“Biophilia” as an idea describes how people have innate love for, attachment to, and even need for nature. It also expresses the notion that, as a design imperative, cities are more livable when they have more nature, and that people are happier and healthier when they have more contact with nature, from wild parks away from buzzing traffic all the way to street trees and flowers in tree pits.
It sounds nice.
So, how can a city transcend the metaphoric qualities of “biophilia”—nature is good, who would argue with that?—and define something actionable? For example, how much nature is “enough” nature in a city? Or, how much biophilic experience is enough? What does “enough” mean? Does walking past 50 street trees equal, in terms of a biophilic dose, a hour in a park? Do workplaces designed with biophilia in mind compensate for less nature outside. The research questions are rich and extensive, and their potential connection to design is important.
Stated in these ways, the questions of biophilia become about goal setting and targets. This is the focus of this roundtable. Is biophilia an actionable driver of design in cities? If so, what should cities have as targets or goals for biophilia? If the aim is to create a “biophilic city”, how would you know when it was achieved? Perhaps the measures won’t be found in metrics of nature, but in metrics about people and their perceptions of and feelings for nature.
Several contributors wonder, however, whether talk of metrics somehow misses the point of biophilia. It leaves us with the key prompt: Specifically, what are we trying to accomplish with biophilic cities?
I love the idea of biophilia—that, deep down inside, we all yearn for nature, we have an innate affinity for other living beings, and that we seek to connect with these living beings. In the same breath, we also know that part of the process of settling and growing cities is “making benign”, nature-safe spaces that can be easily lived in. I live in Cape Town, and while I am a strong advocate of more nature in and around the City, I also don’t want to dodge lions when I pop out for a bottle of milk or a newspaper at the corner café. I have had students from other cities in Africa describe to me how liberating it is to come to Cape Town to study and to be in a city without the constant threat of malaria.
Real, unattended nature can be a challenging thing to live with. It seems, perhaps, as part of our urbanizing personas, we might have lost sight of some of the significant trials that nature poses to comfortable and easy living. We also know from research on nature in cities that the kind of nature people want varies considerably. Some yearn for a true sense of wilderness, with exposure to untamed patches of remnant nature, while others want facilitated nature with boardwalks, benches, and reasonably placed parking lots. So when we say we want biophilic cities, do we really know what we want?
Perhaps what we really want is to save biophilia itself
There is mounting research demonstrating people’s needs for nature, and even more evidence for broader societal needs in cities in terms of ecosystem service delivery, resilience, sustainability, and generally keeping the show on the road. We know, without a shadow of doubt, that we need nature. But not everyone knows that, and perhaps we (those of us in the know) feel that if we can keep this notion of biophilia alive, then we can use it to meet broader environmental and nature-related needs in cities.
So perhaps what we really want is to save biophilia as a human condition. Perhaps what scares us is the emerging idea of extinction of experience and constantly reduced exposure to nature; we fear the death of biophilia. We fear the generation that will lead without this biophilic dimension in them. We fear that we will somehow manage to let biophilia—and nature—go, live without it, to not even notice when the last vista goes under for a complex of high-rise buildings. I propose what we really want is to ensure that this notion of “biophilia” is kept alive in all of us.
So the metric of success becomes biophilia itself—and the people who engender this notion. Of course, to achieve that, we need nature in cities.
What we need is to be in schools, and out in society, asking the kinds of questions that get to the heart of whether people still have this biophilic feeling. While we must, of course, continue to secure green parklands and remnant patches of vegetation growing wild in our cities, and continue to strive to expose our populace to these features, what we need to keep an eye on in terms of success is whether people have the love of nature required to continue to fight for its existence. I think the exposure to nature needed to maintain the biophilic feeling is extensive and varied, both for individuals and to capture the extremes of society as well. In this way, I believe that the measure of a biophilic city can be found in its people. I am no social scientist, so I offer no exact metrics of how you go out there and measure biophilia, but I believe that is the correct metric to measure success.
All cities differ, and people differ, and how old or how young a city is, as well as the settlement history of its people, will all inform their views of and love of nature. The kind of nature they want; what they want to do with it; and when and where they want to do it, will all be informed by these different elements. For this reason, I don’t believe there is a single answer to what a biophilic city should look like. I believe it is a question of being in tune with the residents of the city, ensuring that they are exposed to enough of the right kind of nature, the kind of nature they desire, packaged in a form that pleases them, that will give rise to biophilic cities.
That is: cities full of biophilic citizens.
About three years ago, we launched the global Biophilic Cities Network, and it has been getting a lot of attention and gaining traction in recent months (see www.BiophilicCities.org). To join the Network requires the adoption of an official resolution or statement of intent to become a biophilic city, among other requirements. Recent additions to the Network include Washington, DC; Edmonton, Canada; and Pittsburgh, PA. These are cities on the edge of what we describe as a global movement.
The BIophilic Cities movement represents an important shift in our vision of cities. There is no question we still need to design and plan cities that are sustainable and resilient, but increasingly we realize that they must also be joyful, restorative, wondrous places: places that allow for human flourishing. Genuine and full human flourishing requires, I believe, contact with nature—not just on the occasional vacation, but nature that is all around us (ideally all the time), in the urban neighborhoods and communities where we live and work. Biophilic cities put nature at the center, and that urban nature can and should take many forms—biodiversity and remnant and restored ecosystems, but also new, more human-designed forms, including living walls, rooftops, and nature included in the vertical spaces of tall buildings, among others. Abundant nature and nature-experiences are central. Biophilic cities seek to maximize the moments of awe and connection, whether it is the sight of a Humpback Whale in the Hudson River or an encounter with a line of pavement ants. We sometimes speak of a need for a “whole-of-region” approach or goal (we want nature everywhere, at multiple scales—from rooftop or room, to region or bioregion—ideally integrated, and in all the space between). And our notion of biophilic cities is also “whole-of-life”—it must provide rich, abundant opportunities to experience nature from early childhood through to our senior years.
We must push our vision even further and many of our Network Cities are increasingly aspiring to a model of natureful cities that is profoundly more immersive: the idea that we don’t just want to visit nature in cities, we don’t just have trees and parks. Rather, these places aspire to a vision of cities where the city IS the park, IS the forest, IS the garden. Singapore’s official change in its motto from garden city to “a city in a garden,” is one important example (and involved much planning work to bring about: see our film about Singapore, a biophilic city).
Biophilic cities are defined by more than just the presence or absence or biodiversity or nature, but also by the extent to which residents in these places are engaged in enjoying, participating in, and caring about this nature. We aspire to cities where citizens spend much more of their time outside, are able to recognize common species of flora and fauna and fungi, where over the course of a day, there are many moments for personal or collective awe. We want cities where there is a culture of curiosity about nature, and a culture of caring about, and caring for, the local nature. Biophilic cities understand urban environments as spaces shared with many other forms of life, and recognize an ethical duty to work towards co-existence.
Two cities that have recently joined the Network exemplify this spirit of caring and co-existence. Austin, Texas, now famously celebrates the arrival each spring of the 1.5 million Mexican Free-Tailed bats that take up residence under the Congress Avenue bridge. Thanks to heroes such as Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International, Austin residents shifted remarkably in their view of the bats, from biophobia to biophilia. In Tuttle’s recent book, The Secret LIfe of Bats, he describes Austin as “A City that Loves Bats.” Several years ago, we filmed a segment about the bats for a documentary film called The Nature of Cities (You can watch the segment here). It was wonderful to see firsthand the palpable excitement and fascination and anticipation of (especially) the kids waiting to see the emerging columns of bats that evening.
The City of St. Louis is our most recent member of the Network (officially entering the Network in March 2017!). Here, fervor surrounds butterflies in much the same way as it now surrounds bats in Austin. Through the leadership of Mayor Francis Slay, and Sustainability Director Catherine Werner, the city has taken many steps to educate about and promote habitat creation for Monarch Butterflies. They set a high goal of planting 250 butterfly gardens through an initiative called Milkweeds for Monarchs. The number is now 370 gardens and rising, and seemingly everyone in this city knows about and cares about Monarchs.
I want to live in a city that loves bats and loves butterflies. This is a pretty good measure of a successful city—and a pretty good way for us to foster hope and wonder and flourishing in an age of despair.
What are the components of a city? They are commonly assumed to be the buildings, infrastructure, and open spaces. But it is the interaction between the living organisms, including people, plants, animals, microorganisms, etc. and the physical man-made features that make a city a dynamic entity!
Can a truly biophilic city exist, or is it just a utopian dream?
The challenge is that the goals of a biophilic city should encompass all aspects of a city, both the software and the hardware. Biodiversity considerations should be taken into account in the development processes of a city. The city will not be able to do this unless it knows what biodiversity thrives in it. Everyone must play a part to actualise the goals.
