From Banlieue to Biophilia: Thinking About Nature as a Basis for Urban Design

Philip Silva, New York. 
9 January 2013

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

My second contribution to the Nature of Cities blog was scheduled to fall around that awkward moment at the start of the New Year when productivity is at its lowest ebb. Instead of sitting down to the task at my own snow-bound desk in upstate New York, I find myself seated on a plastic chair in a poured concrete garage smack-dab in the middle of rural Portugal.  The sun is shining through an open door, the flies are buzzing around a stack of old wine bottles in the corner, and a rooster just announced his presence in the yard out back.  I’m on vacation, you see, visiting family and spending time in a part of Portugal that has, in many ways, opted out of the networked society that so completely defines my life back in the U.S.  There are four channels on my aunt’s television set.  No stray WiFi signals show up on my computer.  News still travels efficiently by word of mouth, and neighbors pass the time gossiping at the front gate with anyone who passes by.

On the street in rural Portugal with the author’s family. Photo: Philip Silva.

Being that I’m on vacation, this blog post is less of a watertight exposition on a single topic than a meander through some loosely connected ideas about cities and nature.  There’s little around me right now to inspire any reflection on cities, yet there are seemingly endless opportunities to contemplate nature.  For miles around, this ancient coastal plain is checkered with allotment farms, pine forests, and opportunistic stands of eucalyptus trees.  Much of the rural, self-sufficient lifestyle rhapsodized about in cities back home in the U.S. is unassumingly lived out here, with little conscious thought given to things like environmental sustainability, locally-sourced food, or cultivating a “sense of place.”  People grow their own cabbages and onions, potatoes and garlic, and it’s hardly cause for adulation.

Capucho, Portugal, near Lisbon. Photo: David Maddox

Yet this is Western Europe, after all.  Rural though the setting may be, the fact remains that these lands have been trampled upon, cultivated, exhausted, fertilized, subdivided, colonized, and conquered millennia.  Aside from the wildlife sequestered in a few national parks, little of what the eye beholds here is likely to be “native” in the strictest sense of the word.  It’s all been shaped, to one degree or another, by human hands with the purpose of serving human needs and fulfilling human dreams.  It may look like nature, but the landscape was irrefutably drawn by social and cultural forces.

This problem of defining and delimiting nature – especially when it comes to nature and cities – has bubbled up in more than one contribution to this blog since its inauguration.   My first post last July dealt with the idea of cities as cyborgs, collections of artificial and natural materials and processes inextricably fused together to form urban settings.  In August, Brian McGrath introduced the idea of a “nature-culture continuum,” urging us to go beyond simply finding examples of nature in cities (trees, green spaces, animals, etc.) when we speak about the nature of cities.  More recently, Stephanie Pincetl helped us see the city’s built infrastructure, crafted from stone and steel, as an important part of any conversation about green infrastructure and sustainable urban living.  Put another way, Pincetl encourages us to recognize and value the inanimate dimensions of urban nature, though we tend to focus on biological systems in these discussions.  For the remainder of this week’s post, I want to consider this emphasis on biological systems in our discourse on the nature of cities.

In his introduction to Uncommon Ground, a pioneering collection of essays published in the mid-1990’s, environmental historian William Cronon made an exhaustively strong case for critically deconstructing the seemingly fixed concept of nature.  Cronon and his colleagues argued that the idea of nature couldn’t be taken for granted, its definition assumed to be universal or everlasting.  Nature, it turned out, is a slippery concept.  Though Cronon’s task was deconstruction, his aim was, in the end, the creation of a more stable conceptual footing for the modern environmental movement.  I’ll let him speak for himself:

“… our essays may be perceived by some as hostile to environmentalism, part of a general backlash against the movement.  And yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, it is precisely because we sympathize so strongly with the environmental agenda – with the task of rethinking and reconstructing human relationships with the natural world to make them more just and accountable – that we believe these questions must be confronted.  To ignore them is to proceed on intellectual foundations that may ultimately prove unsustainable.”

