ASPECT Studio’s The Goods Line, part of the 202020 Vision.

8 July 2014 — In recent years, we have seen a movement towards biophilic cities – ones that incorporate nature into urban design. It is a form of green urbanism where residents see and experience nature in the normal course of work and play, everything from treetop lichen to ecosystems that define the city and give it that distinctive feel.

Biophilia means love of life or a passion for all things living. The term was first used by psychologist Erich Fromm in 1964 to describe an attraction to nature, both human and non-human. The term was popularised by Harvard University myrmecologist and conservationist EO Wilson to describe the way we are hard-wired to need connection with nature and other forms of life. He says it has to have a genetic basis.

“It’s too universal, and the cultural outcomes of it in different parts of the world are too convergent to simply call it an accident of culture,’’ Wilson says.

Biophilic cities are different to green cities in which the emphasis is on energy and environmental conservation. In biophilic cities, there is a greater focus on wellbeing and health, celebrating life forms and processes that we as a species have evolved from.

Biophilic design takes in the environmental features of the built environment, which can include colour, water, air, sunlight, plants, animals, natural materials, landscapes and geology – natural shapes and forms that can include anything from botanical, animal and shell motifs to architecture that evokes emotion in arches and vaults and domes, and simulation of natural features, extending even to biomorphic art, architecture and design. Biophilic design also includes natural patterns and processes in the landscape, not to mention the historic, cultural, geographic, spiritual, or ecological features of the place.

City planners are increasingly taking biophilic principles into account. US city planner Jeff Speck advocates 10 ways to make cities more walkable, which include getting the parking right, encouraging a diversity of uses, making cities more hospitable, cycling and planting more trees.

Expert Dr Steven Kellert from Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, who has worked closely with EO Wilson, says biophilia could shape the way we build cities.

“The reality of our world is that we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and in the US I think it is over 80 per cent of the population now lives in an urban area,’’ Kellert says.

“And for the first time in human history we now have the majority of the world’s population living in urban areas. So, barring catastrophe, that’s where people want to be: in a built environment, in an urban built environment, spending most of their time indoors. This does not eliminate the need to affiliate with nature; it just makes its satisfactory accomplishment that much more challenging… The big question is how can we live in a compatible and nurturing and positive and beneficial and harmonious relationship to the world beyond ourselves, to nature, in an increasingly urban and built world. And it can occur in many, many ways, but like I say it is more challenging.”

Biophilia isn’t just about aesthetics. Contact with nature has been found to enhance healing and recovery from illness and major surgical procedures, whether through direct contact with natural lighting or vegetation. Chinese Taoists recognised that gardens and greenhouses were beneficial to health. In 1859, the pioneering British nurse Florence Nightingale wrote in Notes on Nursing that “variety of form and brilliancy of colour in the objects presented to patients are an actual means of recovery”.

Parks and walkways incorporated into building design can provide calming and inspiring environments, and can encourage learning, inquisitiveness and alertness. Within built environments parks and green spaces are settings for cognitive respite, as they encourage social interaction and de-stressing through exercise or conversation, and provide calming settings. Having quality landscaping and vegetation in and around the places where people work and study is a good investment.

The Te Mirumiru education building, in Kawakawa, Northland, New Zealand. Image: Simon Devitt

In Australia, there is a push for biophilic principles to be incorporated into urban development. The 202020 Vision – a unique collaboration between government, academic and private-sectors – aims to increase urban green space by 20 per cent by the year 2020, and therefore improve our environment, productivity and community. The group is backed by councils from around Australia, the Australian Institute of Horticulture, BUPA, Brookfield Multiplex, the University of Melbourne, Macquarie University, Hassell, Medibank and the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.