I would like to relate a case study of a city that embodied biophilia. A man had a vision and he planted a tree on 16 June 1963 which grew into the Garden City programme. This programme became the mission of a city-state which evolved into a City in A Garden (see also Tim Beatley’s contribution to this roundtable). That man with foresight was the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, and the city is Singapore.
In 2015, the National Parks Board (or NParks) of Singapore decided that it was time to systematically consolidate, strengthen, and intensify its biodiversity conservation efforts. This formalization process is manifest in NParks’ Nature Conservation Masterplan (or NCMP).
The NCMP comprises four focuses: 1) Conservation of Key Habitats, 2) Habitat Enhancement, Restoration and Species Recovery, 3) Applied Research in Conservation Biology and Planning, and 4) Community Stewardship and Outreach in Nature. The goals and targets of a biophilic city would be to ensure that all four of these aims are synergised and implemented successfully.
Some of the actions that can be taken to ensure the successful implementation of the first aim are the identification, safeguarding, and strengthening of the most important biodiversity areas that harbour the bulk of the native gene pool; the enrichment of buffer areas and ensuring that land use is compatible with that of the important biodiversity areas; the enhancement and management of additional nodes of greenery throughout the city, such as parks, roadsides, roof-tops, vertical and sky rise greenery, etc.; and the development of ecological corridors so that the effective area that can be used by wildlife is enlarged.
Most urban areas are degraded; hence, habitats for wildlife should be enhanced, restored, or created as targeted by the second of NParks’ aims. Rare species can only be sustainably conserved if the condition of the ecosystems that they thrive in is good.
Applying state-of-the-art technology would greatly assist in the achievement of the third aim. Indeed, the application of modern technology to biodiversity conservation work, including the use of geographical information systems, drones, 3D modelling, agent-based modelling, genomics, etc., has made possible much data collection and analyses that eluded us in the past.
Without community stewardship and public outreach, the efforts towards a biophilic city would be meaningless and would not be sustainable on a long-term basis. Biodiversity should be incorporated into the curricula of all levels of the education system. To build more ground support, we must also encourage citizen science.
There are many cities around the world that are biophilic in their own special way, including, Curitiba (Brazil), Edmonton (Canada), Montreal (Canada), Bonn (Germany), Nagoya (Japan), Wellington (New Zealand), and more.
Right metrics for measuring progress toward these goals
How can the success of achieving the goals of a biophilic city be measured?
In May 2008, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, alongside the Global Partnership on Local and Subnational Action for Biodiversity (or GPLSAB) designed a self-assessment tool for cities to benchmark and monitor the progress of their biodiversity conservation efforts against their own individual baselines. This index is now referred to as the Singapore Index on Cities’ Biodiversity because of the pivotal role Singapore played in its creation and spread.
Determining an optimal number of indicators is not easy: if there are more than 30 indicators, it would be too onerous to assess, whereas fewer than ten indicators would compromise the robustness of the assessment. The GPLSAB tried to strike a balance with 23 indicators that first measure native biodiversity in the city; then measure ecosystem services provided by biodiversity; and, finally, assess governance and management of biodiversity. To be scientifically credible, the indicators we use must be quantifiable so that they can be verified by independent evaluators. Hence, each indicator is assigned a scoring range between zero and four points.
To date, 25 city governments have applied the Singapore Index (or SI). Academics have applied the SI to an additional 14 cities, and 11 more city governments are currently in the process of applying the SI. Academics who research biodiversity indices for cities have found that the SI is the only index currently in use for measuring biophilia—Timothy Beatley collated a list of indicators of a biophilic city in his book, “Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning”, but did not cite how these indicators were applied.
Any city can be a biophilic city—but becoming biophilic is made that much easier if all its citizens embrace biophilia into their ethos.
A city becomes biophilic when each year:
1) The area of green cover and tree canopy increases
2) More natural and human-created habitats are enhanced and restored with native species
3) The number of native species escalates due to discovery of new species, re-discoveries of species thought to be extinct, and new records
4) The participation rate of citizen scientists expands, and
5) Over 50 percent of the residents can name and recognize at least ten native plants, birds, and butterflies.
Cities, join in this challenge, and enjoy your journey to becoming truly biophilic!
My first memories of urban nature are how my father grew vegetables in our London suburban garden. He had dug up part of the lawn to increase the area used for growing vegetables. The other part of the lawn still had flowerbeds at the side, but there were also blackberries, and, farther down, the garden fruit trees and a larger area of vegetables. A few hundred metres from the house, the local golf course had been ploughed up to grow wheat. My childhood escape to wilderness was to find a path through the wheat to an overgrown bunker, which still had trees, and to me was an island in a sea (of wheat).
The park opposite my primary school had been almost totally dug up for vegetable allotments, as had most of the sports ground belonging to the company for which my father worked. My aunt kept chickens in her garden and we placed food scraps in the trash bin in the street, which I knew as the pig-swill bin. The food waste was collected and taken to pig-farms that had been established in the local area to enhance the meagre wartime meat rations. Looking back at this time, I now interpret this as a biophilia of necessity, a forced biophilia far beyond the control of any family or local community. The London suburbs at this time were part of a special kind of biophilic city.
A different awareness of urban nature came ten years later, when our sixth-form history teacher took us to the City of London to look at the remnants of its past that had survived wartime bombing. I was amazed by the way plants had colonised the bomb sites, with a great diversity of flowers and foliage, containing many species that I had not seen before. This spontaneous urban vegetation had caught the attention of many naturalists and ecologists, including E.J. Salisbury and R.S.R. Fitter, whose writings eventually led to the creation of urban ecology parks on pieces of neglected, derelict land (a story told brilliantly by David Goode in his “Nature in Towns and Cities”).
A different perspective on urban biophilia arose 12 years later, with my first experience of a tropical city which then had considerable poverty. In Kuala Lumpur, on the banks of the Sungai Gombak, people were cultivating vegetables; patches of land between buildings were used as temporary, precarious gardens, even within a metre or two of heavy traffic. Here was an urban agriculture of necessity: a subsistence biophilia that risked flood damage, pollution and contamination to increase families’ food security.
By 1999, 800 million people worldwide were engaged in crop, livestock, fisheries, and forestry production within and surrounding urban boundaries. In many low latitude countries, over 30 percent of households are engaged in urban food production, with over half the poorest 20 percent of households relying on growing their own food. This represents another form of biophilia arising out of need. However, other biota, especially insect pests and disease vectors, pose major problems for these communities. If adequate water, sanitation, and drainage could be provided to the informal settlements in which most urban farmers live, the problem biota could be greatly reduced and the benefits of urban greenery could be enjoyed by more people for longer.
Following the 2001 economic crisis in Argentina, 60 percent of the inhabitants of the city of Rosario had incomes below the poverty line and 30 percent were living in extreme poverty. Urban food production using vacant land was encouraged and incorporated into municipal policies. A biophilic city developed, with specific provisions for the agricultural use of public land and a municipal “green circuit” consisting of family and community gardens, commercial vegetable gardens and orchards, multifunctional garden parks, and “productive barrios”, where agriculture is now integrated into programmes for the construction of public housing and the upgrading of slums.
Rosario, and my other examples of forms of urban biophilia that emerge from wars and strife, show that, when there is political will and a clear policy of social inclusion, it is possible to incorporate urban agriculture into a wider urban green infrastructure and create a biophilic city that is socially inclusive and provides equitable access to ecosystem services.
For further information on Rosario go to: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3696e.pdf.
When I look at goals and targets for biophilic cities, I find that my concerns don’t lie with issues of design so much as values, social organisation, and culture. For instance:
- Does the city environment encourage or discourage awareness of non-human nature?
- Does the city demonstrate its connection with the life of its supporting hinterland/region?
- Does the management and operation of the city (read “urban system”) protect and celebrate the living systems on which it depends or otherwise connects?
- What is the status of non-humans in the city? Do non-humans have legal rights; are they protected in law? Are their lives valued?
- Are there penalties for damaging living systems? (I’m not keen on penalties, personally, but they seem to be an essential part of organised human society and if there are penalties for harming humans there must, in a biophilic city, be penalties for harming non-humans).
- Who represents the interests of nature? Can we consult with non-human species?
In 1988, John Seed proposed a “Council of All Beings” as a way for representatives of non-humans to be given an opportunity to put their views in a general council. Strip away the countercultural trappings of feel-good rituals and it is essentially role-playing, but it’s as good a means as any for incorporating the interests of non-human nature in a formal framework.
Adapted to a more mainstream, science-based footing, it is possible to see how informed human representatives could present the ecological needs of their adopted species, and that they might be ideal candidates for helping to shape biophilic city goals. What could be more genuinely biophilic than letting nature speak for itself about what is beautiful?
- Is it beautiful?
Beauty is measurable to some extent in fractal dimensions (Downton et al. 2016). People respond positively to images of nature but non-living and virtual fractal imagery score highly, and that is a conundrum any biophilic city goals must address.
