The new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has spurred discussion on the aerotropolis model and what the future will bring for development around the airport.

A concerted, centralized effort to develop the Atlanta airport region could catapult the city into the upper echelon of international cities in a century where competitiveness depends on global connectivity, a renowned expert said at Georgia State University Nov. 16.  

“You can be a first-tier city. You have the trump card to do it,” said John Kasarda, a University of North Carolina professor who has popularized the “aerotropolis” urban development concept, envisioning integrated economic regions supported by airport-driven commercial development. 

Hosting 92 million passengers per year, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is an irreplaceable economic engine that – if tuned correctly – could raise Atlanta to the level of powerhouses like New York, Tokyo and London, all of which have constrained airports. 

That’s because in the 21st-century economy, business location is more than ever dependent on speed. If flights are the “physical Internet” that underpins global supply chains, airports are the “routers.”

Atlanta already has the connectivity, and unlike many other airports, it has land around the airport that could be used for expansion. 

In the past, land use has proven to be a point of contention as city, county and airport leaders often pulled in different directions. For that reason, it hasn’t reached its full potential as an economic driver, Dr. Kasarda said. 

“When I look at Atlanta, I see a Formula One engine with a station-wagon body,” he said, adding that the body can be changed with good governance and leaders who measure milestones in decades rather than years.    

“Remember, the aerotropolis is not for you. It’s for your kids and your grandkids, for their competitiveness in the global economy,” he said.

Still, the future begins now, he said. Atlanta should create a public-private aerotropolis planning authority headed by a CEO with the rare ability to cast a strong vision without becoming a polarizing force, Dr. Kasarda said.

He or she would be tasked with persuading counties and municipalities with interest in the airport region that it’s better to go far together than fast on their own. Full funding for the authority would be key to its success. 

Noting that governance is the hardest part of the process, he cited Detroit Region Aerotropolis as an example of a community that has persevered to achieve a shared vision, led by Wayne County Chief Executive Robert Ficano

For Atlanta, the choice isn’t over the existence of an aerotropolis, but between chaotic and optimal development.  

“You could let this run its own course; you’re going to get an aerotropolis whether you plan for it or not, but what is it going to be?” 

He cited Schiphol Aiport in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Incheon International Airport outside Seoul, South Korea, and Hong Kong International Airport as the best aerotropolis models, each with its own strengths. 

Dr. Kasarda is the author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next” and director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School

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As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...