Video playlist: Aerotropolis videos

GAAM has created a playlist of Aerotropolis videos on our YouTube channel.

The playlist begins with a video showcasing the aerotropolis model of development as conceived by its leading proponent, Dr. John Kasarda. Standard components of an aerotropolis – Free Trade Zone, intermodal freight hub, manufacturing, exhibition and conference centres, hotels retail and entertainment complexes, offices, medical and wellness centre, academic institutions and a residential zone slot into place around the central core of the development, the airport. Somewhat appropriately for this dehumanized and mechanistic model of development, the aerotropolis materializes as if assembled by a robot.

Human beings barely figure in the videos that follow, made to promote a variety of aerotropolis projects around the world to prospective investors and tenants. The few people that do appear amidst gargantuan infrastructure and enormous buildings are besuited hypermobile aerotropolitans, tourists funnelled through standardized spectacles (most notably theme parks and golf courses) or insect-like animated figures behaving exactly as expected inside the aerotropolis machine. Host communities, people living outside the airport city complex, are not part of the picture. International corporate connectivity is what counts and many of the aerotropolis schemes aspire to global hub status. A corporate utopia of greenfield sites and unparalleled infrastructure to access resources and global markets is offered, with China-Belarus Industrial Park next to Minsk Airport and Detroit Aerotropolis among the projects granting tax breaks.

The video for Ekurhuleni aerotropolis, near OR Tambo, Johannesburg’s main airport, stands out in its emphasis on projects involving the local community, as well as international stakeholders. Indeed, aspects of the project are described as community oriented, its beneficiaries to include include townships. If the project proceeds as planned time will tell whether low income groups and local businesses can establish a foothold in the aerotropolis footprint, in a gateway to global markets where priority projects include state-owned aerospace and defence manufacturer Denel’s aviation college with a simulation centre and ‘mega city aviation and aerospace manufacturing precinct’, a jewellery manufacturing park , ‘digital city computing campus’ and transport related ‘nerve centre’ initiatives. Four ‘community oriented districts’ are mentioned, but there is no visualization, just identikit concrete blocks.

The aerotropolis in the Kasarda video expands into nothing, as if the hinterland does not exist. In contrast, several of the specific aerotropolis videos gleefully visualize plans for expansion over green space. Aerotropolis schemes emphasize areas of green space in vivid shades, regimented rows of trees and formal parks. Sanitized remnants of the nature that set be eliminated are presented as if gifted by the development. Green space is always dwarfed by urbanization. The occasional futuristic, sparkling, showcase edifice with an unusual shape cannot disguise the proliferation of corporate buildings endlessly replicating concrete block boringness. Road networks open up the bounty of land to make it available for commercial and industrial development. The video promoting an aerotropolis at Tocumen Airport in Panama, ‘Panatropolis’ is the most striking example; three minutes in the grid of grey buildings, the megalomaniac megaproject masterplan, begins metastasizing over green space, urban sprawl radiating outwards.

Aerotropolis projects are unified by relentless pursuit of speed and growth. Scale ranges between a few hectares to hundreds of square kilometres. Unsurprisingly, the most ambitious plan is in China, where planning and construction are particularly unconstrained by democratic processes; the 415 square kilometer Zhengzhou Airport Economy Zone (ZEAZ) is presented as an aerotropolis encompassed within a gigantic economic zone. And China boasts of plans for what could be the most elitist aerotropolis of all: ‘World Aviation City’, a permanent exhibition and showroom for private jets.

Many variants of the basic airport-centric aerotropolis concept emerge. Ekurhuleni aerotropolis plans incorporate a ‘smart city’, an attempt to achieve management efficiency by embedding information technology in its infrastructure. The EuropaCity plan for retail and theme park oriented commercial development on northern outskirts of Paris, snapping up green space on the urban periphery, is unusual as the site is between two established airports – Charles de Gaulle (Roissy) and Le Bourget. The Jeju Air Rest City site is not even next to an airport, but could, arguably, be categorized as an aerotropolis as the self-contained resort is clearly envisaged as strongly linked to Jeju’s airport and dependent on visitors arriving by air.

