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Africa’s first aerotropolis in Ekurhuleni: will it foster economic growth?

A photo of the central terminal building at OR Tambo airport

The Central Terminal Building at OR Tambo airport

03 February 2014 - In September it was announced that an Aurecon-led consortium had won the contract to develop the Ekurhuleni OR Tambo Aerotropolis in Gauteng, South Africa.

The aerotropolis concept is now mainstream in aviation planning, and there is little doubt that it has brought substantial economic and social benefits to airport owners as well as local businesses and communities. However, this experience has largely been gained in the airports of Europe and North America. The Ekurhuleni Aerotropolis offers a unique opportunity to apply the lessons learnt at these other airports to develop a truly African solution.

The Aurecon Consortium brings together the best global expertise in the development and implementation of the aerotropolis solution, with an unrivalled understanding of the challenges and opportunities of implementing such a project in South Africa and in Gauteng.

What is an aerotropolis?

Air travel is ubiquitous in modern life not only for passenger travel, but to satisfy our growing need for the just-in-time provision of goods and services. The consequences of this is a dramatic increase in the number and scale of airports, their growth as sources of employment and increase in the consumer base at those airports, together with the growth of the airport as a destination.

In modern cities, airports have therefore become major drivers of urban form, economic activity and city competitiveness. The aerotropolis aims to take advantage of these changes and optimise the positive effects the airport can have on the economy and on communities.

Essentially, the aerotropolis is an economic development strategy designed to increase competitiveness in global markets, leveraging the access that air travel and air freight provides to global clients.

Critically, an aerotropolis doesn't involve simply building additional retail stores in an airport terminal or more light industrial parks on the land surrounding an airport. It is about taking advantage of all the economic opportunities an airport offers, reflected at times by new physical infrastructure, but also by alternative retail, entertainment, employment and commercial land uses – and these can stretch out in a radius 30 km or more from the airport itself.

The aerotropolis in emerging economies

With aviation only starting to boom, and routes, passenger numbers and business investment still comparatively low in many emerging countries, is it too early to consider the aerotropolis approach for growing economies?

Airports traditionally develop in a piece-meal fashion. Many of the world’s current major airports started as small landing strips in the 1920s and have grown incrementally over time, although not always in a perfectly logical manner. There is extensive evidence to show that a large portion of the cost and development inefficiencies inherent in further developing existing airport cities come from a lack of strategic planning at an early stage. Emerging economies tend to have an advantage here as many of the new airports are taking place as greenfield developments, with relatively modest current infrastructure. Where the opportunity for economic growth exists, early planning will therefore enable that growth to be strategically developed, made more attractive and maximised.

The aerotropolis planning process

Aerotropolis development embraces urban and regional planning, but with a strong focus on how these can be used to enable strategic economic development. The ultimate goal is to maximise the economic competitiveness, attractiveness and growth of the city and its surrounding region through the identification of the optimal mix of land uses and infrastructure investments. The nature of these investments, how they are financed, where they are made, their timing, how they relate to the broader economy and their alignment with economic and social sustainability, are all key outcomes of the planning process.

The planning process for the aerotropolis in Ekurhuleni will follow a process of information gathering, analysis, scenario planning, evaluation and selection. What matters most is the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ included in this process.


An aerotropolis development plan requires an integrated breadth of input across urban and transport planners, economists, financial and logistics experts, environmental managers, market researchers and strategists.

Aurecon, a global consulting engineering firm, will lead the multi-disciplinary consortium with the added advantage of extensive experience working on planning and infrastructure projects in the Ekurhuleni locality. This local knowledge is blended with international aerotropolis specialist expertise in research and strategic planning from MXD, and urban planning and branding from RTKL. Two of Imperial Logistics’ subsidiaries are also involved and will lead the integration of logistics and freight studies into the project. Turner and Townsend will contribute specialist PPP and financial advice and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South Africa (CSIR) will provide additional traffic modelling experts.

“What makes this consortium a strong candidate to successfully collaborate on this project beyond the extensive technical expertise, is the collaborative culture and absolute focus on excellence. Aurecon’s proprietary tool to be used on this project, HUB-id, is all about recognising the inter-relationship between transport, land-use and economics. When examined together, there is potential to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits. This is at the heart of the aerotropolis solution,” says Danie Wium, Aurecon Government Industry Leader.

