Nature is always around us. We’re interconnected with other living beings in a massive web of ecosystems, providing us with everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat.
That being said, the quality of our relationships, and how we see ourselves, within these webs has significantly changed in recent centuries. 55% of the world’s population live in an urban environment, expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Humans also spend the vast majority of their time indoors, meaning our day-to-day interaction with non-human-made structures, life forms and outside spaces has rapidly shrunk.
Researchers have started to understand the impacts of these changes. A lack of interaction with the larger scope of life around us can cause physical and mental harm, both individually and at community level. Here’s what you need to know, and what’s being done to change things.
What is biophilia theory
The word biophilia is derived from the Greek words for ‘life’ and ‘love or affection’. It translates to love of life, and is generally understood as a love of living systems, or an inherent human instinct to connect to the natural world and other beings.
The term biophilia was first used by the psychologist Eric Fromm in 1973, describing biophilia as ‘the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.’ It was then popularised by biologist Edward Wilson in the 1984 book Biophilia, which suggested that humans tend to focus on and affiliate with nature and other living beings due to their genetics.
While research continues, it has become clear is that spending time outside is incredibly beneficial for people. For children, outdoor time can increase development, physical activity and play, while it’s associated with better well-being and cognitive function for adults. One study found that people who spent an extra two hours per week in nature reported higher rates of satisfaction and better health. Spending time outdoors provides mental restoration, evokes curiosity and excitement, and can bring renewed senses of joy as we experience the interconnectedness of our planet.
Modern society, however, has not always been set up to support this human need to affiliate with nature. Many elements of ecosystems have simply been viewed as raw materials to extract and manipulate into urban contexts (eg. trees). Modern structures of urban development and design, agriculture, manufacturing and workplace and education settings all reflect this. After thousands of years in which humans have farmed and required regular interaction with the landscape, modern cities have become prevalent in the last few centuries. Urban dwelling only became the norm fairly recently, with most of us now spending 90% of our time indoors.
In particular, people are often placed in sensory-deprived and artificial settings such as office buildings, hospitals, schools, and shopping centres, with no connections with living ecosystems. They lack natural sources of light, ventilation, materials, views, or other ways to connect us with the wider world. Instead they’re sources of fatigue, illness and poor mental health.
Biophilic design exists to address these problems in the built environment. It helps foster this affinity for the natural world by integrating natural elements and processes into urban design, and can be implemented at the community, building, or small-project level.
It is important to realize that biophilic design is more than just a new way to make people more efficient by applying an innovative technical tool. The successful application of biophilic design fundamentally depends on adopting a new consciousness toward nature, recognizing how much our physical and mental wellbeing continues to rely on the quality of our connections to the world beyond ourselves of which we still remain a part.
Thorncrown Chapel, Arkansas
It could be argued that research is simply proving something we already know. However, collectively we haven’t designed a modern urban society, or way of living, that reflect this. Those in the Global North especially need to shift perspectives, recreating and restoring ourselves by enhancing the connection with all other living things whenever we can. As more and more people reside in cities, the need to reconnect people with each other and all forms of life isn’t be a luxury, it will be necessary for health and wellbeing.
What is biophilic design
Biophilic design seeks to foster closer connections between people and the wider natural world through the way buildings and landscapes are designed and built. It recognises that people are biologically predisposed to associate with natural ecosystems and, while life has rapidly changed into modern urban contexts, these connections are still inherent to our identities and wellbeing.
Architects and designers in this space use a set of design principles to harness and promote this affinity, helping people who inhabit these spaces remove the boundaries between urban and outdoor existence. They incorporate natural elements into their designs such as maximised daylight, views of nature, natural materials and increased plants and water features. Because it focuses specifically on improving health and wellbeing, this practice focuses specifically on natural features that have improved health and wellbeing for humans over time. For example, deserts or fires could also be categorised as natural features, but they don’t carry specific, sustained benefits to people, so wouldn’t be included in biophilic design.
Biophilic design also focuses on overall habitats rather than isolated parts of nature. Biophilia recognises that all beings are interconnected; a habitat doesn’t function just for one organism, instead supporting all life forms within. Habitats that are imbalanced or disconnected in some way don’t benefit their inhabitants as best they could, and biophilic design doesn’t seek to mimic this. Basically, you can’t simply place a natural object into an urban setting and that’s it. Designs need to be holistic, and aware of the overall context and inhabitants of a space.
