by Scott Edmondson, AICP, San Francisco Planning Department

What is the difference between a green city and a biophilic one? After all, San Francisco, like  other top green cities (Portland, Seattle, etc.) has many green features. What more could be needed? What difference would a biophilic approach make?

The short answer might be that biophilic planning and development infuse a city with an abundance of nature. As Professor Beatley more eloquently states, biophilic city planning “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.”

However, it is important to understand that this restorative abundance is not simply about adding more green to our cities and neighborhoods, although that would occur too. The benefit is more expansive. As the opening text box of this website states, research is finding that “Nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential [on a daily basis] to living a happy, healthy, and meaningful life.”

In a related arena, the path-breaking work of natural capitalism, biomimicry, and cradle-to-cradle design and production stakes out the terrain for a sustainable future as one built on biology as the foundation for the next industrial revolution and economy. Why not use a biologic foundation for city planning as well? After all, nature IS the economy of the planet’s regenerative life support system. Understanding and leveraging those principles would illuminate the new methods and opportunity to increase human economic productivity dramatically. Further, it would do so in ways that would have restorative effects on the regenerative life support system of the biosphere instead of systematically degrading it with every new increment of GNP. If so, biophilic city planning includes seizing that opportunity by extending the circular flows and regenerative principles and processes of nature to the city’s metabolism and economy.

A related initiative, the game-changing, net-zero Living Building Challenge 2.0 (LBC), includes biophilia as one of its core components. “It [the LBC] defines the most advanced measure of sustainability in the built environment possible today and acts to diminish the gap between current limits and ideal solutions at all scales,” from room to region. The LBC recently won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge 2012 as a “holistic, systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” The LBC is scalable. The LBC’s recent Living City Design Competition extends the challenge to the urban scale. As a result, the LBC provides one framework planners and designers can use now to extend biophilia to the built environment from room to region.

Producing an abundance of nature in this biophilic way will both require and extend a deep appreciation for nature into the culture of our communities. Many treatises on sustainability see such a cultural development as essential for sustainability success. Enabling these efforts with a whole systems strategic approach to sustainability, such as with the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, would create an innovation platform and on-going learning process for such an extension to our culture, built environment, and economy. The question then becomes, how can we produce biophilic abundance? This Biophilic Cities Project will generate the next step of one answer as an evolving work in progress!

With this larger potential to create sustainable value in view, San Francisco begins its partnership with the Biophilic City Project. During the project, San Francisco looks forward to learning more about the principles and tools of biophilic city planning and applying them to create a higher quality and more prosperous place. In turn, the project will assess and learn from San Francisco’s current projects and best practices, and those of the other partner cities.

The City’s policy commitment to sustainability as an overarching goal is enshrined in the Board of Supervisors’ 1997 Resolution, “to make San Francisco sustainable.” This commitment informs the work of all City agencies. The Planning Department begins the Biophilic Cities Project with the following initiatives.

  • Green Connections: will increase access to parks, open space, and the waterfront by re-envisioning City streets as ”green connectors.”
  • Pavement to Parks Program:  seeks to temporarily reclaim swathes of land and quickly and inexpensively turn them into new public plazas and parks.
  • Urban Forest Master Plan: will be the City’s long-term, comprehensive policy plan to manage the City’s public and private trees to produce open space, health, environmental, and climate change values.
  • Sustainable Development Program:  By coordinating building development and public infrastructure, the program attempts to implement district-scale energy, water, and waste systems while balancing the needs associated with growth and land use. Related projects include the Park Merced residential development, the Transit Center District (a regional multi-modal transportation hub and TOD), the Central Subway Corridor, and future neighborhoods.
  • Better Streets Plan/Program:  The plan prioritizes the needs of walking, bicycling, transit use, and the use of streets as public spaces for social interaction and community life. It aims to reduce stormwater runoff, improve pedestrian safety, and increase accessibility for all street users. It includes a web portal on landscaping, bicycle parking, traffic calming, and other enhancements, including needed permits, maintenance, codes, and guidelines for each type of streetscape element, and will produce safer, greener, and more inviting streets.

Beyond the Planning Department, the Department of Environment developed the city of San Francisco’s path-breaking public and private sector Green Building ordinances, renewable and efficient energy programs, zero waste ordinance, urban agriculture, and a range of other pioneering environmental programs. These programs, and those of other city agencies, set a strong foundation for advancing a biophilic city planning agenda, and agencies can extend those programs with biophilic planning.

Through San Francisco’s partner-city participation in the Biophilic Cities Project, the Planning Department anticipates learning how to advance a biophilic city planning agenda. By doing so, the department will create the larger value that biophilic city planning has to offer for the benefit of San Francisco, San Franciscans, and the larger region.

Scott T. Edmondson, AICP, is a planner with the San Francisco Planning Department. He also  pursues his interest in advancing leading edge, innovative sustainability planning grounded in a whole systems strategic approach with the Strategic Sustainability 2030 Institute (www.sustainability2030.com) and the Sustainability Committee of the APA California Chapter-Northern section.