I recently flew from Minneapolis to Santa Fe, stopping over in the Denver airport. While waiting for my connecting flight I noticed something about the the airport that I had not seen before. Airports, those large enough to support multiple terminals, function like a city. Each one has restaurants, retail shops, transit (the train between terminals and moving walkways), separate lanes for faster moving traffic, and nodes of activity. The airport works like an ideal community, providing a safe environment for spontaneous interaction among the inhabitants.
This may seem like a strange interpretation of the airport, a place where people need to be but hope to spend as little time as possible. However the longer you stop to watch the activity, the more you notice the parallels. Beginning with transportation. Most airports have moving walkways for people looking to get to their destination quickly. These are akin to the higher order streets in a city. Then there is the area for people to walk on either side, the sidewalks. Bigger airports have a train, above or below ground, that runs between terminals, like a light rail line. The only missing activity is the bicyclist, which is probably never going to be added to the airport.
Next is the commercial activity. Every terminal has hubs of activity containing retail stores, souvenir shops, candy stores, and restaurants. They each have a storefront looking out onto the busy stream of pedestrians. The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport has gone so far as to add a food truck alley, just like their respective downtown's offer during the work week. The ideal city would have a string of pedestrians walking past these types of storefronts throughout the day, just like the airport does to provide activity and interaction.
The way people interact in an airport is also desirable in a real city. Everyone at the airport has the same goal, making it to their flight which is hopefully on time to get them to their destination. This common goal makes people more willing to talk to strangers. The number of random conversations that occur while waiting for flights is much higher than in an ordinary city. The airport keeps us there together, unlike cities which do not always provide a hub of activity to draw citizens to the same location.
The one strength a real city has over an airport is the ability to have people living near these nodes of activity. Except in the movie The Terminal, no one lives in the airport. Anyone catching a red eye flight knows that the airport goes to sleep at night. All the shops close up and most of the people are gone. Too many cities have this same lack of activity. They are lively during the day but close up when everyone leaves the office at 5 pm. This is because too many cities are like airports, they provide the shops and restaurants, but nowhere for people to live so they drive home to their residential enclaves.
The airport city seems like a great model upon first glance, but it realistically cannot be replicated in the real world. People feel safe because of the security put in place, but a real city could not copy that. The real city can however draw from the activity nodes, storefronts, and pedestrian focus of the airport to provide places where people want to gather. They should focus on mixing uses, including residential units, designing the city for the pedestrian, and creating public spaces for everyone to use. Then we might start to see cities with more to offer than the airport.