Detroit Plans Airport City

But will the aerotropolis be ‘cool’?

sky upon landing at DTW 3Cities have always developed around modes of transit, whether they were key crossroads, strategic port harbors and rivers, or major railroad depots. Why not around airports? That question is being asked more often as the volume of air travel continues to increase and airports and the land around them become increasingly urbanized. John D. Kasarda, a professor at University of North Carolina’s business school who has written widely on the topic, described these emerging cities in the May 2006 edition of the magazine The Next American City. Noting that large airports now “have the density of highway and transit connections that are usually associated only with CBDs” Kasarda predicts that although these “Aerotropoli” have evolved spontaneously to date, these new cities “will require localized infrastructure planning of unprecedented scale” if they are to solve — or prevent — serious development problems.

Airports have long been recognized as engines of local economic growth. Urban Age magazine noted in 1999 that between 1960 and 1995, air transport increased at an annual rate of 11.1 percent for cargo and 8.9 percent for passengers, nearly triple the rate of overall economic growth. According to their statistics, over 1,000 jobs are created for every 1 million passengers, and the article notes the wide variety of “hotels, exhibition halls, businesses and conference centers” that choose to locate near airports.

In few places could an airport assume a larger role in economic and urban development than Detroit, Michigan. Thanks largely to a declining manufacturing sector Michigan’s unemployment rate has been higher than the national average since 2000. In August, Michigan was tied with Mississippi for the highest level of unemployment in the nation – 7.1%. Growth in the “knowledge-based” sector has lagged behind the national average. The state’s Life Sciences Corridor is a state effort to cultivate a potentially lucrative new industry. Inspired by the theories of Richard Florida that knowledge-industry workers (he calls them the “creative class“) are attracted to high quality cities, the state’s Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm launched a Cool Cities Initiative in 2004 to attract, retain, and potentially incubate the workers of the creative economy. Google’s recent decision to locate a major employment center in Ann Arbor was viewed by state leaders as a vindication of this new, urban-based approach to economic development.

Although Florida’s controversial theories can be somewhat ethereal, the economic impact of Michigan’s largest airport are refreshingly concrete. A recent study released this year by the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and the University of Michigan – Dearborn concluded the airport’s 36 million passengers were responsible for 70,000 jobs and demand for $7.6 billion in goods and services in the state. The airport is not only a major domestic hub but also handles over 2.8 million international passengers, making it the 11th largest in North America and 20th largest in the world in 2005. The airport opened the new McNamara Terminal in 2002, which features 122 gates, a 400-room luxury hotel, and in-terminal automated tram system. Another new 26-gate terminal is expected to open in 2008.

For these reasons local government officials together with Prof. Kasarda and the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning sponsored a 3-day design charrette in January 2006 titled “Aerotropolis, A new city: YIP/DTW” to create designs for a new city near the airport. The New York Times recently described the charrette in the context of increased activity at Willow Run Airport — a small airport used for charter flights located just down the road from the much larger DTW — in the story, “Living at the Crossroads, Working There, Too” The article reports that over 160,000 passengers will use the Willow Run airport on charter and corporate shuttle flights this year. A new, airport-based city is a “logical step for Detroit,” points out the Times, noting development in the city has “followed the transportation innovations — sail, steam, rail, auto and jet — of every era stretching back to the city’s founding in 1701.”

Portion of supersonics TOD
777s master plan
Stratocruisers Metro City

What ideas did the students come up with? Although the posted presentations contain little explanatory text, they give some idea of each team’s general approach. The “Supersonics” team proposed a variety of development in the region including both a dense, transit oriented development and luxuriously suburban plans for use-segregated superblocks reminiscent (for me, at least) of Detroit’s land use plans from the 1940s and 50s. The “777’s” plan seems the most practical – it preserves a greenway along local waterways and identifies a corridor for development between the two airports along a proposed transit line. The “Stratocruisers” propose infill development for the small cities in the area in addition to a compact Metro City aligned carefully near both freeways and transit, just across I-94 from the airport. For reference they have slides superimposing portions of Paris and Washington, D.C. over the planned site. Their design for Metro City contains a gridiron with a radial avenue and two circles inspired by the Baroque city planning tradition that shapes Paris and Washington.

