Aerotropolis! The 21st-Century Port


Think Dubai. Think of a huge aerotropolis built to spec where the reason for being is being the state-of-the-art airport. It’s a part of the physical Internet, a port in a globalized world.

An aerotropolis is the city of the 21st century. Spanish galleons replaced by fully loaded 747s. Life at the top of the food chain.

At India’s Hyderabad airport, for example, they’ve built a hospital between two runways eliminating the cab ride to heart surgery.

Planned airport cities espy surface transportation links, shipping facilities, fine dining, designer shopping and corporate suburbs doing the handy work of globalization.

John Kasarda, a professor in the business school of North Carolina, is a big believer in the aerotropolis changing the way we live. His thinking goes like this: Airports shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th.

One third of all traded goods travel by air (based on value, not weight). In the last 30 years, world trade has increased by double the world GDP increase. The value of air cargo has increased 1,400 percent.

Now consider Dubai. Diminished oil wealth and bubble-burst real estate. Thirty years ago it had a mere 20,000 people. Then it leveraged its future on air transportation.

Today, Dubai is again at the Silk Road, reconnecting Africa to Asia to Europe. Home to 2 million people dependent on inter-connecting international flights. They’ve got indoor ski slopes next to the Empty Quarter.

After 9/11, the U.S revoked visas and it was difficult for international travelers to use American cities as centers for globalization.

Other countries stepped up to the plate. New Sango in South Korea is built on an artificial island linked to Incheon airport. It’s also linked to every other airport in the world. New airport cities like this are remaking the maps of travel.

Recall China’s new cities near new airports (40 in the last decade), some empty for now. Like Dubai, they are overbuilt to accommodate people passing through. Eventually.

Businesses in aerotropoli target people far away rather than close at hand. Aerotropoli are cities built around the airport rather than the other way around.

Heathrow, where 75 million people pass through every year, hired a writer in residence back in 2011, their own Jack London writing about their gold rush. Tony Parsons spent his time in Terminal 5 and got a book out of it: Departures: Seven Stories from Heathrow.

And of course aerotropoli must have an annual conference. This year’s Airport Cities World Conference and Exhibition happens April 24-26, 2013, in the City of Ekurhuleni, South Africa.


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  • GregWTravels at 11:29pm December 01, 2013

    I just finished the book by Greg Lindsay based on Kasarda’s ideas. It was very interesting. Lindsay as the primary author makes a good counterpoint to Kasarda’s optimism on the topic.

    Overall, the concept of the hub airport as a driver of growth makes sense to me (of course, I’m a flyertalk-er, so it would, wouldn’t it), and there are some very compelling examples in the text. There are chapters on what peak oil and climate change might mean to the concept, and the impact of those ideas.

    The book is a very interesting read. Ultimately, as all the Ur-examples in the book of Aerotropoli, I believe the reality of politics, geography and human desire will defeat any attempts to plan an aerotropolis-port-city as described in the book. But I don’t think that shouldn’t stop us from at least trying to make the space in and around airports more useful, liveable and economically vibrant.

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