A Comparison of Aerotropoli Concepts

When the thinking about cityscapes around airports became en vogue at the turn of the 21st century, first with idealized thought or business concepts rather than an urge to build realities, the need to name these new, menotarian things – half city, half airport – became apparent.

Since the inception of the “airport city” about 40 years ago in the works of McKinley Conway, the first, somewhat simple yet very precise characterization of what the airport and the city could do in symbiosis, there has been about half a dozen of other terms describing the events that airport developments currently are exposed to leading up to the current hype about the “aerotropolis,” – probably the most commonly used name for these avant-garde agglomerations nowadays. Just as these agglomerations themselves, the terms coined to describe them are often a synthesis of the word airport and the word city or a word relating to aviation and a word relating to area. Throughout the years, the following concepts were conceived (for more information on each concept, please see http://wp.me/p1CY5B-2p):

  1. The Airport City (1978)
  2. The Aerotropolis (2000)
  3. The Airport Corridor (2003)
  4. The Aviopolis (2004)
  5. The Airea (2009)
  6. The Aeroscape (2011)
  7. The Aerocity (2013)

After a decade of planning, financing, building, maintaining and researching these cities, it is adequate to revisit and analyze these concepts. Although they strive to describe a similar phenomenon, they have different roots, intentions, and foci depending from which scientific discipline they originate. Three research fields have taken on the aerotropolis in particular and have studied its effects in their areas of interest: the social sciences, the political sciences, and the design field.

branches of science
Social and political sciences show a higher level of integration into to the research foci. The design field is less embedded and solely focuses on the built environment of airport cities.

Social Sciences

The behavioral and social sciences with anthropology, sociology, and psychology constitute the empirically-analytically driven research branch: Based on the understanding that today’s Western culture is shaped by a network of globalized forces and ideas with cities as their main centers of gravity and people and work forces as their fluid lifeblood, constantly on the move and in exchange, the special interest of these fields is twofold. In general, it focuses on how the current globalized work and travel patterns alter the way people live and work and what kind of social structures today’s knowledge society and knowledge organizations create.  On a particular level, these branches research airports as the global transport points and hubs within this globalized city network since it is here where people increasingly come together to meet, network, communicate, and work in general. Whereas the mobility related aspect of airport (travel per se) has been research object for decades, it is the newly created work- and living areas in aerotropoli that gradually have become a focal point for research, too since they are quasi byproducts of our society’s need for mobility. Their inhabitants constitute a new species of urban dweller dependent predominantly with their profession and lifestyle on the airport and its promise of limitless mobility. It is the novel way of living of these city dwellers, their personal and professional ties, their livelihood and mobility arrangements, and their interpersonal relationships that bear new research grounds.

The social science of macroeconomics and the areas of management, finance, operations, and logistics represent another important research field: Here the focus is on a general level on how the knowledge economy contributes to the formation of airport cities with its knowledge and fabrication clusters and how economic processes have to change to accommodate the needs of these cities that are seen as idealized places for communication, transportation and economic competition.

The discipline of economics also studies how airport cities create economic synergies and how operations and logistics can be streamlined at the interface of the airport city. It also illuminates the general discussion of face-to-face business communication in favor of virtual communication. Another economic study area looks at how airport cities can become sustainable investments and incubators of economic growth and how airports can diversify airport operations. Especially the switch from the traditional reliance on aeronautical sources to non-aeronautical sources of income is of great importance to airport operations in order to be able to modernize facilities, upgrade infrastructure, stay competitive and meet today’s growth margins. Here the establishment and management of airport cities has proven to act as viable new sources of income for airports. Nowadays airports are often not only invested in their own airports but have economic or managerial stakes in airports worldwide. How to best change their management and operational structure and alter their real estate division to be able to implement these changes, are tasks of research. Furthermore, studies look at how marketing and branding can augment an airport’s profile in an increasingly globally competitive market and how an airport as a place of little history and urban ties can be defined as a place with a distinct identity and character.

