Michigan Aerotropolis

The word, a curious portmanteau, seems almost silly at first blush. But drop it in the presence of anyone actively engaged with the revitalization of southeast Michigan, and you'll find that the "aerotropolis" is entirely serious.

The theory behind it, widely accredited to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Professor John Kasarda, runs something like this: Cities of the past rose at hubs of transportation — seaports, rail stations, and most recently, highways; accordingly, cities of the future will sprout around airports, the nuclei of global travel.

Now a host of Detroit top brass, including Wayne County Department of Economic Development Executive Director Mulu Birru and Detroit Renaissance President Doug Rothwell are wagering that Wayne County's Metropolitan Airport may give the local economy the sort of spurt it needs. Birru designated it "the single most important economic development engine that Southeastern Michigan has right now;" Rothwell put it near the top of six revival initiatives Renaissance is pursuing.

"I think it's a new way of thinking, and I think that's something that's good for southeast Michigan," Rothwell said. "Right now we have to be open to different business models and different ways to grow the economy."

And why not look to the airport? About three times the population of the state of Michigan pass through the Metro each year, and its new McNamara terminal is prized by international travelers.

And it's only going to get better. Globalization ensures that air transit remains vital to industry sectors as diverse as fashion, technology and manufacturing, a phenomenon Kasarda dubs "survival of the fastest." The FAA predicts annual passenger traffic will increase by about 60 percent to about 1 billion by 2015.

It's all part of a freshly global culture, one in which bands collaborate on albums across borders, news sites offshore local coverage, and purely domestic business is quickly becoming an anachronism.

Recently, the geography department at Loughborough University in England began advocating the concept of "global cities" — locations so intertwined in world affairs that they exert influence on cultural, as well as economic realms. Detroit received only two points out of 12 in Loughborough's study of world cities (awarded for "some evidence of growth"). 

The beginnings

The aerotropolis seed was planted in Michigan about seven years ago, according to Birru, though aggressive efforts are fairly recent. In January 2006, Kasarda, who by this time had been pitching the aerotropolis concept for close to a decade, spoke to 60 University of Michigan architecture students. The students were charged with planning an aerotropolis for Wayne County as part of their annual "charrette," a program which considers the many facets of Detroit's urban renewal.

Birru showed Wayne County executive Robert Ficano the best of these projects three months later, and urged key development officials to sign a "nonbinding memorandum of understanding."

Once commitment was assured, a cadre of 26 interested officials traveled to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to observe what Rothwell describes as aerotropolis "best practices." Now, planning is fully underway.

Though aerotropoli have existed in some form or another for decades, it may be hard to envision skylines weaving between flight paths, or communities thriving beneath the booming engines of a Boeing 747.

"It is an airport city, that is a fair thing to say," Rothwell says. But the center, dubbed "Pinnacle Aeropark," will more closely resemble a business center than a traditional metropolis; that is, more like Auburn Hills than Chicago. Birru adds that the structures will account for noise and pollution, so that the environment is both quiet and green. 

Detroit Metro Airport itself is, of course, enthused. Its CEO, Lester Robinson, has been active in the planning, although its investments are largely limited to the expansion and improvement of runways and terminals. Director of Public Affairs, Michael Conway, draws an analogy between southeast Michigan and the Irish "Celtic Tiger" economy, which switched from troubled manufacturing sector to a technology and tourism-laden haven within just a few decades (Dublin received three points in the Loughborough world cities survey).

Pinnacle could spur a similar transition in southeast Michigan. Conway points to the Westin hotel by the modern McNamara terminal. "The same reason that hotel is successful is the same reason an airport city could be successful," he says.

Most analysts agree that Wayne County is a particularly fertile site. Unlike many major airports, such as New York's LaGuardia, the Metro is not landlocked. The Detroit area is host to over 20,000 acres of open land. This leaves room not only for commercial and residential expansion, but for boosting runway capacity as well.

Much of the infrastructure — such as rail and highways — is already in place, unlike in Denver, for instance, where swaths of highway had to be constructed to link the city with their growing aerotropolis.

Then there's Willow Run, the Metro's smaller, cargo-based counterpart. Its presence is vital, as air cargo currently accounts for about 40% of international trade by value, and is expected to triple by 2020.

Looking forward

The road ahead will not be entirely easy. This is a long-term project, requiring patience and planning, says Rothwell, and Detroit is hanging with a fast-paced crowd. The developments at Dallas-Fort Worth and Chicago's O'Hare, not to mention a legion of European and Asian aerotropoli, already edge Detroit out in some respects.

But Rothwell and others are determined to resist the temptation of the quick fix.

"You don't want to build a white elephant. This is a 20, 30 year project," he says. "We don't want to throw up a bunch of warehouses and gas stations and the like just to see something come out of the ground."

That, he says, could lead to the sort of undesirable sprawl that seeps from most major highways. As the aerotropolis expands, its travelers will inevitably have needs, and it will be better if those needs are met in a deliberate and ordered fashion.

Therefore, the plans are proceeding at a measured pace. Some development can be expected for the next few years, but large-scale construction will follow thorough benchmarking and planning.

Given this long-term nature, there are also the vagaries of local politics to consider, Rothwell says, "New administrations come in and new leaders come in and they want to reinvent the wheel."

So far, however, no one has disputed that the effect will be well-worth the effort. Birru projects a minimum of 60,000 new jobs — O'Hare employs about 50,000 — within the coming fifteen years. And the implications might extend beyond the obvious economic boosts; it could propel Detroit into the realm of cities like Amsterdam, Caracas and Dallas, who are occupying increasingly nuanced roles in the world economy.

Importantly, the site will be sustainable in a way that other industries never were. "It's not like we will lose these jobs because of mergers and acquisitions," Birru says. "This aerotropolis is going to be there forever."

Alex Dziadosz is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. His last article for metromode was Meet The High-Tech Neighbors.


The McNamara Northwest Airlines Terminal (photo by Brian Kelly)

The air traffic control tower and new bridge construction at the Detroit Airport

Pinnacle Aeropark design concept (courtesy of Wayne County)

Tail wings at airport (photo by Alex Dziadosz)

Futuristic pedestrian tunnel (istock photo)

Luggage carts at the Detroit Airport (istock photo)

Photographs Copyright as noted above - All Rights Reserved
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