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ENVIRONMENT Last modified on July 8, 2010

Secret Gardens


Airport gardens are getting bigger, more impressive and picking up ‘green’ awards, writes Robin Stone.

It’s an oasis of peace and calm, a world removed from the hustle and bustle of an international airport. The passengers who potter round this placid paradise could be enjoying a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll around the UK’s Royal Horticultural Gardens at Kew as they admire the exotic blooms.

In reality, they’re thousands of miles away from the London suburbs. They are, in fact, chilling out in Changi.

Singapore’s international gateway is helping to take the stress out of travelling by offering its customers a choice of restful retreats as they await their connecting flight.

Changi, which is particularly renowned for orchids and ferns, has six gardens. One tranquil corner of the airport complex even has its own garden lagoon, where giant Japanese koi carp swim idly among the water lilies.

Indeed, so famous has Changi become in horticultural circles that the airport has even had a new orchid hybrid named after it (Dendronium Singapore Changi Airport to give it its official
botanical moniker).

There is simply no disputing that Changi is something of a horticultural pioneer. In 1998, it became the first airport in the world to house a rooftop cactus garden, and last year a butterfly garden was opened in the heart of Terminal 3 by Finance and Transport Minister, Lim Hwee Hua.

“The butterfly garden is a unique attraction designed to complement T3's nature theme and Singapore's tropical garden image,” enthuses Lim, describing it as “a tranquil haven offering a respite from the stresses of travelling.”

“It is part of CAAS's ongoing efforts to introduce novel or improved facilities to enhance the Changi experience for our passengers." The new garden – home to more than 1,000 butterflies native to Malaysia and Singapore – gives passengers the chance to observe the insects’ life cycle at close quarters. Colourful caterpillars munch away in the garden’s breeding corner, while adult butterflies can be seen

sipping nectar right up close at specially designed feeding stations. And when the insects make the final transition from pupa to adult butterfly, visitors can watch it all happen inside a purpose-built “emergence” enclosure.

The butterflies are enclosed in a curved, two-storey structure constructed of steel mesh and glass panels, designed to replicate (as far as possible), the butterflies’ natural habitat. The flowers growing inside the enclosure are specially selected to meet their dietary requirements.

Visitors can walk through the garden on a timber walkway, and a waterfall cascading through it helps to keep the temperature cool. Levels two and three have been linked by a spiral staircase covered in climbing plants.

Across in Changi’s Terminal 1, an ‘Orchid Library’ has been created, comprising a display of potted orchids in bloom, rising from the arrivals hall to the departures area.

But Changi is by no means the only airport to set aside some of its land as gardens. It seems hard to believe, for example, that it was less than 20 years ago that Dubrovnik Airport, caught up in the Balkans conflict, was being plundered by invading forces. Today, peace reigns in its extensive parks and gardens – a project which started flowering back in 2004. The gardens are now internationally renowned, culminating in a ‘Blue Flower’ award from the Croatian National Tourist Board.

It was presented to Niko Cvjetković, head of the airport’s horticulture maintenance department.

Other airports have also picked up ‘green gongs’, among them, Dubai for its zen gardens in Terminal 3. The airport was presented with a prestigious award by The British Association of Landscape Industries to recognise projects undertaken outside the UK.

In years gone by, attractive landscaped gardens would have been the last thing to be associated with the aviation industry, but nowadays they have a prominent presence in the overall design of new airports and terminals.

As airport planners continue to give more weight to the impact their operations have on the environment; as ground transport infrastrucure evolves with a view to minimising congestion, disruption and air pollution, and as improved technology produces generation upon generation of quieter aircraft engines, it is perhaps unsurprising that airports are becoming greener, both literally and metaphorically.

A good example of this new, enlightened thinking can be seen at Kolkata International Airport’s new Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose terminal, which has many energy and resource saving features. Set in landscaped gardens, the new terminal has been designed to integrate domestic and international operations at Kolkata.

The terminal building uses natural light and cooling systems, and places strong emphasis on ‘green’ projects such as rainwater recycling for irrigation and integrating existing trees and vegetation into the landscaped areas.

