“Birds” and “airports” are two words that, paired together, don’t normally paint the most harmonious picture. That is, unless your idea of harmonious involves ultra-white-knuckle emergency landings in the Hudson River and the large-scale slaughter of geese, gulls and other feathered specimens that are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Birds and aviation just aren’t simpatico.
Leave it to China — a nation where everything is larger, longer, taller and generally more intense — to announce plans to build an airport that’s for birds.
Described as the word’s first-ever bird airport, the proposed Lingang Bird Sanctuary in the northern coastal city of Tianjin is, of course, not an actual airport. Rather, it’s a sprawling wetland preserve specifically designed to accommodate hundreds — even thousands — of daily takeoffs and landings by birds traveling along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. The idea is that over 50 species of migratory waterbirds, some endangered, will stop for an extended spell at the protected sanctuary and feed to their four-chambered hearts’ content before continuing on their long journey along the flyway. One of nine major global migratory flyways, the East Asian-Australasian Flyway encompasses 22 different countries including China, Japan, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia and the United States (just Alaska).
Located on a former landfill site, the 61-hectare (150-acre) airport is also open to human travelers. (Half a million visitors are expected annually.) However, in lieu of duty-free shopping and an outpost of Macaroni Grill, the main attraction for non-egg-laying vertebrates at Tianjin’s newest airport will be a green-roofed education and research center called the Water Pavilion, a series of raised “observation pods” and an extensive network of scenic walking and cycling paths and trails totaling just over 4 miles.
“The proposed Bird Airport will be a globally significant sanctuary for endangered migratory bird species, while providing new green lungs for the city of Tianjin," Adrian McGregor of Australian landscape architecture firm McGregor Coxall explained to Dezeen of the design, which recently won a competition seeking proposals for a “flagship ecological wetland precinct” — an oversized eco-park, essentially. Frequently blanketed in smog so thick that it has shut down real airports, Tianjin is a city — China’s fourth most populous — that would certainly benefit from a new pair of robust green lungs.
Air pollution-mitigation advantages aside, the primary function of the Lingang Bird Sanctuary is, as mentioned by McGregor, to provide a safe space — a "crucial re-fueling and breeding stop" — for the 50 million-some wing travelers moving along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which McGregor Coxall notes in a press release as being the world's most threatened migratory bird corridor due to habitat loss brought on by unchecked coastal development.
In lieu of terminals, Tianjin's newest airport will feature an education and research center dedicated to the study of migratory waterbirds traveling along a flyway that stretches from New Zealand to Alaska. (Rendering: McGregor Coxall)
“Along the flyway intertidal habitat for stopovers for migratory birds is disappearing at an alarming rate. Over the last ten years, newly constructed sea walls enclosed one and a half million hectares of intertidal habitat,” he tells Dezeen. "Today about 70 percent of China's coast is now walled. There are not many places for migratory birds left to land, and to find enough food to fatten up for onward migration.”
Buffered by a 49-acre forest geared to protect the wetland sanctuary from encroaching urban development, the avian airport will include a trio of different habitats — mudflats, a reed zone and a lake-bound island with shallow rapids — each meant to accommodate different bird species. As the proposal notes, McGregor Coxall partnered with ornithologist Avifauna Research to work the “complex interactions of site soils, feed sources, wetland vegetation and water management into the overall design.” Renewable energy will be used to move water through the man-made wetland environment.
If all goes as planned, construction on McGregor Coxall’s ambitious landfill-turned-bird sanctuary design will commence later this year with a completion date slated for 2018.
When finished and officially open to both weary feathered travelers and those who admire them, the airport will serve as a pilot project in China’s highly touted Sponge City initiative. Through various green infrastructure projects, the government-funded scheme sets out to reimagine China’s rapidly growing cities as giant, super-absorbent sponges capable of soaking up water to significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic urban flooding events.
Calling the rate of flooding in Chinese cities a “national scandal,” Kongjian Yu, dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, explained to CityLab in 2015 that “a sponge city is one that can hold, clean, and drain water in a natural way using an ecological approach.”
He adds: “… in modern China, we have destroyed those natural systems of ponds, rivers, and wetlands, and replaced them with dams, levees, and tunnels, and now we are suffering from floods."