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What to do with old airports?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 6, 2013 12:41 PM

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Over the last one hundred years, America—and the world—has built a lot of airports. Now many of them have become obsolete, either because they’re too small, in the wrong places, or no longer needed by a military that’s been trying to pare its stock of airfields. So, what do you do with these flat, concrete, often urban spaces, once they're no longer needed for air travel?

To landscape architects, it's a delightful question, and one that has generated an enormous amount of activity over the last fifteen years or so. And last month the Harvard Graduate School of Design hosted a two-day conference called "Airport Landscapes" that brought together dozens of scholars tantalized by the possibilities of forsaken airstrips.

"Because of their expansiveness, size, horizontality, the fact that they’re left over spaces, they just offer new grounds for experimentation and design," says Sonja Duempelmann, professor at the GSD and co-organizer of the conference.

"Airport Landscapes," along with an exhibition by the same name that's running at the design school through December 19, looked at landscape innovations at airports that are still functioning, along with some of the most innovative makeovers that have been given to decommissioned airports. These include turning airports into "urban prairies," building alternative energy sites (solar cell arrays fit particularly along old runways), and creating some of the best park and playground space a land windsurfer could ever ask for. Old airports are useful for lots of purposes, but their transformation is captivating in a different way, too: It's just really cool to walk where airplanes used to land.

Crissy Field in San Francisco. Photograph by Sonja Duempelmann
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Tempelhof Airport, outside Berlin. Photograph by Sonja Duempelmann
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A stuffed peregrine falcon, positioned to scare off swallows that get caught in jet engines. Photograph by Justin Knight, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
airport 3.jpg

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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