Business Planning

Business site planning requires careful thought for airport city developments

The government has intentions of developing a number of airport city developments. 

The architectural principle stating “form follows function” speaks to function as the importance of understanding the purpose that an aerotropolis, an airport city development, seeks to serve and the requirements needed to fulfil that purpose while form highlights the consequent thoughts that go into the decisions about what kind of economic development mechanisms or strategies could fulfil the purpose identified through function. 

Each aerotropolis may conceptualise its form and function differently depending on contextual factors at play. 

What is constant and unchanging is that the success of an aerotropolis hinges on good airport planning, business site planning and urban planning within which form and function are solidified for the articulation of the masterplan which is a comprehensive implementation guide for the establishment of an airport city. Dr John Kasarda delves deeper into this in his article entitled Planning a Competitive Aerotropolis.

The Durban aerotropolis and Ekurhuleni aerotropolis are well in motion. These two developments, although founded on similar principles, are starkly different for many reasons. 

The most obvious is that Durban is a greenfield project while Ekurhuleni is a brownfield. This loosely refers to the former being a project executed from scratch while the latter is a project with developments extending from an already existing plan. The strategic decision foundational to the relocation of the Durban Airport to LaMercy was supported with thoughts of the aerotropolis in mind while the emergence of Ekurhuleni aerotropolis is preceded by the existence of OR Tambo International Airport. 

This means the development and management of these two establishments may differ fundamentally with both presenting pros and cons as presented below. 

(John McCann/M&G)

The one area of concern should be that of business site planning, especially because it is through the special economic zone model in the South African context, with Ekurhuleni aerotropolis hosting the Gauteng/OR Tambo special economic and the Durban aerotropolis being home to the Dube TradePort SEZ. This planning will require careful thought and understanding of cluster economics that suit the country’s economic climate while bearing economic benefits for our people. 

What the developers and managers of these airport city developments ought to do is to acknowledge and appreciate that neither Durban nor Ekurhuleni are an aerotropolis although long-term plans of working towards this exist. This makes any difficulties arising a lot easier to manage and reminds all involved that the masterplan is not cast in stone and can always be revised and reworked as needed at any given stage of the project.  

This also encourages the continuation of the conceptual and strategic conversations or stakeholder deliberations beyond the planning phase to facilitate the dialogue on how best to set up an aerotropolis resilient to economic depressions, shocks, twists and turns such as one we have witnessed through Covid-19. 

A large scale of economic activity is assembled for the existence of an aerotropolis and the resilience of these urban developments comes in their management understanding this fundamental dynamic. The aerotropolis is an agglomeration economy within which exists a cluster of industrial activity in the form of a special economic zone, which ought to be treated as independent of the turmoil and turbulence of the “aviation industry” although it shares a symbiotic relationship with the airport establishment to some extent. 

The resilience also comes from the aerotropolis management being deliberate and firm in attracting the right kinds of investment and being able to say no to that which does not serve the vision of a city whose evolution will span about 30 to 50 years. This is nothing to compromise on because the industrial cluster or special economic zone and the airport are the two most important components of this integrated economy notwithstanding other related property developments.

The prioritisation of the industrial cluster or special economic zone allows for the reduction of the element of uncertainty and provides a high degree of foresight of the market situation for the existing investors while serving as a confidence booster in the attraction of further investment. 

This is the heart of the aerotropolis in the South African context contrary to popular belief, which points to the airport as key in this establishment. This is based on the need to fight unemployment, poverty and inequality. Being aggressive in attracting investment into the special economic zone should thus aid in driving economic development through the creation of jobs, support of small businesses, building and nurturing of relationships between foreign investors and local investors and ensuring that there is skills and technology transfer. 

Nomkhosi Luthuli is a lecturer in the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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