Image: Changi Airport Group

APEX Insight: Exposure to nature has been proven to decrease stress and increase general well-being. Heathrow, O’Hare, Changi and Frankfurt are among the airports turning to indoor greenery to help nip stressors in the bud at the start of the passenger journey.

In her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, Sylvia Path writes, “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” The sudden onset of positive feelings described by protagonist Esther Greenwood – a young woman sinking deeply into depression – is now one well-documented in the field of ecopsychology.

The Proof Is in the Budding

A study conducted at the University of Agriculture in Oslo, Norway, found that people working in offices reported less stress-related illness when plants were positioned in direct line of sight from their desks. Another shows that after a mildly stressful event, subjects viewing simulated drives through nature experienced less stress – according to measurements of blood pressure and electrodermal activity – than subjects viewing simulated automobile drives through urban, man-made environments. And, in a third study, plant scientist Margaret Burchett found that even just a single plant can make a difference in mood, reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

The benefits of greenery in airports are as of yet undocumented, but that isn’t to say that these spaces wouldn’t benefit from some leafy greens. When SITA asked travelers about the most stressful part of the passenger journey, nearly a third said the security process, followed by flight connections (16 percent) and check-in and bag drop (12 percent each). According to a 2011 study, millions are avoiding flying altogether because of on-the-ground airport stressors such as flight delays, lost items and airport navigation.

“As the nexus of transit and technology, transportation hubs are ideal locations for green infrastructure to become an investment in public health and well-being.” — Richard Sabin, Biotecture

When kept indoors, plants are also proven to improve air quality by reducing dust levels, increasing humidity, controlling carbon dioxide concentration and purifying the air of certain pollutants and toxins. Verdure can also be used to diminish noise in spaces, like airports, where chatter and movement abound. The stems, leaves and branches of plants are known to absorb, deflect and refract sound, unlike the hard surfaces in airports – tiled floors, stone walls, etc. – that multiply and even magnify them.

Sowing the Seed for Stress Reduction

The mental and physical benefits afforded by indoor landscaping are precisely what Heathrow Airport had in mind when erecting “Garden Gate” in October 2016. The floor-to-ceiling “eco-sanctuary,” designed to minimize stress amongst passersby, was inspired by the aforementioned types of ecopsychological studies. Mounted by urban greening specialist Biotecture, the installation by Gate 25 in Terminal 3, where an average of 287,274 passengers circulate annually, will be tested for six months, after which it may be expanded throughout the airport. According to Richard Sabin, director of Biotecture, the trial will almost certainly come up roses: “As the nexus of transit and technology, transportation hubs are ideal locations for green infrastructure to become an investment in public health and well-being.”

Sabin isn’t alone in his conclusion that airport hubs are prime real estate for green infrastructure. Major airport makeover plans for Vancouver International (YVR) and Singapore Changi also hedge in that direction. YVR says that its $5.6-billion planned upgrade will include a glassed-in forest that is open at the top. A video posted on the airport’s Twitter page showcases what the forested international terminal might look like. And Changi, already known for its butterfly, cactus, orchid and sunflower gardens, is planning to establish yet another – perhaps its most impressive to date. Slated to open in 2019, a glass dome structure, called Jewel, will house everything from a waterfall and big-brand shops to what it calls the “Forest Valley.” The greenhouse will comprise 72,000 square feet of trees, plants, ferns and shrubs stretching over five floors. “We wanted to create a space where activities that were traditionally outdoors in nature are brought to an indoor environment,” Robin Goh, a CAG spokesperson, told CNN in 2014.

Frankfurt Airport

Earlier this month Frankfurt Airport unveiled hanging gardens in the departure halls of Terminal 2. And in the summer of 2011, the world’s first airport aeroponic garden was installed in the mezzanine level of Chicago O’Hare’s Rotunda Building. The garden features 26 vertical towers that house more than 1,000 plants and 44 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and leafy greens. The produce is used on-site at restaurants including Tortas Frontera, Wicker Park Sushi, Wolfgang Puck and Tuscany Café. Self-sufficiency aside, if indoor greenery can transform airports into spaces where the feeling described by Esther Greenwood germinates, what was once the most stressful chapter in the passenger journey may well become the most restorative.

Valerie is deputy editor at APEX Media.