In a session on a new planning and design theory called “biophilic urbanism” at the 2012 Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, Judith Heerwagen, a professor at the University of Washington; Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia; and Bert Gregory, head of Mithun Architects + Designers + Planners argued that cities can be in tune with nature, actually embody nature in physical design, and foster deeper connections with nature.

For Professor Heerwagen, biophilia is best defined by the amazing biologist E.O. Wilson, who came up with the actual concept. It relates to the “innate emotional connection of humans to all living things.” In cities, for example, this means that people are attracted to trees and will pay more to live in areas with them. People will pay more for hotel rooms with views of nature. “These are things we intuitively know. We chose places that are greener.” Dr. Richard Jackson, former head of environmental health at the CDC, also made a similar point but connected nature with physical and mental health. Heerwagen quoted him: “In medicine, where the body is really matters.” Health is essentially place-based.

Research on the Benefits of Nature

Heerwagen outlined some fascinating recent research: In a recent study that examined the impact of exercising in nature vs. working out in areas devoid of nature, researchers found that “green exercise” in natural spaces “lowered tension, anxiety, and blood pressure,” beyond the benefits of exercise itself.

For kids, playing out in nature also has big benefits: “nature play is more imaginative.” Kids playing in nature play longer and more collaboratively. In contrast, in a closed-off playground, the play was “more aggressive and shorter.” While playing in nature, kids are “particularly attracted to spaces that offer protection and safety,” or “prospect and refuge.”

Researchers in the Netherlands recently looked at the benefits of what they call “Vitamin G.” Examining 10,000 residents in a massive study, the researchers found that the amount of green space in a 5-km zone around a person really impacts their health. “A 20 percent increase in nearby green space was effectively equivalent to another 5 years of life.”

Nature, said Heerwagen, also promotes positive emotions, psychological resilience, and wellbeing. Pleasant environments, researchers have demonstrated, stimulate opioid receptors so we actually feel a sense of pleasure.

How Do We Create Biophilic Urbanism?

For Professor Beatley, who not too long ago wrote a very smart book, Biophilic Cities, it means building nature into our daily lives, not just accessing nature once or twice a year on vacation. In fact, Beatley showed off a novel concept: minimum daily requirements for nature, based on the famed food pyramid. At the base of the pyramid, “we need hourly, daily foundational experiences in the city.” At the top of the pyramid are intense vacations in nature, while the mid-level are regional experiences, such as hikes.

To show why minimum daily requirements are needed, Beatley shared results from surveys he does across the country, in which he shows a set of corporate logos and then a set of birds. “There’s 100 percent identification for the logos, and just about 0 percent identification for the birds.” People have even confused butterflies with hummingbirds. He said that these people aren’t just missing out on visual knowledge, but also aural experiences. Knowledge of bird song has also nose-dived.

Beatley’s new Center for Biophilic Cities at the University of Virginia, which is financed by the Summit Foundation, is also now studying best practices for improving access to nature that can be implemented anywhere. For example, he pointed to Japanese “forest bathing” treatments that relieve “stress and improve immune systems.” Amateur wildlife trackers studied were found to have “higher natural social capital,” while a 90-year old working in a Scottsdale, Arizona nature conservancy, is out every day, being a steward of the environment.

As for existing cities that are doing well, Beatley pointed to Helsinki, where “there is an integrated network of green spaces,” and Askerselva part of Oslo, in which two-thirds of its land is protected forest. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque region in Spain, a ring of green surrounds the city, and is now being brought into the center. In Germany, the famous, almost-entirely car free city of Vauban, near Freiburg, is highly biophilic, while Eva-Lanemeer in the Netherlands is also among the most nature-loving.

Singapore is also dramatically expanding its residents’ access to nature in a dense urban area, with Bishan Park. The city-state has created 180 kilometers of ”park connectors,” much of which are elevated and dramatically cut through the tree tops. The city is also incorporating nature into its buildings: The Solaris building is wrapped in a 1.4 kilometer forest. A new hospital may be perhaps the greenest in the world, with garden window boxes and 140 fruit trees in the lobby and roof. Apparently, a survey demonstrated that patients actually love watching farmers within the hospital pruning and managing the fruit. The hospital is now using the number of birds and butterfly species as an indicator of success. (To learn more, Beatley recommended watching this 45-minute movie on biophilic design in Singapore).

Why Biophilic Urbanism Is Important

According to Gregory, humans, as a species, can’t afford to live in a low-density world. Biophilic urbanism can help ensure people live closer together, in less carbon-intensive environments. With nature built into cities, “the tensions between the natural and built environments” can be reduced and the “sins of poor planning” can be undone.

Cities should follow nature. As an example, Gregory showed Paris wrapping itself around the Seine river, organically responding to the shape and flow of the river. “This shows that cities can respond to something other than the car.”

In a flash of images, Gregory said how biophilic urbanism is about “sensory richness, variation of themes, prospect and refuge, serendipidity, motion, resilience, and creating a sense of freeness.” Materials facilitate haptic, tactile or kinesthetic learning. “There’s a real connection to place in the materials.”

“Light, air, water, sound, temperature, humidity, order, harmony, and fractal geometries” are central.  But the “unexpected within the order also serves as a counterpoint.” These biophilic urban spaces “capture human movement, but are flexible and adaptable.” Imagine a street grid with durable central spaces. “We can let nature be our guide. A walk through the city can be like a walk on the beach or through a forest.” 

Image credit: ASLA 2009 Residential Design Honor Award. Crack Garden, San Francisco / CMG Landscape Architecture