Jonce Walker, urban planner and sustainability professional at Terrapin Bright Green, articulates the need for biophilic interventions in urban places, offers examples found in New York City, and suggests solutions to integrate biophilic design into urban projects.
Biophilia is our deep-seated connection to nature. It helps explain why the rhythm of crashing waves and the crackling of fire captivate us; why a view of nature can enhance our creativity; why shadows and heights instill fascination and fear, and why gardening and strolling through a park have restorative healing effects.
Routine connections with nature can provide opportunities for mental restoration, during which time our higher cognitive functions can sometimes take a break. Cognitive functioning encompasses our mental agility and memory, and our ability to think, learn and output either logically or creatively. For instance, directed attention is required for many repetitive tasks, such as routine paperwork, reading and performing calculations or analysis, as well as for operating in highly stimulating environments, such as when crossing busy streets and navigating urban places.
The mental health benefits of nature are important to understand as our world continues to rapidly urbanize and our cities simultaneously expand and densify. In less than fifteen years more than 60% of humans will live in urban places and there will be thirteen new megacity regions according to the UN. As we continue to select urban places to live, urgent attention must be given to embedding nature and natural systems into urban design to connect people to nature and safeguard our health and wellbeing. If we are not careful, our commute and daily experience within these urban places will be nothing more than glass, steel, and concrete.
Biophilic Urban Acupuncture
On approach to this is urban acupuncture, a socio-environmental theory that combines contemporary urban design with traditional Chinese acupuncture, using small-scale interventions to transform the larger urban context. Just as the practice of acupuncture is aimed at relieving stress in the human body, the goal of urban acupuncture is to relieve stress in the built environment. Urban acupuncture is intended to to produce small-scale but socially catalytic interventions in the urban fabric. No needles necessary.
Biophilic Urban Acupuncture (BUA) is the theory that threads and nodes of biophilic interventions in specific urban places can help improve people’s moods, connect people to place, and help improve mental health. Biophilic urban acupuncture blends two very important design concepts, biophilia and urban acupuncture.
BUA has higher levels of effectiveness in dense cities versus suburban places due to the ease of pedestrian mobility. A resident that lives in a dense city will spend at least some time each day outside just by the fact that they will be walking to transit stations, walking to work, or walking to get a meal. (Though BUA is also of benefit in suburban places, the auto-centric street design and sprawled land-use in suburbs typically does not lend itself to high quality biophilic opportunities.)
Small BUA interventions
Biophilic interventions do not need to be grand in scale to be effective. Positive impact on self-esteem and mood has been shown to occur in the first five minutes of experiencing nature (Barton &Pretty, 2010). Daily, unintentional exposure should be a priority when planning a BUA intervention. The intervention should be placed in a location that receives a large number of users but is embedded into an everyday habitat or commute. Smaller BUA interventions should be placed in locations throughout the city in a web-like structure, so that users with different destinations will encounter biophilic experiences, no matter their destination or purpose of travel.
Larger BUA interventions
The larger biophilic experience should be placed in an area of the city that can serve a substantial proportion of the population and should include as many biophilic patterns as possible. These are typically parks such as the Olmsted designed Central in New York City or the Tommaso Francini designed Luxembourg Garden in Paris. Large parks that are centrally located within a city and connected by good transit will provide a robust BUA experience to a greater number of residents than parks located in the periphery.
The High Line Park in New York City is a converted disused elevated railroad tracks into a much-loved biophilic intervention. Image courtesy of Dean Shareski via Flickr.
In the urban environment, there are two ways to capitalize on the multi-sensory attributes of water to enhance the experience of a place. First, simulating or constructing water features (water walls, fountains, or falls; aquaria; water imagery) in the built environment—indoors and out—creates positive effects for inhabitants. Although, it is worth mentioning that water and energy-intensive installments may create other issues. Second, it is possible to amplify the presence of naturally occurring water (lakes and ponds; streams, creeks, and rivers; rainfall; arroyos) to help inhabitants become increasingly aware of the surrounding environment. The Fountains and Water Features of NYCA space with a good Presence of Water condition feels compelling and captivating. Fluidity, sound, lighting, proximity and accessibility each contribute to whether a space is stimulating, calming, or both.
