A rendering for a potential bike lane along Island Avenue

The inside of Philadelphia International Airport has seen substantial renovations over the last year. In 2017, Terminal B was redesigned for a hefty $900 million, including the addition of new restaurants and iPads at passenger gates. Plus, curated art exhibits are regularly updated to give passengers something to look at while they navigate the terminals.

Up next for PHL? An upgrade for the outside.

On Thursday evening at the Philadelphia Flower Show, four landscape design teams presented their ideas to revamp the land around the airport — both directly outside and along I-95 leading up to the terminals.

Philadelphia Flower Show attendees hear four teams present their ideas to redesign the airport’s exterior. Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

“The airport has done a lot of great things internally to make the experience great for passengers with all of the artwork,” Tammy Leigh DeMent, the associate director of project development at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, told Billy Penn. “We want to take that experience and pull it outside.”

Leah Douglas, the airport’s director of image and chief curator, said the airport has pledged an initial $5 million to oversee the completion of this project. Once a winning design is chosen, PHL will also look for additional sponsors.

When PHS first called for submissions, 203 designers responded. From there, DeMent said, 23 teams formed from 29 countries around the world. Slowly, PHS and the airport’s staff whittled those 23 teams to eight, and then to four.

Each team presented on Thursday using TED-talk-style: a maximum of 20 PowerPoint slides, and 20 seconds per slide. Here’s what they came up with:

Penn’s Woods 2.0

Presented by James Corner of James Corner Field Operations, the first design plan was a spin on Pennsylvania’s first name. When William Penn first founded Pa. from a royal charter, he dubbed it “Penn’s woods” for its forests and meadows.

Corner’s plan — Penn’s Woods 2.0 — was a fresh take on the historic name. It provided three themes for redesigning the airport landscape:

  1. Nature (that’s where the woods come in)
  2. Technology (hinting at Philly’s history of industry and shipbuilding)
  3. Art

Corner envisions LED screens to display art installations along the I-95 underpasses. He wants to plant meadows of pine, oak, maple and magnolia trees and build structures he called “beacons,” which would resemble swarms of birds flying toward the airport.

“We want to embed a sense of nature around the airport setting,” Corner said.

Take Off From Here

Representing Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, Molly Bourne was up next.

“We set out to create a design that speaks directly to the ecology of the airport,” Bourne said, highlighting the wet marshlands that used to flourish before PHL was built above them (and still do in the nearby Heinz Wildlife Refuge).

Bourne’s plan would create a self-sustaining forest with maple and sweet gum trees. There would be gardens both at the entrance and exit of the terminals, and the forest would develop more and more as motorists approach the terminals from I-95.

The entry and exit gardens proposed by one PHL airport design team Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

All of this, Bourne said, is in an effort to make the airport more “recognizable” from the road.


Eric Tamulonis from OLIN had a long list of his specific ideas for the land around the airport:

  • A 33-acre meadow (which Tamulonis said would increase biodiversity of the area)
  • 130 “ripple mounds”
  • 14 solar wings along I-95 (run by solar power, these guys would actually glow and dim to reflect current air traffic above the airport)
  • Three glowing bridges
  • An 11-mile airport loop trail (including a bike lane)
  • A two-mile ribbon median
A design proposal for a bike lane along Island Avenue Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

All of these ideas were proposed to emphasize Philly’s technological advances, while honoring the spirit Philadelphia’s founders.

“This brings us closer to our heritage, our founders,” Tamulonis said. “And it’s an opportunity to reclaim the future.”

How the Light Gets In

Thomas Rainer is inspired by the crack in the Liberty Bell. In fact, his team from Phyto wants the airport land to look just like it.

The crack in the Liberty Bell, translated into landscape design Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Rainer said as it stands, PHL’s exterior is boring. “It was designed purely for function,” he said. “It’s ugly and uninspiring.”

How would he change that? First, he’d literally stylize the fracture in the Liberty Bell. Then, he’d create a light fixture in the grass using steel walls, which he claims would be visible to planes flying overhead.

What the crack in the Liberty Bell would look like as a light fixture near the airport Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Like the other designers, Rainer said he’d also plant a meadow around I-95. He’d put more glowing lights on the five bridges around the airport. They’d be responsive to motion passing by, and would function as “temporary art displays” for motorists.

“We know that we want something welcoming and iconic, something environmentally appropriate,” DeMent said. “These four designers have come up with very different approaches.”

Choosing a winner

To choose the winning design, PHS and the airport staff formed an advisory council Along of relevant stakeholders. Some of the members included:

  • Philadelphia Managing Director Michael Berardinis
  • PHL Airport CEO Rochelle “Chellie” Cameron
  • American Airlines CEO Doug Parker
  • PennDOT
  • Visit Philly
  • Representatives from communities near the airport, like Tinicum Township and Philly’s Eastwick and Essington neighborhoods

Philadelphians also have a say in choosing the winner. Each landscape design team set up a permanent exhibit displaying its ideas at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Throughout the two weeks it was open, DeMent said attendees could drop votes in a ballot to vote for their favorite design.

Douglas said the airport will likely announce a winner in April. Then, it will take at least a few years to fully implement one of these designs.

But PHL isn’t dragging it’s heels — Douglas noted she’s tired of looking at the “overgrown” landscapes around the airport.

“As a world-class airport, we really need to have our outside come together to look like this is a special place as you enter and exit Philadelphia,” Douglas said. “I think it’s long overdue.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...