Singapore is Building an Airport City, and Jewel Changi Airport Proves it

We’ve all seen it.

The giant glass dome that seems to be slowly, but surely swallowing up the iconic Changi Airport control tower. We see it progressively getting taller, each time we begin our journey abroad.

Jewel Changi Airport, is now almost complete. An opening date (April 17) has been announced and tickets for early preview tours have been snatched up. The retail and entertainment complex – designed by the same architects behind the iconic Marina Bay Sands – has been conjuring up a lot of attention. An impressive list of tenants – which includes Singapore’s first Shake Shack, South-East Asia’s largest Uniqlo and a Shaw multiplex – makes waves on social media every other day.

Not everyone is feeling the excitement though. Questions about the economic and financial viability of this S$1.7 billion behemoth have sprung up after its announcement. If retail outlets are doing so badly in Singapore, and if Jewel doesn’t increase the actual passenger capacity of the airport, what exactly is the point of the project? To answer these questions, we first need to acquaint ourselves with a new urban planning concept.

1. The Aerotropolis

Airports are traditionally built at the fringes of major cities. Tokyo’s Narita, Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA and even Singapore’s Changi are all quite a distance away from their respective city centres. The reason for this is rather simple — airports require large strips of land, which might not be available in Central Business Districts. Residential suburbs also pose a problem. Planes often bring noise and air pollution, and are viewed unfavourably by locals.

In 2000, however, an air-commerce researcher named John D. Kasarda, released a paper challenging these assumptions. He proposed a new ‘urban form’, which he called, an Aerotropolis. The idea is both radical and simple — instead of building our cities around Central Business Districts, we should build cities around airports. He argues that in the 21st century, with economies becoming more globalised and trade becoming more important, airports are drivers of economic development. Thus, they need to play a more prominent geographic role in cities.

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A schematic for an Aerotropolis. Source

So how does this model look like? Land near the airport is allocated to businesses, commercial and industrial estates. Closer to the heart of the Aerotropolis, residential, retail and entertainment districts are built. Considering that all of this takes place near a presumably busy international airport, there is increased synergy and lower costs for producers. The time and cost it takes for industrial firms to transport goods decreases. For knowledge-based corporations like banks, being closer to the airport means that there is faster and freer movement of employees.

Since setting up shop in the Aerotropolis is cheaper and more convenient, businesses will be attracted to the region — leading to economic development.

2. Changi Aerotropolis

While Aerotropoleis are being planned and built in many parts of the world – often from the ground up –  Singapore doesn’t have the luxury of space to do this. In other words, it’s impossible to build another city, inside a city-state. Instead, the Singapore government seems to be slowly developing a mini-aerotropolis of sorts around Changi Airport.

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Capri Fraser, Changi Business Park. Source

Over the years, projects with the aim of leveraging proximity to the airport, have been launched in Changi. One such example would be the Changi Business Park. Opened in 1997, it has been popular with Multinational Corporations like Citibank, IBM and Standard Chartered. Hotels and convention centres have also opened inside of the park, making it more convenient for traveling executives. The Changi North and South Industrial estate, together with the Changi Logistics Centre, provides the much-needed industrial base for this ‘city within a city’.

So, it’s clear that the Changi district shares some similarities to Kasarda’s Aerotropolis model. But what does Jewel have to do with that?

3. The Crown Jewel

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Facade of the Jewel being fitted. Source

Jewel is Singapore’s newest attempt at making the Aerotropolis dream, a reality. While there are industrial and commercial activities going on in the Changi area, there is little entertainment and retail. The billion-dollar development tries to fill this void. Furthermore, Jewel also has a hotel (Yotel) and an events space — supplementing the already existing capacity in the area.

In press releases and public statements, Changi has repeatedly echoed its desire to make Jewel a destination on its own right. The company envisions stopovers, where foreigners don’t leave the airport premises, but still contribute to the local economy, by shopping and staying at the complex. Executives and business travellers could technically, stay at one of the many airport hotels, go attend meetings at the Changi Business Park and then spend their afternoons unwinding at Jewel — shopping or watching a movie at the Shaw. All of this, without ever leaving the Changi Area. Not only is this cheaper for the individual, it’s also cheaper for the employer, who doesn’t have to pay for a more expensive hotel in the city, or for the cost of transporting them to and from Changi. Proponents of the Aerotropolis model would argue that this makes Changi a more attractive place for businesses.

Critics, on the other hand, fault the model for overestimating the number and types of goods that travel by air. While time sensitive and high-value goods travel through air, heavier items like cars and raw materials do not. Also, with improved technology, airports will become less relevant. Video conferencing and other telecommunications advances will decrease business travel, while 3D printing technologies could reduce the need for air cargo shipments of components and parts.

Whether these advantages hold true in the Singaporean context, is whole another question. The importance of airport proximity is questionable, considering the small size of the island nation.

Only time will tell whether Singapore’s expensive bet on Jewel will pay off.

Featured image from Sadie Architects

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