South Korea’s New Sustainable City Inside An Airport

With koi ponds, an entire shopping district, and amazing sustainability features, Incheon airport’s Terminal 2 is one place you’ll be totally cool with a delayed flight.


How do you improve on the best airport in the world? That was the question posed to design firm Gensler, which collaborated with the HMGY Consortium to build Incheon International Airport’s Terminal 2–a mini-city within an airport containing everything from a koi pond to an entire retail district.


The first thing to understand about this South Korea airport is that it’s not in any way comparable to an American airport. It is a behemoth, like many airports in Asia. “We were dealing with one million square feet as a starting point, and getting two million square feet in the U.S. is pretty extraordinary,” says Keith Thompson, a principal at Gensler. People apparently love giant airports; for the past eight years, Incheon has been selected as the best airport in the world by the Airports Council International.

In spite of the love for Incheon’s existing terminals, Gensler opted to make some changes for Terminal 2, which recently broke ground. “The original charge by Incheon was to make this a world-class and timeless [terminal],” says Thompson. That meant surpassing Terminal 1 from every standpoint–customer service, sustainability, design, and so on.

Among the unique elements of Terminal 2:

  • Multiple “outdoor features.” In addition to the aforementioned koi pond (below the transfer area), there are waterfalls, streams, aviaries and acres (the equivalent of over two football fields) of large gardens–one of which is a Western-inspired sculpture garden.
  • Building-integrated photovoltaics in the garden areas. PV integration may be expanded as construction goes on.
  • Giant skylights, which reduce the need for artificial lighting in certain areas.
  • A shopping district (seriously, it’s big enough to be called a district) and dining plaza.
  • Ultra-efficient air distribution and HVAC systems. Air conditioning, for example, is only available as far as three meters from where the airport’s visitors roam around–it doesn’t cool air in empty spaces.

Integrating sustainable elements into Incheon wasn’t easy. Unlike office buildings, airports are energy intensive for 24 hours a day, they have large floor areas, they’re sprawling, and windows generally can’t open. An airport the size of Incheon also produces as much trash as a city.

“Where we think we can affect sustainability is that cultural piece: If the airports continue to evolve technologies of efficiency while simultaneously educating and inspiring stewardship of millions of passengers each year, we can be part of the overall solution of reducing negative impacts,” explains Terence Young, design director at Gensler, in an email. As an example, he points to Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport–another Gensler-designed terminal that produces little waste (compost and recycling bins are clearly demarcated, and onsite restaurants only serve food items in compostable containers.)


Though it has plenty of shopping, Terminal 2 is more than a retail center. “It’s a community building. People who enter have the opportunity to be enriched culturally,” says Young. “In Incheon, there are cultural destinations that are museums, places to interact. I think airports and particularly Asian airports look at the success of Incheon and see a retail center. I think the overall idea we’re asking our clients is ‘Is there more, can there be more?'”

The new terminal is expected to be open by the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more