Aerotropolis projects are certainly ambitious, and a priority for corporations and many government bodies, but do not necessarily materialize. Some of the videos were made years ago. The Panatropolis video was published in 2010 and the ‘global hub of the world’ was first mooted in 2004, but it appears to be a pipedream (nightmare). Twelve years later all there is to report is that three companies are interested in the project and there are preparations to finalize a masterplan for a hotel, convention centre and hospital on a 325 hectares site. Jeju Air Rest City has been stalled, if not permanently halted, by a successful suit from a number of landowners, even though construction was well underway. What Kasarda calls the ‘fifth wave‘ of transport oriented development is only possible with expensive and complex physical and regulatory infrastructure, and rests on airport control of the land upon which the aerotropolis development takes place. The age of the aerotropolis may be looming, but it is not inevitable.


Industry insight into airport-owned land

Industry websites are often enlightening regarding the workings of airport-centric commercial development (often referred to as an ‘aerotropolis’). This article in business website AreaDevelopment is a case in point. Entitled ‘Open for Business: Airports as Real Estate Developer and Strategic Partner‘ the article emphasizes the scale of airport land ownership and its role in airport income generation, seeing opportunities for business from airports as they ‘control large swathes of prime real estate’.

Airports used to be situated on the periphery of cities. Now hotels, shopping malls, tourist facilities such as casinos, offices and other business premises cluster around airports. The article explains that the majority of airports aim to attract non-aviation businesses to locate on ‘the lands and properties they control’ and that this provides a stream of ‘non-aeronautical revenue’. Many airports generate more non-aeronautical revenue than they receive in fees charged to airlines for landing and terminal services. Non-aeronautical revenue is used for airport maintenance and expansion. Thus a symbiotic relationship is established between growth of the airport and growth of the non-aviation commercial activity surrounding it. Many airport estates are so expansive that they even encompass ‘natural features like streams, beaches, and other conservation areas on their vast lands’. Undeveloped areas of natural beauty are additional assets for the airport, which can be served up as ‘attractions’ for visitors and the local community, while the airport and airport linked businesses continue with the main business of concreting over the majority of green space at their disposal for various industrial and commercial purposes.

Airport-owned land aims to host particular types of businesses – transnational firms which operate globally, import or export goods/components, require just-in-time delivery of goods/components and with staff frequently flying to and from business premises. All these are characteristics of aviation dependency. Reliance on air services is designed into the airport centric development.

The article describes the relationship between airports and surrounding development as ‘industrial ecology’. Airport centric development is indeed ‘ecology’ in the sense that there is an interdependence. But it is the very opposite of the ‘ecology’ of natural systems. Use of airport-owned land for aviation dependent business is a driver for economic growth built on profligate resource consumption, pollution, destruction of nature through building on green space and fossil fuel dependent long distance transportation. Businesses are selected as tenants on airport land on the basis that they will maximise the throughput of passengers and/or cargo. Locally based firms aiming to source inputs from nearby, to target local markets and/or transport goods using surface transport – minimizing fossil fuel use in transportation, with consequent reduction in greenhouse gases emissions – won’t get a look in.

The article is also enlightening regarding governance of the land in question, gushing enthusiastically about the high degree of autonomy that airports have over the land that they own. It makes an important distinction: airport land that is state owned is ‘not under the jurisdiction of local authorities’. And whether state owned or privatized, the airport has a high degree of self-governance, acting like a mini-state. The article enthuses over airport estates’ relative freedom from democratic control by the host community, stating that the land in question is ‘unfettered by local planning restrictions’.

