Airports have always been seen as necessary but uncomfortable assets, often relegated to the peripheries of cities because of the high level of noise pollution they cause. This needn’t be so. Can these airports become the center of a new type of city? Can we unleash the full economic potentials of these assets through intelligent decisions and complementary infrastructure/real estate development? Yes. Welcome to the Nigerian Aerotropolis.
What is an Aerotropolis?
Just like a metropolis which is built around a major central city, an aerotropolis is a major urban settlement built around an airport. Rather than relegate airports to the outskirts of cities, the aerotrpolis concept celebrates the critical role of airports and builds complementary structures with a view to creating a well-functioning, integrated city; a national or regional economic powerhouse.
Thus in addition to the airport, the aerotropolis contains efficient logistics/warehouse facilities for air cargo transport, high-end entertainment and tourism facilities, education and research clusters, and high-quality intermodal transportation infrastructure among others. These developments directly or indirectly complement the fast-paced nature of air travel and give travelers access to numerous activity options within a few minutes’ drive from the airport.
The need for an aerotropoliss in Nigeria
Increasingly, many states in Nigeria have begun to embrace the idea of constructing their own airports. Some gubernatorial candidates have added this as an integral part of their campaign promises. This isn’t bad. However, the approach has remained the same. The belief is that an airport by itself would draw in traffic and become an overnight economic miracle. But economics doesn’t necessarily obey emotions and blind wishes.
The underlying problem with most airport construction at the state level is that the political leaders pay very little attention into creating real reasons for people to travel to their state, or for airline companies to add the new airports to their routes. Thus in the absence of an indigenous airline company that would conduct transfer flights using the airport as its major hub, most newly constructed airport eventually become elephant projects with little to no economic impact on the host community and the state at large.
Thus rather than focus on just building an airport, there is the need to build an integrated airport city, an aerotropolis. For instance, while building an airport, plans could be made for a large-scale themed-resort construction that would drive passenger inflow to the state, including air travel through the airport. In addition, a major cargo handling center, especially for perishable goods, could also be constructed near the airport thus turning the state into a regional center for perishable produce export.
Finally, a major medical city complex could be constructed, filled with buildings handling a range of advanced medical conditions for which patients would be willing to travel from other parts of Nigeria (and West/Central Africa) in order to receive treatment. These developments need not be mutually-exclusive. And they shouldn’t. By creating a range of reasons for people to travel, the airport is turned from another economically senseless project to a self-sustaining, economically vibrant development project. And this comes with billions of naira worth of contribution to the state economy. This is even better if an anchor airline company is contracted with to use the airport as its major hub for transfer flights across the region and to other parts of the world.
It is important to note that the above logic not only applies to upcoming airport construction but to existing airports which have unfortunately being relegated to the peripheries of the city. And this need not be a state-level project. The nation could turn the locations of her existing international airports into economically powerful airport cities. This is especially for true for the International airport in Abuja which is currently located almost on the outskirts of the main city. These developments would help increase employment for Nigerians, increase revenues to the host cities, and make these airports economically self-sustaining due to the increased flow of traffic.
Major Considerations in developing an aerotropolis
Funding an aerotropolis is certainly more expensive than building an airport. However, the medium and long-term benefit of a fully-integrated airport city far exceeds the benefit of building airports as standalone structures on the outskirts of cities. Thus there is the need to explore a range of financing options in order to harness the full potentials of our airports.
These could involve local and international loans collaterized by the underlying assets of the airport city. Private investors could also be invited to participate in various phases of the project. Important incentives such as tax holidays and import duties exemption need to be considered. Other funding sources could include real estate lenders, real estate-focused private equity, infrastructure investment firms, and international financial institutions among others.
Another major factor that cannot be denied is the spate of insecurity in the country. While the situation has slightly decreased, there is no gainsaying the fact that such multi-million (or billion) dollar projects need to be protected with unmatched security systems using both manpower and technology. Considering the fact that such major development would attract local and international travelers, especially foreign tourists, there is the need to incorporate high-level security systems as an integral part of the entire project. This could be done in consultation with local and international experts.
Finally, the airport will be surrounded by other cities and states. Since it hopes to be a major center of diverse activities (including entertainment and air cargo), there is the need to develop top-notch infrastructure linking the airport to other parts of the state as well as to neighboring states. For perishable goods like fruits and vegetables, quick transportation from farm to the cargo handling center at the airport is particularly important. Thus high-quality roads and/or rail linking nearby cities/towns to the aerotropolis have to be constructed or renovated. In doing all of these, there is the need to ensure sustainability as well as to consider inputs from the local community.
The closest deliberate project aimed at creating an integrated airport city in West Africa is the Airport City project in Accra, Ghana. Other projects are currently underway in Cairo, Egypt and Ekurhuleni, South Africa. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and the continent’s most populous country, cannot afford to continually relegate her airports to the periphery thus missing out on huge economic returns. Nigeria needs a well-planned airport city, maybe numerous airport cities. It is up to political leaders and investors to choose whether to cash in on the glaring opportunity the aerotroplis concept currently creates.
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