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Bethany Leggett/MEDILL

Towers of lettuce, herbs and edible flowers grow in Terminal 3 at O'Hare, providing home-grown produce for airport restaurants.

Indoor harvest of fresh produce part of new green arrivals at O'Hare

by Emma Dutton and Bethany Leggett
Nov 02, 2011


Bethany Leggett/Medill

FedEx shipping facilities were relocated to this area of O'Hare to accomodoate the expansion of runway 10.


Bethany Leggett/MEDILL

The green roof on top of the FedEx building spans over three football fields in length. The plant growth requires minimal upkeep and saves heating, cooling and water management for the facility. 

Bethany Leggett and Emma Dutton/MEDILL

Members attending the Airport Goes Green conference at O'Hare share their experiences with the national movement to build more sustainable airports.

Forget more runways and increased airport security, for once. The latest modernization at O’Hare International Airport includes an aeroponic vegetable, herb and edible flower garden.

Four of the restaurants at the airport are currently using ingredients harvested from the garden, including lettuce, cilantro, and basil grown on vertical columns in Terminal 3. With 26 columns growing more than 40 plants each, the garden is the first of it’s kind inside an airport.   

“What it's really doing is giving us an opportunity to be more creative with some of the recipes and get some really fresh ingredients,” said Linda Dunn, vice president of food and beverage supply chain and sustainability for HMS Host, a dining and shopping company that operates some businesses at O'Hare.

Dunn couldn’t say what percentage of restaurant supply needs are offset, but the energy costs of transportation is eliminated by growing food in the terminal and walking the harvested crops directly to airport kitchens.

Tim Blank, founder and president of Orlando-based Future Growing, designed the aeroponic garden for O’Hare. Most lettuce comes to Chicago from California in an energy- and water-intensive process, he said. Blank said the garden only uses 5-10 percent of the water needed for conventional agriculture. The cylindrical columns cycle water and nutrients to the plants every 20-30 minutes for soilless, aeroponic growth.   

“In this particular case, we're growing all this food crop right here from farm to table,” he said. “So we're bypassing the transportation and the chilling and all those components that create a huge carbon footprint to the plant. Water is one of the number one issues that we're dealing with in this country. There is a water crisis, especially out West where most of this food is grown.”

The indoor garden is one of the latest green initiatives by the Chicago Department of Aviation to increase the sustainability of Chicago airports, showcased at the fourth annual Airports Going Green conference.

The conference involved dozens of airports from around the world and included a series of lectures over two days, culminating with an on site tour at O’Hare. About 30 people attended the tour.


“We bring together hundreds of aviation industry officials and professionals that are engaged in sustainability in aviation,” said Amy Malick, deputy commissioner of sustainability for the Chicago department of aviation.

In addition to the garden, O’Hare currently hosts a new bee apiary that is used for a job training program. New sustainability measures in the works include a solar panel plant, alternative fueling stations and electric vehicle charging upgrades. The department of aviation has scheduled a meeting for 2013 with the airlines to discuss funding for the remainder of the upcoming phases of the modernization project.

“For the past many years, we've been really focused on construction efforts,” Malik said. “Now, we're really focused on our day-to-day operations, looking at things like our concessions and our tenants.”

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said she draws sustainability ideas from all over the country, especially San Francisco International Airport. She said the “friendly competition” helps the industry.

“We are all learning from each other, “ said Sam Mehta, the environmental services manager at the San Franscico International Airport.

Mehta, who attended the conference all four years, said it was bigger and better than ever before. He was intrigued by Chicago’s implementation of the bee apiary but had suggestions for areas of improvement such as the green roof (that is the size of three football fields) on top of the FedEx shipping facility at O’Hare.

“I would like to see some areas on the roof open up and have daylight,” he said, “so you can save the electrical energy also.”

The purpose of the conference, according to Andolino, is to avoid “reinventing the wheel” in airport modernization by sharing best practices and lessons learned.

“Everybody is kind of doing different things and we are all at different places but the cool thing about this industry is that we share information,” she said. “We can all continue to grow faster and bring better improvements and more advancements at a quicker pace so we don’t make the same mistakes.”