Boris Johnson faces an ‘uphill struggle’ in convincing London, the Davies Commission and the airports community over his vision for a new facility to the east of the capital, freeing up land for housing and jobs on the Heathrow site.
But Denver’s move to close its Stapleton International Airport 20 years ago to provide a bigger, more efficient airport plus a new community of 17,000 people on its old site shows what can be done with the dual tailwinds of political leadership and support.
That was according to Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock, visiting London – and Boris Johnson – with his airport team and speaking at a special conference at Bircham Dyson Bell in Westminster run by NLA, TfL and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport yesterday. Hancock outlined the conditions that lay behind the city deciding to uproot and start again but said his only advice to his London counterpart and ‘visionary’, Johnson, was to ‘keep the dialogue going’, principally about creating a new airport on the Isle of Grain to go with London’s general shift eastwards. ‘As a mayor you either envision things or you manage things’, said Hancock. ‘Johnson is clearly a visionary…You see things most people don’t see and you have to convince people. Part of the challenge for mayors is not to see how things, are but how they could be.’
GLA assistant director of planning Stewart Murray had framed his talk around the pressures faced by London generally, and particularly as they relate to what he called a ‘population demographic timebomb’. ‘We’re in one of the greatest cities on the planet and always have to rise above the debate about airlines and flying and think about cities’, he said. But the possible closure of Heathrow and relocation of the airport could create a series of opportunities for London’s housing and economic needs.
Transport, he said, was a big challenge for a city growing by 2 million to 10 million in total and there was a need for airport capacity fit for a city growing so rapidly. ‘Heathrow is going to be potentially a new city quarter the size of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.’
Denver was faced with an airport – Stapleton – with too few runways that struggled to operate effectively in poor weather and acted as a constraint on the economy as well as a nuisance for residents hit by high noise levels. Eventually, after having negotiated past votes to allow Denver to annex the site and struggles and litigation with opposition from some airlines (which now hail the decision), the city emerged with a new site that was big enough – at 53 square miles – to deal with six initial runways up to 12 potentially, thus militating against the need to move again. The move was founded upon a great deal of strong political leadership at local, state and national level, as well as many hundreds of hours of community consultation.
In 1995 the lights were turned off the old airport, said Kim Day, chief executive of Denver International Airport, when a ‘caravan’ of vehicles moved to the new facility, some 60km from downtown Denver. The challenge, said Day, was to close the ninth busiest airport in the world and open a new one 18 miles away, virtually overnight. The new site has space for 100 million passengers rather than 25 million, 1,550 flights daily today and has achieved eight times the economic impact of the old site. Mayor Hancock said a ‘master developer’ had been appointed to be responsible for the 4,700 acres of land at the old site which in 2002 was opened for the first residents. The real estate values of the site and wider Aerotropolis are projected to be £4.2 billion in 2025 and largely private investment has been helping to build 12,000 new homes, 10m sq ft of office space, six new schools and 1,000 acres of public parks.
‘The lessons of Stapleton are that, by opening our eyes and ears, we can achieve great things’, said Hancock. ‘This was our future.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly