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Terminal Cities

Updated Thursday, 13th June 2013

Everyone wants to be able to go everywhere, but no-one wants the Terminal City near them. Simon Bell discusses the paradox of modern air travel.

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Professor Simon Bell discusses 'Terminal Cities', the collection of buildings, vehicles, employees and passengers that comprise a modern airport.

Use the tabs below to watch the video, listen to the audio or read the transcript. Then see how Simon begins his exploration of Terminal City using some simple diagramming techniques. There's also some facts and figures to further illustrate just how complex and busy Heathrow is.

Learn more about the size, scale and complexity of a modern airport with Airport Live, a new four-part series coming to BBC Two from Monday 17 June.


A paradox and a conundrum—Professor Simon Bell discusses Terminal City.


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When we look at London Heathrow (LHR) we are looking at Terminal City. LHR is maybe the biggest and maybe the busiest but wherever you live in the world there is probably a similar Terminal City near you.

Airports are cities? Well, LHR is a city. A population of 270,000. But how does that break down? Around 200,000 passengers a day and around a further 70,000 employed. In Terminal City 75% of the population changes every day. This is a place where few faces remain the same. It is the ultimate place to pass through.

The conundrum of Terminal City. If I put it in simple terms: Everyone wants to be able to go everywhere... but no-one wants the Terminal City to be near them. Terminal City is a paradox.

Lots of excitement, the gateway to the world. Lots of jobs and lots of money But,  the gateway to incoming population, lots of pollution and lots of human crush

LHR is just the biggest example of the paradox - we want it, we need it and we hate it. This is global. Everyone feels the same.

One day airports may be looked at like we look at horses and carriages - odd historic anomalies superseded by technologies which take away the pain But right now we are in the middle of the craving. Like addicts we need our travel fix. It is vital and essential. And when we have the fix and it works, we love it. We only hate it later when we have come down from the high.

Terminal City may be a passing phase and an historic anomaly but it is a major element of who and what we are today. We really can’t ignore it and we really need to understand it better.

Rich picture

Rich pictures are a mixture of pictures, drawings, symbols and text representing a problem or situation from the point of view of the person(s) drawing them.

In this rich picture you can see I have begun with the question of terminal city, and used it to explore its different aspects, such as large numbers of people, buildings, transport, the environment, busy skies and the delicate balances involved.

Don't let the apparent simplicity of a rich picture fool you—anyone can produce one, and they are powerful tools for exploring and ultimately making better sense of a complex situation.

We can give this rich picture a little structure by producing a spray diagram. Use the tab at the top to see how it turns out.

To learn more about rich pictures and other diagramming techniques, try our Guide to Diagrams videos and quiz.

Rich picture of terminal city Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Spray diagram

Spray diagrams show connections between related elements associated with a particular issue or topic. One way to use them is to catch the richness of the rich picture but start to organise it a little bit.

In this spray diagram I've kept terminal city as our central topic but I've begun to structure the related elements in terms of their importance and closeness to the main idea. Now we're really starting to see what the important elements are, and we can investigate them further.

Other diagramming techniques we can use for investigating terminal city are systems maps, influence diagrams and multiple cause diagrams.

To learn more about rich pictures, spray diagrams and these other diagramming techniques, try our Guide to Diagrams videos and quiz.

Spray diagram of terminal city Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Heathrow facts

Here are some interesting facts and figures about Heathrow's Terminal City:

  • The total size of Heathrow airport is 1,227 hectares or 4.7 square miles.
  • In 2012 Heathrow dealt with 471,341 flights—an average of 1,288 every day, with over 70 million passengers travelling through.
  • Over 76,000 people work within the airport boundary, with a further 114,000 in work directly or indirectly related to Heathrow.
  • These people create around £5.3 billion of gross added value in the London area.
  • Heathrow dealt with 1,464,550 metric tonnes of cargo in 2012. Over half of that figure was cargo coming from the North Atlantic.
  • This cargo is worth upwards of £50 billion.
  • 30% of passengers are travelling for business, 70% leisure.

All data courtesy Heathrow and correct as of May 2013.


This video includes the track in a dream by johnny_ripper, used under a BY-NC-SA-3.0 licence.





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