Blurring Boundaries: The Shifting Space Between the Airport and the City


Rendering: Sasaki and Design Distill
Rendering: Sasaki and Design Distill

Historically, airports served their cities; today, they are becoming them. Architects, urbanists and experts discuss urban growth at the fringes.       

There was a time when airlines occupied some of the priciest real estate on Earth. Storefronts on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and Rome’s Via Veneto belonged to the likes of British Airways and Air France, and shopping on high street meant chatting up airline employees and daydreaming in front of the travel posters that lined the interiors of these brick-and-mortar ticket offices. The advent of the e-ticket in the mid-1990s saw the inevitable demise of the downtown airline ticket office, and with it the exodus of air travel’s visible presence on the ground level of the city. Interactions with airline employees migrated online, with most direct contact limited to on board the aircraft and at the airport.

Up to around that time, airports served one function: funneling people from their cars to airplanes and back again. They made the bulk of their money from high-ticket items like airline slots and passenger-handling fees, with a little extra coming from a handful of souvenir shops, parking spots and the lonely coffee stand – all marketed to air travelers, who, for the most part, tried to minimize their time in the cookie-cutter complexes.

“Non-aeronautical activities act as an insurance policy against all the unpredictable aspects of our industry.” €” Max Hirsh, University of Hong Kong

The swell of articles in recent months extolling “airports of the future” housing everything from beer gardens to concert halls – and a corresponding surge in non-aeronautical revenue (now amounting to roughly 40 percent of all dollars spent at the airport) – indicate things are changing. Given the nature of an industry prone to unexpected events, such as terrorism, airline bankruptcies and natural disasters, that’s probably for the best, says Max Hirsh, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on airports and urban infrastructure. “Non-aeronautical activities act as an insurance policy against all the unpredictable aspects of our industry,” he says.


Trying to diversify revenue streams, airport authorities have been bringing local communities into the fold, through what Christina Roseler, senior consultant, Pragma Consulting, calls push and pull factors. “Pull factors are driven by an offer’s uniqueness – cultural, experiential or commercial. It’s what makes people want to spend time at the airport,” she explains. “Push factors are driven by a lack of offering elsewhere. This can be linked to opening times or licensing.”

Changi Airport’s Jewel contains the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. Image: Getty Images

Changi Airport’s $1.7-billion mixed-use facility, Jewel, which officially opened in Singapore in April, is one such pull factor. Containing hundreds of restaurants and shops surrounded by four storys of greenery and the world’s highest indoor waterfall at its center, it “serves as a way for the huge airport to give something back to the city’s residents to compensate for the sheer amount of space it takes up,” Roseler says. Meanwhile, Munich Airport “pushes” locals to its shops by keeping them landside – particularly attractive on Sundays, when the rest of the country is closed for business.

“For a long time, there has been a sort of no-man’s-land around the airport where the operators were very much sticking inside their fence and the city wasn’t interested either.” €” Greg Lindsay, NewCities

Of course, there would be even more opportunity for revenue-generating footfall were there more surface area to host it, which is why airports are beginning to treat the land bordering them as valuable real estate. Once seen as a necessary buffer between the airport and the city, these spaces are being reimagined thanks to next-generation technologies and more thoughtful urban planning that can help reduce exposure to air and noise pollution. “For a long time, there has been a sort of no-man’s-land around the airport where the operators were very much sticking inside their fence and the city wasn’t interested either because of the misguided belief that no one wanted to be near the airport,” says Greg Lindsay, director of Applied Research at NewCities and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

Aerotropolis sidebar1Among airport planners, Amsterdam Schiphol’s airport city, Zuidas, is generally recognized as one of the first in the world to successfully explore the idea of the “aerotropolis,” a city built around a new or existing airport. Strategically placed at the center of a dense metropolitan region, 11 minutes by train to the airport and just 15 minutes to the city center and canal district, it is no surprise the development is home to over 700 companies, making it the city’s main financial hub.

