What does urban design have to do with airports?

June 12, 2015

Design for Auckland

The word airport conjures up images of large utilitarian buildings, filled with billboards, long blank walls, and countless windows. To me, airports permeate a general ambivalence to the human experience, with the key activities being: long hours waiting in queues, eating fast food, looking at hobbits (if you’re lucky enough to be at Wellington Airport), making purchases from highly inflated gift shops, squinting under the glare of fluorescent lighting, and pacing indescribable carpets, and that’s just the inside.

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Auckland Airport interior

Once we step outside the airport we usually linger only as long as it takes to get from the airport doors to our taxi or bus, (only to be met with traffic congestion soon after). All and all, the experience is rather lackluster, yet for 75 percent of people coming into New Zealand, our airports will be their key gateway.

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Auckland Airport interior

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Auckland Airport Bus Stop

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Auckland Airport Bus stop and drop off point

The good news is airports around the world are throwing out their utilitarian designs in exchange for a more ‘aerotropolis’design. In alignment with this movement some fabulous improvements to Auckland Airport are in the works. The recent publication of the Auckland Airport’s 30 year master plan illustrates some key design decisions that will make the development of one of Auckland’s greatest strategic assets.

Auckland Airport 30 year master plan


Image from Auckland Airport 30 Year master plan document

To put this in context, Auckland Airport’s landholding is 1500 hectares. Growth projections are putting increasing pressure on the airport to accommodate not only more businesses, training centres, hotels and more, but an additional Northern runway.

An impressive number of international and domestic passengers come through the airport’s gates (14.5 million annually). On top of this, some 20, 000 people work in the airport district every day.  For this reason, the function of airports seems to be changing from places of transit to destinations in their own right.  As described in the Auckland Airport 30 year master plan document:

“A new terminal plaza and forecourt will be created by the crescent-shaped space in front of the terminal building. It will provide a landscaped area for activities such as public art programmes, temporary displays and events, as well as retail outlets. The design of this plaza will provide a memorable and uniquely New Zealand sense of arrival and departure to our country.” (Auckland Airport, 2015, p. 24).


Image from Auckland Airport 30 year master plan document

Future developments in this space should be of great interest as the airport seeks to redefine its design approach to its public spaces, inverting some of the inward-looking characteristics typical of airport terminals to reveal a more holistic and inviting place.

Excitingly, some great placemaking has already happened on the ground, particularly in the space known as the Quad. The design of the main public space – Te Kaitaka Plaza – was led by Bespoke Landscape Architecture, and rates highly for its material and planting palette, and its inviting and informal array of seating and its in-situ bar table.

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Te Kaitaka (The Cloak)

The function space Te Kaitaka (The Cloak), designed by Fearon Hay Architects, is a jewel in the crown; winner of a World Architecture Festival award in 2014 and the Designers Institute of New Zealand Gold Award in the same year.

Auckland Airport is making strides towards better design, better urbanism, and better experiences in the space that is often both the first and last that people see during their time in Auckland.  And, when the new master plan comes into fruition, I look forward to re-inventing my own personal definition of the word ‘airport.’

Article by Robert Nairn

Read more at Airport of the future

See more at Bespoke Landscape Architecture

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