Translating biophilia into something “actionable” in the city is a challenging idea once you accept that, measurable fractality or not, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”; even something that measures up well in terms of fractal geometry may not be universally regarded as beautiful. Writing about “The Divine Proportion”, H. E. Huntley quotes Sir Francis Younghusband, musing on the beauty of Kashmir scenery: “It is only a century ago that mountains were looked upon as hideous” (Huntley 1970 p. 89). Those “hideous mountains” are the same magnificent mountains as the modern ones (give or take a bit of snow cover and glacier extent), but there has been a cultural shift. People tend to see as ugly things that they find threatening. In Western culture, for instance, men with long hair have been seen as both fabulous and threatening.
- Is it useful? What’s it worth?
Beware measures of mere utility that “justify” the role of nature in the human universe by showing how it provides services to our species. That is not biophilia, and one can despise that which does you good service or serves you well. Biophilia is about the love of nature, not its financial reckoning. If you love a flower more because it is suddenly worth a lot of money, it is not the love of nature that is driving your passion, but a base desire for filthy lucre.
At one end of the spectrum, the appreciation of nature is driven by emotion. Here, nature is enjoyed at a visceral level for its perceived emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual benefits. At the other end of the spectrum, nature is valued for its utilitarian benefits as a service provider, e.g., as an agency for cleaning the air and water. On the face of it, it is easier to demonstrate the value of nature to urban populations by demonstrating that it is worth money, i.e., that it provides, or saves, thousands or millions of dollars in servicing costs. But the monetary system is a completely human invention with no basis in objective reality. Every aspect of the financial system is a fantasy and can change on a whim or overnight—literally. Billions of dollars rocket around the planet daily, but they have no existence outside of the shared (and enforced) cultural assumptions that equate bits and bytes to dollars and cents.
Natural systems, on the other hand, are real. They are healthy or not, they work or not, they live or die whatever we want to call them and regardless of what price we put on them. Hideous mountains probably offended early American pioneers because they were massive impediments to their push westwards. Mountaintops have been blasted to smithereens because human value systems could convert them into millions of dollars—they were worth more as rubble than as the abiotic base for a living ecosystem. The shared human belief in a magical financial system has proven, time and time again, to be stronger than concerns about damaging nature. The attribution of monetary value to nature is part of the same fiction that allows for the idea of endless growth on a finite planet. It is intrinsically flawed and, given the inter-relationship between money and politics, politically unstable and ill-suited as part of any measure of biophilia.
So, beware of what numbers “mean”. But in drafting our goals, we cannot rely on assumptions about the meaning of language, either. It does not remain stable or inviolate. It is a human creation and subject to all the vagaries and inconsistencies that implies. It changes as the central concerns of society change. I have written before about how the buttercup and another four dozen words relating to nature and the countryside have been redacted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in favour of computer terminology like “broadband” that the dictionary’s editors decided was more “relevant” to modern children.
If it is necessary to be pragmatic in order to value nature in a way that can be converted into goals, then that pragmatism must be about recognition of intrinsic value as a part of what it means to be human. Because biophilia is about loving nature and the visceral/utilitarian spectrum is about appreciating nature, it might be concluded that goals for biophilic cities should “strike a balance” and include both kinds of evaluation of nature’s worth. But in some ways, that would miss the point of biophilia. If our innate love for, attachment to, and need for nature has to be reduced to a financial equation to justify itself in the human constructed environments of our cities, then maybe we’re losing the plot. Innate love fits with intrinsic value. One of the primary purposes of architecture and design in human settlement is to make places that please the human spirit, sensibility, and aesthetic sense. Disagreement about what exactly constitutes beauty does not diminish the value of pursuing it, and diversity of expression and response is part of the dialogue of culture. Loving nature for what it is should be enough, and if it isn’t, then there is a deep flaw in our culture.
Downton, PF, DS Jones & J Zeunert 2016, Creating Healthy Places: Railway Stations, Biophilic Design and the Melbourne Metro Rail Project. Docklands, Melbourne: Melbourne Metro Rail Authority
Huntley, HE 1970, The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty. Dover Publications, New York
“Biophilia” is the term coined by Edward O. Wilson to describe what he believes is humanity’s innate affinity for the natural world. I am all with Wilson, but I think the term has been taken over by others without such a profound understanding of biodiversity. There is a clamour about biophilia and landscape design and cities. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but I do have a concern that “biophilia” can draw focus away from nature per se and become just about well-being and the health of humans.
I am sure everyone writing in this forum is implicitly interested in making cities greener and better for both humans and wildlife. I am reminded of a 2015 article last year that Amy Hahs wrote for this site: “In the future will we build cities for wildlife and design the countryside for people?” I found this a very thought-provoking piece. I think it challenges some of the pavements in our heads that need to be cracked open. Below, I will share several examples that illustrate why the primary metric that cities should use to assess biophilia should be function, not form
Are bird boxes for birds, or are they for us?
Personally, as a birdwatcher, I find bird boxes really irritating in cities. I have been wanting to write about them for a long time. As I was discussing this the other day with a couple of colleagues, there were some interesting responses. In a city, there are plenty of places for birds to nest—holes in walls, on roofs, in industrial plants, and in backyards. Yet, I see stacks of bird boxes on the sides of buildings and in trees in inappropriate places. And I have rarely actually seen them in use. A bird box is a relatively easy, quick “win” for ecologists and designers. It is also a great tool for conservation bodies to get corporate-types to build something during volunteer days. Bird boxes are also useful for engaging young people in birds. But are bird boxes serving birds or us? As my colleague said: “Well, if I didn’t have a blue tit box into my garden, I wouldn’t see them nesting.” “But they would find somewhere else to nest, wouldn’t they? And they would still come to your garden”, I pointed out. So, the nest box wasn’t about the bird, but about my friend’s pleasure. I have seen blue tits in London nesting in holes of corporate buildings right in the heart of the city. Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to stop people having pleasure from watching nest boxes. But I do have concerns that they can easily be commodified if the metric for their success is the number of nest boxes installed (the story is similar for trees planted). These are metrics that don’t serve nature or biophilia. They are a form of accountancy. I wonder what Edward Wilson would think of this conundrum.
I am sure I will get a little harangued for my distaste for bird boxes, but I think the point stands—and is reinforced when I consider swifts. Swift boxes should be installed in buildings because there is trend of sealing up buildings in modern architecture. The thing about swift boxes, though, is they are high up and nobody can see them. So, humans rarely have the pleasure of witnessing their breeding activity. However, I am sure all would agree, must urban dwellers would get great pleasure from witnessing the screaming swifts in the brief summer. They are something that enhances our experience of living in the built realm. It is not the box, but the bird’s presence that gives pleasure.
Parklets and fresh air squares
The other day, I was at two meetings discussing parklets and fresh air squares. These are areas of street pavement that are transformed into green spaces for people. In general, they are movable. In one discussion, the promoter of one such design recounted that when a local authority placed one in a certain street outside a café, the café’s sales increased by 27 percent. Well, this is good for the business and probably good for the people who chose to purchase a coffee so they could sit in the parklet. Obviously, the parklets (or fresh air squares) have plants and some soil. However, they are mostly planted with standard horticultural fair. They are greening and they are very popular. I am sure they are likely to increase exponentially as an intervention not only in London, but in cities around the world. Yet, are they really functioning biophilia? They make a more pleasant environment for city dwellers, but that would appear to be their only function.
Accessible vs non-accessible green roofs
In London, where there are over a million m2 of green roofs, I have often been asked, why aren’t more of these roofs accessible to the public? Accessible, intensive green roofs only make up about 20 percent of London’s roofscape, a proportion that is similar in many leading green roof cities. Surely. in a dense city such as London, people should be able to roam across these spaces more often? Aside from health and safety/disability access issues, there are two thoughts that arise from this question. Firstly, if more of London’s green roofs were accessible and therefore known by the public, this would increase the wider population’s understanding and desire for them. Secondly, there is an implicit “selfish” factor in the question–the person posing such a question presumably wants to experience the green roofs.
These are valid questions, but it remains true that the 80 percent of London’s green roofs that are not accessible to people are still providing ecological functions for the building, the neighbourhood, and the city they are on and in. And in London, they are doing what is implicit in Wilson’s definition of biophilia—they are performing usefully for fauna and flora without much interference from humans. They are also delivering a range of other ecosystem services that are important for the city. I would call this biophilic design of the highest order. There is a sense, however, in the question, that lack of access and direct human use depreciates them.
The primary metric should be function over form
The spring of 2017 is hitting the streets of London as I write this piece. Soon, the blossoms will be out in force. Down at the centre of my neighbourhood, Greenwich, there will be a trio of cherry trees. In a week or two, their pink blossoms will be wowing passersby—they certainly have the “wow” factor for me. Yet, they stand on a corner that, during flash storms, creates a huge pool of water on the road. Now, if those trees had been planted as a rain garden to alleviate that large puddle, wouldn’t the cherry trees have even more of a “wow” factor? Beauty can be beguiling, and there is an element in the world of design that is over focussed on aesthetic provocation. But the real “wow” factor of biophilia is when all the invisible benefits are as important as the visible ones.
