Barrier-free Airports set for Take-off

13 March 2017

As published in 'Connected Cities'

A new wave of development aims to break down the barriers between passengers, locals and staff, to create easily accessible destinations that minimise the stress of travel and appeal to a wide range of airport users

Modern airport development is all about breaking down barriers, big and small. This can mean many things; the idea of a barrier between an airport’s air side and land side; between passengers, the staff that serve an airport and the local community around it; or the airport and the city itself.

Different airports around the world are addressing these challenges in different ways, given their different historical and geographic contexts.

In Denver, a large amount of free land has given the city carte blanche to imagine how the idea of the airport city can move from theory to practice; in Singapore, strong transport links between the city and airport are allowing Changi to become a destination in itself; while in Shanghai, Hongqiao is developing at a frantic pace and working in tandem with China’s high-speed rail network.

The potential and importance of air travel and airport development is highlighted by growth figures for passenger numbers. In the past 15 years, the number of air passengers annually has more than doubled from 1.67bn a year to 3.44bn a year, according to the World Bank.

Between 1990 and 2010, the amount of trade related to air travel in the US alone more than quadrupled, from $201bn to $837bn, according to the UN and US Census Bureau.

Changing the airport concept

However, to encourage continued growth in passenger numbers and the related economic benefits, the traditional idea of the airport, conceived when air travel first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, needs to change in many ways. Central to this is the removal of barriers.

“You have to consider the different groups who are using an airport and avoid putting people into different silos,” says Mike Wilson-MacCormack, director and head of the Newark studio at architecture and design firm Benoy. “There are the passengers and airport staff as well as those who work and live in the local community. Their needs don’t have to be in conflict; instead, you need to look for synergies between these groups. We also have to look at breaking down the boundaries between the airport’s land side and air side, and responding to the feeling that people want to get from one to the other as quickly as possible.

In practice that means, as well as putting shops and restaurants into an airport, you put in health facilities and green open spaces. You have to look not just at the best airports around the world, but the best developments and places; when you remove the barriers within an airport, the terminal becomes your town square and the local population is embraced.”

This design philosophy can be seen at Changi Airport’s Terminal 4, designed by Benoy and due to be delivered next year, which brings openness into the building’s design. Celebrating visual and physical transparency, the focal point of the scheme is a glazed, open central galleria that will allow visibility between the air side and land side areas.

Terence Seah, Benoy director and head of the Singapore studio, says: “The biggest problem people always cite with air travel is stress, so you need to create a seamless flow and visual connectivity around the airport, so that people want to spend as much time there as possible.”

This approach will be followed by Jewel Changi Airport - a 10-storey structure on the site of a former car park, connecting to the existing terminals and expanding the footprint of Terminal 1, allowing it to increase its annual passenger handling capacity to 24 million.

When it opens in early 2019, as well as facilities for airport operations, shops, restaurants and a hotel, Jewel will contain a five-storey garden also known as the Forest Valley and a 40m-high Rain Vortex, expected to be the world¡¯s largest indoor waterfall. 

“A scheme like this needs to be a destination,” Seah says. “It couldn’t survive based solely on the people travelling through the airport. There has to be a lot of contact with the local community, as well as visitors to Singapore, and through our work on the scheme we can see their needs are very similar.”

It’s all about connections

Seah stresses the importance of good transport connections between an airport and the area it serves in integrating it to its wider surroundings.

“People come to Changi to meet up with friends and family and have a meal or go shopping - people love to congregate there,” he says. “Of course, you can only do this if the transport system is quick and seamless; even cities with great transport networks don’t always link effortlessly with their airports. Take New York, for instance, and the journey to John F Kennedy International Airport.”

The scheme also shows how taking the retail and leisure facilities outside of airport terminals can encourage partnerships between traditional airport operators and the real estate world. Jewel is a joint venture between Changi Airport Group and Asian developer CapitaMalls Asia, which developed the 134,000m2 scheme in a joint venture at a cost of S$1.7bn ($1.22bn).

