Why you should care

Because airports are more than just places for planes.

More than 20 miles from the souks and alleys of central Istanbul, a forested park near the shores of the Black Sea erupts with the sounds of buzz saws and drills. If all goes according to plan, the first phase of the largest airport in the world will open here in 2018, ultimately catering to more than 150 million passengers annually — far outpacing Atlanta or Beijing, currently the planet’s two busiest air hubs. But Turkey’s grandiose ambitions don’t end there. An entire city is rising on an adjacent 1,700-acre site, with homes and office buildings, hospitals and hotels, and a high-speed train in case anyone wants to take a short ride for a taste of the authentic Istanbul.

Welcome to the aerotropolis, a concept that stands the traditional city-airport relationship on its head. Instead of being relegated to the outskirts of town, airports could become the core of a community that draws on the flow of commerce through the hub. Around the world, these ersatz cities are growing exponentially, with an increasing chorus of architects and urban planners pushing the trend as a new model of urban living. The airport, they say, is the 21st-century equivalent of the railroad hubs of the 19th century, supporting mixed-use zones filled with all the trappings of urban living.

Airports are creating new urban power centers in the Middle East and Asia.

John Kasarda, director, Center for Air Commerce, University of North Carolina

Lionel Ohayon, CEO and founder of ICrave, a New York design firm that has worked on some of the plans for Istanbul, says a modern airport “should be at a level commensurate with the city itself,” not a bland, one-size-fits-all experience. It should radiate out from the terminal at its heart — the tentatively named New Istanbul Airport, Ohayon notes, will have a sprawling single terminal under one roof with a vaulted ceiling and spaces inspired by the Süleymaniye Mosque and other local landmarks, and it’ll sport a tulip-shaped air traffic control tower. Ohayon points out that the country is plowing around $12 billion into the project, which is intended as a showcase for modern Turkey. And the investment could pay off handsomely — according to government estimates, the airport city will create 225,000 permanent new jobs and generate economic activity equal to 5 percent of Turkey’s gross national product.

The timetable for Istanbul’s airport ambitions may now be in doubt due to last year’s failed coup and the resultant downturn in air travel to Turkey. In 2016, Turkish Airlines lost $77 million, ending a long stretch of growth and profitability. Nevertheless, the airline insists its massive new home will open on time.

Meanwhile, other instant cities are rising from what would normally be dead space surrounding a busy international airfield. Thirty miles from Seoul, South Korea, for example, the district of Songdo has popped up almost overnight, a virtual city created from scratch under the approach to the capital’s main international airport, which itself opened only 15 years ago. To the casual observer, Songdo looks like a modern metropolis, with high-rise towers and even its own “Central Park,” a copy of its more famous New York namesake; for tourists and travelers on a layover hungering for local color, there is a “Cultural Street,” with native cuisine and dance performances.

John Kasarda, director of the Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina, and author, with Greg Lindsay, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, has identified two dozen aerotropolises around the world that are up and running. “Airports are creating new urban power centers in the Middle East and Asia,” he says, with the aim of challenging the global business centers of New York, London and Frankfurt, Germany. These include Dubai, whose home country Kasarda describes as the world’s “first aerotropolis nation,” given its confined space. A Xanadu-like “Festival City” is rising 1 mile from the airfield, which is designed to house 100,000 residents and its own schools, shopping malls and a marina on the city’s natural harbor.

The project has slowed along with the region’s economy, as has another wildly ambitious venture in neighboring Abu Dhabi, where Masdar, a Foster and Partners–designed community near the airport, is ballyhooed as a showcase for sustainable design in a brutal desert environment. Ironically, the drop in oil prices put the brakes on this ambitious zero-carbon city — last year, its population stood at 300, although developers say that they’re still moving forward.

China, though, may be ground zero for the trend. With close to 400 airports either open or on the drawing boards, the country is going full throttle into a future driven by aviation as the main mode of transportation. The aerotropolis of Zhengzhou in east-central China is a prime example. Twenty miles from the city’s historic downtown, the Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone is five times the size of Manhattan and generates $6 billion annually in import-export activity, mainly from plants like Foxconn, famous (or infamous) for churning out iPhones and other must-have consumer devices.

But will the trend last? Kasarda is skeptical that China’s airport building boom can be sustained. And elsewhere, environmental advocates are pushing back. “Critics characterize these communities as boring, soulless places with limited walkability,” Kasarda says, although he points out that the same critiques were heard a generation ago during the rise of suburbia. Sometimes the protests turn violent; when Narita Airport was built in the 1970s, claiming a sizable swath of farmland about 40 miles from Tokyo, demonstrators destroyed a control tower and prevented the airport from opening. Ultimately, Narita was able to function only by being surrounded with solid metal fencing and towers staffed by riot police. Instead of an airport city, Tokyo got an airport prison.

A dystopian vision to some, but for others, the aerotropolis is the future. And like any real estate project, it’s location, location, location that will drive success. Turkish Airlines sales manager Marc Newell proudly notes that Istanbul’s ambitious airport is “within a four-hour flight of more than 1 billion consumers” in 56 countries. In short, the best thing about airport cities may be how easy it is to leave them.

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