Why it’s time to close London City Airport

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April 10, 2014 // By: Helen Kersley

Loud, dirty and bad news for the climate, there’s no ideal place for an airport. But right in the middle of a city has to be the worst.

Today NEF is launching a new report on how we might prepare our cities for a more equal, prosperous and sustainable future. Taking London City Airport as an example of urban planning gone wrong, we argue that the airport can and should be closed and replaced with something much more valuable.

Built in the 1980s in the heart of London’s East End, catering for only 2.4% of London’s overall passengers, City Airport is the capital’s smallest, most exclusive airport. Geared chiefly towards wealthy business people from nearby Canary Wharf and the City of London, its average passenger's annual salary exceeds £90k.

The problem is, London City Airport is not earning its keep. Economically, there are far more productive things that fifty hectares of precious inner-city land could be doing. Take the ExCeL Exhibition and Conference Centre, just next door and roughly the same size. This multipurpose event space pumps £513 million into the UK economy on a quiet year – almost five times City Airport’s direct contribution. In terms of employment, the number of jobs supported by the airport (2,000 at best) pales in comparison to what is expected from the mixed housing and business development currently under way in nearby Silvertown (9,000).

Boasting the shortest check-in time among London-area airports, London City generates modest benefits for the executives jetting through it. But who bears its costs?

Last week, many of us got a taste of what it’s like to live near an airport when Saharan sand mixed with pollutants to create record levels of air pollution across the country. This is a part of everyday life for London City Airport’s immediate neighbours in Newham, already one of London’s most deprived boroughs. Here, 40% of residents earn less than £20k a year, and almost 18,000 suffer noise pollution as a result of being stuck under flight paths. In return for hosting an airport in their midst, the locals we spoke to during our research described how the majority of jobs they were promised never materialised; how noise, poor air quality and community blight combine to make them feel forgotten and isolated from the rest of London – squeezed aside for the convenience of the rich and powerful.

Closing London City Airport

If we are serious about tackling air pollution, inequality and carbon emissions, we need to think big about how we manage aviation. Our report argues that time is up for developments, like London City Airport, that destroy more social, environmental and economic value than they create. But can we really close down an airport?

Actually, yes. And thanks to the impending arrival of CrossRail, now is the perfect time. The new East-West railway across the capital will slash journey times between the City and Canary Wharf and other London airports, ending the need for an airport in the East.  It will allow City workers to travel from Liverpool Street to Heathrow in just half an hour (only 5 minutes longer than their current journey to London City Airport). In essence, it will create the opportunity to reclaim the airport for London and the local community and meet the needs of the City.

After all, there is a lot more spare capacity in our airports than the papers would have you believe. Heathrow, London and Stansted all have space to single-handedly absorb London City Airport’s tiny passenger demand (although in reality, of course, the displaced demand would be spread out between them). What’s more, all but a few of the smallest destinations served by London City are currently accessible via other airports. Business people have nothing to lose from being redirected.

What could we have instead?

Closing the airport would free up a sizeable space in the heart of London for a new kind of neighbourhood. What could we do with it?

We asked local people, architects, planners, academics and social geographers what the area might look like if we did cities right: if we designed them to work for people and planet, and to balance the needs of all. 

Resource efficient, natural architecture, growing areas and renewable energy could combine to make the new neighbourhood work with the environment instead of against it. Buildings would be flexible to the needs of residents and businesses, with shops, green spaces and cultural venues no more than five minutes’ walk away. Rather than exclusive penthouse apartments, top floors would be reserved as useful social spaces.

The residents we spoke to wanted to see their local area transformed from a thoroughfare into somewhere that people from London and beyond want to visit and live. Community ownership would keep housing and workspaces permanently affordable, and ensure locals get a stake in the area’s renewable energy infrastructure. Businesses would be encouraged to treat waste as a valuable asset, and build products to be reused rather than chucked.

Time to act

From New York to Beijing, Madrid to Harare we know we have to redesign our cities. Environmental strain and the instability born of deeply unequal societies must be urgently addressed for our survival. We have the technologies and imagination. The vital ingredient we must add is the political will. That’s why today NEF is calling on government to set the tone, put the future first and close London City Airport.

Issues

Social Return on Investment, Transport & Infrastructure, Environment

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