Political Sciences
The political sciences with politics, public law and public administration are dedicated to the stewardship of airports and airports cities in the realm of public-private domains and airport governance within regional and city power allocation. Here questions of public law and public administration are discussed within the regional, national, and international political framework that an airport conglomerate operates in. Public-private partnerships have often become a valid and sustainable method of kick-starting airport expansions. How these are most effectively put in place, which roles all participants play, how coordination efforts between politicians, civic, regional and city levels can be streamlined and how projects of the magnitude of airport construction can be managed and controlled are important research areas of these fields.

The Design Field
Traditionally, the airport and especially its terminals have been in the focus of architecture. With the increasing importance of the airport as a modal interchange the scope has widened and become more multidisciplinary. The advent of the airport city and its planning has furthermore intensified and broadened the spatial, functional and infrastructural aspects of architectural airport planning but most importantly has highlighted the urban and regional planning parameters. The former appreciation of the airport as a mere place of transport to a place-making organism nowadays endowed with a genius loci, a history, and urban significance, triggers a multitude of new design and organizational challenges. It is this change of understanding the airport as a mere architectural design challenge to understanding it as an urban design task that is currently most prevalent in the disciplines mindset.

Philosophical approaches to the understanding of the current discourse on airport cities represent a mostly overlooked but important niche dialogue. Often drawing on the findings of sociology and psychology they try to categorize and classify ongoing phenomena relating to new mobility concepts. Two approaches are mainly visible here: Philosophical ideas focus on a changing time-space relationship, i.e. the individual passenger experience as traveler through time and space and the perceived shrinking of space and annihilation of distances due to electronic communication and aeromobility. In lieu with the social sciences, an accelerated rhythm of life and the total mobilization of Western societies are theorized. Especially the niche branch of dromology (term coined by French philosopher Paul Virilio) focuses on the factors of speed and celerity and its effect on the human perception and social integration. Next to this more general level, philosophy also discusses topics relating concretely to the airport and airport cities. The discussion about sameness and monotony of airport terminals across the world has expanded to include a conversation about the relationship and importance of the airport and airport cities with their respective city centers (interestingly, this discussion is more vivid here than with architects and urban planners). Whereas the city is perceived as a grown organism over time with a traceable history (city as anthropological space), the airport is seen as an ad-hoc, blueprint creation without any established history (airport as non-place). It is discussed if the airport rather acts as an addition to the city that augments its functional and organizational structure or if the airport rather is a threat undermining the traditional center’s vitality that drains its cultural and socio-economic status.

A Shift in Focus
The above mentioned disciplines have had different foci on the airport and their foci has also shifted with the advent of aerotropoli conceptions. The social sciences have traditionally been occupied with the airport as research grounds. Since the turn of the century their interests has moved on to include aeromobilities (as a social, economic, and also technological phenomenon) in order to understand better the basic parameters in developments that can be traced in aerotropoli concepts. These concepts and their implementation has also already become a research area. The design field has had its focus on airport terminals and has since incorporated aerotropoli concepts as a design task into their portfolio. The political sciences were similarly focused on the airport, but have now to incorporate aerotropoli concepts and questions of aeromobility as well to better understand and anticipate complex developments around airports.

A comparison of the six aerotropoli concepts reveals that they often combine ideas of different disciplines and science branches not only to extend their validity and influence, but because airport cities are generally complex, big-scale developments originating in and subjected to the interests, ideas, and needs of its many constituencies. Some of them are very multidisciplinary and draw from all three mentioned sciences areas, e.g. the aerotropolis and the airport corridor; others are more focused on one or two disciplines, e.g. the airea or the aeroscape. The latter two also show the least amount of multidisciplinarity and mostly focus on issues of design.

branches of science (concepts)
The aviopolis utilizes the most references to the three fields of study, the concept of the airea the least.

Many concepts, many names: As for other new concepts and things, while there might be an inherent tendency to claim authorship and create a new label for the emerging phenomena of airport city, the six aerotropoli concepts do show a high degree of individuality and different foci. Therefore the different names seem justified. However, the words “airport city” and “aerotropolis” are commonly used most in the current discussions. The first often relates to a smaller, distinguishable service city close to the airport’s terminals whereas aerotropolis is mostly used as an all-encompassing term not only for the airport but also its surrounding urban fabric that is serving the primary functions of the airport.