Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Major airports have become key nodes in global production and enterprise systems offering them speed, agility, and connectivity. They are also powerful engines of local economic development, attracting aviation-linked businesses of all types to their environs. These include, among others, time-sensitive manufacturing and distribution facilities; hotel, entertainment, retail, convention, trade and exhibition complexes; and office buildings that house air-travel intensive executives and professionals.

The rapid expansion of airport-linked commercial facilities is making today's air gateways anchors of 21st century metropolitan development where distant travelers and locals alike can conduct business, exchange knowledge, shop, eat, sleep, and be entertained without going more than 15 minutes from the airport. This functional and spatial evolution is transforming many city airports into airport cities.

As more and more aviation-oriented businesses are being drawn to airport cities and along transportation corridors radiating from them, a new urban form is emerging—the Aerotropolis—stretching up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) outward from some airports. Analogous in shape to the traditional metropolis made up of a central city and its rings of commuter-heavy suburbs, the Aerotropolis consists of an airport city and outlying corridors and clusters of aviation-linked businesses and associated residential development. A number of these clusters such as Amsterdam Zuidas, Las Colinas, Texas, and South Korea's Songdo International Business District have become globally significant airport edge-cities representing planned postmodern urban mega-development in the age of the Aerotropolis.

A spatially compressed model of the Aerotropolis showing its current and likely future evolution is illustrated below. No Aerotropolis will look exactly like this but most will eventually take on similar features, led by newer "greenfield" airports less constrained by decades of prior surrounding development. The Aerotropolis is thus much more of a dynamic, forward-looking model than a static, cross-sectional model reflecting historic airport-area development to date.


Although most aerotropolis development to date has been organic, spontaneous and haphazard — often spawning congestion and environmental problems — in the future it can be markedly improved through strategic infrastructure and urban planning.

  • Dedicated airport expressway links (aerolanes) and airport express trains (aerotrains) should efficiently connect airports to major regional business and residential concentrations.
  • Special truck-only lanes should be added to airport expressways, as should improved interchanges to reduce congestion.
  • Time-cost accessibility between key nodes should be the primary aerotropolis planning metric rather than distance.
  • Businesses should be steered to locate in proximity to the airport based on their frequency of use, further reducing traffic while improving time-cost access.
  • Airport area goods-processing activities (manufacturing, warehousing, trucking) should be spatially segregated from white-collar service facilities and airport passenger flows.
  • Noise and emission-sensitive commercial and residential developments should be sited outside high-intensity flight paths.
  • Cluster rather than strip development should be encouraged along airport transportation corridors with sufficient green space between clusters.
  • Form-based codes should establish general design standards for airport area buildings, walkways, travel lanes, landscaping, and public space.
  • Placemaking and wayfinding enhanced by thematic architectural features, public art, and iconic structures should make aerotropolis developments interpretable, navigable, and welcoming.
  • Mixed-use residential/commercial communities housing airport area workers and frequent air travelers should be developed with easy commutes and designed to human scale providing local services and sense of neighborhood.

In short, aerotropolis development and sustainable "smart growth" can and should go hand-in-hand.

The above outcomes will not occur under most current airport area planning approaches which tend to be localized, politically and functionally fragmented, and often conflicted. A new approach is required bringing together airport planning, urban and regional planning, and business-site planning in a synergistic manner so that future Aerotropolis development will be more economically efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and socially and environmentally sustainable. The real question is not whether Aerotropolises will evolve around major airports (they surely will). It's whether they will form and grow in an intelligent manner, minimizing problems and bringing about the greatest returns to the airport, its users, businesses, surrounding communities, and the larger region it serves.