so much so that it is placed at the centre of a possible model of urban development, emphasising the role of air mobility of people and goods as the pivot of the modern economy, around which an ideal city of the future can be built.

This is the line, rather controversial for various nuances and criticisms, followed by John Kasarda, a US academic and international consultant, one of the world's leading experts on airport development with ten volumes and hundreds of published articles on the subject. According to his vision, the airport is to the 21st century what motorways were to the 20th, roads to the 19th, and ports to the 18th: capital infrastructure, engine of growth, the airport is the leverage and differential factor for the economy of the territory. As such, Kasarda says, the airport should not be relegated to a peripheral position. On the contrary, it should be where it can guarantee maximum accessibility for users and services: the city centre, where transport hubs and major urban activities are concentrated.

The attractiveness of Kasarda’s airport is in fact unrelated to mere air traffic. And it looks to a more articulated experience, going beyond the transit of passengers to embrace the enjoyment of rest areas for shopping and restaurants as well. A commercial centre grafted with the function of fast transport, we could rephrase, to which the role of economic attraction pole for a whole series of services and collateral industries that thrive in the vicinity of the airport according to a cluster logic is added: the hospitality realities, offices and pavilions for trade fairs, but also logistics and production centres.

For industry, in fact, proximity to shipping centres is more important today than it used to be: not only for those sectors where speed of delivery is literally vital, such as biopharmaceuticals, but also for production chains typically located in different countries, such as electronics, where it is crucial to reduce any downtime associated with poor last-mile connectivity.

The shape of this airport-city for Kasarda has a name, Aerotropolis, which is also that of the best-seller Aerotropolis. The Way We'll Live Next (Penguin, 2011), where the scholar articulated this concept together with co-author Greg Lindsay. Stretching up to 30 km from its airport centre, the aerotropolis is characterised by the presence of major thoroughfares and concentric rings where first industry, then services, and finally residential areas are located.

For the many Europeans who are used to identifying the city centre with its historical part, generally the most beautiful and inviting, and after all a mirror of collective and individual identity, Kasarda's vision is a counterintuitive gamble. Yet, some widely shared projections and several examples of existing aerotropoli would seem to support (at least in some geographical contexts) the trend towards an expansion and increased attractiveness of airports in the urban context. By 2030, the global commercial airline fleet will expand by 33 per cent, while an estimated 19 billion travellers will pass through airports in 2040, an annual growth rate of 5.8 per cent. These figures are also supported by the increase in investment in the construction sector, with China leading the way with $250 billion in dedicated budgets.

It is easy, Kasarda himself recognises, to create an aerotropolis where there are no pre-existing settlements. This observation, however, does not invalidate the validity of the model in his opinion. Examples of aerotropoli are widespread not only in the United States, but also in Europe. Among the most cited case studies are Memphis, the world's second largest cargo airport (Fedex has its historic headquarters there) and Amsterdam Schipol, one of Europe's leading airports in terms of both cargo and passenger traffic and... home to exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum. Sweden would also have its own aerotropolis with the Stockholm-Arlanda Airport, the country's busiest. While Hong Kong, with its high density, is an emblematic example, with its residential neighbourhood embracing and encompassing Chek Lap Kok. And it is Asia that seems to be driving this trend: Singapore's Changi Airport already has its own ‘Jewel’, a place of attraction in name and in fact which, under the guise of a transparent dome invaded by vegetation, houses not only strictly airport functions but also entertainment and hospitality destinations. In Saudi Arabia, Riyadh Airport is preparing to include new areas related to both transport and entertainment with the ambitious goal of accommodating 185 million passengers in 2050.

According to some estimates, the aerotropolis model could increase airport revenues tenfold, but there is much criticism of the model. The main criticism relates not so much to feasibility, but to the nature of non-place, of a ‘stunned city’, ‘where there is nothing you can learn by walking down the street’, as the sociologist Richard Sennett put it, that this model ends up embodying. Despite their attendance, aerotropoli would reproduce cities that are all the same, populated by the same shops, the same functional architecture, without an expression linked to the history of the area.

Needs related to psychophysical well-being would be neglected: think of the antipodean solution embodied by Stefano Boeri's post-Covid city, which at the time of the pandemic advocated building cities and neighbourhoods around a park. In the city-figure monotony, the issues of aircraft emissions, especially during landing and take-off, and noise pollution also raise many questions. 

To these misgivings, Kasarda responds with an all-American pragmatism that is also much appreciated in China, where Kasarda has worked for a long time. In fact, the researcher argues that the problem of environmental and noise impact should be solved by 2035, according to estimates, with the advent of the hydrogen-powered aircraft and with the electrification of shorter flights. And on the scarcely humanistic nature of a place destined to be a fake? According to Kasarda, nothing prevents making the airport a place of life, animated by all possible manifestations of human ingenuity and expressiveness. After all, he points out, the London Philharmonic Orchestra plays regularly at Heathrow.

Giulia Zappa - Florence-born and parisian-adopted today, she is into design communication, seamlessly fond of great classics, as of speculative research or scalable projects. She wrote for many publications as Domus, Icon Design and Artribune. Besides journalism, she is engaged with United Nations in developing plans related with creative industry and renewables.

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