Most of the essays that comprise Uncommon Ground ask us to think twice whenever we turn to nature for solutions to human problems.  It’s not that nature doesn’t offer valuable lessons.  Yet our ideas of nature are inevitably cultivated from our cultural assumptions and prejudices.  When we look at nature, we can’t help but see it through a distorting cultural lens.  For humans, nature is something like a story to be told (and re-told) rather than objective reality that can be exhaustively understood on its own terms.  When we look to nature for inspiration in tackling urban problems, we need to carefully consider how much of that inspiration actually comes from a tacit set of human values and beliefs.  Nature, it would seem, is what we make of it.  What, then, do we make of cities designed in nature’s image?

The idea that nature offers untapped solutions for urban problems is not entirely new.  At least a century ago, the Garden City movement called for cities that more closely resembled the countryside, with lower population densities and more acreage given over to green space.  The same planning  ideas would live on, albeit distortedly,  in the form of Modernist “towers in the park” – an urban design strategy familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a North American housing project or a French banlieue.

Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Philip Silva

In recent years, the concept of biophilia has inspired some efforts to make cities more livable and sustainable. I n his blog post earlier this year, Tim Beatley described biophilia as the notion “that we are hard-wired from evolution to need and want contact with nature.”  There are two concepts at play in Beatly’s description.  First, there’s the core notion of biophilia, an experience of love or attraction to living biological systems.  Then there’s the biophilia hypothesis, first put forward by the celebrated biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984.  The hypothesis posits that human beings, having spent much of their evolutionary development as a species in nature, are inherently drawn to natural settings.  Designing a city with biophilia in mind means making space for nature, however one defines it.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a common-sense approach to solving some of the environmental ailments found in contemporary cities.  Yet creeping in the background is all that stuff from William Cronon (and others) about the slipperiness of the concept of nature – especially when it comes to determining what is and isn’t “natural” in cities.  Is nature just “the green things” that we find in cities?  The parks and trees and rivers and shrubs and everything else that wouldn’t be out of place in a rural setting like the one I find myself in right now?  Or are even the most developed cities already natural places, regardless of how artificial they seem?  Eric Sanderson made a fine case for moving past this dichotomy in his post earlier in the year, helping us “conceive of cities in their entirety as ecological places.”  Yet if cities are already quite natural on their own, where does that leave the biophilia hypothesis as a prescription for environmentally sustainable and livable cities?

I want to offer three short – and, admittedly, incomplete – observations that I hope will spark further conversation around these themes.  I’ll keep my points brief, mainly because I’m not resolutely devoted to them and I’m curious to hear what others have to say in response to each general idea.

Biomimicry beyond biophilia?

Biomimicry is the idea that natural processes may hold within them the blueprints for engineering sustainable human technologies.  Examples abound, from sewage purified in  ersatz “living machine” wetlands to synthetic fibers spun in factories with as little impact as a spider weaving its web.  Biomimicry promises a future where the materials of an industrial civilization leave no more of a lasting trace on the earth than the objects in a neolithic hunter-gatherer’s toolkit.  Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry and William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle are both must-read primers for anyone interested in learning more.

All cities rely on technology.  Their infrastructures are a complex tangle of human life-support systems, and like any cluster of technologies, they may be made more sustainable  through biomimcry.  We might think of “green infrastructure” as low-hanging fruit; a kind of first pass, low-tech approach to biomimcry for urban technology.  Instead of re-engineering a sewage treatment plant to function like a wetland, just create a wetland.  In the process, you’ve created a place for humans to experience a biological system within the city.  Green infrastructures are where the concepts of biomimicry and biophilia overlap.

A house in Lisbon. Photo: Philip Silva

However, there remain countless technologies and industrial materials that don’t readily lend themselves to a green infrastructure alternative, all of them integral to the daily function of contemporary cities.  Moreover, in dense mega-cities, green infrastructure may not be able to carry the burden of tens of millions of people, and you’d be hard pressed to plunk down a wetland in the middle of Manhattan.  In these instances, it seems to me, biomimicry trumps biophilia.  Build a sewage treatment plant, and design it to function as much like a wetland as possible, drawing on whatever science tells us about how wetlands work.  The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s a continuum of feasibility that needs to be appreciated.