Some of the latest airports to embrace the term are megahubs descending on the edges, not the crossroads, of downtown cores, ones like Istanbul Airport (IST) and Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) – both expected to rival Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s current capacity of 107 million.

Built on the Black Sea coast, IST covers 818 million square feet, some of which officials say will be used for an airport city containing office buildings, hotels, mosques, and medical and conference centers by 2028. “[The airport city] will be part of the long-term landside commercial development of not just our airport, but also the region and Istanbul,” wrote Ismail Polat, chief technical officer of the airport’s operator, IGA, in an article posted on International Airport Review days after the country’s fast-growing flag carrier completed its migration to IST.

Officials say PKX could one day serve more than 100 million travelers per year. Image: Getty Images

Aerotropolis sidebar2Stimulation of urban economic growth on the fringes was one of the goals of PKX, tactically placed 30 miles south of Tiananmen Square, 45 miles from Beijing Capital International Airport and smack dab in the middle of Beijing and Hebei, so to benefit both. “China is an interesting country where land price is tightly controlled by government, especially when it comes to mega infrastructure projects like this one,” explains Yufeng Guo, chief executive officer of Q&A Consulting, a China-based aviation advisory firm that has studied the new airport.

Official plans for an aerotropolis in Beijing are still mostly under wraps, save for a few hints about it being designed for both residential and commercial purposes, but Guo stresses that the Chinese government has succeeded in the past. “In Zhengzhou, for example, the government got an iPhone contract manufacturer to set up shop near the airport, really driving urban growth in the area. If it happens again in Beijing, it’ll be another government-led show,” he says.


It’s an open secret among airport planners that the aerotropolis model looks great on paper but doesn’t exactly work well in practice, Hirsh says. That’s because in addition to having to contend with the expected pushback regarding air and noise pollution and community displacement, these developments tend to indiscriminately adopt the same formula. For instance, most airport-adjacent developments feature an office park and conference center. “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 or transfer hubs, or host a lot of budget airlines,” Hirsh says.

Another major oversight is the people who work at airports every day; in North America, there are an estimated 1.2 million such employees. “I talk to a lot of them, and they complain to me that it’s hard to find the facilities that they need in their daily lives, like a place to pick up groceries or go to the gym, or have an after-work drink with colleagues,” Hirsh says. “Airports are typically one of the largest employment centers in a city, but we don’t design them that way.”

Opting for a strategy he calls “airport urbanism,” Hirsh proposes that developers and urban planners study the people who use the airport – travelers, employees and local residents – and coordinate airside, landside and off-airport developments accordingly. Hirsh points to Aviapolis, neighboring Helsinki Airport, as a leading example of how to sustainably and profitably develop an airport area that serves all of its users.

Aviapolis is home to 2,000 businesses and more than 19,000 residents. Rendering: MASS Lab

Aerotropolis sidebar3Located in a noise-free pocket just 20 minutes away from downtown Helsinki, Aviapolis hosts 2,000 businesses, employs 36,000 people and is home to more than 19,000 residents, with that number expected to grow to two million by 2050. According to Petra Simões, a MASS Lab architect who worked on the project, the development’s “extremely people-focused approach” aims to foster cultural and lifestyle exchange, while also addressing environmental impact through the implementation of circular and collective systems, such as stormwater infiltration, wastewater reuse and renewable energy production.

Simões says Aviapolis caters to a wide range of residents, visitors and local businesses, resulting in a “textured community where local life meets global flows.” This interplay between the macroscopic and microscopic also plays out in the development’s structures, whose large frames belie the fine-grained environments they contain. “Our project goes from the seven-story building facing the highway down to the human-scaled and walkable path leading to social pockets that support a variety of functions, helping ease the divide between the airport and the city,” Simões says.

A recent strategic development plan for the real estate surrounding Denver International Airport (DEN), released by interdisciplinary planning and design firm Sasaki, shows that human-scaled design is catching on in the US as well. The plan proposes a bicycle and pedestrian network that connects to the airport terminal, surrounding communities and nearby open-space destinations, including Barr Lake State Park and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, creating recreational opportunities for things like planespotting and bison-viewing.