Designing for a biophilic city—the metrics that count
We are currently involved in two projects that relate to this discussion. First, we are reviewing a greening strategy for a neighbourhood in London, following on a project in the same neighbourhood in which we were involved six years ago. Since the first programme, when we managed to get a vertical rain garden installed and some rain garden planters, people have undertaken a lot of additional greening, including much conventional gardening. What we want to do now is set out a strategy that ensures that greening is multi-functional. The delivery of biodiversity is a primary aim. A consultation undertaken last year showed that for the people of the area, greening is the most important and pressing issue. Nature is not just about pleasant environments. Nature is about the services that are not visual—that don’t have the “wow” factor of the cherry blossom, but which are as important for our health and well-being as the observation of beauty.
The biophilic city is not just about engaging humans in beauty—it is about ensuring that nature-based solutions are used to deliver the widest range of benefits, including benefits, such as biodiversity, that may remain invisible to much of the human population. Cities are at their best when they are culturally and socially diverse. Likewise, I believe biophilia is at its best when it is delivering the fullest range of possible benefits—not just beauty.
Second, I am currently preparing a series of podcasts on green infrastructure. The first, due in early April of 2017, includes an interview with friends involved in Depave in Portland, Oregon. Ted Labbe says some very interesting things in this conversation, but one strikes me as particularly relevant here, “There is an impervious surface in our heads. The biggest crack in the pavement is not the asphalt we have ripped up, but the crack in the psychology that says pavement is permanent.”
In the same way, the flash of a kingfisher on an urban creek, a solitary bee in a city park, a wildflower growing where someone said it shouldn’t, all influence the human psyche. Nature takes us away for a moment from the manicured and over-managed realities of city life. In our cities, where we are surrounded by human constructs, both physical and psychological, these moments take us to the “other” via a fleeting crack that opens the city up, reminding us that the world is not all ours. Achieving such moments is something that biophilia should be aiming to do, regardless of metrics.
It is crucial to have a vision, and that vision needs to be big. When I was appointed to a new job in London as Senior Ecologist in 1982, we didn’t have the word biophilia, but I knew what I wanted: to promote nature at every opportunity throughout the capital. That meant working with a huge range of different disciplines, including planners, architects, landscape designers, civil engineers, and a host of others. For most of them an understanding of ecology was not part of their daily life, and for many, removing nature was much more familiar.
To achieve my aims, I had to be explicit in the ways that these professions could foster a positive attitude to nature. The crucial areas were strategic planning, management of public open space, and the creation of completely new ecological habitats, including novel designs for ecological parks, as well as new habitats within the built environment, such as green roofs. The social dimension lay at the heart of our programme, the object being to enable all who live or work in London to have greater contact with nature in their own locality.
At that time, strategic planning for nature conservation in London did not exist other than through designation of a few important “sites” by national agencies. We had a clean slate. We needed to identify sites of importance throughout the capital that would do two jobs. They needed to protect the best examples of the range of ecological habitats across London, but also provide access to nature for local communities.
So, we embarked on a survey of all open land to identify the main ecological types and to select sites for long-term protection. This resulted in over 1,500 sites being protected through the statutory planning process, representing about one fifth of the area of Greater London. This matrix of protected sites includes some nationally important nature reserves and numerous smaller patches that enable people to maintain daily links with nature. Since then, people have identified districts that are deficient in accessible wildlife sites and, in many parts of London, have taken action to remedy this by creating new habitats. The whole approach is now adopted as a central tenet of the statutory London Plan. Gaining political and public support has been crucial to success. We had a clear objective that was achievable, based on sound criteria, and was demonstrably supported very strongly by the people of London at a series of planning enquiries.
Habitat creation has been the second major element in this programme, and it has resulted in some of the most dramatic urban nature conservation projects in Europe, as well as numerous smaller schemes that benefit local communities. New wetland habitats have been particularly successful, and it is no surprise to find that major residential developers have now recognised the economic value of having attractive wetlands associated with new domestic housing schemes. Prime examples include the London Wetland Centre in Barnes and Woodbury Wetlands in Hackney. The persuasion to create natural landscapes is now being driven by some of the key developers, and others are likely to follow.
The creation of new “natural parks” or “ecology parks” in parts of London deficient in nature has been of immense value to local schools, which have given strong support to such initiatives. These places provide a vital experience of nature. The children come from school to visit the park, find it an exciting experience, and then bring their parents or grandparents to join with them later in identifying dragonflies or other species. This builds the crucial awareness of nature that is so much a part of biophilia.
Ecological design is now becoming mainstream in an integrated approach to urban development. Much of this is driven by the need to mitigate the future effects of climate change, but there is evidence that developers are also listening to what local people are telling them. The new eco-parkland landscapes being developed at the Elephant and Castle, just south of Westminster, demonstrate a huge contrast to the debilitating housing estates of post-war years. Affluent sectors of the capital are seeing similar schemes. There is currently a major scheme to create roof gardens and other green roofs across a significant area of London’s West End. And of course, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, created as a legacy of the 2012 Olympics, is another fine example of eco-landscaping.
From my experience, it takes about 25 years for new ideas to take root. I well remember the negative responses I had from British architects when, in 1992, I was invited to talk to them about green roofs after the publication of Building Green. Some thought I was totally “off the wall”. Well, we have moved a long way since then. We are seeing cultural shifts that go way beyond the bounds of ecology. All this has happened piecemeal, without any clear set of targets, but it is certainly achieving many of the things that I had in mind in 1982.
There is much we can learn from our successes. The target is to think big.
Bram Gunther and Eric Sanderson
“New Yorkers need and have rights to a local environment that is healthy and whole . . . such rights are essential to each individual as part of the community of nature as a whole.”
This quote, from the Declaration of Rights to New York City Nature is the living, beating heart of our efforts to establish nature goals for New York City.
Hosted by the Natural Areas Conservancy (NAC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), approximately 35 representatives from public, non-profit, and academic institutions have worked for two years to establish goals for New York City nature out to 2050. Through discussions, we came to consensus around the following five functional goals. Functions express what we want nature to do.
By 2050 the nature of New York City should:
- Provide living environments for species (Biodiversity/habitat)
- Mitigate damages from coastal storms (Coastal protection)
- Absorb and filter water from runoff and clean our air (Air and water quality)
- Enable movement of species through the city (Connectivity)
- Encourage human creativity and appreciation of beauty (Inspiration)
How will the nature of New York City provide these functions? Through the composition of nature we seek now through 2050. Composition provides the structures to do nature’s work in the city. We came to agreement that New York City nature needs us to:
- Conserve and restore nature’s communities (Native ecosystems)
- Encourage a diversity of species to keep ecosystems vibrant (Native species)
- Support genetic variety to help local populations thrive and adapt (Native genes)
- Make nature locally available to New York City residents (Access)
- Plan for nature along with the built environment (Integration)
- Enrich people’s lives and communities through active participation (Engagement)
To date, we have consensus among a subset of the New York City biodiversity conservation community that these functional and compositional goals reflect a broad spectrum of aspirations. Leaders from the non-profit organizations; city, state, and federal government; and academia, all see that this kind of large structure can help coordinate our actions and directions constructively, while still enabling freedom of action and initiative.
The real trick is to refine these goals into targets that can motivate policy and action, while maintaining consensus and alignment. Essentially, what we need to figure out together is how the different compositional elements of New York City nature satisfy the functions we outlined. In other words, how do native species contribute to coastal protection? How do ecosystems provide inspiration? How does engagement lead to biodiversity and habitat? Answering these questions—depicted the image below—lays the basis for setting specific, actionable targets between now and 2050.
We are working toward nature goal targets through a call and response structure in Phase II of the nature goal process. We have convened a large plenary group (approximately 75 people) of nature managers, academic scientists, urban planners, biodiversity conservationists, and advocates for environmental justice. About 30 of these people have volunteered for two working groups, one focused on ecological dimensions of the compositional elements of ecosystems, species, and genes; the other focusing on cultural dimensions of the elements of access, integration, and engagement. The working groups will propose targets for the plenary group to respond to; the working groups will revise and re-present. Through a set of four plenary and three working group sessions, we hope to find consensus across our minds and hearts and forge a consortium of organizations that will work to make New York a leader among biophillic cities. We propose to complete this work by 2018.
What comes next? In the third and final phase of nature goals, we plan to see concerted work to move the targets we establish into public and private sector practice; to establish a long-term funding mechanism for nature conservation and restoration in New York City; and to build a coalition and alliance of organizations and individuals to advocate for nature goals through the middle of the century. In part, we will accomplish all three of these through open community-based forums and workshops.
