The Memphis Airport Is on a Mission to Become Its Own City

But whether America's cargo capital can support a real urban center remains to be seen.

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Quick: Name the busiest airport in America. It's not LAX, and it's not O'Hare; it's not Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson or Miami International, the jumping-off point to Latin America. It's not any of the airports in metropolitan New York. No, it's Memphis International. Memphis is the busiest airport in the United States in terms of cargo traffic, and the second-busiest cargo airport in the world, bested only by Hong Kong.

All right, so that was kind of a trick question. But the fact is that as America's cargo capital, Memphis handles a ton of freight. The reason is simple: it's the global headquarters of FedEx, which whips 3 million packages a day through its airport "SuperHub" and employs more than 30,000 people in the region.

FedEx is not in Memphis by accident. Shortly after its founding in Little Rock in 1971, FedEx left for Memphis, attracted by the city's proximity to major Midwest and East Coast markets and its excellent transportation infrastructure. Air cargo both originates and ends up on trucks and trains, and of course FedEx ships by ground as well as air. For moving all that freight, you can't get much better than seven highways, five railroads, and a Mississippi River port. "Memphis has the four Rs: runway, road, rail, and river," says Reid Dulberger, the chief economic development officer for Memphis and Shelby County.

Around the airport and FedEx headquarters, an entire logistics and distribution industry has sprung up. Smooth transfers between plane, truck, and train allow 1-800-FLOWERS to send a Mother's Day bouquet, Nike to dispatch the shoes you ordered, and so on. For some businesses, such efficiency is not just desirable but critical. The National Eye Bank Center made its home several miles east of the airport, on Interstate 240, so it can race to deliver corneas to transplant patients.

If the airport is Memphis' economic engine, a visitor wouldn't know by looking. Neighborhoods around Memphis International struggle with disinvestment, crime, and blight. Vacancy rates are high. Several years ago, city officials started to worry about businesses locating elsewhere based on negative perceptions of the airport district. They had to do something—and what they did was double down on the airport's importance to the city's economy and identity.

In 2007, the city adopted a new brand, "Memphis: America's Aerotropolis." With a HUD grant, it commissioned a $2 million master plan for reviving the 50-square-mile area around the airport, which sits about seven miles southeast of downtown. Released this April, the plan shows a verdant "airport city" of warehouses and greenways, a walkable urban center, and improved highway interchanges. In other words, it's an amalgam of current urbanist thinking and upgrades to the big, fast roads that serve as lifeblood of the local economy.

Chad Bowman, who manages the aerotropolis project for the Memphis and Shelby County planning department, says the plan unites these two approaches and makes them compatible. "It's not just about moving freight," he says. "It's about people being able to move within their own community, safely."

A rendering of a "Green Portal" in the Memphis aerotropolis plan. (City of Memphis / Looney Ricks Kiss / AECOM / Bounds & Gillespie Architects, PLLC)

The plan draws on the "aerotropolis" concept set out by business professor John Kasarda in his 2011 book of the same name, co-authored with Greg Lindsay. Kasarda argues that major 21st-century airports, instead of being peripheral to cities, will become urban hubs in their own right—edge cities with access to the nearest downtown but also their own convention centers, universities, and offices, as well as residential areas for people who work at or near the airport and for frequent air travelers. New aerotropolises are under way in China, South Korea, India, and Dubai, proving Kasarda visionary—or persuasive, since he has been talking up his idea at meetings around the world since 2000.

Memphis is the best contender for a genuine aerotropolis among American cities. (Some draw a distinction between true aerotropolises and mere "airport cities," a sort of less-developed conceptual cousin.) While Detroit, Atlanta, Denver, and Dallas-Fort Worth are in various stages of aerotropolis planning, the Memphis plan was the first to be funded by HUD, lending it some extra legitimacy.

Yet it remains to be seen whether this model will work for Memphis. Whereas many new airport cities are rising on greenfield sites, like Songdo in South Korea, Memphis is surrounded by ailing prior development. Using the aerotropolis plan for neighborhood redevelopment is laudable, but will no doubt add a layer of complexity to an already-complex project. "There is a commercial hole in [Memphis'] aerotropolis donut that may take decades to fix," says Kasarda, who consulted on the plan.

Then there's all that freight. Connectivity is one of the key virtues of the aerotropolis, according to Kasarda, but what happens when the aerotropolis moves a lot of goods and not that many people? Memphis' passenger numbers are declining because of cutbacks by Delta Air Lines, which announced last year that Memphis is no longer one of its hubs. Whether an area so fixated on cargo can draw enough knowledge-economy players to sustain the aerotropolis is a major open question.

A rendering of the Memphis aerotropolis shows a footpath winding alongside busy Brooks Road—the plan's challenge will be making space for freight and people alike. (City of Memphis / Looney Ricks Kiss / AECOM / Bounds & Gillespie Architects, PLLC)

This is the problem with the city's heavy reliance on cargo and logistics, says Charlie Santo, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Memphis. "If you think about it, it means that Memphis is good at taking stuff someone else has made and sending it to a market somewhere else." Apart from a few specialized businesses like the eye bank, he says, "there is little value added."

In other words, it's hard to be a knowledge center when you have more goods than people. Santo worries that the dominance of this single industry has become a Catch-22 for a city that struggles with a high poverty rate—noting that the most common occupation in Memphis is freight hand laborer. "Part of the reason we're very attractive to firms in these industries is because we have a good supply of low-skill low-wage labor," he says, "and part of the reason we have this supply of low-skill low-wage labor is because we rely so heavily on the logistics sector."

The new master plan also raises questions about urban form, and whether it's possible—or even desirable—to design a place that works well for both delivery systems and humans. Can you really reconcile the goals of moving freight quickly through a place with those of fostering an attractive and lively community? One rendering of the Memphis aerotropolis, for instance, depicts a pedestrian footpath winding alongside busy Brooks Road as a semitrailer hurtles past.

Retrofitting human-scaled urbanism into a landscape that must continue to put goods first is only one of many challenges facing a Memphis airport transformation. The new master plan is comprehensive, touching on workforce development, housing-stock improvements, local transit expansion (the plan calls for three new bus loops), public art, and urban farming. But it's also completely unfunded. The city is setting up a dedicated group, the Memphis Aero City Alliance, that will focus on kick-starting private development and implementing the plan's recommendations, says Bowman.

Millions of Americans live and work in or near these sprawling freight nodes. They may be unloved—the urbanist Roger Keil describes them as metabolic, in that they facilitate American consumption—but they are necessary places in the global economy. If Memphis can improve the quality of life for the 136,000 people who live around its airport, even just a little, other U.S. airports that focus on logistics may follow its lead.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. The former executive editor of Architect magazine, she has contributed to Architectural Record, Next City, the Washington Post, and many other publications.