‘Biophilia’ might not yet be part of your daily lingo, but the concept of biophilic cities, which puts nature at the heart of urban development, is inspiring innovative minds around the globe. Alongside ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘energy-efficient’, ‘biophilia’ is entering the vocabulary of the ecologically minded and is changing lives for the better amongst urban populations.

Philia means a ‘fondness of’, so the word biophilia could be defined as ‘a love of nature’. Initially described by noted zoologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson as, ‘…the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms’, the growth of biophilia in urban areas reflects our evolved, instinctive human need to connect with the natural world. Nature is predominantly seen as separate and distinct from the urban landscape, but around the world, nature is being woven back into the fabric of cities, restored and celebrated in a myriad of ways: from vertical gardens in Paris, growing organic food in a London skip, and an app that maps the urban harvest globally, to the crowds that gather to watch 1.5 million bats emerge from under Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, Texas each nightfall and the volunteer bushcare groups throughout Australia’s urban and coastal areas.

The concept of biophilic cities emerged out of biophilic design in sustainable architecture, which aims to integrate nature into buildings. Urban and environmental planning expert, Tim Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, created the Biophilic Cities project four years ago, because he wanted to take this a step further and make nature a priority in urban development. ‘All the good things incorporated into green design for healthy spaces weren’t being connected to a wider context. We need to put nature first in city design, planning and management.’ Even sustainable cities, which aspire to reduce environmental impact in terms of energy efficiency, sustainable transport and eco design, can overlook physical opportunities to connect with nature. ‘We’ve got to inspire people with uplifting places all around us on a daily basis, integrated into our normal lives, not in some park far away.’ In an excerpt of his book ‘Imagining Biophilic Cities’, Tim outlines the dimensions of a city which, as well as being quantified by the amount of vegetation, ‘green space’ and access to nature, measures the ‘sensibilities’ of the populace and city governance in terms of how it values nature and actively seeks to develop urban-nature related projects to participate in .

As a passionate advocate of the benefits of placing the natural world at the fingertips of urbanites, Beatley’s Biophilic Cities network aims to profile and promote the naturally occurring phenomena of biophilia taking hold in urban areas. In Portland, Maine, urban farms are inspiring a generation of young growers and bringing communities together to make use of vacant land, for example Portland’s Urban Farm Collective, which makes use of backyards to grow, share and sell produce within a barter economy. In Bristol in the UK, a community growing enterprise called The Severn Project is being recognised by a growing number of GPs and other health professionals for its therapeutic and supportive environment – a form of holistic therapy that provides physical activity, creative and skill-based learning, along with mental health support. The project grows and sells salad to local businesses, while offering socially excluded groups training, education and employment opportunities working on the project. In Melbourne, Australia, an old rubbish tip has been transformed into a sustainability hub with a permaculture nursery and organic market, alongside training and education programmes that make it the nation’s largest environmental education resource.

One project that particularly reflects the Biophilic Cities’ imagination is a community garden in Milwaukee, called Alice’s Garden. The two acre urban farm is a model of sustainable urban agriculture and its ethos is rooted in African-American culture and food traditions. Director Venice Williams comments that urban agriculture has been a part of ‘the physical and cultural landscape of African Americans, always, and there is nothing new about it.’ The garden supports 100 households in growing food for their families, and creates a safe space for neighbours to meet and share. It offers a variety of community development and support programmes from growing and cooking skills, to exercise and outdoor activities for children. The benefits to people in the area are manifold, helping to improve diets, educate about food and environmental issues, and teach the basic business skills of growing and selling. Alice’s Garden wants to reconnect people to their cultural roots in tangible ways, writing on their website that, ‘We understand the cultivating, preparing and preserving of food and food traditions as cultural arts to be reclaimed and celebrated fully in urban agriculture.’

There is now extensive research into the role of nature on our health and well-being, particularly in the context of urban development. Research from the Children and Nature Network evidences that experiences in the natural world offer great benefits to psychological and physical health and enhances the ability to learn in both children and adults. Richard Louv, author of the best-selling ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ which explores the impact of children’s decreasing engagement with nature and the outdoors, supports Tim’s call to action for more environmental biodiversity in cities. ‘There’s no reason that we can’t begin to think about cities as incubators of biodiversity. Studies show that parks with the highest biodiversity are the parks from which people benefit the most psychologically.’ Louv is committed to encouraging children away from screens and back outdoors, along with a proliferation of other organisations and networks like Project Wild Thing. ‘Research shows that when children play in natural play spaces, they’re far more likely to invent their own games, than in more structured settings — a key factor in becoming self-directed and inventive as children and later in life.’

Tim is keen to emphasise the social capital benefit derived from immersing urbanites in nature. According to a report called‘The Economics of Biophilia’, carried out by Terrapin Bright Green, a research and design firm focused on sustainable building ‘ improving community well-being through biophilia can impact productivity costs and the bottom line. Whether it is hospitals that help patients to heal more quickly, offices that boost productivity, schools that improve test scores, or retail outlets with higher sales.’

The Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) in Singapore is considered to be one of the most biophilic hospitals in the world. It aspires to be ‘a hospital in a garden’ and Beatley has written about it as a biophilic case study. Studies evidence that the hospital environment plays a critical role in the rate of healing of patients – one study found that patients with a window looking out on gardens or views of nature had a greater recovery rate than those that didn’t. KTPH ensures its patients are surrounded by gardens both inside and outside the hospital. The hospital also has an urban farm on its rooftop with a mini-orchard of 140 fruit trees, and is committed to fostering many of the native plant and animal species now rare on the island.

How to accurately measure what makes a city ‘biophilic’ is still under development. At present, Beatley’s online project outlines the characteristics of a biophilic city and has case studies of those cities around the world that resemble these values. It is a growing movement, and Tim is keen to involve more cities, organisations and individuals who will use the site to network and exchange different approaches to integrating biophilia in urban areas.

‘At the end of the day it is about living a meaningful life. We need daily contact with the natural world around us, which we co-inhabit and share with other forms of life. And we can’t be expected to care about our natural surroundings unless we begin to understand and know them intimately,’ suggests Tim.

Feature image by Ed Yourdon

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