This initiative has been co-organized by the NAC and WCS and funded by the J.M. Kaplan Foundation. The NAC is a New York City-based conservation organization focused on the restoration and protection of the city’s over 20,000 acres of forest and wetlands. NAC programs are based on a belief in information-driven land management and coalition building as a means to sustainability. The WCS was founded in 1895 as the New York Zoological Society with the dual mission of helping New Yorkers connect with wildlife and to help conserve the places wildlife need. Today, WCS works to conserve wildlife and wild places in more than 60 countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and the Oceans, manages the largest network of urban zoological parks in the world, including the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium, and connects urban people to nature through investigations of the historical ecology of cities.
The literal meaning of biophilia is affinity or love for nature. In this context, discussion of what constitutes a “biophilic city” and what meaningful targets may be must engage social and cultural dimensions as much as ecological ones. Certainly, targets must incorporate assessment of biophilic “elements” of cities (e.g., trees, parks, green roofs). But targets need to also account for the diverse values, perspectives, and preferences of people who live in and visit cities. These social and cultural factors are essential to understanding the degree to which biophysical elements of cities influence the human experience of urban environments. But how can these be assessed and incorporated with ecological evidence?
An important first step in pursuing this question is to stop and reflect on what is the ultimate goal of a “biophilic city”. Timothy Beatley defined a biophilic city as:
“a city that puts nature first in its design, planning and management; it recognises the essential need for daily human contact with nature as well as the many environmental and economic values provided by nature and natural systems” (Beatley, 2010: 45)
In this way, we see that the goal of biophilic cities is multifaceted. They are “nature first” (i.e., promoting ecological health), but biophilic cities also emphasise human interactions with nature. Developing targets for biophilic cities must therefore consider both ecology and people. I also suggest that rather than adopting a “standards approach” to developing targets, a “needs” or “values” based approach should be pursued. So rather than adopting a universal goal (e.g. a proportion of the landscape under tree canopy cover), targets should be developed that reflect context-specific demands.
A recent study by my colleagues and me on values for green spaces in Australia may provide some guidance in this direction. We assessed how urban residents assigned values to their local parks and reserves by engaging them in a participatory mapping exercise. We found that people assigned a range of different values to green spaces, including aesthetic, activity, and cultural values. We also found that these values were related to the design of the green spaces and their position in the landscape: for example the amount of vegetation cover in a green space and the distance of the space from a water body all had an effect on how people valued it. Further, analysis of socio-demographic data also showed that different types of values were more important to some residents than others. This research revealed what was important to the local community, and which areas of the landscape were underappreciated and in need of further management attention. Such data can feed into targets and goals for biophilic cities.
To really get to the heart of biophilia—affinity for nature—there is also a need to move beyond instrumental and functional values of green spaces and natural features in cities. While much attention has been paid to the health benefits and ecosystem services provided by green infrastructure, there is a risk that this framing does not capture the depth of the human experience of nature. Urban forests can be sites of mystery and intrigue—a reminder of a world that is bigger than us. Indeed, it is often the less-managed spaces that harbour the greatest biological diversity, yet also prompt ambivalent feelings of awe and fear. Human spirituality is also commonly intertwined with experiences of the natural world. Sometimes, it is the places that are least commonly visited that hint at a dimension of transcendence, that provide the space for reflection away from the congregating masses in shopping malls and busy streets. Undoubtedly, these kinds of experiences of nature are the hardest to translate into goals and indicators. Yet, surely, they must also be part of what constitutes a biophilic city.
I don’t believe a biophilic city can be prescribed by metrics and figures. However, quantitative and qualitative data can be useful in generating targets and indicators that act as signposts that signal whether a city is heading in the right direction. These must necessarily be designed in a way that reflects the unique character of the city. Below are four domains for which data may usefully be pursued in the interest of developing such indicators:
- Physical design: What places exist that provide opportunities for nature to flourish and opportunities for people to experience a diversity of ecosystems? What elements of biodiversity are especially important that need protecting and enhancing?
- Human behaviour: How do city residents use green spaces and interact with nature? Is there evidence of “nature routines” as part of a regular lifestyle?
- Human values: How important to residents is urban nature, and for what reasons? Are there particular places that are more meaningful than others? Do city residents consider nature to be part of their personal or collective identity?
- Governance: What formal and informal institutions exist for the management of biodiversity? How do decision-makers and government practitioners seek to enhance nature within the city, and promote residents’ appreciation of it?
Generating data around these four themes could be a useful way of developing indicators of biophilic design appropriate to each city’s context.
In 2017, we are on the cusp of radical changes for our living world, culture, economy, and society. Our world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history, and the city is thus one of the strategic sites where most of the questions about environmental sustainability become visible and concrete. Engaging with the problems we face in the world today requires a new understanding of our “sustainability dilemma” and reworking sustainability from modernism, so as to accommodate a better sensibility of dynamic complexity and aliveness.
Civilization largely operates as if reality is about organizing inert, dead matter in efficient ways. The current ideology of dead matter, mechanical causality, and the exclusion of experience from descriptions of reality in ecology and economy are responsible for our failure to protect aliveness in our world (Weber and Kurt, 2017) .
It is impossible to build and sustain a life-fostering, flourishing, and enlivened society, or the “biophilic city”, with our prevailing “operating system” for economics, politics, and culture and within an anthropocentric mindset. It seems that we are abstracted, inattentive, and preoccupied rather than present to our surroundings—the living world we inhabit so carelessly. One can argue that human beings have become unearthed, distracted, dislocated, and resoundingly separate, and that our cities and our inhabitants need to come alive again.
I am an urban planner, which has a history of viewing cities as separate from nature. The urban is understood both in human exceptionalist and urban exceptionalist terms. This kind of thinking regards cities as places that have somehow risen above the biophysical constraints of nature. We foreground ourselves and our artefacts rather than the living world we belong to. The dominant attitude is one of doing what we want when we want, such as demanding strawberries for Christmas or avocados all year round.
There are many unconscious and unacknowledged precepts in current dominant thinking through which we see the world—such as linearity, causality, predictability, identity through separation, replicability, inertia, search for material causes, and explanation. One could say we largely live on rather than in the land, and we use and exploit rather than appreciate. This is a relationship with the landscape of “non-place”, where all is the same (Auge, 1995) .
To move towards “biophilic cities”, we need to wake up to connections and reestablish ties in a world of structural blindness. It is vital to discover a different form of thinking and to cultivate a living understanding of the spirit or power of the place, living connections and understandings of a place. I would argue that it is vital to create sacred spaces in our cities as sanctuaries for presence and sanctuaries for cultivating an open mind and openness every day, much like a child encounters the world without knowing. We need spaces that offer reprieve and the possibility of spiritual and imaginative recovery, reverence, and reconnection. Honouring the biological realities of Homo sapiens means acknowledging that we are completely dependent on our ecological systems. Creating sanctuaries for presence could help us reclaim and recognise that we are the environment.
Human beings are sentient creatures, yet over the last hundred years, human beings have increasingly lost the ability to be in touch because we have focused primarly on our intellect. When we observe the world of things, the world of stasis, we observe from the outside and our observing is instrumental. Too much appears discovered, disclosed, noted and listed.
Yet our world is not at all finished and given, but is changing, metamorphising, coming alive through the relationship between ourselves and itself all the time. Biophilic cities need to enable a moving beyond the borders of the known so that place can be intimately known, recognised, understood, and truly inhabited.
Targets and goals for biophilic cities need to move beyond the quantifiable and visible objectives to more indirect objectives, which can be much grander in forging ties and building enduring responsibilty. The story of the fox in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince (1946) illustrates this well. In order for the little prince to get to know and tame the fox, they need to build a relationship and ties with patience over time. It is not about one being overpowering another or ownership, but about building connection, intimacy, and responsibility.
The Standing Rock resistance similarly depicts the significance of indirect objectives, which are so valuable when thinking about targets for biophilic cities. I have watched the unprecedented Standing Rock resistance with incredible excitement. Although the immediate objectives were not met—the camp is now evicted and the pipeline will almost certainly be built—it represents something so much bigger. It represents a coming together like we haven’t seen and something else is being forged in that. There are ripples of moral action, which feed a sense of possibility. There is no knowing what Standing Rock will do, but it may well set precedents for hundreds of years and contribute to changing our story because it engaged many sensibilities, head and heart, perception, intuition, feeling and imagination. In this way it also shifted and changed all that it touched. In working towards biophilic cities, we need to focus on cultivating healthy forces, connections, and relationships more so than only healing what we perceive as broken systems.
 Weber, Andreas and Hildegard Kurt (2017) The Enlivenment Manifesto: Politics and Poetics in the Anthropocene, in Resilience
 Auge, M (1995) Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso Books.
Biophilia is about Love, and Love is about attitude—not abstract metrics.
