Photo: Copyright Robb Williamsom/AECOM
Monocle Magazine’s “Asia Brief” recently asked me about the aerotropolis concept, as Asian cities including Beijing, Bangkok, Taipei, and Hyderabad have embraced this model. ‘Aerotropolis’ is an emerging form of urban development, which embraces the idea that a globally competitive city must develop in tandem with a well-connected airport. The strongest cities can enhance value of this global gateway by rationalizing urban development around the airport rather than keeping it away.
Cities exist for trade and exchange. Over millennia, great cities have formed along the most active trade routes—their economic prospects growing or waning in proportion to their ability to take advantage of transportation gateways. When ships were the fastest vehicle in the world, cities evolved close to coasts and riverbanks. The development of railroads killed cities that couldn’t capitalize on rail connectivity, but gave rise to others that could. The same phenomenon occurred with the automobile and interstate motorways. Not everyone is aware of what today’s dominant trade route is.
Of course people still move themselves and their products around on trucks, trains, and ships. But increasingly, we travel from city to city over great distances. We share ambitions, culture, business ventures, high-value goods, and pocket money within hours on airplanes. Think of the sky as a 21st century Silk Road; in a globalizing age of extraordinarily extended supply chains, airports are the tangible gateways to this global commerce. Cities increasingly depend on air traffic for their economic vitality and resilience. For a hub airport, every long-haul destination sustains around 3,000 direct, indirect, and catalytic jobs. Over 40 percent of the value of global trade now moves by air. In our age, virtually every city grows toward its airport.
Now, two major objections immediately spring to mind for many people. The first is noise; of course airplanes make noise. Living directly underneath a flight path is the classic image of an unfortunate real estate location, and this is an emotive issue. But the facts are more nuanced. Newer planes are increasingly quiet, and the land areas exposed to sustained noise are finite and gradually shrinking. In well-coordinated aerotropolis urbanism, specialized aviation-related industries and green spaces are prioritized for these relatively narrow corridors, not homes. Residential areas are offset from the linear flight paths and experience the background noise levels of any central urban area. We should accept and embrace the fact that airports are increasingly part of the urban fabric of great cities; noise expectations around airports should be consistent with urban, not suburban or rural standards. Aeroptropolis planning rationalizes noise footprints and urban settlement patters in order to increase the mutual compatibility of related uses.
Another objection is the carbon output of planes and the belief that aviation expansion promotes an inherently unsustainable transportation mode. It is interesting to consider that in the human carbon portfolio, aviation accounts for only around two percent of global greenhouse gases. Aviation on its own is not nearly as big an offender as people tend to think; we need to focus on the whole system, especially road access and building types around the airport. Creating better connectivity between airports and urban areas with public transport, and rationalizing urban densities to reduce sprawl are much more effective strategies if we are really serious about balancing development and carbon emissions. Aviation is a critical means of trade and exchange in this century, and we can’t afford to ignore it. Our cities have to leverage the potential of airports and consider new models of urbanism to create the widest range of benefits. Aeroropolis development is an important way of doing this.
I’ve been involved in London’s debate over whether or not to expand Heathrow, and I’m committed to supporting London’s position in an increasingly competitive global environment. Expanding Heathrow is the best way to create jobs for the least expense in the shortest amount of time. I was proud to lead the AECOM team that helped produce “Best Placed for Britain” and we continue to contribute to Heathrow’s ongoing dialogue with the Davies Commission. Over the last generation, an extraordinary array of globally-facing specialized business clusters have concentrated organically in the Thames Valley, specifically tied to the development of Heathrow. Choosing not to expand the UK’s global hub at Heathrow severely constrains the nation’s ability to trade and exchange on a global scale. Shifting the hub to another location, for example Gatwick or a new location in the Thames Estuary, would mean Heathrow having to shut down; if nothing else, this creates substantial uncertainty for some of the UK’s most promising emerging industries.
We are in a global race for jobs and resilient opportunity. As rising Asian cities supercharge their global competitiveness using the aerotropolis model, it’s ill-advised for London to endanger its own position by severing the link between global connectivity and economic vitality.
Chris Choa (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Masterplanning + Urban Design principal in AECOM’s London office.