June 11, 2020
21/12/2020

What is Airport Urbanism?

Kadeco has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the Keflavík airport area into a national powerhouse of economic growth and innovation. With proper planning, developing the airport area will improve operational efficiency and drive non-aeronautical revenue for the airport, create economic growth and employment opportunities in the surrounding communities, and position Iceland as a global thought leader in the aviation industry. I’m looking forward to working with Kadeco to identify key development opportunities and create a common vision for the airport area. And I’m honored to be part of a project that is of national importance to Iceland, and to the Icelandic people.

Over the coming months, we will be using a people-focused development approach called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. Focusing on the needs and desires of the people who use the airport on a regular basis, AU advances development strategies that deliver long-term benefits to both the airport and the communities that it serves. The following article outlines airport urbanism’s core principles and provides a practical how-to guide for implementing the AU approach.

What’s driving airport urbanism?

In recent decades, airports have transformed from simple air transport facilities into sophisticated urban centers. Two factors are driving that process:

  • First, successful airport authorities understand that non-aeronautical revenue has become an essential part of the airport business model. In fact, many of the world’s leading airports generate as much income from non-aviation activities as they do from aviation itself.
  • Second, savvy government leaders recognize that airports are an essential driver of both economic growth and employment opportunities. Leveraging the airport’s global connectivity, they build new districts in the airport area to advance broader urban and regional development goals.

Taken together, these two trends have dramatically expanded the spatial and functional scope of airport development projects, to the point that it becomes hard to say where exactly the airport ends and the surrounding communities begin. Yet these projects often fail to reach their full potential. That’s because they don’t have a clear understanding of who their target customers are—and because there is often little coordination between what’s being built on the airside, landside, and beyond the perimeter fence.

That’s where airport urbanism comes in.

Both a design philosophy and a practical model for implementation, AU is based on two core principles:

  1. Focus on people: Successful airports focus on the needs and desires of their customers. That includes not just passengers, but also the people who live, work, and own businesses in the airport area.
  2. Growing together: Successful airports coordinate airside, landside, and off-airport development in a holistic and mutually beneficial manner. Why? Because airports and cities grow best when they grow together.

Focus on people

First and foremost, Airport Urbanism focuses on people: specifically, the people who live, work, and run businesses in the airport area. AU investigates their needs and desires, and it uses those insights to come up with site-specific development strategies. That focus on people is the most important principle of airport urbanism.

Why should we take that approach? Ultimately, the economic dynamics at the airport revolve around three sets of actors:

  • passengers, who fly in and out of the airport;
  • employees, who work for the airport, the airlines, and in aviation-related industries; and
  • residents, who live, work, and operate businesses in the airport area.

Successful airports strategize how future developments in the airport area can satisfy their needs. What kinds of services and amenities are currently missing in the airport area? Where are there gaps in the market? And how can future projects address those unmet demands? What are the benefits of this people-focused approach? First, airport urbanism highlights each airport’s unique mix of passengers in order to come up with site-specific development guidelines that respond to the particular needs and desires of those customers. This is in contrast to older development models—such as the “aerotropolis”—which applied a one-size-fits-all approach to every single airport. Successful airports have a clear understanding of who their passengers are—and who they are not. For example, many airports try to cater to business travelers by developing office parks and conference centers. That makes sense in cities that have a lot of origin and destination business traffic, and where office space is in short supply. But it’s less relevant for airports that are leisure destinations, transfer hubs, or host a lot of budget airlines. In order for airport urbanism to really take off, it’s important to match your development plans with the needs of the specific passenger types that are passing through your airport. Are there a lot of older travelers, or passengers from developing countries? Consider medical tourism before investing in that conference center.

Does the airport host many foreign tourists who are visiting the country for the first time? Then it’s crucial to think about how to curate those memorable first and last experiences, and focus on tourist-oriented retail and food options, combined with attractive exhibitions of local culture. If passengers skew younger, a concert arena could be a sound investment. Study the airport’s top 10 destinations - do travelers on those flights have specific spending habits or dietary needs? All of these questions are essential to consider at the outset of the planning process.

Second, airport urbanism focuses attention on the desires of the people who work at the airport every day. Airports are typically one of the nation’s largest employment centers, providing jobs for thousands of people. All of them are potential customers for local goods and services, and potential tenants for nearby housing developments. When thinking about how to plan for their needs, it’s often the “little” things than can have a big impact. Does the airport offer places where employees can exercise during their lunch break, relax after work, or pick up groceries on their way home? Successful airports recognize that these kinds of amenities drive employee satisfaction—which helps to retain talented workers—and that they double as sources of revenue. These facilities also make the airport a more attractive place to do business, thereby increasing the value of the airport’s commercial real estate.

