Ekurhuleni: No longer Joburg's poorer cousin

Hyderabad has embraced it, and so have Cairo, Denver, Hong Kong, Tehran, Memphis and Paris.

Nigeria has four of them in the pipeline – but it is Ekurhuleni that is the first in Africa. I’m talking about the aerotropolis, and many governments and investors are betting that this is a concept that will power economic growth in years to come.

An aerotropolis is an economy driven by an airport, which is integrated into all urban planning. In this vision, the airport is the centre of connections and the engine of trade and investment.

The term evokes images of the seamless global connections that science-fiction writers have long dreamt of. But with some 80 aerotropolis projects either completed or in development across the world, it turns out that the reality is already here.

Ekurhuleni Executive Mayor Mondli Gungubele is certainly evangelising it, so much so that he has earned himself the nickname “Mr Aerotropolis” by his local government colleagues.

Dr John Kasarda, the director of the Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina and the father of the aerotropolis concept, says: “Airports will shape economic activity and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th, and seaports in the 18th.”

Kasarda was the keynote speaker at this week’s Airport Cities World Conference and Exhibition, which was held in Ekurhuleni, and in Africa, for the first time.

The conference signals the growing interest in Africa as an investment destination.

Growth is hard to come by these days, as gloomy headlines keep reminding us. Everyone wants a magic bullet, so it’s little wonder that the aerotropolis is attracting so much interest.

Putting the concept into practice is a massive, long-term undertaking that requires leadership, commitment, lots

of funding and coordination. But when it does work, it can make a major impact.

According to specialist consultants Aecom, the aerotropolis delivers seven times more high-value job growth than traditional downtowns. About 3?000 direct and indirect jobs are supported by each regularly scheduled long haul service, while a 10% passenger volume increase results in a 2% growth in jobs in the region.

By way of example, the Memphis aerotropolis, the second busiest cargo hub in the world, is attracting more than $1?billion in new private investment this year at a time when the US economy is under huge pressure.

Denver – which goes by the nickname “the Mile-High City” – is another case in point. According to the city’s Mayor, Michael Hancock, Denver International Airport is now the biggest economic asset in the Rockies.

Gungubele says: “Cities don’t compete, entire regions do, and the stage is global. Airports have become strategic levers of competition, making airport cities preferred destinations.

“It is no longer the distance that determines competitiveness but speed and accessibility.”

For Ekurhuleni, the appeal of the aerotropolis lies in its potential to create jobs, alleviate poverty and address inequality.

More than 1.1?million people in Ekurhuleni have no known sources of income and 61% of them are under the age of 34.

Consulting extensively with Kasarda, Ekurhuleni officially embraced the aerotropolis in 2011, incorporating the concept into its municipal spatial development framework as part of Ekurhuleni’s integrated development plan.

Last year, an aerotropolis strategic road map was adopted by both Ekurhuleni and the Gauteng provincial government. The spill-over effect of the aerotropolis will also impact Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique.

The East Rand has always been seen as a gritty, less glamorous cousin of Joburg.

But thanks to its large manufacturing base and logistics businesses, it generates nearly a quarter of Gauteng’s gross domestic product.

With Africa’s busiest airport, South Africa’s busiest interchange and the country’s largest railway shunting yard, as well as entertainment and leisure facilities at Emperors Palace and elsewhere, it deserves its status as the continent’s first aerotropolis.

In a world where we feel more connected than ever thanks to the ubiquity and immediacy of social media, it’s easy to forget the importance of physical connections.

As Kasard points out: “The internet can’t move a box. It can’t move people.”

»?Britten consults for Ekurhuleni Metro on social media strategy

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