Cities beyond airports

Congonhas airport and Sao Paulo Skyline, Brazil.

City growth is driven by trade and transportation. Throughout history, cities prospered because they had something to offer that someone else wanted, and the good locational fortune to be accessible to important land, sea or rail lines. 

The advent of air freight has obviated many inherent locational advantages, creating a certain levelling effect. Now, all cities are seemingly linked to other trading parties, and much evidence suggests that air freight and its interrelated ground services are a key to modern urban prosperity. Air cargo trade has boomed since the 1970s, greatly exceeding the pace of GDP growth. Urban areas with the physical and human infrastructure to manage this great global trade game across multi-continental supply chains, just-in-time manufacturers, and need it tomorrow commerce have correspondingly profited. Today, a city’s progress can be defined as much by its airport and connected freight and manufacturing infrastructure as it can by the many traditional definers such as its natural resource base, varied economic sectors, or history and culture.

This aviation-centric model of urban development has its own name: the Aerotropolis - a term advanced by John D. Kasarda and developed from a marketing label for the first Changi airport expansion plans. The concept, eagerly picked up by many cities,  is a sub-city of roads and rail, industrial parks, offices, housing and amenities – all in service of the 24-7 throbbing of global goods movement. Some Aerotropoli are amoeba-like outgrowths from long-established passenger airports. Others, such as those in Dubai, Beijing, Songdo (Seoul / Inchon) and many more, are the outcome of complete master plans for whole new airport districts, each costing in the tens of billions of dollars to develop and expected as homes for tens of thousands of jobs and permanent residents.

Urban economic development circles are abuzz with this new airborne pathway to global primacy. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to blindly throw a dart a wall map and not hit near a mooted future Aerotropolis. It’s worth pausing, though, on this road to the Next Big Thing. Yes, air trade has boomed, created jobs at a very healthy clip, and had a profound physical impact on urban form. But it all happened during a period of historically cheap fossil fuel energy. Global trade figures from this recent (but closing) window may tell a good story, but other numbers related to petroleum production challenges and mounting carbon costs suggest cities should instead be lowering their airport dependency exposure. 

From 1991 through 1999, U.S. jet fuel prices averaged 56 cents per gallon, and never exceeded 65 cents. However, between 2003 and 2005, the average market price ranged from $0.88 to $1.72 per gallon, and was north of $4 at the pre-recession peak. World oil prices have followed a similar trajectory: relatively low and stable prices throughout the 1990s (generally $20 - $40 a barrel), with scarcely fathomable gyrations during the ‘00s, peaking at $140 in 2008. Even the great recession couldn’t drop oil lower than it was priced during the 1990s. 

Obviously good economic times raise demand and thus prices, with recessionary periods providing the opposite. And the emerging global middle class from the world’s major emerging economies has added demand pressures unique in the history of the fossil fuel age. But there are bigger forces are at play. The cheap oil is gone, and for the first time in the fossil fuel era, the spigot can’t be opened wider during times of high demand. This view comes from scores of research institutions, national defence agencies, and now even from deep within the oil establishment, notably the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, recently conceded their view that global crude oil production has already peaked and that the commodity will become more and more expensive. In interview on Australian television in April this year he says “The existing [oil] fields are declining so sharply that in order to stay where we are in terms of production levels in the next 25 years, we have to find and develop four new Saudi Arabias.”

The Aerotropolis is inescapably a fossil fuel construct. To perpetuate it requires either continued cheap fossil fuel energy, or scalable and quickly penetrating technology breakthroughs to replace those fuels. One is impossible and for the other there is no evidence. Add in the unpredictability of infrastructure damage and supply-line disruptions from climate change-induced extreme weather events, and the Aerotropolis shine dims further.

The recent earthquake in Japan showed that many of the world’s leading companies were caught flat-footed with disruptions to global just-in-time supply and manufacturing operations. Manufacturers and suppliers will undoubtedly learn from the event, just as designers and engineers can adjust the physical infrastructure to adapt to climate extremes. But with decreased predictability come increased costs. There inevitably will be a point where the bottom line fuel and infrastructure figures dent the attractiveness of air-linked goods movement. The problem for Aerotrpolis, though, is there are effectively no historical variables by which this price point can be assessed. 

Cities have inevitably grown and developed around prevailing technologies – explicitly transportation technologies. They give cities structure, and often meaning. Just as cars and highways captured the fossil fuel zeitgeist of the mid to late 20th century, the Aerotropolis is the apotheosis of cheap carbon energy in the early 21st. In fact Detroit, the poster-child of the former, is currently smitten by prospects for the latter. 

But as the end of cheap oil is nigh, cities need to consider whether an aviation-centric development strategy has a great deal of future promise - or is anachronistic, and nearing its high point. Aerotropolis type planning time horizons, sunk infrastructure and costs are far from trivial. The inherent risks from carbon-intensive development demand new pathways to resilient, re-regionalised, post-fossil fuel economies. Instead of assessing the possible benefit from airport bound growth, cities should study the inherent risks from present and future airport dependency. To counter their exposure to the inexorable decline in the importance of airport based advantages airport cities should push for less reliance on airborne global trade and transport and bank on strengthening post-oil regional economies, push for renewable transport and post-fossil long-haul freight movement and particularly work to realise the emerging clean sea shipping options of the post-carbon age.

Peter Droege is Professor, Sustainable Spatial Development, University of Liechtenstein and President of Eurosolar. An international expert on urban resilience and sustainability planning, he is author and editor of The Renewable City: A Comprehensive Guide to an Urban Revolution; Urban Energy Transition and 100% Renewable – Energy Autonomy in Practice.

Matthew Ulterino is an urban planning consultant based in London. He advises government and private clients on reducing carbon emissions and risks from climate change in the built environment. He has been appointed by the United Nations Development Program to serve on an expert panel for climate change adaptation.  

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