x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Dubai and Abu Dhabi airports marked as winners

Residents of Dubai or Abu Dhabi - congratulations. According to a lecture given at a futurology conference in London last week, the cities have already been earmarked as the winners of the decades to come because of one all-important feature, and it's not oil.

Terminal 1 at Abu Dhabi Airport, one of the fastest-expanding airports in the world. Delores Johnson / The National
Terminal 1 at Abu Dhabi Airport, one of the fastest-expanding airports in the world. Delores Johnson / The National

Residents of Dubai or Abu Dhabi - congratulations. According to a lecture given at a futurology conference in London last week, the cities have already been earmarked as the winners of the decades to come because of one all-important feature, and it's not oil.

According to the urban designer Christopher Choa, who was behind the master plan for Saadiyat Island, among many other international projects, cities of the future will live or die by their airports.

It's lucky for Emiratis, then, that the UAE has some of the world's best-connected cities by air - and its airports are still growing.

Abu Dhabi has one of the fastest-expanding airports in the world, with a new terminal slated to open in 2017 that promises to almost triple its capacity to about 30 million passengers per year. But it's dwarfed by Dubai International, already the world's fourth busiest airport by international passenger traffic, which is planning to up its capacity from 50 million annual passengers to 90 million by 2018. At the other edge of the city, the new Al Maktoum International is open for cargo, with a passenger terminal to follow.

All this feverish expansion may be cause for celebration among business types, but what about the rest of us? Isn't there something a little dystopian about a vision of the future in which we all live under flight paths, and it's more common to hop over to Frankfurt or Shanghai than to take a trip to Ajman or Umm Al Qaiwain?

Choa's answer is a resounding "no". In an interview after his speech at the Intelligence Squared If Conference in Kensington, he pointed out that New Yorkers weren't fond of Grand Central Station when it opened in 1871, and that no one wanted to live on the Manhattan waterfront in the great age of the New York City port, but we have since happily integrated trains and ships into our lives and our cities.

Rather than being shoved to the hinterland of a city, Choa says, airports can be integrated into business and shopping districts in much the same way as train stations, and as with train stations, we'd soon get used to the hubbub. The only reason we might imagine an aerotropolis-filled future as dystopian is that right now we only have two extreme experiences: being in a terminal, waiting to get on a plane, and being in the "wasteland" outside. In the future, the city and the airport will merge, with the most time-sensitive industries vying for space nearest the runways.

"You can have things that are very pedestrian-scaled that bring people very close together," Choa said "You can have neo-traditional planning, you can rediscover interesting vernacular forms from the Gulf and put them right next to the airport. It would be a very exciting thing to do."

Besides, he said, "all cities are predicated on the dominant transportation of their age." Jerusalem is designed to be compact and walkable due to the transport tech of its first settlers. Sailing ships had a hand in forming Venice and Lisbon, inland waterways gave the world Amsterdam, and cars have shaped Los Angeles.

Now air travel is becoming the dominant type of travel; even given the recent economic downturn in many countries, global air traffic has been continuing to grow by five per cent year on year. Rising oil prices and environmental concerns haven't slowed the trend; China is planning to build 100 new airports in the next 10 to 12 years.

"In a global age, cities pull away from nations," Choa says. "And in this globalising age of cities linked up over long distances with other cities, in general the best-connected cities will win."

Welcome to the era of the aerotropolis, the term popularised by the aviation expert John Kasarda, who co-wrote a book published this year called Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next. Choa describes himself as a "close reader" of aerotropolis theory, and one of the few experts who focus on applying it in practice. The vice-president of global consulting firm and Fortune 500 company AECOM, he has been busy creating blueprints for aerotropoli in Hyderabad, Cairo and Brisbane, as well as designing new towns across China and India.

If there's one city that's geared up for this age, it's Dubai, dubbed by Kasarda "the world's first aerotropolis nation". Not only has its air traffic tripled over the past decade, but it is set for another explosion.

If Al Maktoum International Airport goes ahead as planned, its capacity could double the planes in the sky over the UAE, and it will be surrounded by the shops, houses and businesses of Dubai World Central in true aerotropolis style.

When Kasarda first started writing about the "industrial aviation complex for the future" two decades ago, the concept was far easier to ignore. Whether or not people living in the Emirates share his enthusiasm for the idea, there's little doubt now that the aerotropolis has landed.

 

artslife@thenational.ae