What and how?

Building the development pattern picture

By analysing the trends in demographics and economics, and comparing those with land use and air and surface transportation infrastructure in the project area, the team will need to define so-called economic clusters and distinguish between those clusters that are best served by the current systems (be they infrastructure, economic or cultural); those likely to improve with the already planned regional developments; and those where new or substantial infrastructure is required to make them viable for further development.

One of the challenges of an aerotropolis study is in gathering and analysing a large amount of data and then building a complete picture of the aerotropolis and its current evolutionary path.

The team will make use of a number of high-level tools, such as spatial data analysis systems, sophisticated economic analysis tools and transport modelling and planning systems, to deliver the necessary innovation a project of this magnitude demands. The breadth of information and the sophistication with which it is analysed and integrated will be critical to ensuring that all opportunities are captured and optimised.

Catalytic drivers and optimising development

Inevitably some of the identified economic clusters will have the potential to grow faster than others, while some will further have the potential to facilitate growth across the whole region. These are considered catalytic developments. By identifying the supplying and supporting industries for economic clusters in the region, and taking into account current realities from the information gathering stage, the team will identify such catalytic clusters.

The team will also need to consider how to maximise the positive impacts of these clusters on the regional economy through leveraging upstream, downstream and cross-over industry activities. By considering how other aerotropoli evolve and how particular economic clusters are supported by those developments, the team will determine which of the region’s niche economic clusters could benefit particularly from airport supported economic activities.

Further, by analysing the characteristics of recommended target economic clusters and their supporting industries, the team will then assess how to maximise the effect of these industries. These industries will form the consideration of a Sector Support Plan with investment prioritisations. The team will also look for opportunities to enhance economic and social potential through intensification, adaptive re-use or re-development of strategic land sites as well as the potential for transit-orientated development to create positive momentum for long term community enhancement.

In examining these economic clusters, the specific nature and structure of the Gauteng economy, including the informal sector, will be taken into consideration.

Fitting the options to the objectives of Ekurhuleni

Ekurhuleni is confronted with certain realities that influence how economic development can best benefit its social objectives. The municipality is home to three of South Africa’s seven poorest townships and the hub of South Africa’s ailing manufacturing sector. Equally, however, it also hosts the largest airport in Africa, effectively forming the gateway to the continent.

As part of the planning process, a series of development scenarios will be developed and each evaluated to maximise potential benefits, according to the following criteria:

  • Demographics – will the planned development adequately address the poverty, skills development and unemployment objectives of the city?
  • Proposed land-use – will this be efficient and create an attractive environment?
  • Forecasted demand transport facilities– will this ensure the maximum efficiency of movement of people and freight in the region, and within each facility?
  • Economic growth – will this ensure the economic wellbeing of Gauteng and Ekurhuleni’s businesses and community – from the smallest informal trader to the largest multi-national corporation?
  • Predicted CO2 emissions – how much of an impact on the environment will it have?

Tying it all together

Like most planning processes, the aerotropolis study is not a completely linear process and a number of tasks run either parallel or through an iterative cycle throughout the life of the project. In addition, there are many other activities outside the aerotropolis study, such as logistic and supply projects, financing arrangements and marketing of the development to various stakeholders, that run alongside the very technical aspects of analysis and planning. These are in fact just as important to the project’s overall success and it’s very much a case of not having any weak links.

“It’s a challenging prospect, and a great responsibility, to deliver a project as comprehensive as this. However, with the amazing team we have assembled, we are confident we can deliver the innovative yet implementable aerotrpolis project that Ekurhuleni deserves, and we’re committed to assisting not only the municipality but also the country realise its economic and social potential,” says Matt Coetzee, Aurecon Urbanisation Competency Leader.

Urban planning terms

  • Intensification - Similar to densification but refers more broadly to an increasing level of activity and uses
  • Adaptive re-use - New usage of land or a building after discontinuing current use
  • Re-development - Actions that lead to renewal and improvement of existing areas. Can be financed through public and/or private investment.


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