Atlanta’s untapped potential for creating a thriving aerotropolis

Around the world, cities have historically had their beginnings at crossroads — places where travelers meet to exchange information and trade goods. To facilitate the movement of people and products into and out of the city, a means of transport was crucial, and it often grew in tandem with the city: Ports in the 18th century, railway stations in the 19th, highways in the 20th and now, international airports.

Although airports have always functioned as gateways to the regions they serve, they were once considered barriers to nearby development. Today, however, airports are evolving into viable commercial centers, attracting nearby manufacturing and distribution concerns, businesses, hotels, convention centers, retail, housing, recreation and other organizations that benefit from proximity to the airport. The developing area around an airport is called an aerotropolis, or an airport city, where workers, suppliers, executives and goods are connected to the global marketplace.

In recent years, globalization has exploded at an unprecedented rate. With information, products and people moving around the world 24/7, the airport’s role in a region’s commerce cannot be understated, and many businesses consider locations at or near the airport as a significant advantage. As industries such as healthcare, technology, advanced manufacturing and logistics become more efficient, proximity to international airports matters. Many also seek to engage the daily influx of air passengers who arrive and depart. As businesses move in, their workers generate the need for housing, services, schools, hospitals, retail, etc., providing the genesis for an aerotropolis.

New aerotropoli are being established at an increasing rate around the world, ranging from those that have grown spontaneously due to demand to those that were thoughtfully created using the principles of urban planning and sustainability. Airport managers, working together with city and regional government officials, business leaders, planners and developers can insure airport-area growth is cohesive, and includes the right mix of uses, along with the infrastructure to support it.

Some airport developers are incorporating commuter and light rail transit operations to generate Transit Oriented Development (TOD) opportunities that connect residents and workers to the airport as well as existing metro transportation systems. TOD creates compact, walkable communities centered on high-quality train systems, making it possible for residents to live without complete dependence on automobiles.

In Atlanta, Georgia, many community leaders have rightly identified Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as ideal to fuel the growth of a highly successful aerotropolis. First, it’s the world’s busiest airport, both by passenger traffic and by the number of take-offs and landings. However, despite some areas being ripe for development, much of the growth around the airport has been piecemeal, failing to leverage the airport as an economic engine, or to seamlessly connect to the airport or welcome visitors to a world-class city and region. Local residents and workers desperately seek a higher quality of life, better access to transportation options and more livable communities. Complicating the area’s development is the fact that three counties and several municipalities including Atlanta, Hapeville, College Park, East Point and Forest Park all have strong, and often competing, interests in regard to airport-area growth.

Asbury Park, a vision for a community near Hartsfield-Jackson airport.

Seeking to reverse the existing disconnected land use pattern near the airport, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) has convened local leaders for over a year to discuss existing conditions and potential visions. The ARC recently announced its intention to form the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, bringing together major area businesses and property owners, elected officials, local chambers of commerce, colleges and universities and other nonprofits to brainstorm how to create a unified urban airport center and to enhance the appearance and safety of the area.

Private sector parties have started to engage to create self-taxing Community Improvement Districts (CIDs) immediately adjacent to the airport. Their goal is to brainstorm and implement gateway signage, cleaner aesthetics, improved safety, more planned development and new jobs.

Thriving aerotropoli demonstrate that the key to successful development is to garner stakeholder input to identify shared goals and develop a shared vision. From there, public and private partnerships need to be formed to generate both initial capital and long-range planning that will be beneficial to both public and private sectors. With the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance in the wings, Atlanta is poised to create an aerotropolis worthy of a world-class airport and a world-class region.

Garrett Hyer is a Community Planner/Designer with Atlanta-based TSW, a planning, architecture and landscape architecture firm.