Monday, August 15, 2011

Airport Cities on the rise...just not in Canada

There's a new urban form emerging around the world that's changing the way cities are built. There is also a race to implement this urban form that's sparking global competition. This concept in known as "airport cities" or the "aerotropolis" as coined by Dr. John Kasarda.

As railway and transit stations have become centres of economic, urban and social activity, airports, some having more citizens than small cities, are increasingly being seen as economic, urban and social centres to the point where small cities and business districts are forming around them. Amenities include leisure, entertainment, retail and business centres directly connected to terminals, and similar amenities located on surrounding airport lands. In this emerging urban form the terminals themselves act as public squares or shopping centres. The belief is that all the amenities found in a downtown core should be available either at the airport or on the lands surrounding the airport, and that people shouldn't have to leave the airport lands to experience these amenities.

In the United States, Europe and Asia cities are racing to complete aerotropolis projects in order to become more competitive in the global economy.

One of the main examples is the Songdo International Business District (IBD) in South Korea. Amenities include Central Park, the Riverstone Mall, residential development, office buildings, the Songdo Convensia Convention Center, the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, as well as mixed-use retail, an international school, international hospital, and hotels. Similar projects in Asia and Europe are planned or in the works in Dubai, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. Closer to home Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis, and Washington DC.

So where is Canada in all of this? No where. Although we are the home of aerospace and rail juggernaut Bombardier, Canada has been an underachiever when it comes to transportation infrastructure and our air and rail travels industries. Our federal governments have not seen the value of transportation in the local and national economy; as a result the air and train travel industries are very small in Canada relative to other countries. Although the development of airport lands is the responsbility of airport authorities, our airports continue to pay some of the highest fees in the world making them uncompetitive.

In October 2010 local authorities in Hamilton, Ontario voted to create an aerotropolis around John C Munro Hamilton International Airport on 830 hectares of land which was met with opposition. In Winnipeg the CentrePort project around James Armstrong Richardson International Airport is the closest thing we have to an aerotropolis in Canada. This Free Trade Zone (FTZ) will attract international business and will be home to multiple modes of transportation and top notch shipping and warehousing facilities. Although this facility will stimilate the local and national economies, it will not be an actual airport city providing the broad based amenities found in aerotropoli around the world.

The Greater Toronto Area's Pearson International Airport has stimulated significant development in surrounding municipalities including Toronto, Mississauga and Brampton but this development is due to random development over time and not a cohesive master plan. This development also has less density and amenities than the aeropolises in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

In my city, Ottawa, we have some aerotropolis-like amenities around the MacDonald-Cartier International Airport and they are growing, although it doesn't seem to be as a result of a master plan and it hasn't all been packaged together as a district. Aside from the terminal, amenities and facilities in the area include the National Research Council research facilities, space for National Defence and Transport Canada, a host of golf clubs, the Hilton Garden Inn and Days Inn hotel, the soon-to-be completed CE (Capital Exhibition) Centre, a business park, and further away, the Rideau Carleton Raceway (the National Capital Region's second largest tourist attraction). The Ottawa Gatineau Film & Television Development Corporation also envisions building a production studio on 10 acres of land near the airport.

With kilometers of undeveloped airport lands surrounding our airport, Ottawa has the potential to develop Canada's first real aerotropolis especially by tying in nearby amenities. The fact that the airport basically borders on the Rideau River and is close to Highway 417 helps. I'll go out on a limb and say that the Ottawa airport should be the main economic centre in the south end of Ottawa the same way that the tech companies around March Road is the main economic centre in the west end and Parliament and the CBD are the main economic centre to the north. But because these lands lie within the Greenbelt and are home to wetlands and wildlife any attempt to develop these lands will be met with opposition as we saw with the construction of the CE Centre. Some may say that Ottawa's airport doesn't have enough air traffic to warrant the building of an aerotropolis, but that doesn't seem to be stopping Hamilton who's airport has significantly less activity than ours.

As a Canadian I'll continue to be an eager onlooker, celebrating growth in this new urban form in the U.S., Europe and Asia while our country wonders why we're not as competitive as we should be.

Kevin Bourne

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