Although I think the exercise is worthwhile, the plans all seem a little to prescribed to be either economically or politically feasible. The Times points out the plans will require the municipalities adopt a “regional master land use plan, common architectural standards and zoning that mandates the look and location of buildings.” The Detroit Free Press did a good job last April of analyzing some of the obstacles to realizing such a bold, large-scale vision. My conception of planning tries to steer clear of this sort of government micromanaging in favor of providing for a more general framework for growth. Also, the student’s presentations do not mention the state’s Cool Cities program, which has the stated goals of “Building vibrant, energetic cities that attract jobs, people and opportunity to our state.” Many of the greenfield development schemes in the plans seem destined to produce sterile, “no-place places,” (to quote the phrase my girlfriend Libby used about the project) instead of authentic, dynamic cities. I don’t think the creative class is itching to move into master-planned superblocks in suburban Michigan. The dense transit-based developments might be more successful, but if built would likely replicate the much-criticized synthetic feel of other New Urbanist projects like Celebration or The Kentlands.

bellevilleIf local leaders are serious about cultivating an Aerotropolis, both feasibility and “Cool Cities” criteria demand design decisions should be based firmly around existing urban infrastructure and unique qualities of the region. Sinuous Belleville Lake could present some interesting development options given its proximity to both airports and the region’s two major highways – I-94 and I-275. Indeed, the 777’s plan proposes a development just across the lake from the existing city of Belleville. light rail proposalUnfortunately, the current proposed route for a light rail connection between Detroit and Ann Arbor runs well north of either airports, directly through the city of Wayne, where the Stratocruisers’ plan calls for 400,000 sq ft of building footprints on a wedge of land currently occupied by low-density uses.

If local leaders want to cultivate urban development around DTW, I think the best path would avoid Brasília-like suburban design, and focus on creating a framework plan that protects open space and guides growth towards transit and existing urban infrastructure.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. “a 400-room luxury hotel” which they’re apparently having a hard time filling. Lizz and I stayed there super-cheap last time we were in town (for a quick weekend of a wedding and baptism). It was dark and modern on the interior but I really liked it.

    I might like to live in an “airport city,” especially if it is dense, transit oriented and the cost of living is significantly lower than other, more desireable places (like NYC or San Fran or Seattle). My line of work is easy to do from anywhere, so the thought of living in a nice, small city very near a major air hub (read: frequently cheap airfare to most places), I’d seriously consider it (spend less on the mortgage, more on the travel).

    That said, the easiest way to steer development around transit is to build the damn transit! Just zone for density around stations, put in the lines and start running frequent trains. I guarantee the developers will follow and whoever owns that land will make a killing.

  2. A development like this would cause further harm to Detroit and would incxrease the donut effect the region is currently experiencing. Although developers can build where they chose, this region should be trying to rehabilitate the urban core of Detroit. There are serveral underutilized buildings and vacant lots that would be suitable for infill. Detroit, in theory, should be an ideal place for Dr. Florida’s creative class. Then again maybe the creative class follows opportunity rather than creates it.

  3. Hi Scott- You certainly raise an good point, clearly Detroit needs the investment more than the area by DTW. However, think successfull cities are mutually reinforcing, IE, if a successful urban village is established near the airport and linked to Detroit and Ann Arbor by rail, Detroit will gain more than if the “Airport City” was not established. If anything, the more development is planned along transit, the more people use transit, and the more opportunity there is for development at every point served by the system.

  4. Detroit will not gain more with Airport city. Those dollars will stay out in the suburbs which contributes to the main problem. What good does an Airport city do 20-30 miles away from downtown. Especially considering that the primary industries are all auto focused and facing elimination in the next 5-10-15 years. If Detroit doesn’t get its act together and start encouraging entrepeneurship programs for the young creatives, diversify its economic base, and offer sweet development deals for downtown and the industrial districts, non of this will matter…..

  5. I understand the concerns of the last three posters. We shouldn’t develop a airport city to the further neglect of Detroit’s urban core. As Mr. Goodspeed outlined in his blog post. The plan should be part of a comprehensive regional transportation plan. The planners should also be careful not to give the aerotropolis too much of a Disney-Like feel. There should be a respect for histories and heritages of the surrounding communities considered by the planners.

    The development could be quite a boon to the nearby universities.

    Donald M. Schwartz
    Ypsilanti, MI
    Alumnus of Eastern Michigan University and Wayne State University.

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