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Abandoned Airports Make the Best Public Parks

When a city suddenly closes an airport, the best choice is to turn it into a massive park, as Quito did with the Parque Bicentenario.
Image: Author

The best bike ride I've been on in the last year wasn't along a particularly intense trail or through a particularly scenic neighborhood or nature path. Nope, it was down the two mile-long runway at Quito's old airport, which, in its retirement, has become one of the world's best parks.

Put out of commission early last year, Ecuador was tasked with finding a use for the old Mariscal Sucre International Airport—located right in the heart of the city but too small for Ecuador's booming economy.


Image: Parque Bicentenario

Instead of razing the whole thing and trying to turn it into more high rises or shopping malls, the airport was, in the matter of a couple months, turned into Parque Bicentenario, a massive spot featuring cafes, running and biking trails, playgrounds, outdoor gyms, a couple museums, gardens, basketball and soccer courts, and, often music festivals.

It makes sense on a few levels: City-center airports, rare as they are these days, generally have plenty of public transportation going to them and usually have some sort of infrastructure already there. There's power, there's running water, there are bathrooms. That's why Quito was able to open the park in just a few short months.

Image: Parque Bicentenario

Then, there's also the fact that airports are, by definition, huge freakin' areas of open space. They are holes in the city. In Quito's case, it's a hole in a city that's become increasingly crowded and without open space. All of a sudden, the city had a couple thousand acres to play with, right off a public transit line, and in an area where people were used to commuting to and from all the time.

Turning it into a commercial development area would have taken years, if not decades. Planting some grass, drawing up some basketball courts, and importing a bunch of jungle gyms takes what, a couple weeks? Then you get bike lanes that look like this:

Image: Author

By 2020, the hope is that much of the airport's extra space will be overgrown with trees and greenery, manmade lakes and ponds will give it more of a "park-y" feel than it currently has, and an aquarium and more formal events centers will be built, too. It is, as far as I can tell, a genius idea.

It's not too often that an airport is essentially abandoned overnight, but that's what happened in Quito, and it's happened in Montreal, too, with the Mirabel Airport, which Canada just announced it'll be demolishing. There are no plans for what to do with the space. As Jonathan Glancey writes for BBC, plans to turn it into a school, hospital, and amusement park haven't worked out.

Tempelhof Airport. Image: Victoria Turk

What Quito has done isn't unprecedented: Berlin's Tempelhof Airport was turned into a public park back in 2010, and is used for many of the same purposes that Quito's old airport is.

Of course, it's not often that a major airport just happens to be located in the middle of a city center, as Berlin and Quito's were; it's understandable that Canada hasn't really found a use for Mirabel, located more than 20 miles outside Montreal. But hey, when it works out, it's really cool. There's nothing quite like gunning it down a massive runway and seeing nothing but open space all around you.