Welcome to the age of the aerotropolis

On a Saturday afternoon this past spring, a local editor of the Oxford English Dictionary told a grey-haired audience at a Cape Town literary festival that the word ‘aerodrome’ was in danger of being evicted from the concise version of his company’s famous dictionary. Disuse, Phillip Louw explained. His admission prompted neither gasps nor wistful questions why.

It seems that when referring to that unlovable-but-essential place on the edge of town where aircraft land, disgorge their corporeal and inanimate cargo, refuel, and then jet off, their wheels retracted like mechanical claws, speakers of the English language are happy to go with ‘airport’.
Its prolonged usage, however, is by no means assured.

The slide into obscurity of aerodrome, which refers to a small airport or airfield, coincides with the emergence of ‘aerotropolis’, a buzzword descriptive of the obese and interconnected reality of contemporary global airports and their environs. Although mostly used by businessmen and technocrats, it is increasingly appearing in popular media, also the veld.

A few weeks after Louw spoke about the lifecycle of words like “aerodrome”, “ayoba” and “zef”, I whizzed past a large billboard on a vacant plot adjacent the R21, a highway connecting OR Tambo International Airport and Tshwane. “Ekurhuleni Aerotropolis,” it declared.

Words convey meaning; that’s their purpose. Take Ekurhuleni. A Tsonga word denoting “place of peace”, this proper noun also refers to a vast metropolitan municipality and flatland east of Johannesburg. If you’ve passed through OR Tambo, you’ve been to Ekurhuleni.

Established in December 2000, the new metro amalgamated the managerial duties of nine cities and 11 administrations. The names of its many constituencies—among them Alberton, Benoni, Boksburg, Brakpan, Daveyton, Edenvale, Isando, Kempton Park, Nigel, Springs, Tembisa and Vosloorus—recall a synchronous history of mining, heavy industry and racial oppression.

The largest concentration of industrial activity in sub-Saharan Africa, Ekurhuleni is also a rustbelt. Manufacturing declined 7% last year. The metro is now looking to its chief airport to provide for long-term prosperity. Ekurhuleni has four airports. Famed for its art deco tower, Rand Airport, which opened in Germiston as a grass-covered field with a hangar on August 24 1929, was Johannesburg’s first international airport. Increasing bulk—of cargo, people and the planes used to ferry both—signalled its demise as an intercontinental destination.

In 1945 construction began on a “temporary international aerodrome” at Palmietfontein, residue of this brief-lived airport still visible in present-day Thokoza. On August 31 1953, at 3.30pm, after the last flight departed from Palmietfontein, airport officials “hurriedly transferred” to Jan Smuts Airport, now OR Tambo. The new airport featured two long paved runways, essential for jet age planes negotiating Johannesburg’s tricky “hot and high” altitude.

Attractive economic resource
The sprawling physical bulk of the current airport is a short story written in numbers. In 1959, 335 982 people drove to Kempton Park to fly somewhere; in 2011 just over 18.5-million people went to OR Tambo to do the same. In a metro negotiating growth and decline in the same bounded space, the airport presents an attractive economic resource to be aligned with.

“We have made the decision that, for Ekurhuleni to become a preferred destination for growth and development, we need to adopt a particular strategy which is appropriate for the city,” announced Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele in July. “We are, therefore, pursuing the aerotropolis model, which talks to exploring economic opportunities around an airport city.”

A fact: aerotropolis is not listed in any of the various Oxford dictionaries. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a popular American reference tool that attracts 40-million visitors every month, also offers no definition. “A word like aerotropolis would have to make the transition from technical or business jargon to everyday language use to be considered for inclusion in dictionaries,” says Louw. Repeated usage in the media is one indicator. Google yields 522 000 search results.

Curious to understand the new word at the heart of Ekurhuleni’s growth strategy, I flew to Johannesburg. I wanted to witness the hyper-accelerated economic philosophy the word refers to in its barest, most visible state. Plainly put, I wanted to take the aerotropolis idea for a walk.

Walking out of OR Tambo is no big accomplishment. Everyday a significant portion of the airport’s 20 000 workers, a large underclass of baggage handlers, security guards and restaurant staff skilled in the art of making cappuccinos walk 1.5km to the train station at Isando.

Their route passes hawkish traffic officers wielding yellow wheel clamps, a doorway for people seeking permits, a squat warehouse of indeterminate purpose, a mirrored office block adjacent a similarly reflective hotel, also two of OR Tambo’s many fenced-off and gridded parking bays.

