airport urbanism

heathrow airport

that’s it, i’m creating my own urbanism, damned! but this one’s a protest. airports should be public infrastructure, regulated by the state, and involving private enterprises under their scope. however—and i have done no research on this except traveling a lot—they are increasingly managed by private companies, as profit machines. i propose we should discuss airport environments as a type of infrastructural urbanism (which is already a thing). but the rules here are very different. instead of jane jacob’s eyes on the street, retail at the bottom, in airport urbanism we need to have—nay, demand!—less retail.

in the post 9/11 world, air travel has become not only more stressful, but also more costly to manage. to what degree are cost hikes justified because of increased security measures is not for me to say. but as a result, airports are under perpetual renovation, expanding their retail sections to increase profits. as a consequence, the counter-to-gate distances are sometimes ridiculous. in airports like barcelona, miami, and london, the impression is that one has to literally walk through a mall in order to reach the gate. while miami tries to trick its customers by alternating retail and gates, barcelona just dumps one huge retail space between counters and the gates corridors, leaving the frazzled traveler to wonder (or run, if we’re late) through endless shops trying to reach the distant gate. heathrow even offers shopping carts to its customers, with different terminals offering different degrees of confusion as to where the actual gates are.

several airports in south america have been renovated in the past 10 or so years (no research again, but I’ve seen the ones in guayaquil, lima, montevideo, and punta del este) to fit this model. they all look, of course, eerily similar: white metal structure with curved sculptural roof, large panes of glass, some local regionalist nod in the décor, tons of shops. sadly, these remodels usually do not include actual passengers needs—electric outlets are scarce, and wifi (increasingly more of a necessity than a luxury for the traveller) is usually paywalled by boingo or similar internet retailer. the contrast is particularly strong when traveling through older airports such as buenos aires or boston, where distances become surprisingly short thanks to more moderate retail spaces.

my main point is that airports are and should be treated as public infrastructure, and as such it’s time to demand improvements. running them like places of consumption and following retail models is unimaginative, irresponsible, and ultimately results in deteriorated service: it benefits the airport company, but not its users. even if a passenger is willing to pay for additional services, the airport is bloated into a space that no longer serves its function: getting passengers through to their flights, and accommodating their waiting time through different options. retail is the easy answer, but not the only one and definitely not the smartest one.

ps. a more optimistic take on airports here.

pps. also important: availability of public transportation to/from the airport. but that’s another post.

ppps. the são paulo-guarulhos airport is an excellent example of an older airport that works fairly well without excessive retail, managing a huge amount of air traffic. although the location is not ideal—very foggy area.

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