Aerotropolis: A new kind of city

A new strategic approach to airport-area development that enhances business and metropolitan competitiveness is gaining prominence around the world. This is the aerotropolis model.

Simply put, an aerotropolis is a metropolitan sub-region whose infrastructure, land use and economy are centered on an airport. Its primary value is that it offers businesses speedy connectivity to their suppliers, customers and enterprise partners nationally and worldwide, hence increasing both corporate and regional efficiency. Aerotropolis firms, many in high-tech and advanced business service sectors, are often more dependent on distant suppliers, customers and enterprise partners than those located in their own metropolitan region.

The aerotropolis helps them cut costs, increase productivity and expand market reach, thereby becoming more competitive. Regional trade in higher-value goods and services is broadened through expanding international airline routes. These routes operate as a “physical Internet,” moving products and people quickly around the world.

Airports are the routers of aviation’s physical Internet. Their dual roles as airline routers and global-local interfaces make airports business magnets and economic catalysts as they attract, sustain and grow aviation-oriented firms.

The aerotropolis also contains logistics and commercial facilities that support aviation-enabled businesses, cargo and travelers. These include freight forwarders, third-party logistics concerns and warehouse and distribution facilities; hotels, recreation, wellness, convention and exhibition complexes; office buildings, and shopping, dining, leisure, entertainment and tourism venues.

The aerotropolis attracts business services whose executives and professionals frequently travel to distant sites or bring in their clients by air. Included here are firms in such sectors as auditing, architecture, engineering, consulting, international finance, marketing and media.

Corporate headquarters functions are moving to airport-area office complexes or using airport-area hotels so executives can fly in for meetings. This optimizes long- distance connectivity while minimizing local ground transport times and costs.

With increases in the aviation-oriented businesses and commercial service providers clustering around airports, these areas are becoming urban growth centers where air travelers and locals work, shop, meet, exchange knowledge, conduct business, eat, sleep and enjoy entertainment without going more than 15 minutes from the terminals.

Gateway airports are shaping business location and urban economic development as much in the 21st century as highway exchanges did in the 20th, rail in the 19th, and ports in the 18th. Their impact is becoming wider and deeper, locally and globally.

Atlanta, despite having the world’s busiest airport, has not fully capitalized on its remarkable physical Internet. Thus, it has lagged behind other gateway airport areas in aerotropolis development.

This is about to change. City and regional leaders recognize Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s potential to become a more powerful business magnet and regional economic accelerator. The Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance was launched in March to transform the area around Hartsfield-Jackson into a world-class aerotropolis.

Done right, a major aerotropolis holds significant promise to catapult Atlanta as a top-tier global region like London, New York and Tokyo. But it will take more than vision and planning. It will take immense coordinated actions.

John Kasarda is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.