The Aerotropolis – The Future of Airports and their Cities are Inextricably Linked

“Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th century”, John Kasarda.

In the past airports were perceived simply as gateways for the transportation of people and to a lesser extent, goods. Historically, not much attention was paid to the economic opportunities that airports presented to their regions. In South Africa, when the Airports Company South Africa Act came into being in 1993 there was an intent by Government to turn South Africa’s airports from fragmented airports into commercial entities that could be developed and earn revenue. This marked the beginning of the AeroCity in South Africa.

Fast forward to the 21st century and airports are much more than mere aviation infrastructures. They are intermodal transport zones stimulating and generating considerable commercial development within and well beyond their boundaries. All the typical commercial functions of a modern metropolitan centre are located on and immediately around major airport sites. Airports have as a result, over time, become more than merely City Airports, but rather Airport Cities or AeroCities which exist within the greater Aerotropolis.

But what precisely is an Aerotropolis?

To understand the Aerotropolis, one must first understand the AeroCity (airport city). An AeroCity is a new urban form of City development, placing airports in the centre of the cities growing around them. These AeroCities become key enablers for economic growth within their regions. At the centre of the AeroCity sits a world class airport with world class infrastructure, able to meet growing air traffic demand. Typically associated with these expansive runways, terminals and cargo facilities are businesses which are directly or indirectly linked to aviation. This includes distribution centres, office buildings, manufacturing plants, hotels and the like. The AeroCity tends to be defined within a 3-5-kilometre radius, while the key distinction is that the Aerotropolis extends beyond this range into the broader metropole. In its most simplistic form, the mixed land use of the Aerotropolis broadly creates spaces where people can live, work and play i.e. makes provision for hotels or residential accommodation (live), varying commercial activity (work) and spaces for recreation generally in its most natural form (play). Key to the Aerotropolis is connectivity – how people and places are interlinked and the ease and speed of this connectivity – making land and air transport infrastructure critical and the strategic planning thereof.

Within the Cape Town context, we’re fortunate to have a globally competitive airport, consistently recognised for service excellence. It is Africa’s most award-winning airport and has been a key enabler of tourism in the region. The airport boasts world class infrastructure and is set to undergo a massive construction programme with the intent of spending in the region of R7 billion over the next 5 years. It will soon realign its runway, making provision for handling more aircraft landings and departures as well as larger aircraft. The airport will upgrade the current Domestic Arrivals and International Terminals. This capital investment will make a meaningful contribution to the local economy through much needed employment opportunities. But people don’t visit airports, they visit places – making the work that agencies such as Cape Town Tourism does critical. As strategic partners to their Cities they have an important role to play in positively positioning their destinations, enticing visitors and enhancing the visitor experience.

According to research concluded by Cape Town International Airport, together with key regional partners, the value proposition derived from a thriving Aerotropolis to its region is rather profound. The study revealed that when ‘airport cities succeed they magnify the connective power of the airport development as part of the wider development of the City and surrounds – transforming the hinterland urban areas into an aerotropolis’ 1. Air connectivity together with urbanisation and local accessibility leads to ‘down town’ job growth. Critically the study revealed that jobs related to the Aerotropolis were seven times more high value. With every direct and indirect regularly scheduled long haul service 3000 more jobs are created and a 10% rise in passenger volumes would result in 2% regional job growth. These figures alone highlight the extent of economic stimulation created through an airport. Interestingly the study found that one in six people live within a 20-minute radius of an airport in developed countries. At Cape Town International Airport, the Airport City contributed R4.7 billion to South Africa’s economy, R2 billion toward the income of South African workers and supported 43 608 direct, indirect and induced jobs 2. All of this point to the important socio-economic stimulation airports provide and how they contribute to the sustainability of a region.

The Aerotropolis study considered five thriving Aerotropoli being Amsterdam, Munich, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore and found that these airports were significantly enhancing the economic profile of their regions. They all benefitted from good land connectivity, approached land use strategically, had a strong identity and brand and had a clear governance structure in place. Through the lens of the successes of these mega Aerotropoli, six strategic enablers were identified in developing an Aerotropolis for Cape Town. These include:

Alignment of objectives
Establishment of a governing body
Ground transportation strategy and linkages
Air Access strategy
Safety and security and
Local community engagement
While Cape Town’s Aerotropolis has been evolving organically, the participating key regional stakeholders took a firm undertaking to proactively pursue an Aerotropolis for Cape Town. Most successful has been the Air Access programme, ably led by Wesgro. Since its inception in 2015 it has seen 13 new routes and 18 route expansions. This programme has been critical to Cape Town’s Aerotropolis development – without strong air connectivity an Aerotropolis cannot thrive.

But, arguably the most important success factor of a thriving Aerotropolis is the ability to collaborate. It is clear that viable and sustainable Aerotropoli must be co-created together with Government so that the growth potential of a region is maximised. Cape Town International Airport is fortunate to enjoy positive partnerships with local, regional and national government – something which is not taken for granted. Already through an agreement with the City the relocation of three informal settlements into formal housing will occur in Delft. Known as the Symphony Way Development, in addition to housing, this mixed land use approach will also offer commercial spaces as well as recreational spaces for the community – in keeping with the Aerotropolis principles of places to live, work and play. The opportunity for special economic zoning (SEZ) – something which major Aerotropoli rely on – presents itself within this development given its locality and the ease of access onto the airfield. With the alignment to key growth sectors for the Western Cape such as Agriculture it makes all the sense in the world to leverage the location of the site through an SEZ.

The recently acquired Swartklip site is another example of how the airport is actively pursuing the Aerotropolis strategy for Cape Town. The land was initially bought to protect the future air corridor – when the runway alignment project is concluded the future flight path goes directly over the Swartklip track of land – appropriate land use of the Swartklip site would help to significantly mitigate the impact of noise on communities i.e. if houses were built under new flight path it would increase the number of households negatively impacted by aircraft noise. If the area under the flight path was occupied by compatible activity the impact of aircraft noise could be significantly reduced. It is the airport’s intention, through a mixed-use urban plan, to create much needed socio-economic upliftment by creating spaces where people can Live, Work, Learn and Play. This means that with partners such as the Housing Development Agency (HDA) the urban plan will include affordable housing (Live), with partners such as the communities and other small medium, micro and large business the plan will include commercial activity (Work), with partners such as Cape Nature create green spaces that can be treasured and enjoyed (Play). I like to say that we’ve added an African component to the Aerotropolis concept, Learn. False Bay college we will create training facilities for the communities (Learn) and with partners such and has ambitious plans to eventually be able to accommodate as many as 5000 – 10 000 learners in the future, ultimately becoming the largest technical training facility in the country. The location of this site, between Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha, is critical as it represents one of the last few vacant tracks of land where economic activity can occur. In our engagement with the local communities, they have repeatedly expressed the importance for the stimulation of economic activity in the area that will ultimately help them improve their social situation.

Cape Town is well on its way to growing its AeroCity and becoming a competitive Aerotropolis. As airports of the future continue to evolve and unlock the future growth potential of their regions it becomes clear that the success of a City and the success of its airport is inextricably linked.


Aerotropolis Study, AECOM 2015;
PwC Economic Impact Study commissioned by ACSA 2017
Written by Deidre Davids, Senior Manager Corporate Affairs: Cape Town International Airport.

Davids is a qualified communications practitioner currently completing her master’s degree in Corporate Communication. Her thesis is focussed on the Role of the Communication Strategist in Environmental Scanning – how social intelligence is key to the future sustainability of the organisation.

She is a member of the Board of Cape Town Tourism.

Davids represented Cape Town International Airport as a member of the Aerotropolis steering committee for Cape Town. The committee was made up of a number of regional role players ranging from the City, Provincial Government, Accelerate Cape Town, Cape Town Tourism and Wesgro.

In 2013 she conducted an International research study on the Viability of AeroCities as part of an Executive Development Programme with Henley Business School.

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