Sociobiology – biophilia’s conceptual underpinning – is a contested idea

The biophilia hypothesis grew out of sociobiology, a field of research predicated on the idea that human behavior and culture are products of the biological evolution of the species.  Like biophilia, the field owes its development to E.O. Wilson, who set down the parameters of sociobiology in the mid-1970’s.  Sociobiology held out the promise of synthesizing the natural and social sciences for a comprehensive approach to understanding humankind.  However, the field was not without its detractors.  No less an authority than evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould would, along with others, criticize sociobiology as a narrowly “deterministic view of human society and human action.”

There isn’t enough space on this blog to rehash the many debates that followed Wilson’s publication and Gould’s critique.  My point here is simply to emphasize that sociobiology, which gives the biophilia hypothesis its underlying logic, is not a universally accepted approach to understanding humankind.  In fact, the debate continues to this day, with significant arguments against sociobiology coming from scholars across the social sciences.  Yet in many of our efforts to draw on the biophilia hypothesis to create greener cities, we treat the concept as an established fact.  I won’t take a stand one way or another right now, but I do think we need to let the debate into our discourse on the nature of cities in order to make our work more resilient, rigorous, and, ultimately, more relevant.

Is biophilia bigger than “Nature”?

If we hold the biophilia hypothesis to be true, then what are the qualities of biological systems and “natural” settings that make them so attractive to humans?  How do we evaluate an urban setting to determine whether or not it adequately answers to the biophilia hypothesis?  How does the human eye – and the human heart – tell nature from its own creations?  Does a hardscrabble community garden make the cut?  A lonely street tree?  What if it’s an Ailanthus, that much-reviled invasive plant that thrives so comfortably in cities?  We’re back to that issue of defining nature, in all its slipperiness, in order to better understand biophilia in cities.

Graffiti on a wall is Lisbon. Photo: Philip Silva

As a result, I struggle with how nature is defined when the biophilia hypothesis is applied to urban planning and design.  I have a hard time lumping a single tree, a community garden, a wetland, a window box, a green roof, a flock of birds, an urban park, or any number of other phenomena all into the same category.  And, despite contradicting myself, I also wonder we’ve taken too narrow a view of the things that trigger a biophilic response in cities.  If a garden can elicit a feeling a biophilia, why can’t any other object of beauty crafted by human hands?  If we celebrate the presence of nature in cities because it provides unique opportunities for surprise, wonder, and reflection, what other aspects of urban living fulfill those needs?  I personally feel the same magnetic pull from a technicolor graffiti mural as I do from a well-designed park or a lovingly maintained garden.  All three grab the eye with the visual equivalent of a complex polyrhythm.  All three are vibrant expressions of life, human and non-human alike.

What might we discover if we keep pushing the boundaries of biophilia, including more and more things that don’t normally show up on a list of “natural” phenomena?  How would our notion of the biophilia hypothesis change?  What would urban design and landscape architecture have to add to the conversation, given their focus on creating vibrant and interesting public spaces within cities?

This blog post started with me reflecting on my rural surroundings in central Portugal.  By the time I got to putting down this last sentence, I had relocated south to Lisbon to spend the rest of my vacation with friends in the capital city.  As my train pulled into the riverside terminal last night, I couldn’t help feeling relieved to find myself back in an urban setting.  I was bored in the countryside, uneasy and out of place.  Beautiful though it may be, uninterrupted nature is not for everyone.  Maybe neon lights and street art and sidewalk benches packed with people from all walks of life have a place in our understanding of biophilia, too.

Philip Silva
Ithaca, NY USA


Philip Silva

About the Writer:
Philip Silva

Philip's work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. He is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

Philip Silva

Philip Silva

TreeKit, Cornell University Ithaca, NY USA Philip Silva is a Ph.D. student in Natural Resources at Cornell University. His work focuses on informal adult learning and participatory action research in social-ecological systems. For the past four years, Silva taught courses in urban forestry, environmental history, and design at The New School. In 2011, Silva was one of 25 national leaders convened by the US Forest Service to participate in the “Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests” task force. He has worked with some of NYC’s leading environmental organizations, including Sustainable South Bronx, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Just Food, and the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance. Philip is a recipient of the 2010 iLAB Residency of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance (“iLAND”) and a 2009 Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program. He currently serves as co-founder and co-director of TreeKIT, an initiative to measure, map, and collaboratively manage urban forests. A native of Newark, NJ with a graduate degree in urban policy analysis, Silva is dedicated to exploring nature in all of its urban expressions.