Biophilic design also focuses on repeated interactions with the wider natural world. We don’t look at one tree and then all our problems are solved; while research suggests biophilia is inherent in people, it’s still a practice to be cultivated through learning, experience and repetition. Over time, positive interactions and perspectives on relationships with the rest of the world will increase, but they must be nurtured through repetition. Biophilic design seeks to create consistent engagement rather than one-off moments.
The reflecting pool at the Pulitzer Foundation, St Louis
Successful biophilic design should also foster positive attachments to places. By satisfying our affiliation with the natural world, well-designed spaces should become places we can identify with and want to spend time in. This type of design should also help create more positive relationships and interactions among people. Spaces should help us connect with each other, meaningful community, and a broader idea of how we are connected to the world around us.
Biophilic design in practice
Recent decades have seen increased interest in the intersections of architecture and mental wellbeing. Alongside this, green building standards have started to incorporate biophilic elements, as these design choices tend to also improve indoor environmental quality.
Biophilic design is a large umbrella, but design elements tend to fall into three categories:
- Nature in the Space: This can be plants, breeze, water, light, shadows, or other natural elements present in a space.
- Natural Analogues: The presence of natural materials (which also reduces exposure to chemicals found in common construction materials), patterns, colours, shapes and forms in building design or decor.
- Nature of the space: Incorporating spatial elements that can be found outdoors such as expansive views, places of sensory refuge (eg a dark cave) or a mild sense of risk (eg stepping stones over a pond).
Within these three categories there are 14 patterns that detail different ways to utilise these elements in a space. Each space and context will be different, but the beauty of biophilic design is that elements can be mixed and matched.
As the human population grows and access to wilderness becomes limited, incorporating nature into the built environment becomes increasingly important so that the inherent connection between humans and nature is not lost. Consistent exposure to natural elements through biophilic design supports longevity and ensures that future generations maintain an affinity with nature, so that they will grow up to be stewards of the wild places and animals that make our planet magnificent.
Key design elements
Nature in the Space
Common examples of nature in the space include incorporating plants, bird feeders, flower beds, water features, courtyard gardens and green walls or roofs. The focus is on the creation of meaningful, direct connections with these elements, particularly through variety, movement and activating multiple senses.
Of the 14 patterns, Nature in the Space includes:
- Visual Connection with Nature
- Non-Visual Connection with Nature: the use of sound, smell, taste or touch to provoke a deliberate and positive reference to natural systems.
- Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli: unexpected movements, sounds or smells.
- Thermal & Airflow Variability: Subtle changes in air temperature, humidity or airflow that mimic natural environments.
- Presence of Water
- Dynamic & Diffuse Light: including varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time, just as they would outdoors.
- Connection with Natural Systems. Awareness of natural processes, especially changes you’d find in a healthy ecosystem.
This refers to organic, non-living and indirect references to nature in design and decor, such as objects, patterns, materials, colours and shapes usually found outdoors.
These can include:
- Biomorphic Forms & Patterns: patterns, textures or other arrangements found in nature.
- Material Connection with Nature: Materials and elements from nature that reflect the local ecology or geology and create a clear sense of place.
- Complexity & Order
Nature of the Space
Nature of the Space evokes the way space is configured outdoors and the reactions it creates, including a desire to see beyond your immediate surroundings, a curiosity about the unknown, and obscured views and discoveries.
- Prospect: An unimpeded view over a distance
- Refuge: A place for withdrawal, where someone is protected from behind and overhead.
- Mystery: The promise of more information, hinted at through partially obscured views or other design features that encourage you to explore further.
- Risk/Peril: An identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.
All 14 of these design elements can be mixed, matched, and interpreted differently depending on context.
Fort Worth Water Gardens
What is Good Biophilic Design?
Biophilic design always looks different depending on context and the community it’s designed for. At its heart, a designer sees people as inherently connected to the world around them, working to promote health and wellbeing while using strategies that are locally appropriate and take the surroundings into account.
Spaces should feel inspirational and restorative, nurture a love of place and encourage connections with each other, while also still being able to function as needed.
Some examples include:
- The Garden School, designed as a recuperation space for the children who were becoming overwhelmed with noise & activity in the adjacent playground.
- San Francisco’s pop-up parks occupy parking spaces for limited periods of time
- Fort Worth’s water gardens, featuring a terraced waterfall
- Thorncrown Chapel, Arkansas
Biophilic design is, ultimately, a personalised process that will continue to evolve and look different across the world. However, it also holds great potential for shifting perspectives, rethinking how we view the idea of nature, and creating a future where we are all more connected to each other, and the world around us. These are the things that will be vital to a future of climate justice, as we push ourselves to imagine better for the way we live and the spaces we inhabit.