The aerotropolis approach

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In 2011, my colleague at the Urban Land Institute, academic and air commerce expert Dr. John Kasarda, published (along with New York Times writer Greg Lindsay) an eye-opening book on the next wave of transit-oriented development in the 21st century, We’ll Live Next. It opened doors toward a new era of urban living and city planning.

Not so long ago, the city dictated where airports should go, but now, cities have been springing up in places where airports are being built.

The Fifth Wave Transportation infrastructure has shaped urban growth and form since the days of the Roman Empire. In the United States, urban development evolved in five overlapping transportation-induced waves. The nation’s first major cities developed around seaports (Boston, New York).

The next wave of urban growth occurred along the networks of rivers and canals that formed the backbone of America’s industrial revolution (Pittsburgh, Buffalo). Railroads generated a third wave of urban development as they opened up inland areas to manufacturing and trade: major goods processing and distribution centers emerged at rail hubs and terminal points (Chicago, Kansas City). In fact, the Southeast’s capital city, Atlanta, first named as Marthasville (in honor of Governor Wilson Lumpkin’s daughter Martha), was also well-known as Terminus since it was originally developed as a railway hub.


The fourth wave of urban development was fostered by the shift to cars and trucks to move the people and goods. Freeways, beltways, expressways, and interstate highways generated a massive dispersion of housing and firms. Large suburban malls and commercial centers, industrial parks, and office complexes sprouted as much as 50 miles from major city centers.

Some of these fourth-wave edge cities now have more retail and office space than the downtowns of their metropolitan areas.

The fifth wave, in which airports are the primary drivers of urban growth and form, has already begun. This wave was ushered in by the availability of large jet aircraft and by advances in telecommunication that greatly accelerated globalization; time-based competitions; and corresponding needs for speed, flexibility, and reliability in the movement of people and products.

The rise of the aerotropolis
Emerging corridors, clusters, and spines of airport-induced businesses are giving rise to new urban forms as much as 15 miles from major airports. These represent the beginnings of the aerotropolis. In response to the new economy’s demands for speed and reliability, the aerotropolis is based on low density, wide lanes, and fast movements. In other words, form is following function.

Although aerotropolises have so far evolved largely spontaneously, with previous development creating arterial bottlenecks, in the future they will be improved through strategic planning.

For example, dedicated expressway links (aeroplanes) and high-speed rail (aerotrains) will efficiently connect airports to nearby and more distant business and residential centers. Special, truck-only lanes will be added to airport expressways as well.

These connected trends have led to the emergence of a new form of airport-centric commercial development called the aerotropolis. This trend has transformed “city airports” into “airport cities.” This trend also positions airports as 21st century drivers of business location, urban economic growth and global economic integration. The aerotropolis are also powerful engines of local economic development, attracting aviation-linked businesses of all types that are attracted by the ability to get their products to customers around the world.

Increasingly, these companies include, among others, time-sensitive manufacturing and distribution facilities, as well as hotel, entertainment, retail, convention, trade and exhibition complexes.

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