3 thoughts on “From Banlieue to Biophilia: Thinking About Nature as a Basis for Urban Design

  1. hey phil,

    this essay just made me think of a few things. one of which was this quote:

    The sharpest divide has been between the idea of nature as an invariant essence
    residing outside of social relations and the idea of nature as socially and historically
    constituted. This tension translates into a distinction between conceptions of urban
    form as the outcome of the single-minded genius of individuals and an emphasis
    on the social production of space through the collective imprint of society (Gandy,
    2002: p 233).

    another was garret mcnamara’s 100 ft wave. (ridden around the same time you were writing this):

    , a feat that is only made possible by the exceptional bathymetry near nazare.

    all of portugal sits very close to extremely deep ocean. it seems much closer to the abyss than any other part of the “old world” or the us east coast:

    the extreme bathymetry continues up into the topography of lisbon revealing itself in what must have been heroic feats of “streetscaping” at the time they were built:

    in fact, the cliffs here remind me a lot of ithaca. and of this essay:

    Academic Work: The View From Cornell

  2. Phil, I’m not qualified to really participate in this discussion, but I’m jet-lagged to the hilt, can’t sleep, and found it interesting reading. You write really well, and the post provoked a few thoughts from an urban planning perspective. Your observation of the contrast between about straightforward domestic food production in Portugal and the ‘locally-sourced’, ‘sustainability’ discourse accompanying similar practices in the US is a telling one I think, because perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the latter represents a qualitatively different interpretation and engagement with nature that (a) departs from a normative basis that nature itself is ‘good’, and (paradoxically?) (b) somehow binds up ‘nature’ within frameworks of production and consumption, treating it as a commodity and constructing it as ‘a good’. I was thinking about this in Wegmans recently. Their organic range seeks to somehow stand outside the conventions of the standard supermarket fare, but in so doing positions itself as premium fare within the same system. David Harvey wrote a lot about how capitalist imperatives set the configurations of the nature/culture binary (see entry on ‘nature/cultures’ in the International Encylopedia of Human Geography, 2009, by Sundberg and Dempsey).

    Thinking about how culture configures nature via technologies of power, its interesting to think about how cities stand in relation to this. The classical nature/culture binary of modernity places the city as inherently cultural, defined in relation to surrounding nature by its civilized character ( ‘civitas = city). Urbanity thus becomes antithetical to the natural, an intuitive interpretation for many which is further given a normative loading with’ nature = good’, and ‘urban=bad’. Hence, as you note, the emergence of the garden cities movement as a means of escaping the ills of the 19th century industrial city. This is still extremely prevalent, as urban incursions into ‘nature’ through urban sprawl are viewed in an extremely negative light, etc.

    Following the same logic, bringing ‘nature’ into the ‘urban’ is seen as a positive undertaking in principle. Yet, as you demonstrate, just what are we talking about here? As the biophilia argument and the other literature you mention shows, it’s more than simply greenery for aesthetic beauty, but – when pressed – any surety in something more concrete evaporates. In my reading at the moment, I’m trying to guide my analysis of texts via the broad question of ‘how do we make cities better’? Clearly each of these words can, and need to be, deconstructed to support a deeper, more nuanced understanding of urban conditions and the forces which directly and indirectly shape their character. In the context of urban nature, I’m drawn to all of these words. ‘Cities’ unfortunately implies something immediately contradictory to nature, ‘better’ gets at the heart of the biophilic argument, ‘how’ and ‘make’ pertain to urban planning and design approaches and tools, as well as interpretations of ‘natural’ things, while ‘we’ asks political and ethical questions about voice, participation, and power.

    There’s something tangential here about space, too. The politics of urban space are highly contested and any project to naturalize the urban has to be aware of this. Depending on the forms of ‘nature’ which are valorized, urban nature can be as benign as a flower garden or as dangerous as a prowling wolf.

    Anyway, this is as much a thinking-aloud ramble as anything else, but just wanted to engage.

    Thanks for the read!


