Shanghai Journal: Mainland China’s first SITES Gold project converts former airport runway into sustainable urban park

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Shanghai’s Xuhui Runway Park (image Insaw Photography)

by Ron Bernthal

Xuhui Runway Park is an innovative urban revitalization project that breathes new life into a unique piece of Shanghai’s history. Designed by the global design firm Sasaki, and located in the Xuhui Riverfront Area, the park is located in a former industrial zone, on the bank of the Huangpu River that has become quite trendy.

Aerial view at night showing neighborhood street for cars on left, and Xuhui Runway Park on right side (image Insaw Photography)

The 36-acre site was once a runway for Longhua Airport, and was opened in the 1930’s with a semi-circular Art Deco terminal. It served as the city’s main airport until the 1950’s when Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport opened, and Longhua became a small, underused civilian airport, eventuall;y closing in 2011. The footprint of the former airport’s 6,000 foot-long, 262 foot-wide concrete runway became the inspiration for the new linear park, and several cement segments of the original runway were incorporated into Xuhui Runway Park when it opened in 2020.

With the recent redevelopment of the Xuhui Riverfront Area into a more modern, mixed-use district, the historic runway is now embracing its new life. Master planned as a public street and linear park side-by-side, the new Runway Park still serves as a runway, not for aircraft, but for a slice of Shanghai’s modern life, offering a recreational space for nearby communities, as well as an oasis to escape the high-density redevelopment nearby.

Aerial view showing street for cars on left, and Xuhui Runway Park right side. (image Insaw Photography)

To reflect the site’s previous history, the design mimics the motion of a runway, creating various linear spaces for vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians by organizing the park and street into one interconnected sequence at a runway scale. While the spaces are linear in form, various spatial experiences are created by applying different materials, scales, topography, and programs. The ascending and descending movement, with overlooks created for pedestrians and cyclists, resembles somewhat the experience of being on an airplane, which connects visitors to the past while also providing varied viewpoints of the site.

The layout of Yunjin Road contributes to a compact urban district by limiting the number of vehicular travel lanes and promoting public transit over personal cars. Designated bike lanes are integrated into the street section, facilitating the “last one kilometer” commute between the transit station and individual destinations. Additionally, six rows of deciduous trees are planted along the sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and road median, creating a comfortable microclimate, seasonal effects, and a human-scaled “boulevard.”

Young boys say hello (Nǐ hǎo) in nearby neighborhod (image Ron Bernthal)

A sunken garden is carved between the park’s subway station and neighboring development parcels, improving the walking experience to and from the transit station while enriching the spatial composition of the park. Additional commercial frontage is placed along the garden perimeters, helping activate the garden while bringing more revenue to the park to support its operation and maintenance costs.

Diverse programs are planned in various park spaces, open to all ages and groups and mostly free of charge. Active lifestyles can be found in multiple forms of runways, such as the bike and pedestrian runways through the park, a runway playground, a runway fountain, and the multipurpose lawn with a capacity for holding 3,500 people events, or five soccer games, in five-on-a-side size fields. Cultural events and performances can be accommodated at the sunken garden with a maximum of 900 spectators, and various restaurant and public service facilities scattered throughout the park are designed to allow for small social gatherings like office parties, serving the nearby businesses.

Young girl walks along pathway lined with plants (image Insaw Photography)

Quiet conversations and reflection can take place at multiple gardens, riverfront overlooks, and the birdwatching grove, which offers peaceful spaces away from from the busy urban life nearby. Multiple water features inspired by the aviation industry are distributed throughout the park, including the Runway Fountain, the Silver Wings Fountain, and the Children’s Interactive Fountain. The water supply for the Runway Fountain comes completely from treated stormwater on site.

Park water feature at dusk (image Insaw Photography)

Abundant wildlife habitats are integrated with the landscape, with 100% of plant species native to the Yangtze River Delta. The birdwatching grove, butterfly garden, fragrance garden, and various other garden types define the land, while the wetland edge, bioengineered riparian edge, and a floating wetland module make up the marine forms. A total of 82 plant species, including 2,227 trees, are planted on site, with Trident Maple as the character tree species along the preserved runway to complement its unique history. Over 68% of the hard surfaces are shaded by deciduous trees, providing outdoor comfort while reducing the heat island effect at the site.

Seasonal effect of the rain garden (image Inlaw Photography / Sasaki )

The park integrates portions of the original runway concrete where feasible to prolong the site’s memory. The design team identified a row of 12-feet wide structurally-sound runway panels to serve as the main pedestrian path of the park, with its original aviation direction markings preserved. Near the north end, big portions of the original runway concrete are integrated into the birdwatching grove to form intricate resting spaces. In areas where the existing concrete was damaged beyond repair, new concrete pavement panels were formed to serve the park’s uses today. The demolished concrete pieces are reused in a randomized paving pattern next to the main pedestrian path for people to rest on and seek shelter from the sun. Preservation and reuse of the runway concrete on site has not only saved construction costs but also reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacturing of new concrete. Concrete was also selected as a primary material for other elements of the project. All new pavements and site furniture are made of architectural concrete, with variations accentuated at key spots. The profile of the site furniture is designed to recall the elements of aircraft.

Several parts of the original airport runay were incorporated into the new park (image Insaw Photography)

The aerodynamic and industrial nature of the site is also referenced in the use of light poles that recall the form of airplane wings. In-ground lights outline the former runway concrete panels and serve as a visual connection to the park’s aviation history. All site lighting is LED sourced, greatly reducing annual electricity costs compared with metal-halide lighting.

View of park showing subtle levels, concrete and bamboo sitting area, and designed lighting poles (image Sasaki)

The stormwater from the park and Yunjin Road is managed along the street through the 1.5 acre rain garden on the north portion of the site and the two acre constructed wetland to the south. The roadside rain garden system is the first of its kind in Shanghai. After treatment at the rain garden and the forebay, the stormwater meets the quality requirements for recreational water, according to the Surface Water Quality Standard of China. A portion of the treated runoff is collected in an underground cistern for park operation and maintenance use when necessary, sufficient for irrigating almost five acres of planted areas, and providing a full water supply for the Runway Fountain in the park.

Runway of water (image Insaw Photography)

Most construction materials were sourced locally, and are environmentally friendly. For example, fused bamboo lumber was used as a sustainable substitute of tropical hardwood on benches, boardwalks, and riverfront overlooks, due to its fast-growing nature, comparable strength, and longevity in outdoors environments.

The West Bund neighborhood, a former industrial zone, has seen many upscale developments in the past decade, including the financial headquarters of CCTV Yangtze Delta, the deluxe Hotel Wanda Reign on the Bund, Shanghai’s first 7-star hotel, and the West Bund AI Center Tower. Partly because of the new Xuhui Runway Park project, and other neighborhood improvements, the property value of the neighborhood increased over 80% from 2015 to 2019.

This site traces the record of urban development in Shanghai. Its strong sustainable initiatives have earned it the first SITES Gold certification in Mainland China and the SITE 2019 Green Building Market Leader Award by USGBC’s Massachusetts Chapter. SITES is a sustainability-focused framework that ushers landscape architects, engineers and others toward practices that protect ecosystems and enhance the mosaic of benefits they continuously provide our communities, such as climate regulation, carbon storage and flood mitigation.

Saskari’s unique design has also earned it Boston Society of Landscape Architects Honor Award, DFA Design for Asia Awards, IFLA AAPME 2020 Awards, The PLAN Awards, Fast Co. Innovation by Design Awards, and MIPIM Asia Awards.