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Is There An Aerotropolis In Your Future?

By Dr. Roger Morefield —



An aerotropolis is a city anchored by an airport. Your first reaction to this may be, “huh?” Like most people, you might see the airport as a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible, and not a very good place to shop, work, and live. But times are changing, and the city of the future will have runways, a control tower, and a terminal at its center. Airport terminals are evolving into luxury shopping malls with high-end brand name shops, upscale restaurants, cinemas, banks, medical clinics, and fitness centers. Terminals are connected by walkways to four- and five-star hotels that serve as fly-in virtual corporate headquarters for many businesses. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport even has a casino and an art gallery.


Historically, major centers of trade and commerce first developed near seaports. Later these centers sprang up along rivers and canals, often where waterways intersected a trade route. In the nineteenth century, railroad terminals became a hub of urban development, typically locating where waterways and trade routes intersected. Then in the second half of the twentieth century, suburban highway systems spurred the fourth wave of development. In the twenty-first century, airports are the “fifth wave” anchors of transit-oriented urban economic growth. In a high-tech globalized economy where production is often organized by geographical specialty, airports are the key to efficient production.


Most cities of any size have at least one major airport and it is typically 15 or 20 miles, or more, from the old downtown central business district. In recent years, the convenience, accessibility, connectivity, and network and agglomeration effects of airports have pulled many businesses, including corporate headquarters, away from the old downtown CBD. The Dutch have a kōan about the city of Amsterdam and its Schiphol airport that says:


The airport leaves the city,

                                The city follows the airport,

                                The airport becomes the city.


In the past, the mantra for the value of a piece of real estate was “location, location, location,” but in the 21st century it is “speed, agility, connectivity.” The aerotropolis is a place where locals and travelers from afar can meet to conduct business, eat, sleep, shop, exchange knowledge, and be entertained without venturing more than 15 minutes away. It is a dream location for those “road warriors” whose jobs require them to travel most of the time. These “warriors” can live in a nearby residential area (airport edge city) and in 15 minutes or less be inside the terminal for their day’s business travel.


For several decades, Dr. John Kasarda, Director of the Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, has promoted an idea he now calls the aerotropolis. After engaging in planning and promoting “global transparks” and “global transpark cities,” Kasarda began to use the term aerotropolis to refer to “… a new urban form placing airports in the center with cities growing around them, connecting workers, suppliers, executives, and goods to the global marketplace.” Trade and commerce in goods that travel by air has become increasingly concentrated near airports, also attracting all kinds of related services. According to Kasarda, rather than trying to avoid the airport by building it as far from the city as possible, cities should be centered around the airport. His vision of the city of the future as a planned development with an airport at its center is shown in the schematic above. The facilities shown in the schematic may be located in a radius of up to twenty miles from the airport runways.



Aviation’s share of global trade is substantial. It is 2% of world trade by weight, but 35% by value. Any product that is low in weight relative to its value is a good candidate for shipment by air. This includes microelectronic devices such as semiconductor chips and smartphone components, pharmaceutical preparations, aerospace equipment, medical instruments, and medical supplies. Low-weight, high-value perishables such as fresh-cut flowers and fresh fish are also good candidates. The JIT (“just-in-time”) manufacture of time-sensitive and high-tech goods is attracted to a place where components from different parts of the world can be quickly and easily loaded off a freight-bearing airliner, taken a short distance to be processed into finished or semi-finished goods, and then loaded onto an airliner to be speeded to their final destination, or destination of further processing.



There’s no requirement that an aerotropolis must be a planned development. But a planned aerotropolis takes growth and development that would probably have occurred anyway and lays it out in a more sustainable, economically efficient, esthetically pleasing, and logical way. An aerotropolis plan, in the economist’s terms, confers “positive externalities,” that is, positive effects or benefits that are realized by third parties resulting from a transaction in which they had no direct involvement. It’s like a master planned community with areas set aside for residential, commercial, retail, educational, recreational, entertainment, and spiritual purposes. In the aerotropolis schematic above, airport planning, urban planning, and business site planning are combined to locate the city around the airport runways. Features such as the logistics park, free-trade zone, distribution centers, and JIT manufacturing are located near the runways for greater speed out of and back into the air. Other amenities, such as residential areas, are located further from the runways to be as far away as possible from the noise and pollution of takeoffs and landings but to still be only a short distance from the airport terminal.

An aerotropolis can be planned and formed around an existing airport, although local residents and business owners who are negatively affected by it may create numerous obstacles using lawsuits and lengthy environmental impact studies and hearings. Logistically, it would be easier to use a “greenfield” approach; that is, carefully planning the project, acquiring a parcel of unused land for it and then building it according to plan. Kasarda has identified an intermediate step to the aerotropolis, which he calls “airport cities.” These are areas that have the inner ring of an aerotropolis but are missing substantial parts of the integrated planned model. Whether it is about an existing airport becoming an airport city or aerotropolis, or a new aerotropolis being built on formerly vacant land, the idea is to attract goods and services production to the region to create jobs, raise incomes, and stimulate local economic development.



The aerotropolis will play an increasingly important role in global tourism in the coming decades. Growing incomes in China, India, and other emerging countries will allow more and more people to satisfy their curiosity about places they’ve read about or seen on television or the Internet. In 2010, about 4 billion people went through airports. By 2030, this number will grow to 11 billion, and will include what John Kasarda calls a “tsunami” of tourists. It is estimated that by 2030, 100 million tourists will leave China and India to explore the rest of the world. Aerotropolises where these tourists deplane will have an advantage by offering them luxury shopping opportunities, top-quality entertainment, and upscale places to eat, literally as they step off the plane. As the volume of tourism expands, the aerotropolis will enjoy an advantage due to the efficient placement of transportation services and other amenities.



