If anyone knows about designing an airport city, it’s Güller Güller architecture urbanism, which is based in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and Zurich, Switzerland. The duo of brothers work on locally defined projects but use them to reflect European and global changes in society and the respective planning cultures.
Internationally known for its work on airport areas, the firm is handling the master plan for the airport corridor between Charles de Gaulle Airport and downtown Paris, creating an international business park inside the Triangle de Gonesse that aims to maximize the area’s land use and development potential while preserving urban architecture. Güller Güller is also working on a long-term master plan for the Zurich Airport region and an airport-city project in Lyon, France.
During last November’s Sustainable Airport Area Seminar in Atlanta, Global Atlanta talked with Mathis Güller about the airport-city trend and how European airports are handling the challenges of integrating with urban areas.
Global Atlanta: The idea of an airport city positions the airport as a place to be visited in its own right, not just a transfer point. How are airports today achieving this sense of place, and how do practices differ between the U.S. and Europe?
Güller: Munich’s airport has created a large marketplace on top of the railway station in the heart of the airport. The introduction of such urban space allows for events like Christmas markets inside the airport, so the community is drawn to this airport city. They also have their own brewery. In the end, although this airport lies in a suburban context, it begins to unleash the potential of being a place of centrality for certain activities.
I think this might be something we have to further work on (in the United States). Without any form of public space, identification with infrastructure is not possible. As can be seen in New York JFK and its 1962 TWA terminal of Eero Saarinen, in particular, we have long perceived airports as cathedrals of transportation. Recent developments in Europe allow public space to creep in. This unleashes a huge potential for additional activities and changes the airport’s role within urban society.
In the future, I can not only see shopping and meeting facilities develop further, but even education and health care facilities could be established. Also, the widespread suburban communities close to the airports lacking sufficient services in these regards could benefit. The local population could use these facilities. Again, this is already happening in the Amsterdam airport city, for example.
Global Atlanta: You’ve worked on designs for regions around the Paris airport. What about the collaboration of stakeholders in Paris? Is it traditionally anchored and easy to put in place? What is the motivation behind development?
Güller: I think the Paris context is rather special, as the state is majority stakeholder in the airport infrastructure. Being national infrastructure run by the state, the area around the airport is declared an “area of national interest.” With that comes an increased engagement of the national authority in terms of coordinating and guiding planning processes.
For example, land use planning authority is decentralized, as elsewhere in Europe.. However, while this is local and regional responsibility, at the same time if these actors do not take initiative for a coordinated and long-term development strategy, the government will step up. Once the government took this posture, the highly fragmented local authorities started to regroup. So now we have four or five groups of new inter-communities around the airport. They work together on larger integration plans. This has far-reaching impacts. For example, they can exchange tax benefits, so the competition between the communities to attract business is more or less eliminated, even though in practice it is still very complicated.
Global Atlanta: You talked about a planning process in Paris in which the national government is working with local authorities to create “alliances of the willing” to tackle long-term land use planning. Tell us more about the area that will be affected.
Güller: It is the “Grand Roissy” area around Charles de Gaulle, specifically in a 15-kilometer radius around the airport. The national government facilitated a strategic planning process and they distinguished four main challenges on which they focused.
Those included questions like:
- What is the specific profile and role of the airport area within the metropolitan context and in which direction could economic development go?
- How can housing production keep up with the speed of job creation?
- To what extent can you further preserve the assets you have in land resources, agricultural tracts and natural landscape?
- To what extent can we improve land-side accessibility, which is crucial to the airport as well as the restructuring of the surrounding territory?
Accessibility to the airport does therefore not only concern the notion of appropriate job-training to allow for access to the jobs inside the airport area, but also the notion of physical access by public transportation. This last point is important for the local communities in particular. The airport has usually a very good connection to the city center (shuttle trains for example) but has poor connections to the communities around it. They could profit a lot from the airport if the network around it would be improved to match to the actual metropolitan relevance of the airport area.
Global Atlanta: A main issue that bears on collaboration in infrastructure projects in the U.S. is federal funding. If they get it, everybody will work together more easily. If they do not get it, it’s a different story.
Güller: Federal funding also plays a vital role in Europe. In Zurich, the light-rail line has been funded the exact same way. It was a bottom-up proposal of local authorities and private landowners, who came up with a shared vision for that infrastructure. And the moment the project was put in place and sufficient adhesion of the local municipalities was guaranteed, then the regional government gave their okay to co-finance the infrastructure.
Global Atlanta: What is being done to integrate new airports closer to city centers?
Güller: We have to distinguish here between existing and new facilities. First, in the European context, it is my belief that there will only be one new airport built in the next 10 or 20 years.
So we need to be talking about the ones existing already. Here we have to come up with different ways to better integrate the airport infrastructure and deal with its nuisances in the local territory. This is an aspect we did not focus on as much in the past. It is about fostering synergies and creating “win-win” situations.
In Europe, since airports are often run by the state, strict noise policies are enforced stating how many planes can fly, on which flight tracks and when during the day. In this model, the potential for noise reduction is influenced by the national policy maker, because the state gives the airport the concession to operate to a certain level.
Lately, this has radically changed. The responsibility for noise reduction is being moved to the airport by saying you can grow as much as you want, as long as you do not increase the nuisances for the local population. For example, we are starting to see caps on the amount of houses affected by noise, rather than caps on air-traffic capacity. That means if the airport, doesn’t reduce the nuisances per flight, it blocks its own growth.
But we should probably think even one step further. In Western economies, growth remains a priority, but due to the urgency of its sustainability, it needs to be seen in a different light.
It is about competitiveness in which the global connectivity of the airport and, above all, value creation in the airport region is valued higher than passenger growth rates. Competitiveness results from jointly coordinated economic development in the airport area where quality of life improvement is seen as a healthy basis for the aviation economy. Sustainability is achieved by means of new synergy between the airport and its region.
With shared vision, the airport region and more specifically the ‘airport city’ or ‘airport corridor’ have the chance to become a laboratory of the sustainable city.
As a firm, Güller Güller authored “From Airport to Airport City”, published in 2003 by Editorial Gustavo Gili. Mathis Güller contributed to “Airport and City: Airport Corridors: Drivers of Economic Development” published by Schiphol Real Estate in 2009. Visit http://ggau.net/ for more information on the firm and its work.