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Biophilic design: how urban cities could reconnect with nature

Nowadays, living in cities for many has become synonymous with a hectic, chaotic and often stressful life. For an urban citizen even contact with nature seems to be confined to a few areas isolated from everyday contexts.

Nevertheless, a new current of design and architecture, named “biophilic design”, rooted in biological and psychological theories, seems to have found another way to rediscover our genetic union with nature within the urban context.

What is biophilic design about?

Biophilic design seeks to connect our inherent need to affiliate with nature in the modern built environment, following the principle of organic and nature-inspired design. This concept is used within the building industry to explain how occupants' connectivity to the natural environment through direct and indirect nature benefits their life and the environment in many aspects. Biophilic designers aim both to celebrate and show respect for nature, and provide an enriching urban environment.

Therefore, the fundamental objective of biophilic design is to create the ideal habitat for people as biological organisms inhabiting modern structures, landscapes, and communities. Hence, it focuses on those aspects of nature that, over evolutionary time, have contributed to our health and well-being.

Key principles of biophilic design

1. The Natural environment: it focuses on features of the natural world incorporated into the place setting.

2. Natural shapes: the setting has to respect lines and forms that occur in nature. For instance, arches and vaults, recreating rock shelves, water paths, and so on.

3. Natural patterns: similar to natural shapes, also the patterns dealt with have to remind us of nature. Therefore, for instance, this could be shown through the erosion of rocks over time, the growth of plants, and so on.

4. Natural light: biophilic design emphasizes light and space. Hence, sunlight helps merge the inside and outside using elements of warmth and different shapes.

5. Plants: the idea is to create a relationship between the place and the natural elements it is incorporating.

6. The human-nature relationship: it is about restoring a relationship that has existed for thousands of years. It can focus on specific themes occurring in natural environments like order, safety, complexity, curiosity, exploration, and so on.

E. O. Wilson's “Biophilia Hypothesis”: the biological theory behind it

The biophilia hypothesis, introduced by Edward O. Wilson (an American biologist, naturalist, ecologist and entomologist) suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. The biologist sustains that the deep affiliations humans have with other life forms and nature as a whole are rooted in our biology.

Therefore, deepening on an evolutionary perspective, people drawing towards life and nature can be explained in part due to our evolutionary history of residing in natural environments, only recently in our history have we shifted towards an urbanized lifestyle. Hence, in a broader and more general sense research has suggested that our modern urban environments are not suited for minds that evolved in natural environments.

The psychological impact of natural environments on human health

Consequently, this current of thought was also deeply dealt with from a psychological perspective by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. The couple developed the “Attention restoration theory” which asserts that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate. Deepening, psychological restoration can be described as the capability of perception of restoration, as an observer can perceive the properties of an environment that relieves a person's mental fatigue and stress.

Following various experiments and further studies, this theory has been proven truly efficient and of great help in many fields. For instance, in the medical field, patients resting in rooms overlooking trees recovered better and faster than those in rooms with only a view of a brick wall. Furthermore, they experienced fewer complications from surgery and asked for fewer and weaker painkiller drugs.

Moreover, in the study field, the university students’ performance on tests resulted in better outcomes if they had a window-viewing nature in their dormitory.

Finally, a further study compared the behavioural, emotional, and cognitive functioning of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) visiting two different areas. The children performed better on concentration tasks and also reported more positive emotions and fewer behavioural problems when visiting a wooden area than when visiting a town.

Benefits of direct and indirect contact with nature

Therefore, it has resulted from these studies that direct or indirect contact with nature can lead to various benefits for those benefiting from it. It reduces stress levels and absenteeism and increases productivity and creativity. Furthermore, it also positively impacts the environment by reducing pollution leading to cleaner air.

Deepening, the list of benefits goes on, impacting specific categories. For instance, people in an aged care facility who were exposed to nature for one hour per week experienced improved attention compared to elders who remained indoors.

Moreover, young adult residents with a view of nature from their homes outperformed those who lived in an inner city on tests of attention capacity and were less likely to show aggression.

Furthermore, employees who could view nature from their window reported fewer physical ailments and greater job satisfaction than those without a nature view.

Four biophilic design examples

Over the years these theories had a great impact on design and architecture, leading to the creation of many innovative places and structures that embody these principles of re-connection to nature. For instance, the Italian architect Stefano Boeri, in 2014, gave life to “Bosco Verticale”. The project consists in two residential towers in Milan, whose walls and balconies are covered in thousands of shrubs and bushes, and in whose captured rainwater systems irrigate the greenery.

After the success of this project, the Italian architect not only replicated it in many other parts of the world but was also hired in 2016 to give life to “Liuzhou Forest City” in China. The city has the characteristics of an energy-self-sufficient urban establishment: geothermal energy for interior air-conditioning and solar panels over the roofs for collecting renewable energy. The whole city, including offices, houses, hospitals and schools, is entirely covered by plants and trees. Its impact on the environment is incredible: it absorbs almost 10.000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants per year and produces approximately 900 of oxygen.

Moreover, the entire city-state of Singapore is the world’s first biophilic city. The authorities have extensively incorporated plants, water and wildlife into buildings, parks, streetscapes and government offices. Amongst numerous great biophilia projects “The Jewel” stands out as an icon for public spaces in an urban context. It is a nature-themed entertainment and retail complex on the landside of the Singapore Airport. The centrepiece is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, named the “Rain Vortex”, surrounded by decks of forest on the promenade.

Nevertheless, biophilic design is not just about big projects and buildings, it can be as effective in smaller realities. For instance, “Second Home” in Lisbon is a co-working space packed with thousands of house plants and trees, which make for a truly unique place to work. Moreover, it is also an eco-friendly building, with features like natural ventilation, and great attention is given to natural light.

These examples are showing that another way to think about urban contexts is not only possible, but it is already happening. Therefore, the primary aim is to ensure that this kind of initiative does not remain limited to private and privileged contexts, but that it can be adopted to rethink cities and public spaces for everyone.

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