The airport has 16 300 parking bays, the toll they extract from drivers adding significant revenue to the airport’s non-aeronautical turnover. In 2011, Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), the management company of OR Tambo and nine other airports nationally, increased its total parking receipts to R409-million, up 24% from the previous year’s figure of R331-million. The opening of the Gautrain has only marginally dented OR Tambo’s R230-million parking income, losing Acsa an estimated R2-million per month.

The seamless integration of these apparently rival transportation methods at the airport is by no means coincidental, and indeed fundamental to the workings of an aerotropolis. “Transportation infrastructure has historically shaped business location and urban development,” says John Kasarda (66), a business professor at the University of North Carolina who has been contracted by Ekurhuleni to develop its aerotropolis strategy. Airports, explains Kasarda, represent the “fifth wave” of transit-oriented urban development. They follow on highways in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th, rivers and canals in the 18th, and ocean port cities before that.

Academic research
“As each new form of transportation infrastructure was introduced, it catalysed substantial economic growth and population redistribution around its nodes and accelerated movements of people and goods nationally and globally.”

Simplistically defined, and borrowing from Kasarda, an aerotropolis is an airport-integrated economic region. Kasarda’s interest in aviation-centred economies grew out of his academic research into urban competitiveness, in particular how global supply chains and air logistics contribute to it.

A policy consultant to the Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, he has also overseen the implementation of his theories as fact at various regional airports in the United States, and now increasingly Asia. Kasarda is directly linked to New Songdo, a $25-billion model aerotropolis being constructed on reclaimed land west of Seoul in South Korea. Due to be completed in 2014, it has an airport, skyscrapers, wide boulevards and a convention centre that looks like Sydney opera house. Like Dubai, it is a jumped-up city that is at once easy to access but achingly banal.

Kasarda’s big idea around aviation-linked commercial development is, in part, a refinement of the work of US engineer McKinley Conway, who in 1977 published a book describing the increasing economic significance of airports.

In 1947, Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland became the world’s first duty free trade zone. The concept of airport shopping is now so ubiquitous as to be second nature, but as Kasarda points out, this act of “funnelling” passengers through a central shopping area, first in Ireland, later in Schiphol, and ultimately, orgiastically, in Dubai, accelerated the idea of airport terminals as places of trade.

This retailing trend coincided with the intensification of global trade in the 1960s and the subsequent emergence of companies like Apple, Microsoft, Easyjet, Zara and Ikea, all of which rely on optimised supply routes to offer products and services at low prices.

Writing in the new book Living in the Endless City, Spanish architect and urban theorist Alejandro Zaera-Polo intuits a common “political programme without political office” linking these companies. It is, he says, their “strategy of cheapness”, a way of doing that centrally relies on the airport.

Take Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). “Despite its handicaps, LAX has been the catalyst for the city’s metamorphosis into America’s premier trade entrepôt over the last 30 years,” writes business journalist Greg Lindsay in Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, a new book that consolidates Kasarda’s earnest theories, reformulating them as pop economics.

Global economy
“It was during those decades that the industrial fulcrum of California first shifted north—out of the hangars of Hughes Aircraft and into Silicon Valley—and then west, all the way to China. We have LAX to thank for our iPhones and iPods being ‘designed by Apple in California, assembled in China,’ as they advertise on their backs.”

Flying stuff—be it Apple iPads or Woolies snoek caught in New Zealand—is now so integral to the way the global economy works that the idea of a seasonal fruit is almost redundant. You can now eat strawberries all year.

“In the 30 years between 1975 and 2005, global GDP rose 154%, while world trade grew 355%,” states Lindsay. “Meanwhile, the value of air cargo climbed an astonishing 1 395%. More than a third of all the goods traded in the world, some $3-trillion worth—but barely 1% of its weight!—travels via air freight.”

The gee-whizz in these facts is tempered but the unlovable reality outside OR Tambo, its concrete, steel and asphalt landscape recalling English novelist JG Ballard. He mock-heroically praised the environs around his native Heathrow for their “ambiguous but heady charms of alienation and anonymity”.

A weathered footbridge connects the airport with Isando station, its underside blackened from winter fires burnt by the hawkers who crowd its entrance on Jones Road. The din of traffic from the neighbouring R21 is its own kind of radio here. I chat with Thomas Mamabolo (39).