Third, AU’s focus on people enables airports to expand their customer base to include residents of local communities. Less successful airports try to minimize the negative impact that they have on local communities. Successful airports, on the other hand, actively seek to improve the quality of life of the people who live near the airport. That’s because successful airports think of local residents as potential customers. They develop a variety of activities and facilities in the airport area that cater to their needs. Depending on the local context, that can include mixed-use retail and recreational facilities, where families can enjoy a fun day out while eating and shopping. It can also include event spaces for weddings, concerts, and high school graduations. And it can include social and educational infrastructure like university campuses, research centers, and hospitals, which act as anchor projects that stimulate economic activity in the airport area.

Around the world, these kinds of community-focused design changes have led to a big improvement in residents’ perception of the airport, while also increasing non-aeronautical revenue. In other words: they make people more likely to spend money in the airport area and less likely to oppose future development plans.

Finally, airport urbanism’s focus on people draws our attention to the needs of the key decision makers who run businesses in the airport area. Many older development models claim that the airport is, by definition, an attractive place to do business. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Unless your employees need to be at the airport on a daily basis, there’s no compelling reason why any business should relocate to an airport office park, or why they should hold a meeting or conference there. That’s why it’s crucial to understand what local business owners and entrepreneurs need to grow, and how new developments at the airport can empower them to do so. What are the goals of the companies that they lead? What challenges do they face in terms of attracting talent, finding the right production facilities, and managing supply chains? Bringing those decision makers into focus empowers us to see where the strategic interests of the airport and the local business community align.

Growing together

Creating successful airport development projects requires a deep understanding of both the global aviation industry and of the local urban context. But it also requires a willingness to forge meaningful collaborations across departments and between institutions. In less successful cities, the airport authority, airlines, concessions operators, urban planners, and private developers view each other with suspicion rather than as partners. They’re reluctant to share data, or to share their aspirations for the future. That leads to poor coordination between the development of airside, landside, and off-airport facilities: producing both gaps and redundancies that have a detrimental effect on the customer experience, and preventing those facilities from delivering a healthy return on investment.

How can airports tackle these barriers? And how can they build partnerships, and build the momentum that is needed to drive the project forward? Working together with airports and cities, I developed a three-step AU Method that is designed to do just that:

  • First, we identify pre-existing assets “on the ground” that can be leveraged in future development projects. What industries, attractions, and skills are already located at or near the airport, and how could potential synergies with the airport be incorporated into future plans?
  • Second, we uncover the desires of the people who use the airport on a regular basis—passengers, employees, residents, business owners—and determine how airport-area developments can satisfy those needs. What kinds of services and amenities are currently missing at the airport, and how could new developments address those unmet demands?
  • Third, we connect these local factors to broader technical, spatial, and demographic changes that are taking place in the aviation industry and at airports all around the world. This enables each airport to better understand how it fits into a larger global picture.

This three-step approach produces a site-specific blueprint for action that aims to deliver sustainable, long-term benefits for the airport and for the local communities that it serves.

Successful airports recognize that they need to be open-minded yet also realistic when it comes to planning future developments. In the past, older development models like the aerotropolis grossly overstated the attractiveness of the airport as a place of business for multinational corporations. These models ignored critical issues about financing, land ownership, and—above all—market demand. Based on a shaky business case, the majority of these airport office parks and convention centers failed to deliver a significant return on investment.

Learning from those past missteps, AU takes a very different approach. Rather than dictating a predetermined set of building types at the outset of the design process, airport urbanism starts by focusing on the needs and desires of the people who use the airport on a regular basis. It then draws on those customer insights to develop site-specific design guidelines and development strategies. In so doing, airport urbanism doesn’t rule out building office parks and convention centers—if that’s really what local market conditions call for. At the same time, by taking a people-focused approach, AU opens up a much wider range of development options that respond to the needs of each airport’s unique mix of passengers, employees, and residents.

Doing so empowers us to see more clearly how airports and cities can grow together for mutual benefit.

Dr. Max Hirsh (PhD, Harvard) is Managing Director of the Airport City Academy and a leading global expert on airports and urban development. For more about Airport Urbanism, please visit airporturbanism.com.

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