Urban Studies Airports and Urban Development
Janet Bednarek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0002


The connection between airports and urban development is highly contested. From the time airports were first established in the 1920s airport proponents have argued that they would inevitably result in economic benefits for the local area. This boosterism played an important role in efforts to both establish and expand airports. While there is general agreement on a relationship between airports and economic development, its nature has varied over time and with location. Some scholars have questioned whether airports spark economic development or whether local economic development provides the context for airport expansion. Others have pointed out that sometimes the relationship has been a zero-sum game as economic activity simply moves from one part of a metropolitan area to another. And many have argued airport development is most likely to promote wider economic benefits only when it is part of broader planning efforts, but jurisdictional complexities (suburban airports surrounded by multiple jurisdictions, for example) often thwart such efforts. And the question arises as to whether airport-driven economic development merely aids the area immediately surrounding the airport or the broader metropolitan region. For local officials, the greatest barrier to using airports as a tool of economic development, though, has been the persistent problem of airport noise. Especially since the dawn of the jet age in the 1950s, aircraft noise issues have both shaped and limited development around airports. Further, the land use planning process for areas surrounding airports has had to not only show sensitivity to the noise issue but also to ensure that any development would not constitute a hazard to aerial navigation. Therefore, local officials have been most successful in promoting development closely related either directly or indirectly to aviation—activities such as manufacturing, transportation, hotels, and convention centers. The areas around airports have also become the sites of otherwise “undesirable” developments such as prisons. However, any development on or near a public airport must also comply with multiple and complex federal rules and regulations. Most recently, calls for the privatization of airports has given rise to the question as to whether airports are more likely to promote economic development under private or public ownership. Privatization has been most common outside the United States. Within the United States, while privatization has had its champions, public ownership remains the overwhelming norm for larger commercial airports.

General Studies on Airports and Economic Development

Despite the highly contested nature of the subject, few works have examined the history of airports and economic development, although that has been changing in the last couple of decades. Many of the works fall into the booster category, while others evidence a more critical and nuanced approach to the subject. Perhaps the most well-known and prolific booster of airport development today is John D. Kasarda. Just as successful cities in the past centered on their seaports or train stations, Kasarda and Lindsay 2011 contends that the most successful cities going forward will be those centered on airports. Conway 1977 in some ways foreshadowed at least some of Kasarda’s arguments as it proposed the creation of so-called airport cities. A general history of airport boosterism can be found in Bednarek 2001 and Bednarek 2016. Danielson and Doig 1982 includes airport development as part of an examination of regional economic development in New York. Altshuler and Luberoff 2003 demonstrates how the size and complexity of airport projects further complicate their use for economic development ends. Perhaps the most critical examination of the relationship between airports and economic development can be found in Banister 1995, which explores the relationship between transportation technology and urban development generally and also includes two essays on airports and urban development specifically. A lengthier and more detailed examination of the relationship between airport development and economic development can be found in Eilers and Poole 1989. And the complexity of any development activity on or in the vicinity of an airport is detailed in Ward, et al. 2017.

  • Altshuler, Alan, and David Luberoff. Mega-projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2003.

    While examining the history of airport development (or the lack thereof) in Boston through the lens of megaprojects, this work demonstrates how multiple generations of local leaders in Boston (civic and business) felt the city needed better and expanded air service and, thus, a new and/or expanded commercial airport.

  • Banister, David, ed. Transport and Urban Development. London: E & FN Spon, 1995.

    Most of the book deals with the relationship between transportation technology and urban development generally. However, two essays explore the relationship between airports and urban development specifically.

  • Bednarek, Janet R. Daly. America’s Airports: Airfield Development, 1918–1947. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

    Dealing with the early history of airports, this work includes discussions of the extreme boosterism attached to the first campaigns to build airports in the United States. Both civic boosters and early city planners both assumed that airports would inevitably bring to cities economic development benefits.

  • Bednarek, Janet R. Daly. Airports, Cities and the Jet Age: US Airports since 1945. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-31195-1

    Covering the postwar period, this work includes discussions of the debates over the relationship between airports and urban development. Also explores how the noise issue complicated and in many cases thwarted efforts by local civic leaders to promote airport expansion despite promises of jobs and other economic benefits.

  • Conway, H. McKinley. The Airport City: Development Concepts for the 21st Century. Atlanta: Conway, 1977.

    In a way foreshadowing arguments later made by John Kasarda, Conway also argued that just as great cities formerly were located near seaports or rail hubs, the great cities of the twenty-first century will depend upon airports. Therefore, he argues, cities must be very deliberate in planning for the best and highest uses of land surrounding their airports.

  • Danielson, Michael N., and Jameson W. Doig. New York: The Politics of Urban Regional Development. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

    Looks at regional development in the New York City area generally but include discussions of the politics surrounding the expansion of existing airports and the repeated failure to build a new airport.

  • Eilers, Sarah, and Kenneth E. Poole. Airport Growth: Creating New Economic Opportunities. Washington, DC: National Council for Urban Economic Development, 1989.

    While acknowledging that the relationship between airports and economic development is contested, this report focuses on how local officials can incorporate airport planning into broader local and regional planning initiatives. Also highlights what type of development airports seem most likely to attract.

  • Kasarda, John D., and Greg Lindsay. Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

    The prime example of contemporary airport boosterism. Examines the development of the aerotropolis concept, its adoption by governmental officials across the globe (mostly in Asia and the Middle East), details instances in which airports in the United States have both followed and failed Kasarda’s advice, and suggests that any city looking to grow in the twenty-first century must implement the aerotropolis model.

  • Ward, Stephanie, Lynn Wilson, Regan Schnug, et al. Airport Cooperative Research Program Research Report 176: Generating Revenue from Commercial Development on or Adjacent to Airports. Washington, DC: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, Transportation Research Board, 2017.

    DOI: 10.17226/24863

    Development on or near airports is far more complicated that many local proponents of airport development would like to admit. This work details the complicated federal rules governing development on and adjacent to airports—how revenues can be generated, where any profits can or must be used, and limits on the type of development allowed near airports.

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