We need nature even more these days. As we increasingly live in cities, nature delivers a potent remedy to many of the environmental, economic (and emotional) challenges living in cities today presents. To address this, a new approach to urbanism has arisen – a “biophilic” urbanism – which assumes that contact with nature and the natural world is absolutely essential to modern urban life.

Central to this vision of future cities is the concept of biophilia, popularized by Harvard biologist and entomologist E.O. Wilson. He defines biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature.” He argues that humans carry with us our “ancient brains,” so it is no wonder that we are happier, more relaxed, and more productive, in the presence of nature. The evidence is mounting that we are likely to be more resilient and more creative when we live and work in the presence of nature. Some studies even show we are more likely to exhibit generosity when nature is near. Living a happy, meaningful life is certainly possible in the absence of nature, but much harder, as we increasingly understand that nature is not optional but essential.

Our Biophilic Cities Project, based at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, has been underway for about two years. With funding from the Washington DC-based Summit Foundation, and the George Mitchell Foundation, we have been exploring the many creative ways in which cities can plan for and integrate nature. We have been developing metrics for understanding urban nature, and documenting the many different ways cities find to provide foster connections to the natural world.

Much of this work has focused on exploring what a biophilic city is, or could be; what does it look like and feel like? A lot of this research has occurred through relationships with partner cities around the US and the globe, including Singapore; San Francisco; Milwaukee; Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain); Portland, OR; Birmingham (UK), and Wellington (NZ); among others. We have been assembling data and GIS layers for these cities, attempting to understand the extent and types of urban nature present there, as well as attempting to understand the unique examples of policy and planning aimed at protecting and celebrating urban nature. And we are also attempting to tell these stories of emerging biophilic cities through film (our film on Biophilic Singapore can be found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMWOu9xIM_k)

We have discovered some impressive efforts, and creative approaches to advancing nature in the city. Singapore, for instance, is working in many ways to integrate nature into denser, vertical urban environments, through a mix of regulations, subsidies and research and development. Green walls and rooftops, an urban trails network (known as “park connectors”), impressively restored urban waterways, and schoolyard gardens, are some of the ways Singapore is working to bring about its vision as a “city in a garden.” Portland has been installing green streets that collect and treat stormwater, and San Francisco innovating in the area of small urban parking, most recently the creation of “parklets,” through the conversion of on-street parking spaces. Cities like Oslo,Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain), and Wellington (New Zealand), have invested in large, regional networks of urban forests and greenspaces. Wellington has recently envisioned extending and expanding its green belt (the original town belt dating to 1840), to encompass its immense and biodiverse marine edge, imagining them as part of a “blue belt.”

A recent visit to Wellington’s Marine Education Center demonstrates the emotional benefits and value of this biodiversity and nature (watching kids interact with star fish and other marine life in the Center’s touch tanks shows the importance of wonder and curiosity), but value of this nature to cities and urban life extends even further, helping to make cities and urban residents more resilient in the face of a host of likely pressures and shocks. These green elements will indeed deliver emotional value, but they will also help us to shade and cool urban environments, to conserve water and energy, to produce at least some of the food we will need. In places like Mexico City, which has been investing in large green walls, and financially supporting the installation of rooftop gardens, the benefits are improvements in air quality and food security respectively. Rio de Janeiro’s Tijuca forest (the world’s largest urban forest) provides many benefits, but has been essential is protecting the city’s water supply. In cities like Manila or Mumbai protecting and restoring mangroves makes sense in terms of adaptation to storm surges and sea level rise. We have argued strongly that making a city more biophilic will serve to make it more resilient and sustainable (for a recent open access article on this by Beatley and Newman see: http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/8/3328)

The value of direct human contact with nature in cities is not to be underestimated, and my notion of a biophilic city extends beyond the presence (or absence) of nature, to how and in what ways residents engage that nature, and how much we know about it and care about it. The presence of urban biodiversity, and urban nature in all its forms, are necessary but not sufficient to creating a biophilic city. More is needed, and it is in part about the care for, knowledge about, and extent to which we seek to enjoy, visit, and celebrate the nature around us in cities. There are now many creative ideas for nudging urbanites in these directions, from summer camping in urban parks, to free kayaking on city rivers, to school-based initiatives that cultivate a love of nature in children at an early age.

Even in these exemplary cities there are challenges in becoming more biophilic. How to foster a culture of curiosity about the nature that exists in and around cities, and how to tangibly connect and engage urban residents, remain serious concerns. Despite the challenges there are considerable creative ideas uncovered and partial successes. Urban-based citizen science efforts hold much promise, as well as supporting a rich array of opportunities for hands-on enjoyment, recreation, and restoration work. Some great ideas are underway in cities, for instance in engaging school kids in collecting and identifying ants, for instance through the innovative School of Ants. Among other things, the SOA has produced a terrific urban guide to ants, a kind of flow chart to help in the complex task of identifying different species of ants.

While we are already impressed with the variety of programs, projects, planning efforts in cities around the world, there remain a number of important open questions. These include how much and what kind of nature is needed in cities, and what combination of these natural experiences will deliver the greater health and psychological benefits. What is the minimum daily requirement of nature, as we sometimes provocatively ask? And what urban tools, techniques and strategies will be most effective at ensuring this nature exists in our urban future? Can cities be understood as engines for the conservation of biodiversity, and urban development and growth designed and steered in ways that positively restore and add to global biodiversity? These are new and important ways of understanding cities and assessing their functioning.

The next chapter in our work will involve expanding even further the community of planners, designers and public officials and others interested and engaged in creating biophilic cities, as well as the number of cities and the geographical reach of the project. We will be convening our partner cities and launching this global biophilic cities network this-coming October (17-20). With keynote talks by Jennifer Wolch (Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC-Berkeley), and Stephen Kellert (Professor emeritus at Yale, and a pioneering advocate for Biophilic Design), much of the conference will allow the sharing of experiences from across the country and globe. And there will be a host of side events and activities to boast awareness of what is possible to do in cities (these events will include a tour of stream restoration, project, an ant safari, a green wall building workshop, among others). Along with the presentations, a major exhibition will be mounted in the School’s Elmaleh gallery, with images, maps and projects on display and contributed by partner cities.

For more information and to register, visit http://biophiliccities.org/launch/

Post by Timothy Beatley

Timothy Beatley, PhD, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities & Chair of the Department of Urban & Environmental Planning at the UVa School of Architecture.

A version of this post appeared on the World Resources Institute blog, The City Fix: http://thecityfix.com/blog/more-bugs-more-plants-urban-spaces-crash-course-biophilic-cities-tim-beatley/