On page 48 of Richard Gilbert's peak oil report "Hamilton: The Electric City", which he will be presenting to City Council tomorrow, he writes:
Hamilton needs employment lands for its projected population growth, and to redress the trend whereby Hamilton residents increase work outside Hamilton (see Box 20). The airport area presents an opportunity to provide for new employment lands, because lands surrounding the airport are nor generally suited for residential purposes.
Aerotropolis supporters, particularly the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, have already jumped on this as the justification they need to develop 1,200 hectares of rural land around Hamilton International Airport.
However, it's important not to overstate Gilbert's endorsement of the aerotropolis plan.
The EcDev report recommending Aerotropolis calls it "the number one strategic priority for economic development in Hamilton." Gilbert argues in contrast that "If the [peak oil argument] is accepted, there would be good reason to establish an energy cluster as the first priority," (p.46) rather than an air transport cluster.
I asked Gilbert to clarify his recommendations about aerotropolis, and he responded, "The statement in my report that the aerotropolis be the 'number one strategic priority for economic development in Hamilton' is presented as a direct quote from the 2005 Economic Development Strategy document. The whole thrust of my report is that there should be another 'number one strategic priority for economic development in Hamilton'."
On the same page from which the Chamber draws its quote, Gilbert cautions, "If oil prices rise steeply, the aviation industry could be especially vulnerable, particularly freight movement, putting the aerotropolis concept at risk, to the extent that it depends on air freight." (p. 48)
The immediate context for his endorsement is the following sentence: "An alternative view of the aerotropolis concept is that it could be a 'Highway 6 Business Park' that has no particularly strong relationship to the airport and to air freight activity." (p. 48) A business park "that has no particularly strong relationship" to air transport does not need to be close to the airport. In fact, locating it there is counterproductive insofar as it is removed from the other transport modes that industrial activity require.
Gilbert further qualifies the aerotropolis development: "The economic development strategy implied in the concept of 'Hamilton: The Electric City', would suggest that such a business centre be oriented towards energy efficiency, conservation, and production." (p. 48) As defined in Gilbert's report, this means wind farms, solar arrays, renewable energy R & D centres, and so on. Again, nothing in these activites requires proximity to the airport.
(However, it is certainly worth exploring the installation of wind turbines on rural lands. Other jurisdictions, especially in Europe, have had remarkable success co-locating wind turbines and farms, leveraging existing rural lands and providing additional revenue to farmers.)
Gilbert writes, "The aerotropolis could be developed with a focus on air freight in the short term but in ways that would allow for a future transformation to a wide range of energy-efficient forms of goods manufacture and freight movement." (p. 48) In other words, he's allowing Hamilton to hedge its bets, seeking to strike a balance between the city's eagerness to develop aerotropolis and his explicit reservations about the long-term viability of air transport.
Finally, Hamilton is already over-supplied with available industrial lands, from the mostly empty, highway-connected Glanbrook Park to the many underutilized lands within the urban area, including vacant lots, brownfields, surface parking lots (there will be less demand for surface parking in an Electric City), and empty industrial buildings. Spending $100 million to develop these lands first is more consistent with the goals of Gilbert's report than developing the aerotropolis.
To the extent that the proponents of aerotropolis defend it as Hamilton's "number one strategic priority", responsible for over half the projected job creation from now to 2031, Gilbert's report directly refutes their central premise, assigning it a tertiary role at best.
The impetus for the extreme measure of converting 1,200 hectares of rural land to industrial use was predicated on the necessity of airport development for Hamilton's long-term growth.
However, Gilbert's conclusions about the declining viability of air transport and his focus on energy conservation and production as Hamilton's most important priority reject the main justification to expand the urban boundary in the first place, even if his report includes lukewarm support for an industrial park that happens to be around the airport.
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