A tall man with a pronounced belly and amiable character—he is routinely greeted by passersby—Mamabolo has been hawking Wilson toffees (50c), bags of roasted peanuts (R2) and loose cigarettes (R1) from the same spot for five years. Formerly a security guard, he changed professions during the violent security industry strike of 2006.

Mamabolo lives in Tembisa with his wife; his three daughters live in Polokwane, which he left for Gauteng in 2000. Every weekday he wakes up at 3am, travels to the airport, and is ready to trade by 4am, when he says the first workers begin to arrive. Peak hour is 6am. At 8.30am he heads off to Germiston, a busy railway junction integral to Ekurhuleni’s aerotropolis future, to replenish his supplies. He returns home to Tembisa by rail at six in the evening.


Mamabolo, who has never flown, doesn’t offer credit at his stall. “It’s a cash business,” he says. “I don’t trust anyone here.”

Ekurhuleni has a 27% unemployment rate. Job creation is one of the metro’s seven pillars for its integrated development plan. Jobs are also what Kasarda’s aerotropolis idea promises. The presence of an airline hub in a city, US researchers found, increased the local high-tech workforce—people unlike Mamabolo—by an average of 12 000.

Job creation
For a city technocrat aiming to bolster his reputation—Gungubele (54) only posted fourth in branch nominations for the job as mayor before his appointment by the Gauteng ANC provincial executive committee in November 2010—job creation is compelling evidence of competency.

I asked how he came to know of Kasarda’s work. Shortly after taking office, a ritual that included a helicopter flight over his constituency on his first day, Gungubele, a former NUM shop steward, was presented with a CD by a colleague. The CD contained an introduction to Kasadra’s “logistics economy”, as he describes it. Impressed, the mayor scheduled a meeting with the American professor. In July, Gungubele announced his intention to transform his metro into an airport-focused economy.

Walking south along Jones Road, I reach the outskirts of Emperors Palace. Once a display area for Jurgens Caravans, in the 1980s it became home to the World Trade Centre, and a decade later hosted South Africa’s negotiated settlement; now it is a casino.
“Ekurhuleni Aerotropolis: Connecting Africa to the World”, reads a signboard attached to a streetlamp outside the casino.

It costs R20 to enter Emperors Palace on foot, the fee payable at the boomed gate used by cars. The venue has four hotels, substantial conferencing facilities and a replica of Michelangelo’s David wearing floral surf shorts. Only the statue in the food court is superfluous to an aerotropolis economy.

From the casino I walk to the Super South Gate parking precinct, then on to Air Chefs, a specialist in-flight caterer that prepares 280 000 meals every week. I’m in Jet Park now. Empty Ceres fruit juice cartons litter the caterer’s rear perimeter fence.

The nameless tarred road runs dead. I push on, walking into a piece of veld caught in limbo between the airport’s old split pole and barbed wire perimeter fence and a newer cement wall, which is more conservative in its declaration of the airport’s territory.

Nearing the colossal head office of logistics company RTT—adjectives like massive, gargantuan and sprawling are key to the aerotropolis lexicon - I turn left. A wild rabbit darts, shortly another. Weavers, guinea fowl and a black-eyed bulbul also fly off in fright at my solitary presence.

The wall and fence intersect; there is no way forward. Backtracking now, I pass an up-ended wooden crate lying in the veld. Criminality has long been a feature of the area, from Joseph Agliotti’s crooked airport property deal in 1970 to the bag thieves in the main terminal building. Walking in the direction of the post office’s international mail centre on Super South Gate Road, I pick up yellow, red, green and blue numbered cable ties on the sidewalk.

Later, chatting with three women walking to catch a taxi, one asks me about the clutch of plastic in my hand. Evidence of criminality, I venture. “Stealing,” she agrees. I ask my interlocutors what they think of “the mayor’s project”. A slender women in a grey T-shirt and matching slacks, responds: “Mondli Gungubele’s aero-what-what.”

Ambitious neologism
‘The commercial sector understands this concept and is highly excited about it,” insists Gungubele. To a degree, the mayor is right: the ambitious neologism at the centre of his growth strategy is already part of the lingua franca of the airport’s key players.

Pierre Delfau, general manager of the Intercontinental Hotel, whose business card pinpoints his hotel’s location as “68.7 meters from international arrivals hall”, first heard the word 18 months ago. He gets it. Two years ago he supervised the construction of additional conferencing facilities to cater for increased business demand.

OR Tambo’s general manager, Chris Hlekane (48), in whose name the airport’s license to operate is issued—the certificate hangs in his office and identifies OR Tambo as an aerodrome—also gets the aerotropolis idea. A former Coca-Cola executive, when he joined OR Tambo in 2005 he rationalised his new job to himself in simple terms.