  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Philip. You raise some important points, most importantly (though perhaps inadvertently) a point about the importance of definitions. We must remember that biophilia means love of life, not necessarily substitutable for love of “nature,” however convenient to the argument. You rightly point out the problems with that particular cultural construct (nature).

    Assuming humans are alive, the biophilia argument seems simply to be that we humans gravitate to other living things (and this is not exclusive, as in just because we gravitate towards other life doesn’t mean we can’t love gramma’s kitchy art made out of plastic milk jugs or a mosaic made by children in a garden, too). In other words, biophilia isn’t the only process at work, it may be one of many processes at work. The importance of this concept was to remind humans that we too are life, are living, and need other life. Hydrophilic substances want to affiliate with water, biophilic substances (or beings) want to affiliate with other life. Wilson, and later in more refined terms, Kellert, argued that this was not optional, but genetically part of us (and most other life forms), expressed to greater or lesser degrees depending upon key external variables.

    Today, the utility of the idea of biophilia has greatly eclipsed its sociobiological roots. Still, as it was in vogue at one time to criticize Wilson and the sociobiologists, and those criticisms reached a fevered pitch as Wilson climbed higher and higher into esteemed positions within the scientific community, it became and still is all to easy to smugly dismiss (which you have not done, but are merely reflecting and pondering upon) any new thinking about the idea of an innate love of life and living things as “old-fashioned Wilson-esque sociobiology.” This faulty logic is shortsighted, and it is great that you are addressing it in your musing.

    As I argue in a recent paper in the journal Ecology and Society (see Urgent Biophilia –, more than two decades after Wilson proposed biophilia, cell biologists have begun to explore the biological attraction principle, which states that there is an inherent drive for association and merging of compatible elements at all levels of biological complexity. Analogous with the gravitation law in physics, biological attraction posits that each living organism builds an attractive field around itself, and that this field acts as a sphere of influence that actively attracts similar fields of other biological systems, thereby modifying salient features of the interacting organisms. Echoing earlier ideas about biophilia, the biological attraction principle asserts that “the biological ‘drive’ of attraction is inherent to living and evolving systems and is the result of their inherent biological activities” (Agnati et al. 2009a:554). Further, because it is capable of active modification of some of the salient features of the environment (niche) in which they live, living systems are, therefore, acting on other living organisms, which are sensitive to these features. Importantly, Agnati and colleagues argue that sensitivity to this biological attraction seems to increase in biological systems under stress.

    The implications for this newer manifestation of biological attraction should be manifestly clear in urban settings, and in hazard, disaster, and other contexts characterized by stress. The biological attraction principle as outlined by Agnati and colleagues appears to have both explanatory and predictive utility. They argue that it can explain the evolutionary origin of eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms, and complex ecosystems, and perhaps most salient to this paper’s argument, can predict “… a further tightening of bonds in our society, especially when exposed to stress situations” .

    The work of Agnati and colleagues helps us hold on to the essence of Wilson’s biophilia, that we are part of nature as demonstrated by our evolutionary traits, while perhaps allowing us to jettison the historical and political baggage that accompanies. A new biophilia, urgent biophilia, rises to provide an explanation for a preponderance of evidence that exists suggesting the restorative effects of seeing and doing green. i have written in this blog and elsewhere about urgent biophilia, so I will not be labor the point here.

    I appreciate your yen for “pushing the boundaries of biophilia.” We should push further on the idea that Wilson’s biophilia describes the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life. This biophilia idea is an important reflection of broader efforts to correct what many argue are mistaken assumptions about the origins and ramifications of human dominance in the biosphere. In this domain, Wilson and his colleagues accomplished two things. First, they identified a phenomenon, i.e., that humans have an affinity for other living things. Second, they proposed the possibility that the phenomenon of humans having deep affiliations with nature is rooted in our biology, and therefore perhaps harder to completely subdue. These two observations should not be surprising given our evolutionary past, a past in which we evolved with the rest of the biosphere, not separate from it or exempt from its laws, and may be useful in efforts to escape the problems and traps of the human-nature dichotomy and the mythology of human exemptionalism and exceptionalism.

    I applaud your forays into these rich and complex ideas, and look forward to how you demonstrate that “…neon lights and street art and sidewalk benches packed with people from all walks of life have a place in our understanding of biophilia, too.” Nice work, Philip.

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