The water wall at Paley Park is a wonderful and captivating intervention. Image courtesy of Wally Gobetz via Flickr.
The Trees of NYCA space with a good Visual Connection with Nature feels whole, it grabs one’s attention and can be stimulating or calming. It can convey a sense of time, weather and other living things.
MillionTrees NYC is a citywide, public-private program that has planted one million new trees across the City’s five boroughs over the past decade. Beyond the numerous ecological benefits, strengthening New York City’s urban forest plays a positive role in helping inhabitants reduce stress and bolster self-esteem, mood, and parasympathetic activity.
PopUp Forest: Times Square is emulating the pop-up restaurant experience by transforming a public plaza in Times Square into a large-scale, temporary urban forest installation. The goal is to foster a movement to re-define cities with nature in mind and to create an urban oasis for wildlife while helping New Yorkers get more familiar with nearby nature.
A proposed art installation, PopUp Forest, will bring a forest into the ultra dense Times Square. Image copyright http://www.popupforest.org/
Biomorphic subway art
Biomorphic forms & patterns are symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature. A space with good biomorphic forms & patterns feels interesting and comfortable, possibly captivating, contemplative or even absorptive.
Biomorphic subway art illustrates how this concept has been implemented in New York City subway stations. The passageway between 42nd Street and 5th Avenue includes artistic depictions of natural systems such as tree roots and animal burrows, and the Jay Street/Metro Tech Station depicts glass mosaic art with various animal species, including starlings, sparrows, lion fish, parrots, tiger beetles, and koi fish.
Natural scenes and biomorphic forms and patterns can transform a dreary subway passage. Image courtesy of Wally Gobetz via Flickr.
Brooklyn Bridge Park Tidal Wetlands
A space with a good connection with natural systems evokes a relationship to a greater whole, making one aware of seasonality and the cycles of life. The experience is often relaxing, nostalgic, profound or enlightening, and frequently anticipated.
The tidal wetlands at the recently expanded Brooklyn Bridge Park offers a prime example of connecting an urban landscape with the local ecosystem. The wetlands heighten awareness of natural properties of the East River and hopefully promote environmental stewardship of the Park and surrounding area.
Tidal wetlands at the Brooklyn Bridge Park integrate natural with built systems. Image courtesy of Julienne Schaer for Brooklyn Bridge Park.
DIY Biophilic Urban Acupuncture
Biophilic Urban Acupuncture does not need to hinge on large budgets or city agencies to have dramatic impact. You can play a role in integrating BUA elements in your neighborhood now. Here are a few strategies to help you get started:
Seed bombs are balls made from volcanic red clay or compressed soil containing different varieties of native species seeds that can fit in the palm. Usually other additives are included in the ball such as compost or humus to provide microbial inoculants. They can be dropped or tossed onto vacant lots or public places that are in need of beauty and vegetation. Seeds that support pollinators such as honey bees or butterflies are better as they will reinforce the Visual Connection to Nature and Connection to Natural Systems biophilic patterns.
WHERE: Seed bombs work well in places that have exposed soil and in places that are difficult to access.
HOW: What was once strictly a DIY project, seed bombs can now be purchased online, in stores, or even from vending machines.
Tree pits are areas around urban trees that provide a small pervious surface for the roots to breath and absorb water. These can be transformed from a small often neglected patch of soil into a strong BUA intervention. If done with care, you can plant flowers or root bulbs in the pits. Additional interventions could be small benches around the tree pit which will create a reason for people to linger under the tree reinforcing the biophilic response.
WHERE: Most trees that are located in public right-of-way (ROW) are the responsibility of the community to take care of. Check with your neighbors about which tree pits are available to improve.
HOW: Using a hand cultivator, loosen the topsoil as this is usually compacted. Spreading a thin layer of mulch will help the tree absorb water and reduce evaporation. Plant in-season flowers and enjoy!
Guerilla gardening is the act of planting vegetation in spaces that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to use. These sites are typically abandoned or areas that are be substantially neglected. BUA can have large impacts in these neglected areas via guerilla gardening because the intervention is typically noticed and appreciated by the community regardless of who did it, and taken care of for years. This intervention supports the connection with natural systems, visual connection with nature, and non-visual connection with nature biophilic patterns
WHERE: Typically, guerrilla gardening occurs in spaces that are vacant or underutilized spaces. This intervention originated in NYC in the 1970’s by residents throwing balloons filled with local seeds, water, and fertilizer into empty lots.
HOW: This BUA intervention is best done with a group of neighbors and/or friends. Locate the site that is in need of the garden and make a plan for the plantings and improvements. Pre-planting site work may need to be done such as cleaning up junk, trash, and debris.
We know that cities will continue to morph. We also know that we enjoy listening to a water fountain, seeing a butterfly, or watching leaves shake with the help of a slight breeze. Let’s work to ensure that Biophilic Urban Acupuncture is part of the toolkit to help shape the places where we want to live.
About the Author
by Layla McCay, UD/MH Director
Last week I attended the Innovative City Forum 2016 in Tokyo. Bringing together designers, artists, thinkers and citymakers to imagine our future of our life in the city, I was fascinated to see what themes and ideas would emerge from my first Tokyo-based city event. Amid the talk of self-driving cars, various uses for drones, and designing for a lifestyle in space, I extracted some insights into urban design for better mental health over the next 35 years.
The most interesting theme that emerged was an understanding that the purpose of urban spaces is changing. With the increasing digitalization of our lives, our physical urban space needs to assert new roles and meanings. If we can sit in the comfort of our own bedroom and use digital and networked tools to conduct our work (emails, teleconferences, etc) and play (streaming music and movies, shopping, etc), then what exactly is the purpose of going outside at all? How do 21st century urban places need to update to deliver more relevant functions for this increasingly digital population?
The consensus seemed to be the need to nurture better pro-social functionality of space: the communal experience and face-to-face interactions that facilitate positive social connections and support our mental health and happiness. Public outside spaces and buildings alike need to be designed in ways that extend better invitations to draw the public into them and encourage social interactions. New technologies like augmented reality to create communal public experiences that engage people with place might emerge as part of an evolving approach to delivering place-based entertainment that cannot be obtained at home.
The other main function of public spaces that was recognized was the opportunity to access nature. There was some discussion of integrating more trees and grass into the exteriors and sightlines of building design (including the design of the first human habitat in Mars!), as well as the design opportunities offered by trees and nature to help bring taller buildings down to the human scale.
Following on from recent thinking on the mental health impact of 'boringness', I was intrigued to hear from various speakers opposing the trend of ‘faceless perfection’, where homogenous, unchanging materials are used to create boring, sterile urban landscapes which people struggled to connect with. There was much discussion of the potential benefits of exposing and embracing imperfections as part of the design, rather than trying to correct them, and using new technologies like 3D printing to expand our design paradigms.
Associated with that theme was the question of urban identity in a world where cities are becoming increasingly homogenous. With chain shops and restaurants dominating many city center, the speakers argued that urban design needs to better reflect and promote the intangible culture of a place to help people feel part of a shared local identity, and the question of how to build a city’s heritage into its new developments (while remaining dynamic and avoiding the trap of getting trapped in a particular era of a city’s heritage). The surge of shopping centre popularity came up, and with it, a question: since people’s wellbeing benefits from pedestrianized, walkable, pro-social, safe green spaces, how can we better design shopping center to deliver these components, and can they promote better mental health as much as similar design features within a city center?
Technology advances Hiroo Ichikawa (pictured) believes will drive changes to our urban life by 2035.
Photo by Layla McCay
At the start of the event, the 365 participants were asked what would make Tokyo the best city in the world. Almost half (48%) voted for improved cultural power; a fifth called for infrastructure improvement; technological power was next, and economic power was the least voted-for option. This sentiment was reflected throughout the forum. And yet technological power was at the heart of many of the presentations. It is perhaps more helpful to think of technology as a tool for delivering the other improvements. Since technology is driving an evolution of our habits, lifestyle and what we need from physical places, we must evolve our traditional thinking around designing cities. One of the Forum's most interesting conclusions: as technology matures, we need to recognise that optimising for efficiency does not mean optimising for happiness. Even though it was not a primary theme of the event, is encouraging that the Tokyo speakers recognized that at the heart of this design revolution is the opportunity for design that promotes mental wellbeing and happiness.
Jorunn Monrad, Cultural Heritage Manager in Odda, Norway, considers how urban design might contribute to the risk factors that motivate people to commit terrorist attacks - and how urban design can help facilitate coexistence.
We have been shaken by the terrorist attacks which have recently occurred in Europe. There is no doubt that terror organizations have inspired or helped, if not recruited, many of the perpetrators. Of course many motivators can contribute to these types of attacks: inspiration provided by other perpetrators, violence in the media, the ease with which weapons can be acquired... The list could go on, and these factors undoubtedly play an important role. And yet, we are also reminded of the attacks staged by angry young men in the US and other countries who shoot at strangers without any motive other than their own resentment, marginalization and alienation. To understand what has motivated this spate of terrorist attacks, it is hard not to wonder about the roles of frustration, a wish to get even, or the desire of the perpetrator to not only to commit suicide, but to take others along with them. And in considering how these motivations may have developed, it is important to consider the built environment in which these feelings germinate.
If we look at where many perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe come from, we discover that peripheral urban areas as the Parisian banlieu or districts as Molenbeek in Belgium are somewhat overrepresented. Many such dormitory towns have become ghettoes where a particular social and/or ethnic identity may predominate. Of course there are many positive aspects of people embracing their cultural identity and forming communities with others who share their language, culture and religion: these types of communities can support people's wellbeing. It is also perfectly possible to be part of such a community, and still be an active and well-integrated part of wider society. But the design of many of these dormitory towns may be making this less likely.
Many dormitory towns offer bleak views of identical high-rise apartment blocks surrounded by lawns in a sorry state, parked cars, and empty streets, and their design helps preclude the wider integration that we see in the traditional city. Residents of these towns may have few opportunities to see, meet or interact with people outside of their immediate social circles, other than children in playgrounds and people hurrying to or from their apartments. This setting can create feelings of isolation that can turn to segregation - and with this comes resentment, suspicion, alienation, and a feeling of 'us and them'.
No meeting places, no division between public and private sphere, and one feels like trespassing.
Photograph by J Monrad.
The sign says welcome, the fences tell a different story. Photograph by J Monrad.
On the other hand, city residents are more likely to find themselves regularly interacting with people of different ethnicities and social classes. They meet in the streets, squares, offices, banks, cafes and parks. While these people may not become friends in the course of their daily business (the invisible line dividing the public sphere from the private is seldom crossed) they learn the unwritten rules of urban coexistence. They come to feel part of a loose-knit community of diverse strangers. And through this daily, routine personal exposure to a diversity of people, the urban environment gives residents a setting in which to recognise that people of different origins are more similar to themselves, and less threatening, than one may be led to believe from watching the news.
People are brought together in dense cities with varied streetscapes that combine dwellings on the upper floors with businesses on the ground floor Photograph by J Monrad.
This particular feeling of belonging may not make any difference to a determined terrorist. But to someone in the category of “angry young man” the small acts of kindness and courtesy which you may witness in a city street across socioeconomic, ethnic, and other divides may make all the difference. While waiting for the tram in a street in Milan, I witnessed a badly dressed man sitting on a windowsill and begging passers-by for a cigarette. The neighbourhood is inhabited by a mixture of Italians, Chinese, Latin Americans, North Africans, Indians and many other nationalities of people. The man was desperate for a smoke, as he loudly announced. A stylish lady in high heels stopped and offered him one from her pack, with an elegant gesture. He straightened up and thanked with similar dignity, as if recalling past and better times. The lady was not afraid: there were others waiting for the tram, and the man in need of a smoke was sitting there alone. When someone offers a destitute person a cigarette, a coffee or an ice cream, it is a way of saying “it could have been me”. Life is uncertain, and nobody is quite safe from misfortune. Such small gestures can make difficulties easier to bear, and avoid resentment towards those who are more fortunate.
Urban designers can create essential opportunities for people from all walks of life to meet, to interact. Members of ethnic groups must feel that they belong both to their ethnic community, and to the community formed by the inhabitants of their neighbourhood or city. We must avoid creating a feeling of an “us” and “them”, and we must facilitate opportunities for everyone to learn the unwritten rules of urban co-existence.
Creating urban spaces that set the stage for more interaction, and trying to counteract the desolation of some of these dormitory towns, may not be sufficient to tip the balance. But when we design new urban spaces, we should try to bring people from all ethnicities and social classes together in the same public spaces. It is, amongst other things, a matter of creating attractive, upscale public areas with a wide range of businesses and other activities on street level, and combining them with a variegated offer of dwellings. Changing the Parisian banlieu may be a more daunting challenge, but even in such areas it is possible to create inviting urban areas, and in doing so, perhaps reduce the marginalization and resentment that can motivate people to make destructive choices.
This is how German architect and urban planner Ludwig Hilbersheimer envisioned cities in the 1920’s. His efficient, homogenous, and anonymous buildings that preclude social interaction have helped inspire today's dormitory towns.
About the Author
by Jaime Izurieta-Vareaby, architect and urban designer, Quito, Ecuador
Rosa works about six miles away from her home. On a typical day she walks for 20 minutes to the nearest transit stop, where she takes two 45-minute buses followed by an additional 15 minute walk to arrive into work. Rush hour public transit rides can be stressful, with packed buses, thick smog, dangerous crossings, unfit bus stops and aggressive drivers. And that is when the weather helps. The design of the city that will host Habitat III in a few days time seems to deliberately neglect the more than 70% of citizens who do not travel by private car.
The city is preparing for the big event by encouraging private actors to implement placemaking projects within the La Mariscal neighbourhood, located right at the urban core. This settlement, dating from the early 20th century was the first local attempt of building a Garden City, and it has retained its scale and charm, although it concentrates a disproportionate part of the tourism and entertainment industries for the whole metropolitan area and is home to most bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
Many placemakers will install street furniture, plant trees and build parklets and bike parking. Artists will create open air galleries by painting over facades and walls. Food vendors will show up with happily designed trucks selling local and international dishes, restaurants and bars will contribute to the neverending block party and business owners will dress their shop fronts in their best wares. That is what most of the twenty- or thirty thousand visitors who come to Quito during the week of 17 October will see - and that will be the mental postcard of Quito that they take home.
Most of the people attending Habitat III will not have to make Rosa’s two-hour trip to get to the venue and afterparties. They will walk along streets that were designed when we still valued urban life and that have been renovated to meet current standards. They will most likely ignore the few glitches that make sidewalks hard to cruise and they will be able to enjoy the sunny walks that can be torture for those who have to work outside on tree-deprived streets.
The bones of La Mariscal. Photographs by author.
La Mariscal has about 20,000 residents and a daytime population of over 180,000. People flock daily to work, to school, or to grab a bite and a beer. The neighbourhood has enormous potential of becoming a centre of educational urbanism. Good practices within La Mariscal would raise awareness and recruit almost two hundred thousand neighbourhood ambassadors who would go back home every evening to the farthest reaches of Quito's metropolitan region thinking about lessons learnt and, with the right kind of encouragement, about how to share them.
The potential is there, and it does not require billion dollar investments in infrastructure and services. What we need is to turn every resident and visitor to La Mariscal into a potential citymaker. And, as it turns out, this will be less of a feat than one would otherwise think.
Quito is sitting on a gold mine, urbanistically speaking. The bland cityscape of underserved neighbourhoods (or wealthy ones with security concerns) that boast endless perimeter walls and deserted sidewalks miraculously disappear when you enter La Mariscal. Close proximity between people is pervasive on mostly open facades built with non-residential uses on the ground floors. The human scale of stores, food stalls and shopfronts adds to the ease of walking and keeps the trail interesting. The experience is part of an adequately designed, properly scaled, outside 'living room' where public space is open, inclusive and ready to be shared by all.
Only it currently doesn’t work quite that way. Violent crime is not unheard of and petty thefts occur daily in the area. Old diesel engines battered by the low oxygen in this city at an altitude of 2800 metres above sea level spew black smoke on every street, and noise is well beyond acceptable limits. Storefronts are not inviting and people rarely say hello, let alone chat about the weather with strangers. We can safely affirm that La Mariscal has the bones, but still has a long way to go before it is able to set an example and recruit its floating population as unconscious citymakers and ambassadors of good urban practice.
Typical Quito streets with endless perimeter walls and deserted sidewalks. Photographs by author.
I strongly believe that public space that gives out the right messages can transform the urban experience and motivate urbane and civic behaviour for all sorts of people. Experiments conducted by the Happy City Lab and the University of Waterloo tell us of the power of good urban environments in building strong, connected communities and curbing antisocial behaviour. The lessons that a city with the conditions of Quito can learn from those experiences and implement as part of a regional educational programme are countless.
We even have a neighbour with similar problems that has done this quite successfully. Medellín, Colombia is well known around the world as a back-from-the-brink, urban renaissance case. It has relied on a strong vision for transformation from the crime-ridden site of drug wars to a global leader for innovation and best urban practices. Millions of dollars have been invested on improving the built environment and on inclusive policies to weave together the social tissue. But there was one aspect of the renewal that could not have been bought with any amount of investment: the power of a well-designed educational campaign that relied on both urbanism and children.
Medellín bet on using every part of the experience within rehabilitated urban environments as an educational tool. They speak of “educational urbanism” as an instrument to teach citizens how to share public spaces, embrace diversity, respect one another and take care of the Commons. The strides that this city of three-million people, and roughly the same conditions as Quito, has achieved are an international example of urban reinvention. It has taken, literally, a village. Change would have come at a much slower pace had they not prioritised the educational component and the power of children to spread progress to all corners of the metropolitan area.
Quito has the bones but is lacking the software. Habitat III will bring tens of thousands of urban thinkers to the city, almost ten times the amount of visitors that we normally receive every day. It will put Quito's citizens to a test of tolerance, its systems to a test of resilience and its government to a test of efficiency. The city, its people and its administration will be dissected and analysed. Problems and solutions will be discussed and proposed, Our disposition to learn lessons and incorporate the key aspects of the New Urban Agenda to urban life will establish the path that Quito will tread in the coming years. How we respond and what we learn from the big event will shape our ability to create an exemplary urban environment one shopfront at a time and inspire the hundreds of thousands of citizens that come to La Mariscal on a daily basis to be ambassadors of good urbanism. By creating a critical mass of potential city makers we can spread the best practices on a metropolitan scale.
Good city form and an appropriate interface will not only impact our behaviour in a positive way. In the long run, it will create better interactions between citizens, build better urban networks and contribute to a happier, more sustainable city life for Rosa and all three million residents.
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: