The airport city and its contradictions : the example of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam

Stéphanie Leheis, 2012

Based on the example of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, this fact sheet exposes the need to consider today’s transport places not as non-places but as places of life. This is followed by a presentation of the development of airport cities.

Today we are witnessing a global trend that consists in thinking and organizing transport places as living places. We have seen this in the case of railway stations (see The railway station : from passenger building to exchange hub and new living space), and it is also the case for airports. They are becoming a focus of urban development, through the economic attractiveness they generate and their major role in the functioning of the metropolis. For some, airports should play the same role in the 21st century as railway stations did in the 19th century or motorway interchanges in the 20th century, by reorganizing economic and urban development.

This evolution is largely explained by the considerable growth of air transport. Along with maritime traffic (thanks to container ships), it is one of the great winners of the globalization of trade, despite the fears linked to the rise in the price of oil. The deregulation of air traffic in the 1990s and the explosion in the number of passengers have made it a mass mode of transport for long and medium distances. The airport has become the major metropolitan facility par excellence, providing a direct connection to globalization.

For a long time, airports were kept as far away from cities as possible. Considered to be a major source of nuisance, they were built on the outskirts of urban areas, surrounded by warehouse areas, leaving the place to abandoned spaces or shanty towns. At that time, the airport was considered as a simple piece of equipment, which had to be placed near the capital cities, but without suffering the nuisance. Today, a completely different trend is emerging. Airports are now conceived as urban projects combining city and infrastructure. This new relationship between the airport and the territory (and in particular the metropolis) is due more generally to the changing role of airports, which have become platforms for world trade. The growth in passenger traffic had already led to an initial evolution with the development of commercial services within the airport, starting in the 1980s, and then to the development of services in the immediate vicinity of the airport in the 1990s. Thus, hotels, offices, shops, business and convention centers, etc., were added to, densified and expanded a space that had previously been exclusively dedicated to logistics activities. Today, the development of business, commercial and even residential areas is frequent around airports, particularly along the main axis that connects it to the metropolitan center. This is how real airport corridors are structured, such as the one that connects Schiphol airport to the center of Amsterdam.

Amsterdam’s international airport, Schiphol, is today the subject of considerable urban development, driven by the motto «  creating airport cities ". It is one of the first airports in Europe to develop around this concept. At the end of the 1980s, the airport received a major boost from the Dutch government, whose ambition was to make the airport and the port of Rotterdam the two pillars of a policy of international economic development and integration into the global economy. Under this impetus, the various institutional levels (the province of North Holland, the city of Amsterdam and the surrounding local authorities) joined forces with the airport to create a new governance body: the Bestuursforum Schiphol, and its operational development agency, the SADC Schipol Area Development Company. With the participation of the national investment bank, the areas surrounding the airport have been progressively built up, mostly with public and private financing. The strategy implemented by the local actors consisted in turning the criterion of proximity to the city center of Amsterdam into an advantage and no longer a disadvantage (because of the nuisance). Thus, a vast business center was created in the south of the city and in the direction of the airport, along the ring road and the ring railway and only 6 km from the airport, in Zuidas. In this area, public facilities such as the courthouse and a World Trade Center were built, as well as company headquarters. In total, the airport and the business district were developed together.

Amsterdam Airport is today one of the major European hubs, in particular with Paris CDG for the airlines of the Skyteam alliance (AirFrance/KLM among others). But it is also a transport hub on different levels: on a national and regional level, with the TGV, regional trains, and the highways that serve it; and finally on a metropolitan level, with the Randstad metropolitan corridor, from the port of Rotterdam to the airport. Today, it consists of a multimodal center, which corresponds to the airport’s core, with its strong and clearly identifiable architecture ; a first ring dedicated to logistics and maintenance activities (for everything directly related to air traffic) ; and then an economic development area corresponding to this urban and business corridor (Schiphol-Zuidas-Amsterdam center), which benefits from excellent access and attracts both offices and residences (eco-neighborhoods are being developed there, for example).

The Dutch example also reveals the issues and difficulties surrounding this trend to turn airports into real pieces of cities (often referred to as airport cities, aerotropolis, or aerotropolis). The major issue that explains this trend is undoubtedly economic competition. For airport managers, competition is fierce to attract airlines, maintain their passenger flow and position themselves as an essential hub. In this sense, economic and urban development, and their connection to the territory, serve both to diversify their revenues (to be less dependent on air traffic alone), and to create added value by improving their quality of service for users, their accessibility, etc. However, such a policy implies two major difficulties.