In the United States, there are 12 operational aerotropolises, 11 developing aerotropolises, 9 operational airport cities, and 3 developing airport cities. Globally, there are 25 operational aerotropolises, 20 operational airport cities, 27 developing aerotropolises, and 12 developing airport cities. The only operational aerotropolis south of the United States in the Americas is Belo Horizonte International in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and there is a developing aerotropolis in Panama City, Panama. There are no operational aerotropolises in all of Africa, and the 2 African developing aerotropolises are in Durban and Johannesburg, South Africa.


According to claims made by local authorities, the aerotropolis is transforming areas where it is part of the local infrastructure. Memphis International Airport, now calling itself “America’s Aerotropolis,” claims to have revitalized a traditional second wave city [trade routes crossing the Mississippi River] by bringing $28 billion and 220,000 jobs to the economy of the region. A similar claim is made for the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, an operational aerotropolis that generates $16 billion annually and is the basis for 300,000 jobs in the North Texas economy. A planned aerotropolis for Southeast Michigan would connect two airports, Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run, which are located seven miles apart. It is hoped that the Detroit-Willow Run aerotropolis will bring much-needed economic revitalization to an area devastated by the decline of the US auto industry.


South of the US border, the situation is quite different. The progress of the Belo Horizonte aerotropolis was greatly impeded by its 24-mile distance from downtown and the very bad access road linking the two. To address these issues, the state and national governments recently improved the access road and authorized a free trade zone at the airport. The aerotropolis in Panama City has been playfully dubbed “Panatropolis” and given the motto “Global Hub of the New World.” Panatropolis is an ambitious effort to develop the Tocumen International Airport into an aerotropolis that will rival the super-sized ones in Dubai and Incheon. Since the project was only officially announced in late 2010, it has not had time to be completed. So the aerotropolis has no long-term established track record in Latin America. However, proponents of the aerotropolis continue to promote it as a way to compete effectively for business that is currently going to China and other parts of the Asia/Pacific region.


The World Bank classifies countries by their Gross National Income (GNI) per capita as either low-income ($1,045 or less), lower-middle-income ($1,046-$4,125), upper-middle-income ($4,126-$12,745), or high-income ($12,746 or greater) economies. At this time, there are no aerotropolises, either developing or operational, in any low-income country in the world. India and the Philippines are both lower-middle income countries and India has 4 developing aerotropolises while the Philippines has 2. This does not bode well for air commerce as a driver of economic development in countries with “emerging” economies whose primary exports are food, fiber, and other bulk commodities such as iron ore and bauxite.


“Emerging” or “developing” economies are marginalized in the global economy by typically getting most of their export earnings from bulk commodities. With relatively inelastic demand and relatively inelastic supply, commodity prices are quite volatile, making life difficult for suppliers of these commodities. This marginalization will be exacerbated by the phenomenal spread of sparkling new aerotropolises around the world. The leadership of emerging countries should be thinking seriously about adding an aerotropolis or airport city to their country’s transportation infrastructure to avoid being cut out of the high-value end of the global supply chain.



A frequently-raised objection to the aerotropolis is that people don’t want to live near the noise and pollution of airliners taking off and landing. The noise level 75 feet from a jet taking off is about 150 decibels (dB), enough to rupture a human eardrum. This is 15 times as loud as a loud rock concert, at 115 dB, and 1,024 times as loud as ordinary conversation, at 60 dB. Airliners also make very loud noises after touchdown on landing when they use reverse thrusters to slow down more quickly. And you may have had the experience of getting a whiff of burning kerosene as an airliner taxis away from the passenger terminal where you are standing. So noise and pollution are definitely a concern.


The good news about commercial aviation is that improved technology has brought reductions in noise and pollution, accompanied by greater fuel efficiency. Newer planes are quieter and more fuel-efficient than the older ones they replace. In fact the global aviation industry produces around 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources. And today’s jet airliners are more than 70% more fuel-efficient per seat-mile than the airliners of the 1960s.


These facts, plus the well-thought-out organization of airport cities, make the aerotropolis more attractive, as a place to live and work. Note that, in the schematic above, while the runways are pointed in a north-south direction, the residential areas are placed well to the east and west of the runways in order to reduce the probability of an airliner flying directly over them.


Invention and innovation in aviation ensure that aviation’s environmental impact will continue to be reduced while its efficiency increases. In recent years, hybrid planes, electric planes, and solar planes have been exhibited at world-class air shows such as the Paris Air Show. Although these planes are a long way from being capable of carrying commercial payloads, it is only a matter of time until they do. Another exciting and controversial new area in aviation is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”). Battery-powered UAVs have already been used to ferry medicines and other time-sensitive goods for short distances between medical clinics in the Dominican Republic. Companies such as Google and Facebook are working toward using solar-powered high-altitude UAVs equipped with wireless routers to provide Internet access to underserved areas. These planes will cruise at altitudes of 60,000 to 90,000 feet, above the weather and above airline traffic, for up to five years. Technological advances such as these will serve to enhance the pivotal role of the aerotropolis in global aviation.



The answer to the question in the title of this article is “yes.” The somewhat grimy, shabby, uninviting place which was the airport terminal is being renewed and transformed into a destination of its own. So the next time your flight approaches Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), Raleigh-Durham International (RDU), McCarran International [Las Vegas] (LAS), Miami International (MIA), Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS), Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), Dubai International (DXB), Hong Kong International (HKG), or Shanghai Pudong International (PVG), look for it. Look for the ring road around the terminal, the highways and rail lines connecting to nearby urban areas, and the arrangement of warehouses, industrial parks, etc., a bit further out, and you’ll know you’re seeing the future: a twenty-first century hub of transit-oriented urban economic growth and development.


Roger Morefield, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Economics

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