The evolution of airports and the breaking down of traditional barriers also takes in the wider commercial development around terminals, and their interaction with - and benefit to - a local community.

The concept of the airport city, or aerotropolis, is gaining traction in political and urban planning. Denver provides an example of how this idea can develop when a blank slate is provided to create an airport city. When Denver International Airport was built in 1995 on the outskirts of the Colorado city, plenty of land was left over for expansion.

There is space for 9,000 acres of commercial development on the airport’s land, which could incorporate 18m-32m sq ft of new space, as well as increasing the air capacity from six runways to 12.

A study undertaken by the airport and local authorities argued that plans for the airport city could create 74,000 permanent jobs and facilitate the construction of 75,000 homes. It said the airport already contributed $26bn a year to the Colorado economy.

The airport and local authorities have earmarked around $1bn to put in place road infrastructure to facilitate wider commercial and residential development. And the project has had a major commercial success, securing Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, a division of the Japanese electronics giant, to anchor a new sustainable commercial and residential district, which will be the first phase of the wider development. 

Tech hub to create ‘smart town’

Panasonic will open a technology centre and business solutions hub for around 350 staff at the 400-acre Peña Boulevard Station section of the scheme. Denver beat competition from 21 US cities for the centre. The company’s Eco Solutions line, which installs large-scale solar systems and includes a battery storage and testing facility, will also be based there.

At the same time, the company will work with local developer LC Fulenwider and nearby landowners to create a sustainable ‘smart town’, modelled on one it recently opened in Fujisawa, Japan. There, Panasonic converted ground occupied by an old factory into an ecologically friendly and sustainable community capable of housing 4,000 people.

“The people who built the airport were truly visionary in that they saw the need to grow capacity over decades,” says Heath Montgomery, media relations director for Denver International Airport.

“We have been looking at how we can improve non-aviation revenue and how we can use the asset for the long term. We will be looking to identify the types of usage that are appropriate for different areas, be it agriculture, innovative technology or education and research, and then create clusters of those kinds of business.

“Nothing is set in stone - we are at the very early stages of this. But Peña Boulevard Station is a great example.”

Montgomery says the airport will look to work with other real estate companies on future phases of its expansion.

However, it is one thing to do this in Denver, where, as Montgomery outlines, land was put aside decades ago to allow for expansion; it is quite another to do it in China, where, despite the benefit of strong central planning, super-rapid population growth and urbanisation create difficulties.

One attempt to harness these elements is the Hongqiao Transport Hub, a 27km2 commercial district created around the airport and high-speed rail terminal 13km from the centre of Shanghai. The rail terminal was developed beside the airport to create greater transport connectivity to the rest of the country.

The Transport Hub, which was set up in 2007 with land parcels released in 2010, already has 53.8m sq ft of developed commercial space, with the potential for the same amount again to be created. While this is a phenomenal success by any measure, there is still room for improvement for the project to become truly established.

“Hongqiao Transport Hub is destined to become a major commercial area,” according to Kenneth Rhee, chief executive of development and investment advisory firm Huhan Business Advisory and chief representative of the Urban Land Institute for mainland China.

Residential development lagging

“One shortcoming, however, is the lack of space allocated for residential development. When a project is mostly commercial, it takes longer for it to mature - just look at Canary Wharf in London. This is not unique to China - if you go to any downtown central business district in the US, they are trying to introduce more residential development.

Ultimately, airports are also an expression of national and local pride, and say something about the city or country they represent - something which has a value that is hard to quantify. As Benoy’s Seah puts it: “Changi will be the first and last glimpse a visitor has of Singapore.” Contrast the view that those visitors will receive - almost 22,000m2 of indoor landscaping and gardens - with the view that greets a visitor to JFK in New York. This is an airport that local and national US politicians have decried as unfit for purpose, yet seem incapable of doing anything about. One airport represents the past; the other the future.

Images: Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore

Benoy is at Passenger Terminal Expo 2017 in Amsterdam this week.

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