The green airport

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Many travelers suffer high levels of anxiety and stress before flying and plants can help to create a peaceful, relaxing environment for travelers and employees in an airport. Installation of plants also makes business sense, as the improved experience may ensure that customers return again and hopefully spend a longer time airside. There are many benefits of foliage in airports and there is a lot more to plants than might, at first, meet the eye.


The benefits of interior landscaping and the true cost of installing plants into a business environment have always sparked debate. Wellbeing is a difficult concept to define and although we probably all have an instinctive idea of what it feels like, it is very difficult to quantify. Dr Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist, broke the concept of wellbeing into five distinct components – positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement. It’s not hard to believe that the management of an airport space can affect at least the first three, if not all, of these elements.

Our need for nature was identified by the American biologist Edward O Wilson, who developed a hypothesis called ‘biophilia’, which he defined as, “the innate affiliation people seek with other organisms and especially the natural world”. Wilson’s ideas have been adopted by architects and designers for some time and many have used the principles of biophilia to make their buildings more humane and connected with nature. Combinations of plants, art, lighting and sound effects as well as a more natural style of design make it possible to elicit substantial improvements in wellbeing and employee engagement with minimal outlay.

Previous studies from Roger S Ulrich have found that human exposure to plants and natural settings can improve positive moods and reduce negative ones. Below, I have identified areas where I believe airports have the most to gain from installing a splash of green in their spaces.

Right: Airports can improve air quality, increase relaxation

and reduce noise by installing plants in

the terminal

1. Boosting the environment

Plants, as living organisms, exert a beneficial influence on our surroundings. Perceptions of improved air quality are frequently reported in places where plants are used – the air is often described as feeling fresher and cleaner.

We are well aware of the benefits that outdoor spaces bring to our health, so we must do more to replicate these as much as possible in airports. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in the Netherlands has created an airport park – a 20,000ft² space mimicking the green outdoors. This space is further enhanced with the opportunity to jump on a stationary bike and imagine that you are cycling through the park, combining an outdoor experience with the opportunity to exercise before you fly.

2. Design and innovation

Plants should be considered for more than just their aesthetic value when designing an airport. For example, plants can be used as a guiding tool for passengers, as they are able to follow a line of trees from terminal to terminal. Planting can also help boost the brand and reputation of airports, distinguishing them from the competition.

This year, Ambius worked with Vancouver International Airport in Canada to create an ‘airport-scape’ that represented the landscape of North America. There was also a desire for the airport to improve the quality of air and provide a calm and welcoming ambience in an otherwise fast-paced environment. The airport’s design celebrates the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the province of British Columbia with each area of the airport reflecting a specific geographic region.

The design includes architectural features that evoke imagery from British Columbia’s vineyards and orchards, fishing lodges and the Fraser River, with its rocky mountainsides, waterfalls, streams and vegetation outcroppings. Thanks to the airport’s high ceiling, Ambius was able to install Ficus microcarpa trees (a species of fig tree), along with smaller plants, to create the effect of a canopy of foliage in the new foyer. We also installed a living green wall as part of the project, an impressive feature for passers-by to enjoy. There are plenty of other examples that inspire the imagination of passengers; personally, I like the Aeroponic Urban Garden in Chicago O’Hare International Airport, USA, where different types of herbs and vegetables are grown vertically in between Terminals 2 and 3.

3. Noise control

One of the less obvious benefits of plants is that they actually help to reduce noise. Research by Ambius and London South Bank University in the UK showed that one of the ways that plants can reduce noise is through sound absorption. Plant parts such as stems, leaves, branches and bark are all able to absorb sound. Plants also deflect and refract sound, helping to keep the airport a quieter, more relaxing place. However, the effect is more widely felt in smaller spaces, such as airport lounges.

Left: Green installations can become part of

larger terminal

design projects

The future

As airports begin to embrace greenery with installations of flower beds and trees, they can start to think more broadly about the whole spectrum of landscaping. This might involve creating different mood zones within an airport, such as a stimulating and invigorating space or a more relaxing place to calm down, away from the hustle and bustle.

Dynamic environments include the innovative use of lighting and art installations. For example, Ambius recently created a display in New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport that generated awareness for breast cancer. Scenting can also be used in spaces, improving the experience of a place for people that are walking through, as it creates an added connection with travelers, improving their experience when passing through the terminal.

‘Smell memory’ is the most powerful part of our memory, with humans able to recognize 10,000 different odors. Research has indicated that 40% of customers stay longer in pleasantly scented environments, and the longer people stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or form a connection with a brand. This can be important business for airports that are hoping travelers will take advantage of the duty-free shopping on offer.

Final thoughts

Airports compete against one another for business and international passengers. The installation of plants will not only benefit customers’ traveling experiences, making it more likely that they will return, but it also makes complete economic sense. Think about the design of the airport and sow the seeds for a positive journey for your customers. The result is you’ll grow your business by enhancing your brand and ensure your airport is front of mind the next time someone books a flight.

About the author

Kenneth is a graduate of The University of Reading in the UK where he studied agricultural botany. After working as a plant breeder for Twyford Seed, he joined Rentokil Initial as a plant scientist in May 1995 and continued in this role until the beginning of 2001. From here, Kenneth moved up to become international technical manager, specializing in tropical plants. In November 2009, he became the head of Ambius University, leading the development and direction of the program and supporting the growth and profitability of the company. During this time, Kenneth was made international technical director in 2006, and was promoted to head of innovation in March 2013.

December 9, 2015

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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