An aerotropolis is a metropolitan subregion where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centered on an airport which serves as a multimodal "airport city" urban core. It is similar in form and function to a traditional metropolis, which contains a central city core and commuter-linked suburbs. The term was first used by New York commercial artist Nicholas DeSantis, whose drawing of a skyscraper rooftop airport in the city was presented in the November 1939 issue of Popular Science. The term was appropriated by air commerce researcher John D. Kasarda in 2000 based on his prior research on airport-driven economic development.
Airports, connectivity, and development
According to Kasarda, airports have evolved as drivers of business location and urban development in the 21st century in the same way as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th century, and seaports in the 18th century. The engine of the aerotropolis is the airport and its air routes which offer firms speedy connectivity to their distant suppliers, customers, and enterprise partners worldwide. Some aerotropolis businesses are more dependent on suppliers or customers than those located nearby. As economies become increasingly globalized and reliant on air commerce for trade in goods and services, the speed and agility aviation provides to long-distance movement of people and goods generate competitive advantages for firms and places. In the aerotropolis model, time and cost of connectivity replace space and distance as the primary metrics shaping development, with "economies of speed" becoming as salient for competitiveness as economies of scale and economies of scope. In this model, it is not how far, but how fast distant firms and places can connect.
The aerotropolis encompasses aviation-dependent businesses and the commercial facilities that support them and the multitude of air travelers who pass through the airport annually. Airport-linked businesses include, among others, time-sensitive manufacturing, logistics, and e-commerce fulfillment; high-value perishables and biomeds; retail, sports, and entertainment complexes; hotels; conference, trade, and exhibition centers; and offices for businesspeople who travel frequently by air or engage in global commerce. Clusters of business parks, logistics parks, industrial parks, distribution centers, information technology complexes and wholesale merchandise marts locate around the airport and along the transportation corridors radiating from them. As increasing numbers of aviation-oriented firms and commercial service providers cluster around airports, the aerotropolis is becoming a major urban destination where air travelers and locals alike work, shop, meet, exchange knowledge, conduct business, eat, sleep, and are entertained often without going more than 15 minutes from the airport.
Some aerotropolises have arisen spontaneously, responding to organic market forces with a lack of planning and of appropriate surface infrastructure creating bottlenecks and other inefficiencies. Principles of urban planning and sustainability are essential to the creation of a successful aerotropolis, as is stakeholder alignment. Governance entities aligning airport management, airport-surrounding communities, and city and regional officials with local business and economic development leaders should implement aerotropolis planning to achieve greater economic efficiencies and more attractive and sustainable development.
Criticisms of the concept
One major criticism is the question of whether oil will stay relatively inexpensive and widely available in the future or whether a downturn in oil production will adversely affect aerotropolises. Others have criticized the aerotropolis model for overstating the number and types of goods that travel by air. While many types of high-value goods, like electronics, tend to travel by air, larger, bulkier items like cars and grain do not. Those who point this out suggest that the relationship between seaports, airports, and rail facilities should be studied in more depth. Other criticisms of the aerotropolis include loss of farmland and forests, excluding affected people and communities, and locking in high-carbon infrastructure for decades to come.
List of aerotropolises
While no quantitative model exists to determine if an airport and its surrounding real estate can be seen as an aerotropolis, a qualitative list has been developed by researchers at the Center for Air Commerce at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This list is updated as new projects are announced and economic development related to airports accelerates. They choose to define sites as "operational" or "under development," and criteria include the following:
- Demonstrated commitment to the aerotropolis or airport city model as seen in the establishment of aerotropolis steering committees, strategic planning, and development initiatives.
- Government/regulatory support of the aerotropolis or airport city through aerotropolis legislation, tax incentives or other mechanisms.
- Media announcements by proponents with substantiated evidence that an aerotropolis or airport city initiative is moving forward.
The African Aerotropolis
In September 2011, the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in South Africa officially announced its intention to transform the municipality into a functioning Aerotropolis. Prof. John D. Kasarda was consulted to define roadmap for the preparation of the planning guidelines. Ekurhuleni also appointed METROPLAN Town and Regional Planners in order to prepare a Regional Spatial Development Framework - which is to be the primary planning document of the municipality in facilitating the transformation of Ekurhuleni into the first African Aerotropolis. Pieter Swanepoel, the manager of the Aerotropolis Project, insists that the South African Aerotropolis will be formed on the basis of the strength of the OR Tambo International Airport, and that it will be the long awaited restructuring tool that will put South Africa on the world map, and transform Ekurhuleni into the "gateway to Africa". Dr. Marinda Schoonraad, the consultant town planner and urban designer for the project stresses the importance that regardless of the positive examples in Europe, Asia and Americas, a strong accent should be put on effort to create a unique identity which will put the concept of the Aerotropolis into the African context.
The California Aerotropolis
A 2010 report published by Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) identified America's commercial airports as powerful economic engines, generating 10.5 million jobs and $1.2 trillion in total economic impact. Recognizing this reality and potential, the South County Economic Development Council (SCEDC) led efforts to develop feasibility assessments for an Aerotropolis concept around Brown Field Municipal Airport in San Diego County, California. In 2013, the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded a federal grant, which the SCEDC will use to research ways to create economic growth through a regional airport-focused "aerotropolis" concept.
Brown Field Municipal Airport already is an economic driver in the South County and the San Diego Region, providing General Aviation, corporate business services and military and public safety support. Recently approved plans for phased construction at Brown Field are projected to create 4,000 jobs and contribute more than $500 million annually to the local economy.
The recent approval of land use entitlements for the Metropolitan Airport project, along with the airport's proximity to the U.S./Mexico border, including the construction of the new Cross-Border Xpress, which will connect directly with the Tijuana International Airport, all contribute to the economic potential of the area. The creation of an Aerotropolis in the South County will foster a new employment center that can grow jobs near where people already live. This fast-track border crossing will be staffed much like any other U.S. border crossing by U.S. customs officers on the San Diego side and Mexican officers on the Tijuana side.
Failed St. Louis Aerotropolis proposal
In 2011, state legislators in Missouri proposed a tax incentive package to bring Chinese air cargo companies to St. Louis Lambert International Airport and establish a "China Hub" for the transportation of Chinese goods to the United States. The incentive package did not become law, however, and although a handful of partially-loaded cargo flights arrived from China while the incentives were debated, those flights had ceased by the end of that year. In May 2015, Lambert officials said that the market for an aerotropolis-type project had since "disappeared amid a downturn in international cargo." The failure of the St. Louis effort suggests that not all airports and airport areas can develop into successful aerotropolises. Without an appropriate market, extensive airline connectivity, qualified labor, and an alignment of the public and private sectors, major barriers to aerotropolis development will exist.
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