There is a risk that we objectify biophilia and see nature purely as a biological input that is other than of ourselves. We know from Dr. Jean Ayres’s work on Sensory Integration Theory, the work of people such as Dr. Ute Leonards on the visual effect of patterns, and Bill Browning’s work on the positive sensory benefits of natural outlooks, that our minds vary in their ability to process sensory signals. We not only cope better in natural environments, but appear to derive positive stimulus for recovery and productivity from them. However, biophilia is arguably more than a one-way input; rather, it is one where we, too, are in a loop.
We need to constantly remind ourselves that biosphere isn’t just about the flora and fauna around us. We are part of the biosphere, too! Our attention should be focussed on the attitudes of people and their love not only for nature, but for one another, also. For those from a Judeo-Christian background, one will recognise that to “love one another” is the second greatest of the commandments, only preceded by love for the Creator! Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we neglected a deep sense of thanksgiving and paid scant regard for one another whilst only “loving” flora and fauna in a manner that was other than of ourselves? By all accounts, Babylon was known for its gardens, but also for its deep inhumanity before it fell. It was hardly a sustainable community!
Biodiversity performance indicators may help us see part of the picture, but may also cause us to “fail to see the forest for the trees”. Assessing how effective communities are at instilling love is arguably a better means of determining whether a socio-environmental ecosystem is working overall. In other words, biophilic cities shouldn’t be measured solely by the number and size of parks or even by their overall biodiversity. Take Bristol, for example: it’s a city of parks and green open spaces, but whose wealth was gained on the back of its infamous slave trade! Not only that, many of Bristol’s parks become no-go areas and as socially “grey” as car parks after dark.
Despite the beauty of parks, I’m much more a fan of small-scale local initiatives—community gardens and pocket parks, and even so-called guerilla micro gardening. I have vivid memories of my father planting trees not only in our garden, but on the margins of our neighbourhood. These activities reflect a human scale and the love that goes into them. I also believe that many parks and green spaces would be greatly improved if they were to include dwellings that enabled stewardship roles and fostered both greater biodiversity and human enjoyment of our parks simultaneously. In numerical terms, affluent, leafy areas might have more biodiversity than poorer areas of our cities, but is this simply a reflection of wealth, rather than evidence of biophilia?
For those that know Bristol, despite its parks, there are neighbourhoods crying out for their communities to plant trees and foster wildlife together! Although it may seem that some “treeless” areas reflect a poverty of community, this isn’t always the case. Whilst the Bristol garden birdwatch found the neighbourhood of Bedminster to be one of the least biodiverse areas in Bristol, it is nevertheless one of the strongest and most active communities in Bristol. It not only facilitates the “My Wild Bedminster” initiative, but is bringing about change in other social initiatives as well.
If we are part of the biosphere, then biodiversity also includes human diversity as well. Our biodiversity needs to be Intergenerational and inclusive, allowing for people of different ages and abilities to enjoy their surroundings. For this reason, I am very encouraged by the work of charities such as Alive, LinkAge, Growing Support and other Bristol based organisations that engage in community building activities with diverse members of our communities. If we fail to include diverse people of different incomes, cultures, ages, and abilities in greening our environments, then what are we really achieving other than gentrification for the privileged few? In other words, for whom are we making our cities liveable?
If we are to transcend the metaphoric qualities of biophilia, we need to go beyond measuring our green spaces and counting species (as important as these measurements are for biodiversity) to assess the activity, attitude, and quality of community, which underpins a healthy biosphere in our neighbourhoods.
A Biophilic Parable
A recent article in a local online newspaper in Perth seemed very symbolic of the point biophilic urbanism has reached here in Australia, and perhaps elsewhere. It was a fight between some locals trying to preserve two large trees that were much loved but which were “lifting curbing” on the road.
As the photos below show, the two mature trees, described as “local icons”, are relics of a time when the road was quite narrow and so they have become a traffic hazard. In reality, they are not a hazard, as they slow down cars, which must go through the gap one at a time, rather than in two lanes. What offends the traffic engineers and planners is that it is very messy.
Nature has a way of making cities messy. The biophilic urbanism movement is about making nature a part of our everyday life and, so far, this mostly means neat proposals for green roofs; green walls; green balconies; reclaimed streets; and parks and waterways with functional but natural systems. We often argue that the natural systems are just as good or better than engineered systems. But I think we should expect it to be messier than engineers want.
Neat cities are the result of modernism, which has detailed manuals for each profession on what is the single “best” way to plan and build infrastructure, buildings, landscape, economies, and even communities. As we move towards biophilic urbanism, we should see that it is part of post-modernism, which has more capacity to be sustainable and resilient because it enables local solutions, rather than just the simplistic single “best” ways of modernist professions.
Biophilic urbanism will be much messier.
The two trees in Perth were granted a last-minute, temporary rescue from the woodchipper after pleas from residents to find another solution. The residents are very attached to the trees and like what they do to the street in terms of landscape, but also in terms of traffic.
The local government wrote to residents to say it did not usually support the removal of trees but in this case it had no choice because the trees were “damaging infrastructure”. It also said they would not be replaced because there was a lack of space for new trees: “The City has plans for infrastructure upgrades to the traffic management devices in the street next financial year (subject to budget) which our engineers believe will require their removal.”
One of the residents said, “I am no greenie. I am involved in mining, but there are black cockatoos that spend a lot of time in those trees. The slow point is a key point as traffic is on the increase”.
I was asked to comment and said that trees slowing cars down was a worthy concept:
“The trees look beautiful and many suburbs would welcome such large specimens with canopies so attractive to bird life…I think the cars will be able to manage their way through. In my view the future of cities is to plant many more trees like these and create much more biophilic urbanism that people love…They need nature in their everyday life.”
We need to accept messy if we are to make a biophilic city.
The danger is that “biophilic” and/or “biophilia” becomes a catch phrase, a new trend where there is no substance under the surface. Frustratingly, I have started to notice more and more articles in the media about projects where the practitioners in the design and planning professions unfittingly refer to biophilia, arbitrarily using the words biophilic design, biophilic urban design, biophilic architecture, biophilic landscaping, and even “inspired by nature”, amongst many others.
Upon further investigation, many of these city-based projects use nothing different from a standard landscape design, or the use of vegetation in an architectural or urban design as a means of incorporating “greenery” into the urban fabric. If uncritical use of the term continues, the concept of biophilia will be watered down (as with sustainability and green design) and we will end up with nothing more to show than superficially green, vegetated landscapes dispersed in the city mosaic; vertical green walls in public buildings; and landscaped gardens based on the aspirations of our clients and those in power. In this short contribution, I would like to raise importance of the inclusion of the integration of deep patterns in our city-making process to support the right metrics towards a biophilia-inspired and resilient future.
Biophilia is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary, and hence, part of ultimate human nature” (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). My interpretation of this phrase is that we are nature. We are not above nature, we are not just part of nature, but we are part of the whole.
The concept of “the whole” (inclusive of everything) as written about by Christopher Alexander (1977), can be supported by the Gaia principle, in which we, as Homo sapiens, are one species amongst many others that interact with our organic and inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic, self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. It is this deeper connection to the organised complex order of abiotic and biotic systems that results in us being nature, being part of the whole.
To be part of the whole is not simply to reflect on the need to link aesthetic preferences alone, but rather indicates a deep connection to the geometric structures and patterns that occur in the form-making processes of the living systems of nature (Salingaros, 2012). This biophilic effect, an important part of our daily lives, can be divided in two parallels; one source of biophilia instinct derives from inherited memory due to evolution, the second source of biophilia derives from the biological structure of nature itself. This structure comprises the geometrical rules of biological forms, a language of patterns—in essence, the combination of geometrical properties and elements of landscapes embodied in the complex structures found within all living forms (Salingaros, 2012).
This narrative indicates to us that the biophilic effect is more than what we can see on the surface, that what we see on the surface is only a reflection of the complexity of living structures underneath.
Our biophilic design agenda thus need to include the characteristics of a complex order, the complexity of the traditional ornament structure (Salingaros, 2015), inclusive of the rules of living structures (Alexander, 2001-2005). Rules for how ornament structure contributes to a healing environment can be derived from understanding how our brain is wired to respond to our surroundings. These rules are patterns. Our daily activities are organised around natural rhythms embedded within nature’s cycles. Patterns in time are also essential to human intellectual development, recognising the periodic natural phenomena such as seasons, annual events, and their effects.
Based on these rules of patterns, Christopher Alexander (1977) introduced into the design and planning of our urban spaces the notion that patterns influence place settings and provide formations for “living structures” in an orderly way. This structure of order, with reoccurring outcomes based on empirical rules, encompass a list of 15 fundamental properties that link geomorphological sequences and patterns in nature with geometric living structures of the built environment (Alexander, 1977; 2001-2005).
Perhaps these empirical rules of nature are the metrics we need to apply to the discourse of biophilic cities. The goals and targets we set for our future cities must be based on the generative processes embedded in the geomorphological sequences of the complex structures in nature—in essence, the structures beneath the surface. The biophilic discourse is not just about the greenery of our cities, as we have clearly identified in this article that there is much more to biophilia than surface.
