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Are airports the new protest spaces of our globalized future?

Last weekend's demonstrations foreshadow airports' new place in civic life

A police officer walks past demonstrators at the international arrival terminal at San Francisco International Airport during a rally against a ban on Muslim immigration.
Stephen Lam / Getty Images

Last weekend, more than 80 airports nationwide played host to demonstrations protesting the Trump administration’s executive order preventing travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.

Contrasted with the vibrant urban settings that had hosted Women’s Marches just a week before, airports provided a surreal backdrop for civic action, as protesters staged sit-ins in arrival halls and turned parking garages into rally sites, pledging to stay until detained travelers were released.

As our airports have become increasingly inaccessible due to mounting security concerns, they’ve also become designed-by-committee, walled-off sovereign entities.

“Airports are inhumanly scaled because of the operations they support,” says Greg Lindsay, author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. Not only do they leave new arrivals with unfriendly first impressions of our cities, but they also lack truly public spaces,” he says. “Every space is contingent and contested.”

This past weekend—whether it was watching hundreds of people walking into LAX when traffic was stopped, or witnessing a peaceful Austin rally that caused no disruption to airport operations—for the first time in our post-9/11 world, citizens got to see airports truly connected to the cities which they serve.

That included addressing some extremely unique, urban-scale logistical challenges for both airport officials and demonstrators.

Moving hundreds of thousands of people to downtown streets for a march is one thing—getting people to an airport is a huge transportation challenge, especially in cities that don’t have adequate transit connections to begin with. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, transit authorities were coyly reminding protesters to use trains or buses to get to SFO and LAX.

Some airports reported delayed flights because crew members could not get to work, and heavy traffic was reported around many airports. Long-term parking lots and shuttles were filled with protesters, and passengers had to wade through sign-holding crowds to get to their gates.

So many New Yorkers were using the city’s AirTrain to get to the protest at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) that security guards blocked people from boarding it until Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered Port Authority to let protesters through.

"The people of New York will have their voices heard," he said in a statement. (A strike initiated by New York City taxi drivers in response to the executive order further exacerbated challenges for people getting to and from JFK, and a response to Uber’s actions during the strike became as politicized as the demonstrations themselves.)

Protestors rally at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

The incident on JFK’s AirTrain also points to another challenge for an airport demonstration. Most airports are a checkerboard of public and private properties with both local and federal oversight. JFK’s international terminal, Terminal 4, which became ground zero for the protests nationwide, for example, is partly owned by Schiphol Cargo, the corporation that manages Amsterdam’s airport.

Those overlapping jurisdictions surprised demonstrators unprepared for the specific laws that govern the spaces they intended to occupy—laws which differ from airport to airport.

At Denver International Airport, protesters first congregated in the arrivals hall, which obstructed the work of security officers. Airport officials then spoke directly with protesters to find a place to gather that wouldn’t interfere with operations. “When people showed up there was the opportunity to have that conversation with our police commander, who explained the rules and laws,” says Heath Montgomery, spokesperson for DIA. “We worked with them to find common ground because it was unprecedented and something we hadn’t seen before.”

Denver just so happened to have the perfect solution: A 80,000 square-foot outdoor plaza, which was added in April 2016 when a brand-new commuter rail line threaded from downtown to the airport. The space has hosted an ice rink, putt-putt golf course, and beer garden—all open to the public—which made it a natural fit to host the demonstration, says Montgomery. “The plaza was really designed to be a public gathering space for events. Everyone seemed to be really happy that there was a place for them.”

Globally, this type of “airport urbanism” is actually becoming the norm as airport design worldwide moves away from the fortress model of the past. While continuing to focus on security for boarding areas, new airports are adding more permeable spaces that serve both passengers and the greater public. Munich’s airport has a similar programmed plaza that inspired Denver’s.

When Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport expanded, it added a covered square with shopping and dining options that are open to the public. Derrick Choi of the firm Populous told Curbed that their role as airport designers now include ideas for activating flexible spaces, like bringing in food trucks or adding temporary stages for live music. “Modern American airport terminals must reflect the proclivities and aspirations of the communities that they serve as well as the visitors that they greet,” he says. “Much like the Victorian-era train stations of Europe, airports have become America’s 21st-century gateways—for better or for worse.”

Demonstrators gather outside Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
AP Photo/Ryan Kang

At LAX, the Tom Bradley International Terminal had recently been refurbished to add more restaurants and shops specifically to accommodate people who were there to welcome arriving passengers. Last weekend, the renovation provided a bright, welcoming environment with food, seating, and restrooms—much like an actual public plaza.

“It was amazing to see,” said Lindsay after attending JFK’s protests. “These pathways that are almost never used, they became temporarily urbanized in a way that they never had been before. You could start to see JFK operate as a real urban space.”

By Monday morning, after a stay on the order had been issued by a federal court, and some detainees had been released, the large-scale demonstrations were over. But many airports remain filled with protesters, pop-up law offices, and family members awaiting news on traveling relatives. The hashtag #OccupyAirports has also cropped up, signifying that this one-weekend stand could potentially evolve into a movement more like Occupy Wall Street, which took over U.S. public spaces for months.

Interestingly, airports were repeatedly singled out by Trump during his campaign. Fixing the country’s “bad airports” was often named as a top priority for his $1 trillion of infrastructure improvements.

Judging by the implementation of last week’s executive order, it doesn’t seem like Trump has an accessible, public-facing airport in mind. About 90,000 people are affected by this ban, parts of which may become permanent, and the type of “extreme vetting” this executive order requires means more of these passengers will be held for hours against their will. What Trump really wants are new airports that look like something a little more impenetrable, and a lot more unwelcoming: a wall.