“Gradually over time, people are thinking about how to marry the scales of these inhumanely giant aircraft and, well, humans,” Lindsay says, adding that when the concept of the aerotropolis first picked up, the focus was more on cargo and big-picture ideas for commerce. Barring a few examples, however, human-scaled airports are still very much the exception. “When you ask, ‘Can I ride my bike to the airport?’ or ‘Can I walk there?’ the answer is still almost always no,” Lindsay says.


Of course, urbanizing what was once seen as necessary greenfield is useless unless also weaving links to these areas into a city’s existing urban fabric – something increasingly being incorporated into terminal design from the start. PKX, for instance, will reportedly also serve as a high-speed rail hub connecting city centers in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei. And Down Under, where plans for a third airport in Sydney (and an accompanying aerotropolis) are underway, a new rail link will connect the terminal, its surrounding area and the city at large “from day one of operations,” the airport’s CEO says.

In Helsinki, multimodality is being tackled retroactively, with airport operator Finavia investing in a new main entrance that will pool various modes of transportation under one roof. Scheduled for completion in 2021, the “multimodal travel center,” as it is being called, will allow users to arrange journeys via taxi, car hire, and local and regional trains and buses, thereby improving accessibility within Finland, as well as to neighboring Saint Petersburg and the Baltic states.

Plans for the land surrounding DEN include a bicycle and pedestrian network. Rendering: Sasaki and Design Distill

Aerotropolis sidebar4Looking ahead, some airports are evaluating the benefits of linking air terminals with emerging mobility solutions like hyperloops. Indeed, Curtis Fentress, principal of Fentress Architects, which designed DEN some 25 years ago, notes that the Colorado Department of Transportation has launched a study that considers how a Virgin Hyperloop One transportation system could “integrate seamlessly with its existing transportation systems.”

Transitioning to a multimodal approach that allows for faster and more frequent ground connections would allow airports to expand their catchment area, “but opposition from airlines and regulatory hurdles pose barriers to innovation,” Hirsh says. “The solution may lie in new forms of cooperative governance and profit sharing across different transport sectors,” he adds.

UK-based Zipabout is aiming to do just that with the creation of a commercial operator consortium and big data platform specifically designed to streamline complex multimodal transport systems. Processing travelers’ journeys through a single channel would, in theory, result in a more cohesive experience and greater transparency among stakeholders, leading to potential improvements in operational efficiency and cost savings.

Pragma’s Roseler is also in favor of an overall more collaborative approach, especially between airlines and airports. “Rather than identifying the passenger as ‘their’ consumer, both airlines and airport operators can take a broader perspective, working together to achieve a genuine passenger-focused approach to unlock the full commercial potential,” she says.

Could a more allied approach extend to the land around the airport as well? Lindsay thinks so, arguing that as emerging technologies lessen the environmental impact of air travel, and as land becomes more scarce and more expensive in many of the world’s leading cities, opportunities for landside real estate will become more sought-after. “I would really love to see if airlines and airports could figure out how to co-invest in real estate in the surrounding area and cook up a scheme that would allow airlines to capture the benefits of greater connectivity to the city,” he says.

“Airports are learning lessons from the principles of high-quality placemaking and urbanism.” €” Fred Merrill, Sasaki

Ground links and real estate bids are reframing the interface between the airport and the city, but the greatest potential for synergy may come from the flow of ideas. “Airports are learning lessons from the principles of high-quality placemaking and urbanism, which include making better connections, mixing uses, increasing density, events programming and creating a high-quality public realm,” says Fred Merrill of Sasaki. After all, Aviapolis was conceived as a test bed for circular economy practices, and, according to Fentress, plans for DEN’s airport city envision a “living laboratory for autonomous mobility, sustainability and net-zero energy consumption.”

If this is the case, investing in the previously neglected spaces around airports may end up benefiting travelers, employees, residents and, potentially, others who will never even set foot in them. As for airlines, they may just end up at the center of the action once again.

“Blurring Boundaries” was originally published in the 9.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.