Airport centric developments are evolving a dual role, combining the authority of the state (minus the the accountability that is ensured by democratic input) with the profit motive driving a corporation. As the article phrases it airports are ‘turning themselves into real estate developers, landlords and astute local authorities’. Commercial development on airport-owned land is a fast growing mechanism for state capitalism.

Investment and incentives for Cairo Airport City

The Egyptian government is encouraging investment in Cairo Airport City, a plan for an investment zone around the capital city’s airport. This article ‘Airport City project to cement Egypt as a major aviation hub in Africa and the Middle East’ is quite enlightening. It is from the WorldFolio News website, which states that it ‘provides intelligence about the economies with the highest growth potential in the world, with a focus on understanding them from within’. There are interviews with ‘key’ (i.e. most powerful) government officials and senior business executives.

H.E. Hossam Kamal, Minister of Civil Aviation is interviewed about Cairo Airport City, explaining that it will cover 10 million square metres of land (i.e. 10 square kilometres, a large development site, but actually small compared to the world’s most gigantic airport cities – Kuala Lumpur Airport owns 100 square kilometres of land and Dubai’s new airport, Al Maktoum, has been allocated a full 140 square kilometres). Anyway, the Cairo Airport City plan is the usual aerotropolis strategy: use the land around the airport for commercial and industrial activities in order to maximise revenue from non-aviation activities.

The zones planned for the aerotropolis are typical: goods handling and logistics areas linked with the airport’s cargo facilities; aviation training; hotels and restaurants to capture revenue from passengers (along with anamusement park to squeeze some revenue out of the captive audience of bored transit passengers). The solar panels planned for Cairo Airport City are not an unusual feature for an aerotropolis. Solar energy will reduce the airport city’s fuel bill but they are just a green garnish; as a whole the commercial and industrial development will lead to a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions as it is designed to be aviation dependent, feeding airport growth.

The article makes the standard claims about supposed economic benefits to the region i.e. job creation and revenues. The latter must be weighed against incentives (subsidies such as tax breaks) which are granted to investors. Incentives are not specified but H.E. Hossam Kamal states that the marketing plan ‘significantly takes into  account offering many incentives and facilities to attract investors’.

No surprise that Cairo Airport City is linked with major surface transport infrastructure projects: there is plan for a rail link between the aerotropolis development, Ain Sokhna Port and an investment zone near the Suez Canal where, according to Kamal ‘certainly there will be a need to establish airports at the region’. Which shows that the infrastructure development will trigger more infrastructure development.

The interview ends with an outline of the incentives (i.e. subsidies) that Egypt’s Ministry of Aviation offers to international airlines. It’s quite an insight into the high level of government support for the aviation and tourism industries. International airlines are given reduced landing and waiting fees for operating at airports in ‘touristic cities’. In fact there is a 100% exemption from these fees at Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel and Assiut airports, for airlines using these airports as a base.

The Ministry of Aviation also pays towards the services provided to passengers at Egyptian airports: $20 per passenger on international, regular and charter flights and $4 per passenger on domestic routes. Ministers have also intervened to exempt certain airports from loading bridge fees and fire services, and duties have been reduced on aircraft weighing more than 200 tons.

Basically, the Egyptian government is falling over backwards to facilitate aviation growth.

Aerotropolis: serving global business

Aerotropolis guru Dr. John Kasarda has written an in-depth article for Sodexo, one of the world’s largest firms. Entitled ‘Aerotropolis: Airports as the new city center‘ it is informative on how the aerotropolis serves the interests of aviation oriented global businesses. Airports serve as corporate headquarters and, apparently, the business space at some major airports, such as Paris Charles de Gaulle, is larger than the city’s central business districts. The article also indicates the scale and extent of aerotropolis developments worldwide: ‘Airport city and aerotropolis development is gaining substantial traction, multiplying rapidly on a global scale…. I’ve identified over 80 airport cities and broader aerotropolises (airport-centered urban economic regions) around the world that are either already operational or in early stages of development.’