Biophilic design

Could Melbourne’s new underground metro stations become leading examples of biophilic design principles in action? A research team from Deakin University and Ecopolis has given the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority every reason to try.

A study by the team, Creating Healthy Places, conducted on behalf of the MMRA, sets out the principles of biophilic design and evidence for how these principles contribute to both human wellbeing and ecological sustainability.

It also examined the potential for the metro stations to implement 15 specific “patterns” of biophilic design, such as creating variability in air flow and temperature, introducing the element of water and connection to nature.

Study team member and Deakin senior lecturer in architecture Dr Phillip Roös said to make biophilia work in a large and complex project like the Metro Tunnel, it required expert assessment of how biophilic design works, how it gets applied to the built environment, and more specifically how this can be applied to a metro project.

Dr Roös was principal technical advisor for sustainability to the MMRA when its Metro Tunnel Project was put out to tender last year, and championed an innovative approach to the stations’ design.

He was joined on the team by Deakin colleagues professor of environmental planning and landscape architecture Dr David Jones; lecturer in landscape architecture Josh Zeunert; and architect, urban planner and founder of consultancy Ecopolis Dr Paul Downton.

Dr Phillip Roos
Dr Phillip Roos, image: Donna Squires

Going beyond typical sustainability practice

Dr Roös said: “Australia has been doing rail the same for more than 50 years, but with this project we wanted to look beyond not just standard practice, but beyond standard sustainability practice too.

“Biophilic design is about going further and deeper than just the idea of building something that is sustainable. It acknowledges that any built environment is intruding on a natural space and should therefore emulate nature as much as possible.”

The problem with our cities is they are in the main not biophilic. The city “destroys the way we are supposed to live”, he said.

The bigger public domain, therefore, has a role to play in exposing us to the natural systems that are fundamental to humans as living beings.

A completely biophilic approach is about many factors, including biomorphic forms, culture, materiality, and exposure to light, water and natural systems, Dr Roös said.

It’s not about rules

While a tool like Green Star is about “chasing credits and rules”, the biophilic way brings into play how the environment is meant to be designed.

Dr Roös said many of our old buildings already have these qualities, which explains the “awesomeness” response to heritage buildings. They tap into the pattern that is about our innate connection to where we come from.

Many also have biomorphic forms in the architecture, feature natural materials such as stone or timber, and offer sensory experiences in the form of sound, smell, touch and sight.

He said applying it to a large project was a “challenge to capitalist thinking” around value.

“Valuing trees in terms of dollars is where we go wrong,” he said. “There are other intrinsic values that are more important, such as the human and social aspects.”

Nature is “about our survival as a species”, he said. It is important to have in our cities so they can survive.

While there are many developments that now include natural elements such as green walls, green roofs or exposed timber, “bright, new open-plan offices don’t do anything” for most of us.

Dr Roös said that proposing biophilic design approaches for the Metro was about examining whether things could be done in a way that is good for people, and also supports Melbourne’s goal of becoming an EcoCity.

“Getting it right” in our public spaces is the agenda.

There is also a cultural dimension. While visitors to Australia land in one of the major cities as their first experience of the country, the tourism images of the nation overseas are generally all about natural beauty and natural spaces – Uluru, The Daintree, the Great Barrier Reef, the beaches.

Biophilic design in public spaces would enable us to “bring those elements that are important to us as Australians into our cities”.

Biophilic Gardens by the Bay in Singapore

The importance of connection to place

Connection to country has always been an extremely important aspect of culture for Aboriginal people and Dr Roos said that in expressing this through the biophilic pattern of connection to place, we could also be celebrating that in our public spaces and showing respect for our Indigenous people and culture.

Where culture is important, bringing in the Indigenous perspective is important also as “only our First People have direct links to the place”, Dr Roös said.

It is also one of the most important aspects in terms of building better relationships between cultures through acknowledging those links and bringing them into how places are planned and designed.

“It is critical to understand what that place was before [colonisation], and [learn] how do we respect that place.

“Architecture, landscape architecture and planning need to acknowledge the importance of country, land and place.

“The city is an intrusion on country. We need to change the concept of how we design and plan our cities to acknowledge those connections.”

Human wellbeing

Another dimension to the benefits of biophilia is the benefits for human wellbeing, an increasing focus for the property sector, planners and designers.

Studies have shown that people waiting at a bus stop experience less stress and perceive the waiting time as shorter when the bus stop is surrounded by nature.

Using biophilic design in public spaces creates an opportunity to engage with everyone, and give them a space that is “good for everyone”.

A public safety dividend

Studies have shown that where public spaces have more greening, trees and vegetation, crime rates are lower.

“Studies show that in the public realm, there is more respect for natural elements,” Dr Roös said.

Other studies have also shown that bullying behaviour diminishes in offices with greening.

Dr Roös said researchers didn’t yet know why nature generated positive behaviour change.

But it seems that exposure to natural elements “brings out the good in people”.

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