AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on May 11, 2014

Sustainability + transparency = expediency

Community engagement and sustainability are vital ingredients for any airport development project, writes Parsons Brinckerhoff’s aviation design manager, Jane Ahrens.

Do the right thing and you’ll have nothing to hide.” Generally, this advice will serve any individual or organisation well. The only glitch may be actually determining what the right thing is!

Very often conflicting goals and priorities lead to differing opinions on what is right. Businesses and communities typically seek growth. Growth means more revenue, a greater tax base and more economic impact, all of which are considered good things in business.  

Unfortunately, these items often have some associated negative impacts and the environment tends to be the biggest loser. While negative financials can kill a project before it gets traction, negative environmental impacts are typically mitigated – one way or another.  

Introduced in the 1960s, environmental accounting is a method
that quantifies the value of the services a healthy environment provides. And while widely understood, it’s still been a hard sell to most of the developed world.  

Norway and other resource dependent countries have led the way in collecting data and assessing value. The US, along with much of the rest of the world, has lagged behind in adopting an accounting system that considers natural capital. 

With no widely accepted way to measure the value of natural systems, the “green argument” can often get mired in opinions informed by ethics, religion, politics, special interests, or general misinformation.  

Rarely is an argument adequately posited that can quantify the environmental pros and cons of a project in terms that matter – dollars.

In the US, federally funded projects must satisfy requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate the environmental consequences of proposed actions and their alternatives, to identify measures to mitigate any significant adverse impacts, and to conduct the entire process in coordination with other agencies and the public.   

European nations have similarly stringent public engagement requirements for federally funded projects. While the processes are robust and public hearings are required, if the community is not engaged then a major oversight component and/or champion can be missing.  

Projects rarely have a smooth path from planning to construction. While strong community objection will not necessarily derail a project, it will always cost more time and money.



Meaningful community engagement is critical both in support of good projects and in defense against bad ones. This is especially important for airports, as new greenfield airports in the US are a rarity due to many complex issues such as environmental regulations.

It is then critical that each existing airport do the most with what it has to accommodate the increasing demands on the aviation infrastructure. 

This often means a need or desire to lengthen, expand, or otherwise improve taxiways and runways, acquire more land, or even make more land where there was once a body of water or wetlands, as what has been proposed in the Thames Estuary in the UK. 

Well-known examples, such as the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) runway expansion death in the late 90s because of well organised windsurfers, and the El Segundo blue butterfly that halted the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) runway expansions, live on in people’s memory because they are rare.  

The fact that projects tend to move forward today does not imply that stakeholder opposition is non-existent, unsubstantiated, or being ignored. It shows that today’s processes better integrate community concerns into a viable project. 

The community has a seat at the table if it chooses to use it and exercising that voice can often improve the final solutions. It remains to be seen what happens with projects like the proposed Kansas City terminal and Heathrow’s third runway, but projects developed with more emphasis on the quantifiable and well articulated environmental benefits are often likely to have an easier time.

ACI Europe reported last year that over 50% of European passengers arrived at green, environmentally friendly airports. While the US is not there yet, fewer projects move forward without a sustainability message attached.   

Airports are more interested in engaging the public when they have a win/win proposition to share, and those narratives are more believable coming from an airport with a credible sustainable culture.  

Third party rating systems add to that credibility: the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system continues to add airport facilities to its ranks, and the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure has released its LEED-like system, Envison, which will begin getting some major traction as it better addresses the needs of airports outside the footprint of their buildings. 

European airports are applying to become accredited with the Airport Carbon Accreditation programme to quantify their efforts toward carbon neutrality, and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) continues to gain supporters and encourage airports to start tracking their metrics.

Airports use these systems to validate their own goals while also showing their communities that they are striving to be good neighbours and partners. 

Other means of communication such as websites that provide access to a noise complaint interface, a robust sustainability annual report, and regular public meetings all show the public that the airport has good things to say and wants the community to be a partner.  

It’s important that these systems are already in place before asking for community support. 



The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport is an excellent example of an airport with a focus on transparency in its actions, for this small gateway has highlighted sustainability efforts for years as it helped Chattanooga move from one of the most polluted cities in the US 40 years ago to one of the nation’s cleanest.  

Recently the airport transformed a small Runway Protection Zone (RPZ) project into an award winning green infrastructure project by expanding its scope and inviting community involvement.  

The original project was simply to purchase the few abandoned car lots in the RPZ, clear the sites, and plant grass. The airport knew it was removing some blight in the process, but that was the extent of the community benefits.  

It was then that the City of Chattanooga asked the airport to include that land in a beautification and revitalisation effort that would ease community flooding. 

This partnership changed the character of the project from a utilitarian project to a National Water Quality Demonstration Project designed and built with the help of volunteers that illustrates how green infrastructure can handle storm water run-off and prevent it from entering the city’s limited sewer system.  

It also leveraged a small project into a major community rallying point, helping to earn the trust and support of the community. The next time Chattanooga needs the community’s support, I bet it has it.  

Sustainability is so important to San Diego County that it named the airport’s expansion and modernisation project the ‘Green Build’ to demonstrate its green message every time the project was mentioned. 

This project builds on credibility garnered from being the first US airport to publish a sustainability report complying with the rigorous GRI standards. 

Abu Dhabi International Airport, while not a gateway that typically comes to mind when thinking of sustainability, is currently updating its master plan which, due to a wide stakeholder outreach process, includes a strong sustainability component. 

Indeed, Abu Dhabi has its own LEED-like system, the Pearl Building Rating System. While governmental buildings are required to achieve two pearls, the new Abu Dhabi terminal is targeting three. 

Airports with an established commitment to sustainability and transparency can earn greater trust from their communities through open communication and a shared vision of what is right for the airport and the community.  

Conflicting agendas will continue to exist. But since environmental issues tend to be the primary opposition to airport projects, this approach directly benefits airport assignments by reducing costs associated with holding additional outreach sessions, responding to lawsuits, public relations efforts, and, lost time.   

Once these more tangible costs are accounted for, the financial benefits of the green projects themselves can be tallied and shared.

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