Staying on the sub-continent, bowl-shaped rain gardens alongside the longest runway in Asia – at India’s Hyderabad–Rajiv Gandhi International Airport – have been designed to capture
storm water and then recycle it, a process the airport describes as “groundwater recharge”.

The project at the Shamshabad located gateway followed a trial carried out the National Geographical Research Institute (NGRI), which developed nine model rain gardens on its campus. The trial was so successful that it was decided the replicate it at the new international airport.

The rain gardens will be developed in phases over the next four years and will be located next to the terminal building, alongside airfield pavements and near the control tower.


Green-fingered workers at Dammam–King Fahd International Airport have gone even further. Saudi Arabia’s largest airport has its own plant nursery with three greenhouses, set in an area of green fields covering more than 215,000 square metres. The nursery supplies the airport gardens and other cultivated areas with young saplings and other plants.

At this point, it’s worth noting that not all airport garden projects are about ferns, fronds and other foliage. A piece of modern art at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale International Airport,
created by one Alice Adams and entitled ‘Stone and Glass Gardens’, is a case in point.

Her masterpiece – an aluminium boat frame sculpture overlooking a stairway and a lift – “establishes a metaphor for the Everglades”, according to the artist.

More traditional gardens can be found in Malaysia, where the country’s airports have an enviable track record on green issues, most particularly its flagship Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which claims to be the only airport in the world carrying ‘Green Globe’ certification.

Green Globe is an international programme measuring sustainable travel and tourism, and is based around principles established at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Dato’ Seri Bashir Ahmad, managing director of Malaysia Airports, is proud of KLIA’s achievements. “This is an indication of our unwavering adherence to environmental sustainability,” he enthuses.

“KLIA was built to minimise the impact of the airport business environment on its local surroundings. It’s marked by architectural and airport features that aim to preserve and foster
the local ecosystem.”

Its green initiatives are known as the ‘seven wonders’ encompassing, among others, the natural environment, energy efficiency, noise control, and resource management.

Indeed, the company’s commitment to the environment has extended to creating a miniature tropical forest in the middle of KLIA’s satellite terminal that contains more than 200 tree species in a glass-encased area.

“This is the first man-made forest in an airport anywhere in the world,” says Ahmad. While KLIA’s “forest in the airport and airport in the forest” (as the project is popularly known) is the most eye-catching environment initiative at the airport, there are a host of others.

Extensive landscaping has been carried out to prevent soil erosion, trees have been replanted, ponds constructed and previously barren grounds transformed into a haven for birds and fish.

Most recently, Malaysia Airports has embarked on Project Green Planet at KLIA, launched last year on World Environment Day.

“This promotes environmental responsibility among local and foreign travellers alike by involving them in educational activities,” adds Ahmad.

For this year’s World Environment Day, the airport organised a ‘walk the environment’ race, involving both the airport community and general public in a treasure hunt, supplemented by exhibitions and talks on the environment.

KLIA also runs a campaign known as ‘Pledge a Plant, Save the World’, which encourages the public to sponsor or adopt a plant.

The educational aspect of this work is reinforced by ‘KLIA Green Park’, an area set aside by the airport for plant research by students and forestry groups. It also doubles as a recreational area for activities such as jogging, trekking, cycling and camping.

At Hong Kong, passengers wishing to get away from it all in a relaxing green environment can visit the miniature gardens at the arrivals halls or along the central concourse. Green plants abound, giving both passengers and ‘meeters and greeters’ a sensation of rural serenity in the middle of a busy airport.

But it’s not only the major international airports that can, with some justification, call themselves ‘garden gateways’. Smaller airports are also enhancing their reputations for being less
crowded and more customer-friendly by maintaining beautiful gardens, Thailand’s Koh Samui Airport being a fine example.

And passengers interested in international horticulture will not be disappointed by Honolulu International Airport, whose embarrassment of riches includes four airside gardens (Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese and a topiary garden) where passengers can stroll over footbridges and wander past waterfalls and Koi carp ponds, all surrounded by exotic vegetation.

So it’s really not that difficult to wile away an hour or two in complete peace and quiet at an airport, and give the bar a miss.

Why not give it a try?

Airport World 2009 - Issue 2


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