by Greg Saville
A thought occurred as I pondered our Chicago SafeGrowth training and the upcoming presentations about work in 4 different cities. SafeGrowth teams are tackling crime and disorder at vacant land sites, a small open park along a heavily trafficked roadway, and a historic public square.
These are all cases where transport routes and locations intersect revealing flaws in local places and the social life of urban spaces. Problems like this point to geography.
The study of geography spans medical geography (epidemiology) and climatology to social geography and urban planning. My undergrad studies included all of those, but one of the most interesting was transport geography.
GEOGRAPHY SHOWS THE WAY
There are no cities without transport geography. Moving people and goods requires organizing our cities and regions in efficient and ecologically sound ways - walkways, trails, roads, bike paths, rail, and airports. Locating neighborhoods, shops and businesses near, or far from, transport routes is the path to urban profit or debt. And poor transport geographies create niches for crime and fear.
Environmental criminology has for years attempted to use the mobility of people as a predictor for crime patterns (with mixed results). CPTED uses movement predictors of people to prevent high-risk paths and crime hotspots. Transport geography is a big deal. That led me to this; Is the modern hub airport a future city?
HUB AIRPORTS AS FUTURE CITIES?
John Kasarda’s Aerotropolis claims the modern airport hub has evolved into a new urban form called Airport Cities. He means the area in and around the airport. Transport Geography journals describe hub-airports as a new kind of city.
I wondered, are airports, not just parts of larger metro areas but distinct cities unto themselves? If so, what lessons do they offer our neighborhood safety efforts?
Airports would not exist but for the populations of nearby urban places. Still, I practically live in airports nowadays and I am struck by the layers of complexity in them. They have all forms of urban design - restaurants, health food markets, resting places, hotels, medical facilities, lounging areas, physical fitness areas and spiritual centers for reflection. They have their own transport systems ranging from small trains, buses, moving sidewalks, and shuttles. In other words - a city!
True, you cannot own property in airports and you cannot actually live in them. And the only reason to go there is to go somewhere else. Yet, as I look at them, they offer fascinating lessons - good and bad - we might consider in planning safer places.
THEY ARE SAFE
First, once you get inside them, modern hub airports are safe. They have CCTV surveillance, electronic access controls, police, and security screening at the entrances. Shootings are rare. Consider the few recent cases like when a crazed gunman shot up LAX or a Fort Lauderdale shooter attacked passengers at the bag claim. All those occurred outside security.
The fact is once you are inside security, shooting risks plummet to near zero. There might be insane people who assault others or bar fights from drunk travelers, but these are quickly squashed by security and police. In modern hub airports you are much safer than most American cities. Guns simply don’t often make it into airports. Gun control, it turns out, works incredibly well! Airports teach us that.
THEY ARE BIG
They are HUGE! Concourse B in Denver is a half mile (1 km) long. Detroit is a mile (1.6 km). The Dubai International Airport is the world’s second largest at over 18,000,000 sq ft, nine times bigger than York’s Grand Central Station. That’s big! It means airports must figure how to transport people quickly and safely.
Their solutions include moving sidewalks, pod-cars, light rail trains, and people-movers (short distance, mini-wheeled trains cheaper than light rail). And they are fast. I travel through long airports quicker than I can walk across a suburban 8-lane intersection at rush hour. Airports can teach us something about urban mobility.
THEY HAVE ART
Then there is the art. Airports have been installing murals, paintings, art galleries, music performances, and other displays of local culture. Airports might be for movement, but they realize the importance of de-sterilizing bland places and blank walls with art. Place-making in airports is alive. We should take heed.
In the 1980 sci-fi book Oath of Fealty, the future Los Angeles contains a self-contained mini-city called Todos Santos, a secure arcology built apart from the crime-infested dystopian suburbs of Greater L.A. Todos Santos reads like a modern hub airport.
Oath of Fealty predicted the building of the L.A. subway. Has it also predicted the future of cities based on hub airports? As futurist William Gibson once wrote, the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.