Can airports go green?
by Ruth Slavid
There is an uneasy mismatch between the ideas of environmentalism and of airports, since we all know now that flight is one of the greatest contributors to the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Some will feel then that making airports greener is simply a matter of window dressing, especially when that ‘greening’ is carried out in the most literal sense of adding vegetation.
On the other hand, while individuals may choose not to fly, and be applauded for it, or at least to reduce their air travel, countries are not likely to wean themselves off flying in the near future. It is too central to economic models. The discussion that is still raging about the best way to expand London’s airport capacity is an indication that governments are unlikely to shrug their shoulders and say ‘let the capacity go elsewhere’. No nation at present is willing to shrink its airport capacity or even to halt growth.
So, love them or hate them, airports are here to stay, and we will be seeing more of them. It makes sense therefore to look at their effect on their surroundings. They are major pieces of infrastructure, and ones that can have particular impact in terms of noise, pollution and the effect on biodiversity. Ameliorating this, and making them as good neighbours as possible is clearly desirable.
At the same time, increasing thought is going into the experience that airports offer passengers. This is partly because, with the growth in air travel, in many parts of the world there are competing airports and a good environment will attract return business (although most operators admit that ticket price is still the determining factor). As part of this, airports are increasingly aiming to offer a distinctive experience, to make themselves ‘of the place’.
So, for example, the recently built Winnipeg Airport in Canada is not only long and low to echo the flat prairies of the area, but has also been designed to offer views of those prairies and big skies. At the revamped Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport there has been a deliberate effort to provide a more relaxing environment for passengers passing through security, because this is seen as more effective. If only the miscreants are twitchy, they are easier to pick out.
Elements at San Francisco are modelled on a garden and a park, and even London’s Heathrow has a very weird departure gate pretending to be a park, a reconstruction apparently of the gate that was built for Olympic athletes. But at Singapore’s Changi airport, there is nothing metaphorical about this parklike approach. Appropriately for a city state that aims to see itself as a ‘city in a garden’, vegetation is everywhere at the airport.
This is not a new policy, but dates back to when the airport was at its previous location, Paya Lebar, from 1955 to 1981 and, like so much else in Singapore, was driven from the top, by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. It has developed enormously since then, and the visitor is struck immediately by the amount of growing material within the terminals, echoing the lushness beyond. In addition to green walls and extensive planting, there are ‘feature’ areas, a collection of five gardens within the airport.
Terminal 1 has the cactus garden, Terminal 2 has the new ‘Enchanted Garden’, an orchid garden and a sunflower garden, and Terminal 3 has the butterfly garden, which the airport claims is the only one in an airport. All these gardens are in departure lounges except for the cactus garden, which is on the terminal roof, and the sunflower garden, which is also outside. And more gardens are planned. The planned ‘Project Jewel’, a mixed-use hub that will include aviation and leisure facilities, will have a huge garden at its heart, with a waterfall. The airport also intends to include extensive greenery in its new Terminal 4.
Khaja Nazimuddeen Abdul Hameed, senior manager, horticulture, at Changi Airport Group, said, ‘Greenery actually helps passengers to relax. The effective use of greenery also creates positive surprises for our passengers, playing a key role in leaving them with a memorable Changi Experience long after they step out of Changi Airport.’
Maintaining this level of planting is demanding, with a daily schedule of watering and feeding, and regular prevention of disease and replacement of plants. Last time I flew into Singapore, there were two men working with hoes on the planting inside the loop of the baggage arrivals belt.
Singapore’s concern with planting extends beyond the terminal to its surroundings, with bougainvillea trees planted around it, and colour coding embedded in the landscape to distinguish each terminal. Asked about problems with birds with this planting, as well as the rooftop cactus garden, the spokesperson said, ‘We avoid planting fruit trees and trees that allow birds to roost’.
This sounds relatively simple, but in fact dealing with birds is a major problem for airports as bird strike can be both costly and dangerous to life. For this reason, the surroundings of many airports are deliberately sterile, with biodiversity actively discouraged, in contrast to most other environments.
