How airports can change how we think of places

Heathrow Terminal 2 before opening in 2014. Image: Getty.

I remember a time I became part of a mass of impatient flyers, as the technology collapsed in front of me at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Airports have become sites of big data and code – and when this vital lifeblood collapses, so does the airport. It becomes like a chaotic doctors’ waiting room.

Despite the inconvenience and chagrin, it is in moments like this where we can stop, stand still, and think about the space in which we find ourselves. Perhaps we should reflect more deeply on the place of the airport, a space that we so often neglect when we treat is merely as a waiting room from A to B. 

Airports are not just hubs of dizzying heights of technology, where the barcodes on the luggage tags allow the sorting of luggage according to flights. They are more abstract places of beauty, imbued with meaning, emotion, and identity.

Marc Augé wrote how airports, just like hotels and shopping malls, fall into the generic category of ‘non-place’ – devoid of any identity, a mere ‘space’, not even a ‘place’, through which one travels out of necessity.

Of course, the practical function of airports must not be overlooked – but what about the feelings of disorientation triggered by the confusing signs pointing us to a myriad of places as we pass through Heathrow Terminal 5? Or what about the architectural beauty of Denver International Airport with its marque-like exterior? Airports are too often synonymous with feelings of angst and hassle, and it is time to appreciate them as places in their own right, each one unique compared to the other.  

For British Airways pilot Mark Vanhoenacker, the life of pilots is besotted not just by jetlag but also ‘place lag’: is the non-biological sensation of disorientation and change when you start your day in daylight in London Heathrow, spend a few hours in the air, and arrive in San Francisco on the BA287 when the San Franciscan population is eating their dinner. It is the sense of wonder and adapting to change that is part of the process of air travel. The smells of New York espresso bars become replaced by the aroma of spices in the souks in Marrakech.

Yet such change does not happen instantly, nor in the space of a few hours at 42,000 feet. It all starts at the airport.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport (IATA Code: PVG) may look like something out of the 21st century on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a trip back in time to Maoist China. The smells of Shanghainese food traverse across the poorly ventilated departures area, and on a short trip from Shanghai to Seoul, it was in PVG where the place lag hit me. The contrast between PVG and Seoul Incheon – with its robots cleaning the floors – could not have been greater.

What’s more, the Chinese outward migration stamp is far from subtle: a huge red circle with the letters ‘EXIT’ printed in bold. Each time I have gone past border control upon exiting a country, I am left baffled. Geopolitical questions of the form “What country am I in?” fill my mind.


And what does it mean to be airside? Being airside in Pudong may mean one is physically on Chinese soil – but in terms of your sensory experiences, the airport has this wonderful way of gripping hold of you, making you feel part of its magic, as if in a state-less limbo. Neither here nor there, as you wait in trepidation for your flight.

Yet place lag does not just have to happen in the largest of airports, where exiting a country is met with a colourful passport stamp. L.F. Wade International Airport in Bermuda, with just 11 departures a day, is not the first airport that springs to mind when we think of ‘international’ airports.

But departing from Bermuda was an experience in itself – not just the walking onto the runway to board the aircraft, as if I were the US president boarding Air Force One, but the departures loung which made a doctor’s waiting room seem like a mansion. The scarcity of people, the lack of hustle and bustle, and sleepy pace of operations was a stark contrast to the chaotic airport of London Gatwick where my flight would take me.

In Bermuda, I also experienced place lag, but of a different sort. There was no border control upon exit, no rubber mark in my passport to show I had ‘left’ – but I knew I had left when I had managed to browse all of the duty free stores in five minutes, and stepped onto the runway to board my British Airways flight to London Gatwick. The multicoloured houses, the blue seas, and the adagio tempo of life in this airport, would all become a distant memory. As flight BA2232 descended into the grey expanse of Gatwick, the island airport that would greet me, accompanied by the noises of people waiting for delayed luggage, and the frustration of travellers unable to use the e-Passport gates, would cultivate a whole new sense of place.

Airports make us think about place not just as a fixed dot on a map, but as relational: a fusion of experiences and processes. It is a shame that it’s only when time stands still – when forced to, by a technological malfunction – that we devote time to think about the things that make the airport the place it is. This could be be the data sets, the sights, sounds, and smells, or the more emotional ways that airports alter how we think about place.

Airports are not mere spaces of nothingness: they are places of beauty, whether architecturally or emotionally. And it is important we do not ignore them in our contemporary, cosmopolitan obsession with travelling from one place to another.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.