What is an Aerotropolis?

Miki Barnes
March 22, 2011

The aerotropolis model puts forth the idea of organizing cities around airports. It is championed by John Kasarda and his partner Greg Lindsay in their recently released book Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next. The aerotropolis website (www.aerotropolis.com) describes this model as follows:

As more and more aviation-oriented businesses are being drawn to airport cities and along transportation corridors radiating from them, a new urban form is emerging - the Aerotropolis - stretching up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) outward from some airports. Analogous in shape to the traditional metropolis made up of a central city and its rings of commuter-heavy suburbs, the Aerotropolis consists of an airport city and outlying corridors and clusters of aviation-linked businesses and associated residential development. A number of these clusters such as Amsterdam Zuidas, Las Colinas, Texas, and South Korea's Songdo International Business District have become globally significant airport edge-cities representing planned postmodern urban mega-development in the age of the Aerotropolis.

Kasarda further elaborates on his perspective as follows: "I see organized competition, strategy and structure as the major forces shaping human life, not individual actions...I don't believe in agency," sociology speak for free will. "Agency is inevitably trumped by structure (pg 18) [1]."

Portland Airport Futures

To provide context on the meaning and implications of developing an aerotropolis or "airport city" in Oregon, this article begins with some background material. A program called Airport Futures began in 2007 as "a collaborative effort between the City of Portland, Port of Portland and the Portland Vancouver Metropolitan community to create an integrated long-range development plan for Portland International Airport (PDX)." Towards this end a 30-member Planning Advisory Group (PAG), including eight representatives from neighborhood groups and associations and several environmental and livability representatives, was established. The only Washington County representative was Dennis Mulvihill who, according to his bio has, since 1988, "served as the government relations manager for the Washington County Board of Commissioners."

To provide specialized expertise to the PAG, a 39-member Technical Advisory Committee was formed. This group included five additional positions for Portland neighborhood groups. Other seats were held by various Portland bureaus including, but not limited to, representatives from Environmental Services, Parks and Recreation, and the city noise officer. The city of Vancouver neighborhood association, as well as their department of Planning Review, Transportation, and Economic Development, was also represented.

In June of 2009 a report was prepared for the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Port of Portland entitled Portland Airport Futures: Economic Development Inventory [3]. It is this document that explores the feasibility of the aerotropolis model for PDX. The study concluded that "A major catalyst in moving Portland to the next level as an increasingly significant global player centers on conceptualization and implementation of an aerotropolis or airport city concept...Requirements relate largely to the ability for Airport Futures planning to be woven into the fabric of City and Metro regional objectives" (pg iii).

PDX Land Inventory

The intent of the June 2009 study was to determine the "area's market potential for airport-dependent and related business development" (pg 2).

In exploring the suitability of this model, 8,600 acres were inventoried. Most were designated for industrial and airport related uses at and around PDX. Of the land under consideration, the Port owned 3,250 acres.

The study found that "there is still a relatively significant inventory of approximately 3,380 acres that remain undeveloped or lesser improved" - 702 acres were categorized as "vacant and owned by the Port" including three 50-100 acre parcels and four 25-50 acre parcels. "An estimated 585 acres were indicated as vacant with other (primarily private) ownership." And 1,387 acres were labeled as lesser improved including two 50+ acre parcels (pg 15).

Airport City - Aerotropolis

This report poses the question "can cities orient towards airports?" (pg 17). The following quotes shed further light on the far reaching implications of this query:

Many of the aerotropolis projects have been built in Asia and Europe at major airports which are much newer than throughout much of North America, with many located on large greenfield sites surrounded by considerable developable land. As a result, planners and developers are able to fully leverage airports' new role as multimodal, multifunctional commercial development engines attracting businesses and shaping land use miles away. The urban core of the geographically expansive aerotropolis is the airport city. The airport itself serves as the region-wide multimodal transportation and commercial nexus (pg 17).

In addition to incorporating shopping mall concepts into passenger terminals and developing logistics facilities near runways, airports are working with developers to place hotels, office and retail complexes, conference and exhibition centers, free trade zones, and time-sensitive manufacturing facilities on their property (pg 57).

Implications for Hillsboro Airport

Ostensibly, the focus of this report was on PDX, but contained within are indications that part of the underlying intent was to promote expansions at the Hillsboro Airport (HIO).

This study contains interviews with 22 firms and organizations. No direct quotes were attributed to specific individuals. Even though no neighborhood association or citizen participation organization representatives from Washington County were included on the Airport Futures Project Advisory Committee, more than one-third of the organizations and half of the interviewees were from Washington County. Their identities are as follows:

  • City of Hillsboro Director of Economic Development - John Southgate
  • Cascade Microtech (Beaverton) - Nancy Olson and Rafael Saakyan
  • FEI Company (Hillsboro) - Steve Siegried and David Thiel
  • Genentech (Hillsboro) - Barry Starkman
  • Radisys (Hillsboro) - Dan O'Halloran
  • SolarWorld (Hillsboro) - Kim Kuehne and Greg Ones
  • Sun Microsystems (Hillsboro) - Pete Lehmann
  • TriQuint Semiconductor, Inc. (Hillsboro) - Donna Ragan and Jim Smith

The summary of the recommendations made by these and other corporate and government appointees yielded the following recommendations for the Hillsboro Airport:

  • "Improved air freight options for high tech firms in Washington County (including suggestions for a heavier runway, introduction of direct air freight from Hillsboro, and/or attraction of freight/drop ship consolidator)" (pg 34)
  • "review of possible limited air passenger commuter service options from Hillsboro - as to SeaTac, the Bay Area and/or Los Angeles" (pg 34)

This study also complained of regional transportation congestion described as "of particular concern for travelers and high tech firms in Washington County..." (pg 35).