This is an irony that is not lost on Steve Osmek, the resident biologist at Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport, a role that the airport pioneered in the 1970s and that is still rare in US airports. ‘When I took the job,’ Osmek said, ‘it brought me back to when I was at school. I took everything that I learnt at school, and tried to do the opposite. We learnt that landscape diversity and plant diversity lead to habitat diversity. Here we are trying to do the opposite of that.’
One of Osmek’s responsibilities is catching the European starlings that used to flock in large numbers at the airport. Typically with decoy light traps, the airport catches 2–3,000 a year. These go to the ornithology collection at the University of Washington, saving the establishment the cost of buying birds.
But that is the crudest element of Osmek’s work. Most of it is concerned with creating an environment that is not congenial to the kind of wildlife he wants to keep away. In the immediate area around the runways, there is a mix of hard surfaces and grasses. You need some soft areas, Osmek explains, for aircraft accidentally going off the runway, as it will slow them more rapidly. So the blacktop is interspersed with grasses, which are grown in low-nutrient soil so that they stay low. And the seeds contain a fungus that is repellent to wildfowl.
But beyond the immediate area of the runways there is a far more varied landscape. The airport is set among wetlands, and since the construction of the third runway in 2008, the airport has carried out considerable restoration in this area. ‘A wetland provides multiple features and birds are only one,’ Osmek said. ‘We are a great example of having done this very well.’ The secret to not attracting waterfowl is, he said, to plant very dense shrub around ponds, making it physically impossible for the birds to land. This does not deter songbirds, which the airport says are harmless. The strategy has been very successful, with bird strike numbers falling. The only hiccough was in 2011 when a very wet summer led to an explosion in the vole population, attracting birds of prey.
With development burgeoning around the airport, there is a desire to make the area attractive, not just around the terminal buildings but also at other facilities. The airport has produced a list of approved plants, which are not attractive to birds. It is impressively long.
There are no green roofs at the airport. Osmek is sceptical about them, conceding that perhaps some of the most basic sedum roofs may be OK but worried that other, more diverse roofs, could act as an attractant.
His other scepticism is about the use of animals for grazing. Chicago’s O’Hare airport, for example, has attracted considerable publicity for its use of goats to keep down vegetation. Sea-Tac tried this one year but found it was too successful – the goats, not surprisingly, ate everything, good plants and bad.
Landscape architect West 8 has also thought seriously about birds in its work at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. It has been working there since 1992, alongside the rapid development of the airport. It has infilled all available spaces with birch trees, which create what the practice describes as a ‘green haze’ in the summer. The trees’ branches are slender and flexible enough to discourage large birds from landing. The practice is adding 25,000 trees each year. Initially these are underplanted with clover and then grass is allowed to take over, either kept short as lawns or allowed to grow taller into flowery meadows.
Another way to avoid bird strike is to put the airport in a place to which they will not be attracted. This was one of the arguments for the proposed London Britannia Airport in the Thames Estuary designed by Gensler. Although this was not selected as an option in the Davies report on airport expansion published in December, it raised some interesting issues. Paul Fineberg of Gensler, which designed the airport, said, ‘Birds do not feed in the deeper water where we would position the airport.’ Gensler’s design were very much at conceptual stage and the arguments for the airport were manifold, to do with transport links and development opportunities.
One of the arguments that Gensler made was that its proposal would allow for the redevelopment of Heathrow, an area that was, says Fineberg, a ‘bucolic village’ until the government requisitioned the land and turned it into an airport during World War Two. Gensler has a proposal to turn the airport back into ‘a piece of city’. ‘You take away the runways and put lakes there,’ Fineberg said. ‘Heathrow can become again a part of London. It will be a new city.’ This regeneration is still a possibility since, in addition to the three main options at Heathrow (two options) and Gatwick, Davies has also asked for more work to be done on a proposal for a new hub on the Isle of Grain, which would lead to the replacement of Heathrow.
Mary Margaret Jones of Hargreaves Associates recently spoke at a symposium at Harvard about the practice’s work of turning the former military airfield at Crissy Field near San Francisco into a national park, and the practice has made proposals for similar projects in Berlin, Germany, Orange County, San Francisco, and New York’s Jamaica Bay.
Closer to home Planit is working with 5Plus Architects on a landscape-driven masterplan for Manchester Airport City, a new city quarter near the airport. Airport design is certainly not all about the planes.