Landscape Ecological Strategies for Pollinator Habitat at Denver International Airport

Client Organization: 
Project Location : 
Denver, CO
Summary of Project Idea: 

The Denver International Airport (DEN) is the fifth busiest airport in the United States, annually serving more than 53 million passengers and generating over $26 billion for the regional economy. DEN is one of the world’s largest airports by land area at over 53 square miles. Of DEN’s 33,000 acres, 17,000 acres are reserved for aviation use.  With plans to double in size from six runways to twelve over time, DEN is poised to become one of the busiest and largest airports in North America, and even the world. 

In April 2012, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the vision for the future development of an “airport city” of diverse mixed-use commercial development on DEN’s remaining 16,000 acres—an unprecedented opportunity for regional economic growth focused around connectivity and innovation. The vision for DEN’s airport city builds on the distinct architecture of the Jeppesen Terminal, vast prairie landscape, and breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains. A newly constructed passenger rail line connects DEN to Union Station in downtown Denver, forming what Mayor Hancock refers to as the Corridor of Opportunity. This network of regional, national, and global connectivity—combined with DEN’s extensive land resources, the natural beauty of the surrounding prairie, and the Rocky Mountains—provides the context and inspiration for our work.

Sasaki, an interdisciplinary planning and design firm, is leading the master plan effort, working closely with diverse sub-consultants from specialized fields such as market economics, engineering, aviation, energy, and transportation. The master plan will provide a comprehensive development strategy and vision for future streets, blocks, and building footprints, along with public and open space. The new train linking DEN to downtown will spur Transit Oriented Development (TOD) opportunities near the three commuter rail stations. This series of compact TOD nodes along the corridor will be surrounded by open landscape at a scale of thousands of acres, presenting tremendous opportunities for innovation in designing and managing an ecologically functional native ecosystem.

The design team will benefit from research and deep understanding of topics such as prairie landscape design and management, pollinator habitat, monarch butterfly flyways, and innovative stormwater management (standing water is not allowed on site for more than 48 hours due to aviation regulations intended to prevent bird strike events). 

The design team is also seeking potential elements that will give the property an authentic “sense of place,” reflecting not only its aeronautical relationship to airport operations but also the unique aspects of the Denver metropolitan area and the Rocky Mountains.

The SNRE team will be working with an interdisciplinary team of design practitioners and in-house scientists from Sasaki to augment the rigor of the design practice and the potential of the project. All disciplines in environment and sustainability related fields are welcome.  The scope and duration of the research can be coordinated with Sasaki’s on-going design effort, or be a standalone project that lasts for 16 months after the design is completed. The participating students are expected to submit a responding proposal of their own research scope and interests within the above mentioned context after the initial site visit and meeting with the Sasaki team. 

Skills/Expertise Needed: 
  • Strong verbal and graphic communication skills for complex data and scientific findings
  • A good understanding of pollinator habitat, prairie ecosystem, and conservation management. 
  • A good understanding of landscape design and planning
  • Ability to explore and process GIS data and conduct spatial analysis
  • Capability to conduct field surveys including interviews, sampling and plant identification
  • Ability to conduct a cost benefit assessment and life cycle analysis
SEAS Program Areas: 
Conservation Ecology (Aquatic Sciences, Terrestrial Ecosystems, and Conservation Biology)
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Informatics
Sustainable Systems
Landscape Architecture
Role for each program area: 
  • Conservation Ecology will help the team understand and evaluate the regional ecosystems and natural resources, and propose plausible strategies for habitat management.
  • Environmental Policy and Planning will help research the relevant policies and planning guidelines from federal to local levels. 
  • Behavior, Education, and Communication will identify the project’s potential opportunities for public engagement and environmental education. The discipline will also help translate design intentions to comprehensive public outreach material.
  • Environmental Informatics can help navigate and synthesize available environmental data including GIS and spatial analysis.
  • Sustainable Systems will help propose and evaluate planning and design strategies to promote overall sustainability that can include carbon sequestration, cost benefit analysis etc. 
  • Landscape Architecture will be the bridging discipline between the above fields and the client organization. The students can develop theoretical design strategies as part of this master’s project.
Professional Career Development Benefits: 
  • This study will present a real world challenge to the participating SNRE graduate students, and provide an opportunity to work closely with an interdisciplinary team of environmental planners, design practitioners and various sub consultancies.
  • The study results will potentially be presented at conference such as ASLA (American Association of Landscape Architecture), APA (American Planning Association), NAPCC (North American Pollinator Protection Campaign) International Conference, as well as considered for award and publication submissions.
  • The project will provide experience and exposure to professional networking with project client, local communities and professionals from various disciplines.  
Funding Sources: 
  • Funding by Sasaki, amount pending for approval depending on the length of the field work and number of trips to the study area.
  • Potentially additional funding from Sasaki Foundation (managed independently by the foundation) with a detailed research proposal and application submitted by the SNRE team. 
Identify expected products/deliverables: 
  • An environmental assessment of the Denver International Airport project site.
  • Potential coauthored publication in academic journals, design magazines and online publication etc.
  • Recommendations for design and natural resource management strategies.  The project outputs will be shared with the project client and potentially a broader audience.  
Contact full name: 
Tao Zhang
Job title: 
Senior Associate
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Joan Nassauer
Contact Phone: 
Contact e-mail: 
Contact information: 
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Tiantong Gu
  • Xuan Jin
  • Jiayang Li
  • Annemarie McDonald
  • Chang Ni
Project Status: 
Past Project