Aerotropolis Development in Urban Centres: 5 Keys to Success

Aerotropolis Development in Urban Centres: 5 Keys to Success

Urban airports will play an increasingly salient role for governments, both local and national. In this article, we share 5 key lessons for the redevelopment of areas around urban airports from our on-going aerotropolis projects in Asia as well as case studies from around the world.
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As part of post-COVID recession recovery efforts, governments around the world plan to redevelop the areas around airports located in the city’s urban core. With cities working towards a “new normal”, the question of what role urban airports will play becomes increasingly salient for governments, both local and national. In this article, we share 5 key lessons for the redevelopment of areas around urban airports from our on-going aerotropolis projects in Asia as well as case studies from around the world

What is an Aerotropolis?

In recent years, this concept has been taking flight in the field of urban studies. Simply put, an aerotropolis (sometimes known as aeropolis) – refers to an urban region “whose infrastructure, land-use, and economy are centered on an airport” (Kasarda, 2018). With the airport as its commercial core, associated residential developments to support economic clusters, and often strong transportation corridors allowing for fast transport of people and goods, aerotropolises hold a competitive advantage for high-value and time-sensitive activities in this era of global connectivity. Some well-known examples include South Korea’s Songdo International Business District and Amsterdam Zuidas in the Netherlands.

Songdo, South Korea’s new “smart city” adjacent to Incheon Airport

While airport cities are numerous all over the world, far less research has been done on the development of land around airports in urban centres. These include the London City Airport in the United Kingdom, and the Tan Son Nhat Airport in Vietnam. Typically, airports are located away from the central urban area, as their development and operations come with concerns such as height restrictions, noise pollution, and traffic congestion. Airport cities thus tend to be built on greenfield land in suburban regions, and create new growth poles separate from the urban core. In the case of urban airports, however, tabula rasa (referring to a clean slate) is often unavailable; and when land opens up for redevelopment, it has to blend together with the urban fabric and take into consideration the numerous stakeholders within the city.

2 kinds of urban airport cities projects (Source: enCity)

Areas around urban airports tend to become available for redevelopment for two reasons. The first is District Regeneration – that is, the redevelopment of surroundings in synergy with airport operations. Airports may undergo expansion or refurbishment to meet changing travel demands. This creates opportunities for a simultaneous renewal of the wider area to create dynamic airport cities. The second driving force is Brownfield Development – the redevelopment of the site of a former airport, and potentially the neighbourhoods around it. As airports are decommissioned or relocated, land becomes available for new development, bringing about new opportunities for the rebuilding of the larger area as a whole.

In the current era of globalisation, and as the pandemic stretches on and cities work towards a “new normal”, the question of what role urban airports will play becomes increasingly salient for governments, both local and national. For some, there will be a need for fewer airports, as operations are consolidated in larger airports at the outskirts of urban areas. For others, airports in city centres can take on a more specialised role, attracting a particular base of travellers for their unique advantages and spurring new investment in the wider area.

Thus, urban airport redevelopment projects, whether district regeneration or brownfield redevelopment, offer cities new opportunities for growth and revitalisation. Delving into case studies around the world, we take a look at how these projects have been planned and draw out 5 key lessons for future aerotropolis developments in urban centres. Under the category of District Regeneration, the case studies chosen are the Mekong Delta Airports (Vietnam), Synergy Masterplan (Southeast Asia), and the London City Airport (United Kingdom). As for Brownfield Redevelopment, case studies included the Paya Lebar Air Base (Singapore) and the former Edmonton City Centre Airport (Canada).

5 Lessons for Aerotropolis Development in Urban Centres

1. Build synergy with wider city interests

Successful airport redevelopment projects must be sensitive to the concerns of the wider city, making sure to create benefits for residents and businesses and reducing negative impacts as much as possible. enCity’s Regional Airport City project in south Vietnam aims to leverage the airport’s existing infrastructure and the area’s assets to create a new growth engine. In line with the region’s goal of becoming a dominant player in the import and export industry in Southeast Asia, one major planning move is to tap into the surrounding natural and infrastructural advantages — such as ease of access to the city centre, river transport and major highways — to boost the logistic value chain of agriculture and horticulture products. In addition, we design the township with attention to the city’s recurring flooding issues, thus simultaneously acting as a gateway for tourism and new investment while ensuring a resilient living environment for city residents.

By integrating the interests of the wider region within the airport’s redevelopment plan, airport growth continues to be synergistic with the city’s growth and in tune with its broader needs, thereby creating a strong and efficient aerotropolis. Just like this case, future aerotropolis projects should respond to the existing economic and environmental context of the city to ensure success. When the goals of the airport, the redevelopment zone, and the region are all aligned, airport cities are able to achieve desirable growth for all.

Aerotropolis projects should respond to the existing economic and environmental context of the city to ensure success. Example: Concept masterplans for Paya Lebar Airbase in Singapore, in development in partnership with Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)

2. Introduce diverse and compatible activities

Inner city aerotropolises have the unique advantage of being closely located to both the airport and the city. Particularly for places that have historically relied greatly on tourism for local revenue, District Regeneration provides new opportunities to introduce other kinds of compatible activity, leveraging on proximity to the airport. This can include business services, light manufacturing, and regional logistics, industries which rely on the accessibility to the airport and the city to thrive.

enCity is applying this to our Metropolitan Region Airport Township and Industrial Park project in Southeast Asia which aims to build a vibrant economic hub and fun community adjacent to an airport. With a total area of 26 square kilometres, this project targets to attract up to 99,000 residents and to create a new business hub. Our experts do this by 3 main tactics: integrating logistics and manufacturing hubs with high accessibility to airport and roads; diversifying land uses to create a vibrant township supporting industry and business activities; and locating green spine of nature and recreational parks to create a fun and active living environment.

