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Biophilic Cities: What are they?

Biophilia is a term popularized by Harvard University myrmecologist and conservationist E.O. Wilson to describe the extent to which humans are hard-wired to need connection with nature and other forms of life. More specifically, Wilson describes it this way: “Biophilia…is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature.” (Wilson, 1993, p.31). To Wilson biophia is really a “complex of learning rules” developed over thousands of years of evolution and human-environment interaction.
Evidence of the emotional and psychological benefits of nature is mounting and impressive (research shows its ability to reduce stress, to aid recovery from illness, to enhance cognitive skills and academic performance, to aid in moderating the effects of ADHD, autism and other child illnesses). Recent research suggests even that we are more generous in the presence of nature; all these values are in addition to the immense economic value of the ecological services provided by natural systems.

Support for the practice of biophilic design has been growing and there are now many exemplary examples of buildings that seek to integrate natural features and qualities. We recognize the need for biophilic workplaces, for healing gardens and spaces in hospitals, and for homes and apartments that provide abundant daylight, natural ventilation, plants and greenery. Less attention, however, has been focused on the city or urban scale, despite the fact that the planet continues an inexorable trend in the direction of urbanization. Urban residents need nature more than ever, and much work is needed to find creative and effective means for incorporating it into urban environments.

It is likely that the benefits of close contact with nature are deeper and even more profound, and the potential to make a difference by integrating nature directly into our lives, even greater than we realize. Nature ought not to be an afterthought, and ought not to only be viewed in terms of the (considerable to be sure) functional benefits typically provided (benefits of trees, green rooftops, wetlands for managing stormwater, for mediating air and water pollutants, for addressing urban heat island effects, and so on). The elements of a deeper concept of integrating nature into everyday living include a recognition of some of the following:
Important Ties to Place. There are considerable place-strengthening benefits and place-commitments that derive from knowledge of local nature; from direct personal contact; enhanced knowledge, and deeper connections = greater stewardship, and willingness to take personal actions on behalf of place and home;

Connections and Connectedness. Caring for place and environment, essential for human wellbeing and in turn essential ingredient in caring for each other;

A Need for Wonder and Awe in Our Lives. Nature has the potential to amaze us, stimulate us, propel us forward to want to learn more and understand more fully our world; Nature adds a kind of wonder value to our lives unlike almost anything else;

Meaningful Lives Require Nature. The qualities of wonder and fascination, the ability to nurture deep personal connection and involvement, visceral engagement in something larger than and outside oneself, offer the potential for meaning in life few other things can provide;
Urbanists and city planners have special opportunities and unique obligations to advance biophilic city design, utilizing a variety of strategies and tools, applied on a number of geographical and governmental scales. The agenda is one that must extend beyond conventional urban parks, and beyond building-centric green design. It is about redefining the very essence of cities as places of wild and restorative nature, from rooftops to roadways to riverfronts. It is about understanding cities as places that already harbor much nature and places that can become, through bold vision and persistent practice, even greener and richer in the nature they contain.


What a biophilic city is or could be is an open question, and it is hoped that this website will help to stimulate discussion of this. As a tentative starting point I offer some of the following as key qualities of biophilic cities:
  • Biophilic cities are cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites; biophilic cities are biodiverse cities, that value, protect and actively restore this biodiversity; biophilic cities are green and growing cities, organic and natureful;

  • In biophilic cities, residents feel a deep affinity with the unique flora, fauna and fungi found there, and with the climate, topography, and other special qualities of place and environment that serve to define the urban home; In biophilic cities citizens can easily recognize common species of trees, flowers, insects and birds (and in turn care deeply about them);

  • Biophilic cities are cities that provide abundant opportunities to be outside and to enjoy nature through strolling, hiking, bicycling, exploring; biophilic cities nudge us to spend more time amongst the trees, birds and sunlight.

  • Biophilic cities are rich multisensory environments, the where the sounds of nature (and other sensory experiences) are as appreciated as much as the visual or ocular experience; biophilic cities celebrate natural forms, shapes, and materials;

  • Biophilic cities place importance on education about nature and biodiversity, and on providing many and varied opportunities to learn about and directly experience nature; In biophilic cities there are many opportunities to join with others in learning about, enjoying, deeply connecting with, and helping to steward over nature, whether though a nature club, organized hikes, camping in city parks, or volunteering for nature restoration projects.

  • Biophilic cities invest in the social and physical infrastructure that helps to bring urbanites in closer connection and understanding of nature, whether through natural history museums, wildlife centers, school-based nature initiatives, or parks and recreation programs and projects, among many others;

  • Biophilic cities are globally responsible cities that recognize the importance of actions to limit the impact of resource use on nature and biodiversity beyond their urban borders; biophilic cities take steps to actively support the conservation global nature;
These are but a few of the ways a city might be seen as biophilic. What do you think? Are there other ways, and other important qualities or dimensions not listed above?