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Into the aerotropolis

The best place to spot planes in Johannesburg is on Jan Smuts Road off Yaldwyn in Boksburg. You park right next to the runway, just beyond the razor wire, and wait. On Saturday my brother and I achieved a haul of a Kulula 737, three SA Express Embraers and an SAA Star Alliance Airbus.

I discovered this spot accidentally early last year, when a friend and I travelled to Boksburg’s only gourmet restaurant to sample the fare. Afterwards we sat at the Silverado Pub and Grill and noticed the planes coming in. We drove towards the point where they intersected with solid earth, just across the N12 from Wild Waters, and found the spot. There we left the car to walk through the veld under the landing lights, where a young man had set up a tent next to his motorbike. I waited for a British Airways plane so that I could take this photo:


This is the heart of the aerotropolis. The word evokes something from the imagination of Jules Verne or HG Wells, but its progenitor is in fact a professor from the Centre for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina. “Airports will shape economic activity and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th, and seaports in the 18th,” says Dr John Kasarda. Two weeks ago I heard him address the Airport Cities World Conference and Exhibition, hosted by Ekurhuleni and held in Africa for the first time.

I was called in to help Ekurhuleni with their social media and the conference turned out to be a fascinating immersion in a concept I first came across two years ago, but had not given much thought to it since. As it turns out, the definition of the aerotropolis is relatively simple: “a type of urban form comprising aviation intense business and related enterprises”. In short, a region and a city centred around an airport.

Both days of the conference were a trip around the world: Dallas-Fort Worth, Helsinki, Hyderabad, Moscow, Nigeria, Incheon in South Korea, Dubai, Manchester, Halifax in Nova Scotia. Even the Iranians were there: each delegate received a CD detailing the developments at Imam Khomeini International Airport, complete with impressive artists’ impressions of how the finished project will look.

About 80 aerotropolis projects are in various stages of development around the world. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and Frankfurt’s Fraport are the world leaders, along with Incheon. Dubai transformed itself in large part thanks to its focus on its airport as a driver of tourism. The presentation from the Dubai delegate was filled with astounding facts and figures. Back in 1960, Dubai had a sand runway and passengers were transported on camels. Today, Dubai Duty Free is the world’s biggest retailer; a second airport will be built and by 2020, Dubai will have enough capacity to process an incredible 100-million passengers a year – by way of comparison, OR Tambo processes 18-million, with a capacity for 25-million.

Denver, Memphis and Dallas Forth Worth are three of the aerotropolis success stories in the US. Thanks to the presence of Fedex, Memphis boasts the second-busiest cargo hub in the world; at a time when the US economy is battling to extract itself from a recession, the region is attracting over a billion dollars of new private investment. Denver’s striking new international airport has had a ripple effect on the economy of the entire region. Here I am with the mayor of Denver, Michael B. Hancock:
Me and the mayor

“Cities don’t compete; entire regions do, and the stage is global,” he told us.

So it’s hardly surprising that many governments and private investors are pinning their hopes for future growth and job creation on the aerotropolis. Africa is no different. Ekurhuleni is the first aerotropolis on the continent, but there are six others in various stages of development: Dube TradePort in KwaZulu-Natal, Cairo and four projects in Nigeria.

Kasarda knows Ekurhuleni well, since he has consulted extensively with the municipality (one of eight metropolitan municipalities across South Africa). Ekurhuleni officially embraced the aerotropolis in 2011, incorporating the concept into its Municipal Spatial Development Framework as part of the Ekurhuleni Integrated Development Plan. In 2012, the Aerotropolis Strategic Roadmap was adopted both by Ekurhuleni and the Gauteng provincial government. Job creation is the watchword in a region where 1,1-million people have no source of income.

Airports are not uncontroversial, of course. Building new ones means losing farmland and other green spaces, while most existing airports are surrounded by suburbs and constrained by residents who don’t want noise or inconvenience. It’s a difficult balance, especially because airports are set to become more central to economic development even as urgent concerns are raised about climate change.

So that point next to Jan Smuts Road where stray plastic bags snagged on razor wire flutter in the breeze, where flamingos gather in the local vlei, and where metal and rubber descend from the sky to connect with the ground, is the nexus of a whole world of complex interactions. Spending as much time as I do online, it’s easy to forget that we can’t do everything in bytes and pixels. As Kasarda points out, air routes are a high speed physical internet. “The internet can’t move a box,” he reminds us. “It can’t move people.”


  • Sarah Britten

    During the day Sarah Britten is a communication strategist; by night she writes books and blog entries. And sometimes paints. With lipstick. It helps to have insomnia.