Projects include developing Canberra’s City Walk, which will establish a grassed and well-treed “parkland precinct” within the 500-metre long City Walk pedestrian zone; the Grow Together Project, comprised of seven different gardens in Canberra, with four more to come, with each garden providing fresh, organic produce for community-based childcare centres that the children themselves help to grow; planting 17,796 trees on a 2.5-kilometre motorway between New South Wales and Queensland, stretching from the northern end of Barney’s Point Bridge to the southern end of the Tweed Heads bypass; and Chippendale Green, a $4 million, 6400-square metre green space at the heart of Central Park in Sydney.

Biophilic cities around the world include Birmingham in the UK; Milwaukee, Portland and San Francisco in the US, Oslo in Norway; Wellington in New Zealand; and Singapore.

Singapore is setting a world model for combining density and nature. It has extensive park and green areas, tied together by 200-kilometres of park connectors, much of it in the form of elevated walkways and canopy walks. It has given priority to planting trees, and provides support for community gardens and the installation of green walls and rooftops.

A canopy walk in Singapore

One of the pillars of Wellington’s strategic vision is to be an “EcoCity.” The city has over 4000 hectares of reserve lands, including parks and reserves for recreation, wildlife and scenery. It also has over 60 community conservation groups that participate in planting native species in reserve lands. The Wellington City Council anticipates planting about one million native trees within the next four years.

Apart from aiming to become zero waste by 2030, San Francisco promotes the creation of small urban spaces, from street parks to the pavements to parks program to the creation of so-called “parklets”.

Birmingham, a one-time industrial giant in England’s West Midlands, has a Green Living Spaces Plan, which includes a proposal for creating access to Birmingham’s impressive network of rivers and streams, making it the basis for a citywide grid of trails and pathways.

In Oslo, about 94 per cent of residents live within 300 metres of a park or green space.

Cities involved in the Biophilic Cities Project, an international research initiative organised by Professor Tim Beatley at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, comprise Perth, London, San Francisco, New York City, Houston, Oslo, Helsinki, Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain, Capetown in South Africa, Sao Paulo in Brazil and Singapore.

Other cities are doing their own things. Washington DC, for example, has more than two million square feet (186,000 sq m) of green roofs across the city. In Montreal in Canada, they have developed a sharing economy for gardeners. Through the connectivity of the internet, PlantCatching enables gardeners to find plants, seeds and crops from other gardeners in their area. Whereas in the past extra seedlings and seeds may have ended up in the garbage, PlantCatching helps gardeners find surplus items that other gardeners don’t need.

The city of Detroit, which filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy in July 2013, is reinventing itself as a biophilic city. It has hundreds of vacant lots that will soon be transformed into the world’s largest urban farm. A company, Hantz Woodlands, has purchased the land for just $500,000, and plans to invest an additional $3 million over the next three years. The company first plans to remove the garbage, tyres and debris from the plots, then begin planting hardwood trees by next year. Fifty homes have to be razed, and food crops will soon follow. The plan could transform some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Detroit into sustainable farming centres and meet the city’s food supply.

For all the talk about green cities, let’s not forget about biophilic design, which benefits the environment and human wellbeing, creating truly healthier cities.

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  1. I agree with Cole that landscape architecture has provided fine designed green spaces and keeps on producing them. I see biophilic cities going a step forward connecting and intertwining all kinds of green spaces, parks, community gardens, street canopies and living architecture (mainly green roofs and walls) in a systemic way. Examples of this are the park connector in Singapore and park system in Curitiba, Brazil, which I would like to add to the list of biophilic cities. Curitiba has an awesome 52% of green space per inhabitant, distributed in 21 parks, 14 urban forests, 2 large Areas of Environmental Conservancy, an Ecological Station and a large number of squares and community gardens for recreation and leisure of citizens.

  2. If it is any indication how popular this article is I have reached 258 people on one of my Facebook group pages.

    Great article

  3. Great article, but isn’t this what Landscape Architecture has been doing? Brown and Olmstead, McHarg to Corner, linking human activity with nature ( and preferably actaul ecologies) has been what most LAs have been designing towards.