Skyrocketing passenger and cargo traffic at the airport in Zhengzhou is fueling the growth of China's first airport-centered city. gnoparus / Shutterstock.com

The Chinese city’s airport-driven development strategy capitalizes on the “economy of speed.”

ZHENGZHOU, China—If you have an iPhone, there’s a good chance it came from an enormous factory near the airport of this metropolis in China’s heartland.

But “Apple City,” the aptly named Foxconn plant where 250,000 people work, is just one of many smartphone manufacturers here. There are more than a dozen others, including Coolpad, Amer, TianYu, and ZhongXing, who altogether produce more than 140 million smartphones per year—13 percent of the global stock. These companies are fully dependent upon the vibrant airport known as Xinzheng International (CGO). Parts and other materials are flown in, they are quickly assembled into finished phones, and flown back out to markets across the globe.

Since 2010, the land around the airport has changed from an agricultural area with rural villages into one of China’s most economically dynamic areas. It’s called the Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone, or ZAEZ, and it’s exactly what it says it is: a massive industrial, commercial, and logistics hub purposely built with air transport at its core.

China has many special economic zones, but the ZAEZ is the first to be spatially and economically centered around an airport. It’s been an almost instant success, and has provided the blueprint for dozens more similar airport-centered cities across China.

Five times the size of Manhattan, the zone is a city within a city, located about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the historic core of Zhengzhou. The zone boasts eight industrial parks and a growing number of office and residential towers, and generates nearly US$6 billion in imports and exports each year—well over half the foreign trade of Henan Province.

The ZAEZ is a prime example of what John Kasarda calls an “aerotropolis.” Kasarda is the chief advisor to the ZAEZ, and, along with Greg Lindsay, the co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. Not long ago this airport area was “relatively isolated, rural, there was nothing there,” Kasarda says. “This has all happened within the past five or six years. It's amazing. The amount of investment, the amount of exports, the amount of overall development.”

According to Kasarda, metropolitan subregions whose infrastructure, land use, and economy are all centered around an airport will be some of the 21st century’s largest economic drivers. He says it’s an urban design strategy custom-built for the “economy of speed,” in which a premium is placed on moving high-value products—and people—quickly around the world.

“The fastest, best connected places are winning,” Kasarda says. “It's not size. Speed and connectivity can trump size. It's not the big beating the small, but the fast beating the slow. Look at Dubai, look at Singapore, look at Hong Kong attracting global business. They are relatively small places but amazing hubs.”

A new model

Kasarda believes the aerotropolis is the fifth wave in a long evolution of humans developing cities around transport. We once built our population and economic centers around seaports. The action then moved inland along rivers and canals, then along railways and, later on, along highways. Now, cities are being built around airports.

Currently, 35 percent of the value of global trade is being shipped via aircraft. Building essential business infrastructure close to airports gives companies faster access to their suppliers and customers. It makes these enterprises, as well as the broader urban ecosystems in which they function, more versatile and efficient. The higher the value of the goods or services involved, the bigger the gains.

“It could be sushi-grade tuna, it could be smartphones, it could be aerospace components,” Kasarda says. “But it also could be corporate executives and investors and various people in finance and media and marketing that are all part of this rapid movement of connectivity.”

Xinzheng International Airport outside of Zhengzhou is the focus of a special economic zone five times the size of Manhattan. (photo provided by John Kasarda)

The trend is already in high gear, and not just in China. In the Netherlands, the "Amsterdam Airport Area" is home to more than 1,000 multinational firms. South Korea has the Songdo International Business District, built on reclaimed land near Incheon International Airport. Hong Kong, currently the busiest air-cargo hub in the world, has established Sky City, a massive retail, exhibition, office, hotel, and entertainment center.

In the United States, a sort of aerotropolis is developing in Texas outside the gates of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. One development called Las Colinas is home to the headquarters of nine Fortune 1,000 companies. Another, called Southlake, is an upscale residential neighborhood intentionally integrated within the air-hub ecosystem. It’s become a hotspot for upper-tier corporate executives, professional athletes, media personalities and others who like living a ten-minute taxi ride from their next flight.

“People who have to travel often for work want to live next to the airport,” says Mike Tesoriero, owner of Southlake Style Magazine. “There are many professional golfers and football players [here]; they travel often and they can catch their flights quickly and easily.”

