Making the Best of the Airport City

Whether Mother Earth can cough up the fossil fuels needed to keep the airline industry flying is a matter of debate (and one that we really should be debating). While airports are primarily significant in their relationships with each other, the ground-level impact that an airport can have on a city is massive. John Kasarda has even coined the term “aerotropolis” to describe the economic activity that develops around airports.

Unfortunately, urban transportation systems fail to accommodate the aerotropolis. The problem makes sense in light of the transportation challenges that an airport creates for a city. Airports must lie far from the urban core by necessity—a dense urban core actually increases the likelihood that an airport will have to be more remote.

Meanwhile, though, successful international airports have spurred the construction of large-scale office parks, hotels, malls and even casinos. In Chicago, the O’Hare area is second only to the Loop in job concentration.

Chicago provides a perfect example of the aerotropolis’ accessibility conundrum. An old city with a historically strong center, Chicago now strikes a delicate balance between the transit-oriented past and the automobile-dependent present. In the midst of its shift toward the latter, Chicago happened to build the largest airport in the world (more recently surpassed by Atlanta’s airport). Another half century since O’Hare’s construction, Chicago still has a largely radial transit and road network that both center on the Loop and link the airport to the rest of the city with just a few spokes.

Not that Chicago’s planners are to blame for the situation. After all, most of the metropolitan area’s transit infrastructure predates O’Hare, as does much of the city’s residential and commercial development. A hundred years of booming development can’t be reproduced overnight. Furthermore, an airport-generated commercial area still needs to have the actual airport at its center, and airports don’t offer accessible or vibrant public spaces like many downtowns can. An airport is likely to generate a sprawling and automobile-dependent aerotropolis, and to some extent that’s unavoidable.

How to integrate the aerotropolis into the metropolis, then? Considering Chicago’s example, a dual-centered metropolis offers an opportunity to create a vibrant and dense corridor between the two hubs. The rail transit network in Chicago, as mentioned above, focuses on the Loop but connects it to O’Hare via the Blue Line. The path between the two offers an easy commute to either employment center and features exciting, walkable neighborhoods and commercial areas that have thrived since before the airport even existed. Thus, the aerotropolis may affect cities negatively in certain ways, but that second central business district might also produce distinct advantages for parts of those cities.

(Photo from Flickr user Wouter Kiel.)

1 comment:

Jared said...

Appropriately, I was just reading (and reviewing) the 1968 'Airport' - one of those disaster novels that hasn't dated particularly well.

Still, however bad the thriller elements are (and they're pretty bad), the novel does a good job conveying the scale and complexity of the airport ecosystem - the relationships with neighboring communities, traffic, weather, government, etc. etc. Even down to the micro issues of managing the retail displays in the various concourses.