By capitalising on its accessibility to the airport, the growth of this new business district and manufacturing hubs will also drive the regional importance of the site and its surroundings. The co-location of diverse activities enables the aerotropolis area to experience synergistic growth in multiple industries in a mutually beneficial relationship with the inner city airport.

Render of enCity’s Metropolitan Regional Airport Township and Industrial Park (Source: enCity)

3. Balance infrastructure and placemaking

When urban change is driven by the interests of the airport alone, is it easy to fall short of the meeting the careful equilibrium between the need to improve airfield infrastructure and adequate focus on placemaking and liveability for city residents. This has been the case for London City Airport. Although London City Airport’s planned expansion until 2030 has been approved, some public disapproval regarding noise pollution and traffic congestion has been heard, leading the local government to engage a spatial design agency to develop a public realm framework to ensure the Royal Docks area was attractive to both businesses and local residents. This new framework prioritises the pedestrian experience and builds connectivity around the airport and waterfront, through parks, to major transit nodes.

It is evident that in order for aerotropolis development to be successful, the economic benefits of airport expansion or renewal must be balanced with appropriate action to ease residents’ concerns and mitigate potential disamenities. Placemaking is a powerful tool to create a coherent identity for the aerotropolis and create a pleasant urban experience within the area.

Royal Docks Public Realm Framework (Source: 5th Studio)

4. Embrace innovative large-scale developments

Sometimes, airport redevelopment can open up large tracts of land for new development and provide an often land-scarce urban core a rare opportunity to make long-term plans and implement innovative strategies. This is frequently the case when airports are decommissioned or relocated, in cases of Brownfield Development.

Singapore’s Paya Lebar Air Base was the site of a former military airport, to be relocated across the island by 2030. While the area around the airfield is currently zoned for heavy and light industries, enCity experts are part of a collaborative team to design a new master plan for the site to transform it into a liveable and sustainable new town centered around its distinct aviation heritage identity. Not only does the team plan to bring an ambitious 160,000 residents and create a new regional hub for business and employment, this project also looks towards developing new integrated industrial typologies that can house advanced manufacturing together with traditionally incompatible uses, including education and residential. In line with the government’s move towards green technology, the Paya Lebar Air Base redevelopment project is also uniquely positioned to act as a test site for innovative sustainability strategies, including district cooling systems, forest integration and water management.

Such opportunities for large-scale and experimental developments are difficult to come by, especially in central urban areas where land is in highest demand. Beyond considering the future of airports in a post-COVID world, it is also vital to plan for the longer term future of aerotropolises, as even the relocation of airport activities can generate exciting new opportunities for growth.

New integrated industrial typologies for Paya Lebar Air Base (Source: Urban Redevelopment Authority)

5. Create meaningful heritage identity

Lastly, aerotropolis projects should remember this undeniable aspect of their identity in the master planning process: the presence of the airport. Whether the airport is still in operation, as in District Regeneration case studies, or its operations are a thing of the past, as in Brownfield Development case studies, physical infrastructure and intangible memory remain, etched upon the fabric of the city. It is particularly salient for cases of Brownfield Development that the area’s aviation heritage is not forgotten but integrated into the district’s redevelopment.

One good example of this is in Blatchford, Edmonton, the former site of the Edmonton City Centre Airport, where former airport buildings and the layout of the airfield were conserved to develop a heritage identity for the new neighbourhood. Here, the iconic hexagonal control tower remains in its original position, and continues to function as a local landmark as it is surrounded by the central park. In addition, the street network of the neighbourhood’s urban core is aligned with the former runway, connecting Blatchford Market with the new light rail station. By retaining these significant airport structures and features, and sensitively integrating them into new development, the district is able to evoke a sense of heritage, enable more holistic placemaking, and maintain a meaningful connection with the airport even when it is no longer in operation.

Artist render of Blatchford with former control tower in background (Source: City of Edmonton)

Looking Forward

While airports and airport cities are more commonly built away from the city centre so as to create a new regional growth pole and to avoid disruption to central city activities, aerotropolis projects in urban centres are by no means rare, and have proven to have great potential as a catalyst for urban revitalisation. The case studies introduced here have, along the course of their operations and development, experienced varying measures of success and conflict with their host city. Future inner city aerotropolis projects should learn from these five key takeaways in order to implement better plans that consider the various stakeholders and concerns of the wider city, while leveraging on their unique characteristics for placemaking and innovation. In doing so, they will be better positioned to achieve mutually beneficial growth that suits their specific urban contexts, and thus maximise their potential for success.

Kimberly Lum (Associate, Policy + Planning)

Kimberly has a keen interest in the ways cities increasingly shape human experience through form and function. She is driven by a people-centric outlook, an eye for context-sensitive planning, and a drive to create urban spaces that are livable, equitable and sustainable. With her background in urban planning and human geography, she brings with her an interdisciplinary skill set and an understanding of the importance of lived experiences within the workings of urban systems.
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It is evident that in order for aerotropolis development to be successful, the economic benefits of airport expansion or renewal must be balanced with appropriate action to ease residents’ concerns and mitigate potential disamenities. Placemaking is a powerful tool to create a coherent identity for the aerotropolis and create a pleasant urban experience within the area.

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