Design challenge

While lots of airports are surrounded by a sprawl of warehouses and office parks, Kasarda sees the aerotropolis as something that requires master planning to reach its full potential. In his vision, the airport is at the center of a sort of development bullseye. Surrounding it are rings of industrial zones, and mixed-use areas with shopping malls, offices, and houses, as well as some of the city’s best international schools and medical facilities. Kasarda insists there is a science to getting all the pieces to work together.

The risk is that these cities will become little more than sterile logistics zones and never become the sort of walkable urban places where people might want to live or visit. “Usually, airport cities are technological, low density, outstretched environments that lack character,” says Joost van den Hoek, a Shanghai-based urban designer. “They are transit landscapes for logistics and business and not a destination in themselves. The main urban design challenge for airport cities is creating character and creating a destination where you also would like to go if you don’t need to fly.”

Matthias Bauer, an urban planner at the design and engineering firm Atkins Asia Pacific, agrees with the criticism. “Just think of it: As a passenger, how often are you able to conveniently walk from the airport terminal to an adjacent hotel, office park or conference center?” Bauer says. “And how often is this basically impossible because eight-lane highways, cloverleaf interchanges, fly-overs, retaining walls, and security fences are in the way?”

Kasarda hopes the ZAEZ can avoid these pitfalls. But it is still very much a work in progress. Entering into the zone from Zhengzhou’s central core feels like crossing a frontier. The gray skeletons of apartment blocks and office towers rise up from a freshly laid grid of highways as wide as eight lanes. Blocky gray factories and blue corrugated-steel warehouses fit neatly within the rectangular plots. Hundreds of thousands of people work in the various factory compounds here, but the streets are still in the process of coming to life.

In the Netherlands, the ”Amsterdam Airport Area” has more than 1,000 multinational firms. (photo provided by John Kasarda)

One of the Zone’s key selling points is its well-developed logistical infrastructure. The ZAEZ is positioned at the economic heart of China, just a couple of hours by air from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. It also sits at the intersection of some of China’s most vital highways and high-speed rail lines. One of those highways, known as the Western Europe-Western China Expressway, will extend all the way to St. Petersburg, Russia by next year. Two cargo-rail lines to Europe also cross through the ZAEZ—one going north to Russia and the other going west through Kazakhstan.

“A successful aerotropolis,” Kasarda says, “is as much a function of good surface connectivity as it is aviation connectivity.”

Traffic at Xinzheng Airport is booming, and there is a new terminal and runway to accommodate the growth. The number of passengers traveling through is now comparable to the airports in Cairo or Manchester, and is growing at about 17 percent a year. Cargo volume is growing even faster, at about 40 percent a year. Xinzheng is now China’s ninth-busiest cargo airport. It’s not just smartphones leaving on those planes but other high-value added products, such as other electronics, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, meat, and fresh flowers.

“Due to high additional value, low weight, small volume, and high demand for transfer speed, biomedicine products highly rely on air freight,” says Gao Jianxin, general manager of the U.S.-China Medicine Development Center, a major biomedical R&D enterprise located in the ZAEZ. “Locations adjacent to hub airports are critical to the development of the biomedicine industry.”

The ZAEZ was developed by fiat. As China’s first and only state-level airport economic zone, it sits under the direct auspices of Beijing. Which is to say it has the full political and economic backing of the Communist Party, a very important determinant for success. When development on the ZAEZ began in 2010, the goal was to make it into the primary growth engine of China’s central plains region, and the people pulling the strings had to power to make this happen quickly.

“Generally, development in China is not primarily market-driven but pushed forward by local governments in anticipation of future demand,” explains Bauer. “Or indeed, in order to create future demand from scratch.”

China is now looking to replicate the success of the ZAEZ in dozens of other cities, such as Qingdao, Xi’an, and Nanjing, where airport areas are being built up to be commercial as well as logistical hubs.

“Speedy connectivity to suppliers, customers, and enterprise partners … increases the efficiency of the businesses," Kasarda says. "And it increases the efficiency of the places where the businesses are located. That's the proposition of the aerotropolis.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope.

About the Author

Wade Shepard

Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China and is currently working on a book about China’s efforts to build trade ties with Europe and central Asia along the “New Silk Road.” He writes for Reuters, Forbes, CityMetric, the South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, and many other publications, and blogs at Vagabond Journey.

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