Big Airports Have Their Place, and It’s Usually Not Downtown

Most of the great 20th-century mistakes in urban policy start with the word “ought.” Generations of planners have wrestled with what they thought a city ought to be, instead of recognizing it for what it is—whether that meant ramming freeways through neighbourhoods in the name of mobility, or slum-clearing in the name of fighting poverty (at a time when economic growth was clearing the slums organically, but in ways local governments chose not to see).

We no longer engage in urban freeway clearances or bulldoze slums, but the “oughts” stay with us, with various bright minds always willing and eager to inform us what every city requires in order to be World Class™. In just the last four years, Toronto has been told it needs a Monorail, a Ferris wheel, a transit plan based exclusively on subways, and an NFL franchise, if it wants to play in the big leagues.

Perhaps most novel, though, is the argument, in the context of whether Toronto should approve a local airport expansion in the absence of even the most basic factual information (such as how much space the expansion will actually require), that downtowns are actually the ideal place for large, high-volume international airports. The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders (who, full disclosure, I love when he’s writing books debunking xenophobic racism) made the pitch recently on Twitter, saying, “The suburbanization of air travel was one of the great 20th-century mistakes. Let’s hope Toronto can undo it.”

It’s not just that the claim is wrong—it’s wrong in a way that a lot of thinking about cities is wrong, and you don’t have to agree or disagree with the particular proposal at hand by Porter Airlines to explore why.

The first and most obvious problem with locating airports close to urban downtowns is that airports tend to be very large, and downtown urban space is very expensive. This is why, when governments take private land to build airports (a free-market airport may exist somewhere, but it’ll be news to me—Toronto’s was built at city expense in the 1930s), they tend to build them where land is cheap. It’s a mistake city-watchers of all kinds make, whether they’re proposing massive land giveaways to their preferred interests, or demanding nothing be built taller than their own roofline: substituting an actual appreciation of land values with wishful thinking.

There are obvious exceptions to this—if you’re Osaka, a lack of better options may make building an airport on an artificial island look attractive. But it should be just as obvious that Toronto doesn’t face the same limitations a city like Osaka does, and that there are other locations available for a major airport. Indeed, given the tenor of the discussion about whether Toronto needs a major airport expansion, you’d be forgiven for not knowing the federal governmentalready plans to build a second international airport on farmland it expropriated in the 1970s, explicitly for that purpose.

Another all too common misunderstanding—and not just in airport debates—is the mistake of equating location with access. Sometimes location is important: for everyday amenities such as schools, parks, or transit, nearby availability is important. For emergency services, it’s important to have easy access even if you never have to call 911. But for major, regional facilities, we don’t guarantee access by trying to perfectly locate every service within every neighbourhood—we make sure they’re accessible by investing in mobility, whether that means transit or highways.

Never mind that we don’t actually build that many airports, and it’s worth siting the ones we do have so that they benefit a whole area, not just one group’s perceived self-interest. As quaint as downtown Toronto’s narcissism can be, the city is just the core of a much wider region, and the downtown itself isn’t setting any records for easy movement of people or goods. Saying we should locate a major, important piece of infrastructure downtown is to say, roughly, “the entire rest of the region should be massively inconvenienced on an ongoing basis, because reasons.” The argument to locate major airports downtown needs to not only demonstrate that it would be desirable to do so, but that it’s so desirable that governments should go through the substantial ongoing expense of doing so when cheaper, better options exist—not to mention options where adding the substantial road and energy infrastructure would be more easily accomplished than in a built-up urban area.

It’s no accident, then, that cities are solving the problem of getting air travellers into their downtown cores by investing in transit infrastructure instead of “solving” the “mistake” of putting their airports out of the way. This is an easy, common sense policy fix that’s being replicated in city after city; even in Toronto, the trip to Pearson from downtown is going to get easier next year, when the government finally opens a rail link to the city’s core.

There’s no city that couldn’t benefit from easing up on bureaucratic planning and building restrictions. But a major and likely irreversible airport expansion isn’t the same as a food truck dispute, or a club owner wanting a change to a liquor license, or a developer wanting to build a slightly higher condo than the neighbours would prefer. Rather, it’s exactly the kind of controversy local government is supposed to deal with: there are major, irreconcilable claims on space and the environment, and they’re not always benign or easy to reverse.

Which is why, if you want to build an airport without a lot of fuss, you probably shouldn’t do it downtown.

Image via aceebee / Flickr