“If you take the soul out of people, and they become zombies, they’re not any different from a production line: you have to produce X amount at a certain time, at a certain rate, with no defects, no irritations or comebacks. Simplistically, an airport is about moving things from one point through a process to another point.”

On-time flight schedules, retail income and safety issues aside, Hlekane’s job also involves strategising against his airport’s redundancy. “Nairobi, for example, is quite high in cargo, because of its position and the agri-economy,” says Hlekane. “Our country must have the same approach, and that is where the whole notion of aerotropolis comes into the picture—it can enable aviation growth.”

Erik Kriel (42) Acsa’s chief airport planner, sat in on my interview with Hlekane. “I think there’s a misconception out there that an aerotropolis is a project that you order: ‘I am going to build myself an aerotropolis.’ That’s not what it is,” says Kriel. “It’s a way of ordering and arranging and orchestrating.”

The process is necessarily slow, hugely expensive and requires the input of multiple stakeholders. “It’s almost like an economic trans-frontier park,” offers Kriel, drawing on the example of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. “It’s the equivalent of a few countries having a single game park. We fully realise that for us to be insular or inward looking is stupid.”

According to an insider familiar with the broader issues and stakeholders, who preferred anonymity, this is exactly what is happening. “Ekurhuleni’s move is one of desperation. I think the opportunities will only be realised if there is a very clear partnership between Acsa and Ekurhuleni, and synchronisation of their timing. Ekurhuleni want to do it immediately.

Acsa can’t pay for the level of expansion and integration that you may see in 30 or 40 years time now, because they get R56 per passenger.” Acsa is planning to implement a 161% tariff hike over the next five years, partly to pay off the debt of the current airport. To be fair, the cost will be less than overnight parking. It does, however, point to questions regarding who can afford an aerotropolis, and at what cost.

“High-functioning autocracies such as Dubai’s don’t faze him,” writes Lindsay of Kasadra, his globe-hopping profile subject. “If anything, they’re the only ones who move fast enough.” Take China: it plans to build 100 new airports by 2020. “Once China decides to do a mega-project,” responds Kasadra to a question about the differences in opportunity, infrastructure and competitive ability between China and South Africa, “it proceeds apace, often without going through the community and environmental impact assessments that South Africa follows, and they always seem to have the resources to do the project, no matter how large”.

Being an autocracy, he adds, China often does not face the public and political deliberations that are common in most democracies. Sort of like Germany and its vaunted autobahns, which owe their early form to Nazi conscripted labour. “Kasarda’s overblown rhetoric cries out to be challenged, something Lindsay fails to do,” stated the Guardian in March. A month later novelist Will Self did just that, authoring a devastating critique of Aerotropolis for the London Review of Books.

His opening sentence describes the book as “a scientific romance masquerading as a work of urban theory”. In the manner of the futuristic fiction of the late nineteenth century, HG Wells, for example, Kasarda’s big idea “predicates social improvement on technological advance”.

“The aerotropolis is not a utopian model,” responds Kasarda, “but one based on the realities of the 21st century—how we live, how we work, and how we compete.”

The realities of OR Tambo’s aerotropolis future are hard to predict. It will get bigger, more ungainly and featureless, easier to access by train, truck and car, less open to the aimless wanderer. If the global economy corrects itself, which is essential for this ambitious project, the airport’s current capacity of 28-million passengers will be beefed up to nearly 60-million.

“We may have to add a runway,” says Kriel, projecting 30 years ahead. The airport would rival Paris and Frankfurt in scale. Hypothetically. An airport’s future is a mix of economic possibility, planning discipline and a science fiction imagination.

Technological advance, insists Kasarda, whose ideas blend (conflate, his critics have argued) all three elements, has been the main way in which humankind have and will continue to improve their quality of life.

“What percentage of South Africans would wish to go back to walking as their means of mobility (promoted by Self), and how would the nation fare if you took away the automobile, truck and airplane?”

If you ignore the rhetorical effect of the question, which presumes to answer itself, Kasarda’s statement actually reads as an injunction. Walk, look, see. The unlovable, we created it. And now depend on it, too. For things like air freighted New Zealand snoek, which I could easily have substituted for a purchase at the nearby harbour, but didn’t.

Sean O’Toole is co-editor of CityScapes, a magazine of the African Centre for Cities. He lives in Cape Town.

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