Clair Wholean, an architect with DLR Group| Sorg in Washington DC, on biophilia, the urban environment, and mental health.
Biophila, our innate love of nature, is an obvious way to enhance our cities into environments promoting mental health. The word was first coined by the social psychologist Eric Fromm to describe the positive feelings we obtain from interaction with natural systems and species. This describes everything from the joy we experience in seeing a family of ducklings swimming in a pond, to the beauty of an old growth forest, and the harmonious sound of crickets on a summer night.
Biophila was originally explored as a niche area of psychology and neuroscience research. Books such as The Biophila Hypothesis, The Last Child in the Woods, and Healing Spaces have done much to spread the concept of biophilia to other fields, and it is now beginning to gain traction in design circles, influencing architecture, interior design and urbanism.
When one thinks of nature and cities, the first thought that comes to mind is likely a tree-lined street with a beautiful canopy. Trees are one of the best ways to start with enhancing the natural environment in a city because of their myriad of benefits, from creating summer shade havens to ecosystems for birds that calm us with their song. Much work is already being done to green our cities; planting more trees is a top priority for stormwater management, reducing the heat island effect, and the health benefits they bring for urban dwellers. Organizations such as the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition and Million Trees NYC are non-profits that have grown recently, dedicated to planting and maintaining our urban forests. Washington DC, for instance, has proudly made tree planting and protection a priority by having an Urban Forestry Administration as part of the District's Department of Transportation.
But beyond greening our urban landscape, biophilia has a wider focus: to bring more of the natural world in contact with our day to day lives. The Biophilic Cities Project and Partnership for Sustainable Communities are two non-profits working to bring biophila to urban environments. Terrapin Bright Green, a sustainable research & development consultant based in New York, has published several recent white papers on the topic of special interest to the built environment. The 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design and the Economics of Biophilia make the case for incorporating natural systems into our built environment for both financial reasons and to support our wellbeing. Design strategies such as incorporating natural patterns and analogues, creating a visual connection with nature, stochastic sensory stimuli, dynamic lighting, complexity, and the concepts of spatial prospect and refuge explain that creating a biophilic environment is the next step beyond planting trees.
Research on the physiological effects of natural environments has revealed tangible benefits in stress reduction, concentration, memory, creativity, comfort, healing, and emotion and mood regulation. A few empirical results specific to mental health include:
This is the first in a series of posts where I will explore specific examples of biophilia in urban environments and its relation to mental health, which can be seen as a reflection of our strength and fragility as a species. As humans, we are highly sensitive to our environment. Surrounding ourselves with nature reaffirms that we live in a connected world.
Sanity and Urbanity: