• Mia Meyer Walle-Hansen

Principles for Successful Airport Cities - Global Lessons for Gardermoen

Oppdatert: 6. apr.

The Airport City concept is the main inspiration for our research and our ambitions to transform Gardermoen into an economic and commercial hub centered around Oslo Airport. Eager to learn more about the key success factors for Airport Cities, we turned to Dr. Tim Moonen, the Co-Founder and Director of the Business of Cities. Dr. Moonen and his team recently published a paper which examines the premises for Airport City development in a rapidly changing world, characterised and challenged by the Covid pandemic and climate change. In this interview, Dr. Moonen shares the key findings and their application to future business developments in Gardermoen and the broader region.

The full report is available here:

Principles for successful Airport Cities - Global Lessons for Gardemoen
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Examples of international Airport Cites analysed in the paper. Source: The Business of Cities

Mia: Dr Moonen, you have recently handed over a very interesting paper covering key success factors for successful business development around airports. Can you outline in short what the paper is about?

Dr. Moonen: We are in a context where there are many doubts and challenges being posed about airports - first by the Covid-19 pandemic, and more recently by the geopolitical and energy crisis.

Yet the underlying trends tell us clearly that airports are likely going to become even more important by the end of the 21st century than they were already at the start. More of the world’s new and fastest growing industries rely on speed and inter-connection. Supply chains, tacit knowledge, scarce information, and specialist talent are disaggregated for very sound reasons. Airports are the essential mechanisms to connect them. They also allow the regions that host these industries to stay relevant and competitive.

Because of this big picture, many places around the world have recognised that there is an opportunity to create an ‘airport city’ – a high quality district around an airport with the physical and social environment to evolve into a key engine of the regional economy. These places are becoming an important phenomenon of our time. Many local governments and businesses have been thinking very carefully about how to turn this potential into a reality. Many lessons have been learned, some the hard way, about what it takes to succeed. This paper tries to capture those lessons for those who lead, plan and invest in airport cities, so that they can move forward with their ‘eyes open’.

Mia: Your paper draws on desk research and interviews with stakeholders from other international airport cities. Did any of them stand out as particularly interesting and relevant to the Gardermoen case? Why?

Dr. Moonen: Each airport city has its own story. For now, I will highlight two. Next to Orlando Airport and on the fringes of the region, Lake Nona is a great example of a development partnership thinking big. It has quickly established itself as the highest quality and most technologically advanced Airport City in North America. Even though it is at the edge of the continent, it has become a HQ for corporates and institutions who need a seamless location – air, digital and rail - from where to conduct training, trial innovations and serve customers.

Meanwhile on the far outskirts of Sydney, Bradfield Airport is an example where state and local government have come together to agree that an airport can become a major new urban centre for the whole region. This is a deprived inland area of the region where the need for more and better middle-income jobs is urgent. So over 5 years they built a commitment with key landowners and developers to create real ‘city’ amenities, combining strong active transport links to nearby lower-income districts with high-capacity rail transport, and relocating advanced research centres to build some real scale to the knowledge economy.

Both these examples have slightly different origins to Gardermoen and they, too, still have a way to go on their journey. What really stands out with them both is the level of ambition to do something that had not been done before, which required government and developers to continually experiment together. They made something that felt nearly impossible at the start already turn into real impacts on jobs, lives and communities.

Mia: The paper sheds light on some key success factors and main challenges when creating a global airport city. What are the common traits of successful Airport Cites, and what must Gardermoen do in order to become one?

Dr. Moonen: Successful airport cities build off the real areas of excellence of their region and support them to succeed. They are not generic development projects for medium-value business services or all-purpose logistics. They present a distinct value proposition to promising industries that need space near an airport to specialise and succeed.

A strong case for what the airport city can deliver for the whole region is important. Airport cities are not standalone projects, and they succeed when they take the time to show and to demonstrate the added value they will bring to people well outside their immediate orbit, as well as for local people who have been ‘left behind’. They also have to avoid becoming perceived as ‘dirty’ carbon-intensive projects and explain how they serve the growth of clean industries and green outcomes. This all needs good evidence, mapping, market intelligence, and storytelling. For Gardermoen it means projecting forward what Viken and the whole Oslo region will need from its airport in 2100, and articulating why the status quo will not by itself deliver the jobs and opportunities the region will undoubtedly need.

Attention to placemaking is key. To become a genuine complement to a region’s city centre, and a place in which talent based in attractive towns and villages would elect to work, an airport city has to create an environment worth spending time in. This requires a high-quality public realm, services, education offerings, entertainment after hours and family facilities.

None of this happens by accident. In an airport city there are always citizens to win over, routine setbacks and regulatory changes to overcome and new market trends to respond to. Patience is needed to see the gains materialise over decades, not years. So pioneering leadership, steady alliance building, and appetite to take some shared risk, are all essential. Public and private actors have to learn how to coordinate consistent messaging and keep partners on track.

Mia: You describe the process of becoming a proper Airport city as a development in three cycles and suggest that Gardermoen may be able to leapfrog to the second or third cycle if they play their cards right. What does a successful Airport City at cycle three look like, and what will it take for Gardermoen to reach this point?

Dr. Moonen: A mature Airport City is a fully functioning hub in the wider region, and one in which people do not think twice about working or living. It has national and global influence, not only because of its roles in global aviation but also because of its reputation for serving cutting edge industries. It provides the transport, public services, infrastructure, serenity and variety you would expect of a real ‘piece of city’. It is somewhere researchers, start-ups, and established businesses go to meet others, test new ideas and take the next step to commercialisation and export.

Gardermoen is at the start, but this kind of vision does not feel far-fetched. After all it has unusual advantages: exceptional connectivity to the centre of Oslo and the talent corridors in the region; a long-term growth outlook, because Oslo is a growing region whose economy has no choice but to diversify; and the potential to turbocharge Norway’s leadership in 5-10 industries where it has inherited an advantage – from carbon capture to aquaculture to industrial software. There seems little reason as to why Gardermoen should not be bold in incubating specific high-growth industries and applying new technologies to serve them. Of course, the political commitment and the willingness of large institutions to give credibility to the ambitions will have to be secured and sustained.

Mia: Climate change and global pandemics represent challenges to the future of airports that may require a stronger focus on environmental concerns, decarbonisation and diversity in future business development. How do other airports adapt to these challenges, and what can we learn from them?

Dr. Moonen: Airports that have relied almost solely on tourism and aviation logistics have been vulnerable to exactly these shocks. Cultivating industries that may be more resistant – such as life sciences, just-in-time manufacturing, and green innovation – is now a common priority. Many airport cities find it helpful to enter into partnerships with large businesses who can help co-design, customise and de-risk the space offer to meet these kinds of needs.

All around the world – from Kansas to Glasgow to Abu Dhabi – there are efforts underway to decarbonise the operations around airports through electric passenger buses, water recycling plants, and green design principles for large storage sites. The bigger aim is to test low-carbon technologies for air travel – Airbus’ hydrogen hubs, for example, or electric planes. Airport cities are also ideal sites for renewable energy generation, acting as net exporters of energy to the wider area.

Pressure from ESG-conscious business and civil society is producing a great deal of new activity, and Gardermoen as an airport city is well placed to engage other forward thinking airport cities - both to learn from them, and to share its own experience. We can rightly expect Gardermoen to join and build the ‘club’ of pioneering locations worldwide who are dedicated to reimagining the role of airports in our economies and in the public mind.