Other indications that the Port of Portland and the City of Hillsboro may be attempting to implement an aerotropolis model at HIO:

  • Membership composition of the Hillsboro Airport Issues Roundtable (HAIR) predominantly favors the aviation industry
  • Failure of HAIR jurisdictional reps to attend meetings or to speak out on behalf of the citizenry on livability
  • Refusal to make HAIR meeting summaries and other pertinent documentation readily available on an easily accessible website
  • Refusal to clearly delineate on the Port aviation statistics website, who is using this airport and for what purpose
  • Promotion of unconstitutional airport zoning ordinances that diminish the rights of neighboring property owners
  • Airport zoning that extends over a mile in all directions of the airport runway
  • Placing one of Washington County's treasured community gathering spaces - the Washington County Fairgrounds - within the unconstitutional airport zone
  • No HIO Citizen Noise Advisory Committee
  • No HIO Airport Futures Advisory Committee to address sustainable land use planning
  • No citizen appointed reps on HIO related committees
  • Efforts to claim urban and undesignated reserves well in excess of what is needed
  • Lack of adequate air quality monitoring
  • Attempts to prohibit schools, hospitals and senior convalescent centers within a 6,000 foot radius of the airport runways
  • Lack of a formal intergovernmental agreement between the Port of Portland and City of Hillsboro and Washington County
  • Port/City of Hillsboro/HAIR attempt to unconstitutionally delegate authority from the city to the Port
  • Designation of farmland and other properties within the vicinity of the airport as industrial

Thailand's Aerotropolis - A Case Study

Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport exemplifies some of the problems associated with the aerotropolis model. Subsequent to the opening of this facility in 2006, a 9/1/07 article from The Economic Times, Residents threaten airport authorities to disrupt flights [4], reported on an organized effort to launch balloons into the air unless the government agreed to buy their homes.

House owners in 32 estates are demanding payouts similar to those the airport authority previously agreed to pay to others whose properties lie in the noisiest flight paths. They also demanded an end to all flights between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The widespread community opposition also focused on serious complaints related to noise, insomnia, medical problems, and stress directly related to the air traffic generated by this facility. According to a 9/3/07 Earthtimes.org posting, Thai airport hands out sleeping pills to stressed-out neighbors:

"First they gave us earplugs, then sleeping pills," said Thanatos Preeprem, a sleep-deprived Suvarnabhumi neighbour. He and other residents living near the airport said sleeping pills were delivered by a mobile medical unit run by the Airports of Thailand (AoT), the state enterprise that manages the 3.9-billion-dollar airport. "And now that some of us have developed respiratory problems, possibly caused by oil vapour from the aircraft, AoT suggested we should buy face masks," said Thanatos. [5]

Less than a year later anti-government protestors succeeded in closing the airport for nearly a week. [6]

The website for the airport provides the following 8/20/08 update on their efforts to remedy the situation:

The no-housing zone surrounding Suvarnabhumi airport has been extended from a radius of eight to 10km [6.2 miles] as a long term solution to aircraft noise pollution, Deputy Transport Minister Sansern Wongcha-um said yesterday...Mr Sansern said the announcement prohibiting housing within 8km of the airport had been in place since 1992 and reiterated on many occasions, but it had never been taken seriously. He said the aircraft noise since the opening of the airport had made areas in the vicinity unfit for residential purposes. Land prices have plunged by up to 80% as a result...In the short run, those badly affected by aircraft noise and who could no longer stay in their homes would be relocated to about 100 housing units in the Lat Krabang-Romklao area that Airports of Thailand had arranged for their temporary stay, pending settlement.

Concluding Remarks

For millennia humans have formed communities and gathered together to educate their young, care for their elderly, and tend to the sick and infirm. Access to land to grow crops is now, and always has been, essential to the survival of the human species. Over the course of human history communities were established around a common green space where people could congregate to celebrate, worship, make music, grow and prepare food, create works of enduring art, and communicate with one another. Children could freely run and play. Bird song and the woodland creatures were a natural part of this common landscape.

The aerotropolis model is the antithesis of this time honored approach that has nurtured and sustained human life for many thousands of years. It is essentially a cold, mechanistic, and materialistic model that values machines and technology over the betterment of the human condition. Green spaces and prime farmland are viewed as aviation related development opportunities. It is telling that the majority of stakeholders interviewed for this report were corporations and government officials who have historically placed profit margins above and beyond all other considerations.

The airport city concept is based on the idea that communities should organize their lives around the loudest, noisiest, most toxic and aggressive bully on the block. Is this really what passes for responsible civic and environmental planning in Portland, Washington County and the State of Oregon?


[1] Kasarda, John D. and Lindsay, Greg. Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next. (2011). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (www.aerotropolis.com)

[2] Portland Airport Futures website

[3] Portland Airport Futures: Economic Development Inventory

[4] The Economic Times. Residents threaten airport authorities to disrupt flights. 9/1/07.

[5] Earthtimes.org. Thai airport hands out sleeping pills to stressed-out neighbors. 9/3/07.

[6] The Economic Times. Main Bangkok airport closed at least until Monday. (11/29/08).

[7] Suvarnabhumi Airport: New Bangkok Airport Guide. No housing grows to 10 km. around Suvarnabhumi Airport. (8/20/08).

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