Gensler’s vision for a proposed Thames Estuary airport would offer global travelers 24/7-access to Europe through an airport uniquely positioned for change and expansion. Image: vyonyx for Gensler.
As the political debate continues about airport hub capacity in the UK, it is worth considering a broader perspective on how the modern city accommodates its most essential, but perhaps least loved, piece of transport infrastructure. With the inexorable growth in the aviation industry fuelled by globilisation, cities across the world are beginning to reflect on how to plan for future airport growth. But what is the optimal location for a major international airport?
The final closure of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, one of the first purpose built International Airports, marked a change that many city planners are now wrestling with.
What we are seeing has parallels with the dramatic changes to our port infrastructure, and to a lesser extent our rail stations, with the advent of container shipping in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Huge swathes of port facilities and rail yards became surplus to requirements with this simple change in freight technology. The new ports and rail freight depots we located in many instances far outside the city boundaries to take advantage of deeper water, cheaper land and most importantly less congested road and rail infrastructure. For the last 20 years city planners have been working hard to reuse these extensive land areas. In London, with the Canary Wharf and Broadgate developments, we are at the vanguard of major urban redevelopment that reused this redundant transport infrastructure so successfully.
The challenge for many cities now is that original 1940’s airports have grown far beyond original expectations of the city planners in the immediate post war period. Incremental intensification has led to an intolerable situation for many city residents. It has been a continual headache for politicians of all parties to argue for further expansion when we already suffer disruption and severe localized congestion.
Throughout history, access to transportation has been the key to consistent economic expansion. In this context, relocation of major airports is not new and many cities such as Hong Kong, Denver, and Seoul have shown that with a well-planned relocation and proper investment in the transport infrastructure. This has brought huge economic benefits to their city centers by allowing continued growth in the high value economic activity associated with air passengers and cargo, while minimizing environmental impacts on residents.
London is yet again at this crossroads. How can it maintain its global trading position without a significant expansion and improvement in its airport hub capacity? The problem for London’s planners is not unique, there isn’t an obvious place to put such a significant and, for many people, disruptive piece of infrastructure. The long debate in London has repeatedly come back to focus on the one area close to London with very little development - the Thames Estuary.
Like Hong Hong, the relocation of London’s main airport would transform Heathrow into one of the most important urban expansion sites in Europe. The former airfield could provide an invigorating opportunity to address the mixed-use needs associated with the long-term population growth now being experienced across the Capital.
While there are technical, environmental and economic challenges that will require more detailed study regardless of the site, as one option for the preferred strategic location for London’s new hub being considered, the Thames Estuary offers benefits that should be considered.
For more information on Gensler’s vision for an airport in the Thames Estuary, click here.
Ian Mulcahey is Co-Managing Director of Gensler London. As the leader of a multidisciplinary team of planners, architects, and urban designers, he's interested in creating compelling spaces that add to the richness of urban environments, and he recognizes the competing political, commercial, and social forces that influence urban planning and design. Contact him at email@example.com.