My vision of a biophilic city is one in which city planning and design facilitate a seamless integration of the natural and built environment. A city where nature is given equal status to roads and buildings, or even takes precedence. City dwellers are healthy and happy, commuting through innovative electric vehicles, or simply just walking and enjoying the beauty of the city. Dedicated green corridors connect the city to its bioregion and provide safe pathways for local fauna. Biodiversity is flourishing. The urban heat island is a memory.
If we could start building a city from scratch, this vision is possible. The technology and the economics are there to support it. But the reality is that many cities are a long way from this biophilic ideal and the question is: How can we transition sterile, mechanistic, post-modern cities towards achieving a biophilic city of connectedness between nature and humans?
By looking at how smaller biophilic visions have been successfully achieved globally, we obtained an understanding of the metrics needed to move cities towards biophilic nirvana. This required an investigative, immersive journey to explore the origins of biophilic design and to meet with forerunners in the field as a way to gain an understanding of what motivated them to create a social movement of change in the way we design our built environment. The journey also explored examples of biophilic initiatives and how these had coalesced from the early conceptual ideas.
The first and most obvious commonality between these early initiators was a connection to nature, an understanding and intuitive knowing that the inclusion of biophilia in our cities is the way forward. Conferences were held which united these interested players and frequently resulted in the emergence of a local champion. Local champions are important to nurture, as it is often solely their passion, their vision, and their motivation that drives a movement forward. These leaders all appeared to have an undiminishing sense of wonderment about nature and the most frequently expressed word to describe their feelings in nature was peace, followed by wonder. The concept of biophilic design, when researchers or practitioners discussed or presented it at lectures, often attracted comments that this is common sense and why do we need research about what is intuitively obvious? For most, these beginning internal motivators coalesced into drivers of external action, which then advanced the social movement.
This is a social movement which needs to include nearly every profession and area of knowledge. Collaboration and integration of silos of knowledge, and the arenas of government, community, and industry, are essential in the delivery of biophilic outcomes. It is through this collaboration that the multiple benefits of biophilic design become more apparent.
The social and environmental benefits unite to create the economic benefits, thus presenting the necessary business case. The barriers need to be identified for each design approach and profession involved. By doing this, and through creating partnerships across the silos, there is greater potential for case studies and demonstrations to be implemented.
As people innately respond to the biophilic aspect of the demonstrations, a ripple effect of implementation is created. This brings further opportunities for the multiple benefits to become apparent, and for people to enjoy the aesthetics and benefits of increased livability and well-being for urbanites.
As implementation, also driven by the recognition that biophilic design features can address local urban crises, expands, there is increasing opportunity for integration into the professions through education and practice. Government strategic policy and delivery structures are needed for industry and business. Where community has come together and initiated biophilic principles, government needs to ensure that policy does not block these actions but enables and supports local champions in combination with professions and research.
With progression in biophilic design initiatives and greater implementation, the opportunity for innovation and research increases conjunctly. The complexity of components and influences on biophilic design and planning outcomes necessitates the need to consider potential innovation and change in any one part with an adaptive system that responds to change. Active reflection is vital to keep moving forward, with the sharing of knowledge and ideas through online media, articles, and research to continue the inspiration.
How can we cure “sick city syndrome”? By focussing on mental health and eating disorders as indicators
One of my great concerns with the ever-expanding human urban population, is that it appears to be going against the grain of progressive evolution. Mental and physical health is of great concern. How can we heal our sick cities and to retrieve what I call “the lost humans”!
How can biophilia positively impact the majority of urban dwellers?
Taking the theory of Nature-Nurture and playing with its meaning in the context of the natural world and our lives within it, we can explain its new meaning as, “Nature Nurtures us, but even more so if we Nurture Nature”. We can use this philosophy as the basic ethos and key influence for implementing perpetual growth of biophilic cities.
So, what are the potential methods of infiltrating every open space, hidden cranny, basement, rooftop, interior, home…every cell and, eventually, every aspect of mental and physical human function with Nurtured Nature? How can we instil a desire to Nurture Nature and indeed a common belief that Nature will Nurture the individual and the community.
Mental health and eating disorders: a result of “falling out of the ecosystem”?
It is widely acknowledged that mental health issues are an epidemic among urban dwellers of all ages. Anxiety and depression are most common among young adults and adults, whereas Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (or ADHD) and related conditions tend to be more common among children and young teens. In many cases, the drugs—appear only to lead their consumers on a path of lifelong medication. My point is that many of these conditions arise first in the younger population. These conditions are hard to monitor for target-setting purposes, as many go undetected or wrongly diagnosed for some time, but they are probably the most important to reduce/eliminate for the general health of the population.
Obesity, anorexia, and other eating disorders are often linked to the above mental health disorders and are also occurring across age groups. These disorders tend to appear first in the younger population and are probably easier to monitor for target-setting purposes than mental health issues.
Total disconnection from the natural world
I believe that in a mere three or four generations, urban-dwelling humans will have completely lost their connection with the natural world, finding their only connection to nature through TV programs of what appears to be another world entirely. I call them “lost humans”, sick due to “falling out of the ecosystem”.
I suggest “falling out of the ecosystem” can lead to mental and physical health issues. I believe those in the best position to re-engage the lost humans are the youth, for it is their world in a mess, their elders that need re-education and redirecting, and they are the ones that possess the key to quick change with the drive, vigour, and youthful sense of purpose!
Keys to intercept
Working from the hypothesis that mental and physical illnesses occurs initially more frequently in children and young adults, and that it is proven that direct contact with the natural world improves mental and physical well-being, I propose: creating a global program for biophilic education in all secondary schools, as part of core learning.
Nature-based study is popular in primary school curricula globally; however, it is limited in secondary education, where often the only nature-based learning includes such things as dissecting a frog—not quite the education we’re after! A biophilic education program in secondary education, taught in a cross-subject setting, covering curriculum targets and with outreach projects within the local area, should be compulsory.
My idea aims to encourage the learning about species-interdependency on all levels (including human-to-human), re-educating the “lost humans” while future generations are perpetually engaged in the biophilic enhancement of their local area and co-creating their biophilic city.
Below is an example project:
A two-term program of “Feeding our City’s Ecosystem”
The aim is to grow plants for biodiversity from seed, to grow food from seed, and to build wildlife installations to be distributed in local and appropriate areas, all of which will engage local communities and support groups for mental and physical health.
Such a program would slot into the curriculum like so:
Maths: local statistics on health, obesity, and mental illness; setting target matrices…
Geography: evaluating statistics to determine appropriate locations for implementation; climatic conditions…
Biology: Plant suitability; monitoring and target setting species …
Food Technology: Nutrition of local and naturally grown foods; science behind food and health…
Sociology: Ethics of appropriate monitoring; creation of surveys for students and the public…
Design and Technology: Installation design and fabrication, digital media linked with other schools…
Art, Textiles: Creation of environmental art; fabrication of hanging installations…
There are many opportunities for subjects to overlap, encouraging “real life” problem solving and critical thinking—another valuable tool for healthy communities.
Monitoring targets for success in the reduction of mental and physical illness rates of the pupils could be assessed by the pupils themselves; by means of individual, confidential, and personal monitoring of health and happiness targets throughout their school life. The school as a whole can be monitored by professional observation using anonymous survey results from pupils as well as evaluating entire school targets, such as: monitoring disruption in lessons, violent behaviour, caring behaviour (!), health statistics, and so on.
Community monitoring of mental and physical health could come in the form of voluntary surveys, statistics from support groups/doctors, and general statistics on the city’s crime rates, activity in green space, commuter information, and so on.
If we implemented this program across our many schools, it would take only a few years to see a substantial improvement in human health and well-being, community cohesion, and urban ecosystem vitality.
I would take great pleasure in seeing a future generation that has been granted, in its basic academic learning, the knowledge that they are indeed an intrinsic part of the natural world and that they depend on it as much as it depends on their nurturing of it.
Chantal van Ham
A growing body of evidence suggests that early childhood experiences with nature provide physical and mental health benefits, stimulate child development, and can help to generate a lifelong sense of connectivity and stewardship towards the environment—yet urbanization poses a growing challenge to these types of experiences (Revolve Magazine Spring issue 2017). We are part of nature, but in a rapidly urbanizing, noisy world, filled with entertainment and technological innovation, it is easy to forget that the state of the planet reflects the well-being of its inhabitants. Restoring the connection between people and nature is the foundation for improved quality of life.
I believe there cannot be enough nature in cities, particularly if we think of the diversity of benefits it can provide to urban citizens, from reduced risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, and obesity to lessened symptoms of anxiety and depression. I grew up in a small village in the countryside in the South of the Netherlands, and nature captured my heart from a very young age. I can only imagine how different it must be to connect with nature when growing up in a city.
