Natalie Jeremijenko

Associate Professor of Visual Art, New York University, Director, xDesign Environmental Health Clinic
Natalie Jeremijenko, Associate Professor of Visual Art, New York University, Director, xDesign Environmental Health Clinic on redesigning the airport for an era of sport pilots and wetland appreciation.

Interview transcript: Natalie Jeremijenko

We're seeing the biggest change in aviation regulation in 60 years, which is the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) introduction of a new sport pilot license. I see this as a legislative opportunity that changes both geography and mobility in really interesting ways.

There are 35 new light aircraft costing $100,000 — which is less than many high-end cars — on the market, the FAA seems to be deliberately trying to encourage personal flight in a real way, and this new sport pilot license means that you can get a license in 20 hours of flight time. And when it takes 20 minutes to fly into Manhattan from Pennsylvania, these kinds of rural communities become like Westchester in their geographic relationship to the metropolis.

What I did, in collaboration with the landscape architect David Fletcher, is create a wetland, the xAirport wetlanding. It's an optional accessory for one of these new light sport aircraft, the Icon A5, which is amphibious and can land on water. It's a 500-foot long private landing strip, and having one of them obviously makes your Icon A5 much more useful.

Most of us understand that the single most environmentally damaging thing we do as individuals is to fly. In fact, in the past 50 years, planes have improved their engine efficiency incrementally, so they're a full 50 percent more efficient now than they were. If the automobile industry had done the same, we'd be in a very different position. What that means is that there's actually not much more to be gained in the thrust technologies.

By far the biggest environment impact that our flight systems have now is in their landing infrastructure. Almost without exception, we've built our airports on what we used to think of as cheap flat swamps near urban centers. Now we call them wetlands: the most critical ecosystem for sequestering CO2, biodiversity hotspots, an extraordinarily invaluable technology for digesting industrial contaminants, and the basis of the whole marine ecosystem.

Actually, it's much cheaper to construct a wetlanding compared to a terrestrial landing. It costs about $5,000 to do one of these wetlandings I've developed with David Fletcher, which also happens to be a biodiversity hotspot, versus about $150,000 to have a small terrestrial landing strip.

Reintegrating small ephemeral wetlands back into the urban infrastructure in this way is extremely valuable. I'm working on one in Long Island City, in the Costco parking lot. You can park your plane right there at Costco, and the wetlanding will capture all the runoff from the rest of this vast impervious surface, as well as provide a whole host of environmental services.

What I'm trying to do is seize this opportunity that the FAA has provided as a chance to explore what social and environmental change we can promulgate, and what useful prosthetics for the imagination we can create.