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.