I believe that stewardship for nature comes only from the heart, from within, wherever we live. Experiencing nature—especially in early childhood—counts, and therefore it is important that people who live in cities can connect with nature close to their homes. If we want to restore this connection, it is also essential to educate people all around the world as to why nature is special; there are many ways of doing this.
Cities that prioritise green space development share core attributes: they protect, value, and celebrate their natural assets through education, community engagement, and monitoring and sharing successes. The inaugural issue of the Biophilic Cities Journal, launched in February 2017, is filled with inspiring examples, such as Vancouver’s Biodiversity Strategy; Pittsburgh’s riverfront trails and parks; the Butterfly Highway in Charlotte, NC; and the Oak Bottom wildlife refuge in Portland. These show how achieving biophilia in cities can be done.
In Europe, cities in different countries, such as Poland and Belgium, give citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions on how the city budget is spent. This offers a good starting point for dialogue, ownership, joint responsibility, and stewardship for the results of these decisions. Antwerp, for example, works with a citizen budget in several city districts, which gives citizens the chance to decide about the thematic priorities in which the city will invest. This means that they will become partners in policymaking, and city planners get better insight in their expectations, dreams, local sensitivities, and interests. This video shows some of the projects that have been realized in Antwerp in 2016 thanks to citizens’ involvement in the budget decisions. Over the last four years, Wroclaw, Poland—Cultural Capital of Europe in 2016—has opened 30-40 percent of its budget for citizen decision-making. It is perhaps too early to assess the results and compare the impact on nature as a result of citizen involvement in comparison to traditional decision-making, but it seems to be a positive way for co-creating public spaces and stimulating creative ideas and social cohesion across the city.
Setting goals and targets and developing metrics for measuring improvements for a biophilic city must start with awareness, ideas, and actions that are in harmony with nature—and by engaging all who make part of the city in developing its future.
Biophilia is about humans’ love of and response to nature, and many will naturally consider that designing to nurture this “weak innate tendency” is pretty much solely about humankind; that is to say, it’s about how we can create better, healthier, more productive lives for Homo sapiens—the “clever”, and now predominantly urban, species.
It has been argued elsewhere that a key value of emphasizing biophilia is in getting us not only to cope with, but to prefer, high density urbanism, which will in turn help us to avoid urban sprawl with all its damaging resource use inefficiencies. This is a key theme that my colleagues and I have developed over many years, and which I believe to be more important now than ever.
Biophilic cities, however, must be about more than that. Perhaps, ironically, the greatest risk inherent in the concept of biophilia (as with sustainability) is its very anthropocentricity—its focus on urban humans and their well-being and comfort. I would like to explore this paradox a little in this short contribution.
I began my career not in cities, but in remote parts of the globe studying flora and fauna in wild (or semi-wild) places. Wherever in the world I have worked or visited, the pressures of anthropogenic habitat loss, extinction of species, and general degradation of the biosphere have been patent and distressing. We have little time to save a world worth living in and passing on to our progeny. We have used multiple methods for addressing this crisis of global biodiversity loss, all of which are part of the solution. Most governmental and scientific approaches these days focus on serious and pressing issues of economics and livelihoods of those in poverty and on fighting ecosystem imbalance that lead to disease. Nevertheless, the threats from development; population increase; resource demand and depletion; pollution; and warfare become ever more acute. We are reduced to drastic decisions over where to spend limited conservation resources or how to extract DNA from vanishing species in the hope that some future generation may be able to reconstitute what has been lost. We are locked in endless struggles to fight off particular threats, such as intense poaching, to feed cultural urban markets for ineffective cures. We are not winning overall—instead, we are driving the mass species extinction of the Anthropocene.
That is why I personally switched my attention from working in the wilds to focussing on design of the urban realm at a midpoint in my career; and to the pressing concern of how to change human attitudes and behaviours, altering the hearts and minds of urban citizens and consumers, towards a fuller understanding and love of nature. I was not then versed in the statistics of global urbanisation. But now I know that in about 30 years hence, 70 percent of us will probably live in cities. Any rural poor that remain in the countryside will be vying with the urbanites for scarce resources. Something, somehow, has to be done to reset our balance with nature, or we face a world reflecting some of the starkest views of science fiction, perhaps with nature reduced to simulators and our living space to “caves of steel” enclosures.
To me, biophilia is the latest useful conceptual mechanism in the armoury we have to save the overall biosphere in a condition worthy of the name. Most of us appear to be aware deep down in our psyches that we need nature. The power of the biophilic response, as opposed to the value of other urban ecosystem services, is that it relates to primal emotions that are considered innate. It is also one that auto-reinforces; when the weak tendency from childhood that has atrophied in adulthood is rekindled, it can grow. And the importance of this is that we have now reached a point where logical, numbers-based arguments, though having an important role to play in saving and promote nature, are not going to be sufficient to save nature from anthropogenic decimation.
We need to appeal to our deepest positive emotions and instincts. Biophilic theory—and, now, the theory of biophilic design—have raised the potential to tap into these emotions and instincts to a new level of professional focus and, thus, action.
Recent publications on “biophilic cities” have described in some depth the struggle there has been to define what such a city looks like. Many of the images that we love and use when talking of biophilic cities, from Gardens by the Bay Singapore, to Bosco Verticale in Milan, to the Acros Centre in Fukuoka, strongly tap into the health and well-being responses in people that so many new research initiatives are quantifying and documenting.
But the creation of a love of, and respect for, wider nature, including those parts of it that we might not even know about, or ever directly encounter, is, to my thinking, every bit as important as focussing on our own urban well-being. Generating this emotion follows the degree to which biophilic city programmes can be shown to change how much urban humans starts to care for “that which is other” and should be a primary metric of their success. We need to look hard for shifts in cultural attitudes and voting opinions from dominion over and use of nature, to ones of precautionary restoration, stewardship, inquisitiveness, and wonder. The metrics could be varied, but would probably be based on social, political, and psychometric surveys of citizens.
The types of measures implemented to achieve this goal may differ from those that comprise the most frequent components of the biophilic design canon at present. What those measures need to be could be the subject of a future contribution to TNOC. What is certain is that they need to work very strongly to awaken human awareness of, and care for, global biodiversity, and not just those parts of it with which we share our cities.
A final thought
There is even a risk that, by focussing on the urban ecosystem services that nature provides to us to make our lives better and more comfortable in the cities where we now spend most of our time, we could actually be distracted from thinking about the wider plight of nature. We may be lulled into feeling that all is well with the world in our nice, verdant urban realm.
Perhaps we also need, at times, to be made to feel uncomfortable, sad, compassionate—even desperate—about the plight of the wider natural world.
This is a very fine balance to strike.
Several times in my life I have had the pleasure of speaking with David Attenborough and, on the last occasion, I asked him why he does not directly present more hard hitting messages about humans’ harmful stewardship of the natural environment more often. He told me that he saw his main skill and main role to be inspiring people about the wonders of nature, and that from that love, perhaps sustainable stewardship would emerge. As an experienced broadcaster, he was all too aware of the risk of overloading viewers with depressing news to the point that they will “turn off”.
So, we need to employ all of our skill to create both nature-inspired wonder and knowledge-informed concern and action for nature in equal measure, in the effective “biophilic city”.
Many refer to the contemporary city as an “ecosystem,” but the contemporary city is not an ecosystem, nor is it ecosystem-like. The contemporary city is mostly inorganic. It is denatured, ecologically inert, and lacks the key attributes of the ecosystem that would enable it to biointegrate seamlessly and benignly with the ecosystems and the biogeochemical cycles in the biosphere. The existing city is, in effect, parasitic on the planet for its energy and material resources for its sustenance, and it gives nothing biologically beneficial back to the natural environment.
The existing city has an incomplete biotic-abiotic biological structure, unlike the naturally occurring ecosystems in nature. The existing city is unable to assimilate the emissions from the built environment’s production systems within the resilience and carrying capacities of the ecosystems in its surrounding bioregion and hinterland.
The land which has been fragmented for building the city remains disconnected, with poor ecological nexus, disrupting species interaction and mobility.
While greening the built environment as motivated by biophilia is good for the environment, it must not just take the form of undiscerning inclusion of organic mass. For example, the biotic mass must have non-invasive species. The species need to be native and their inclusion must come in the context of landscape conditions that must be designed to become habitats that will enhance overall biodiversity of the locality.
Biophilia is essentially an anthropocentric proposition, whereas we should be seeking nature-centric physical and systemic solutions. Nature-centric solutions seek to find ways to make our cities, our built environments, and our production systems (i.e. those systems producing energy, artefacts, and food) to be seamlessly and benignly biointegrated with the ecosystms and with the biogeochemical cycles in the biosphere. Instead of focussing on the biophilia of cities, we should be focussing on making cities into constructed ecosystems that are proxies and extensions of naturally-occurring ecosystems.