Biophilic urbanism is a new perspective on cities that brings gasps and jaw dropping from audiences when I talk about it – especially when I show people some of the amazing examples, like in our DVD that Tim Beatley and I made on Singapore. At a recent conference with about 1000 people in the audience from around the world I won the ‘twitter sphere’ – the number of twitter comments coming from the audience as I was speaking. ‘Biophilic urbanism…wow!’ was the main sentiment.

Yet its not new really. Landscape architecture has been bringing nature into cities for centuries. Ian McHarg’s book ‘Design with Nature’ came out in 1969. Obviously you can go right back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and see that it’s an ancient sentiment.

So, what is going on?

I think we are at a new transition in urbanism generally. Since the industrial revolution we have been building cities that are less dense as we sought to find some more natural environments to live in – suburbs. Ebenezer Howard captured the 19th century popular demand for clean air and space in Garden Cities of Tomorrow. Then suburbs followed the trains and trams until the car gave us the chance to go right out into the countryside and create a new kind of human-nature relationship – the car dependent suburb, with its manicured lawns and space for kids to run around.

Now we look back at this and we see how in reality we consumed nature and the countryside, making a vast suburban landscape that left little that was natural and little that was urban.

When I first started looking at sustainability and cities I thought that the most important thing we should do to save the planet was to ‘make cities more urban and the countryside more rural’.

Little did I realize how quickly the turnaround would occur….In the past decade we have seen car use peak and then decline in all the world’s developed cities. It seems to be a combination of factors including the price of fuel and the availability of the mobile phone to enable freedom and connection. But the big shift has been young people coming back into cities.  This seems to be a large scale cultural change where the benefits of suburbia are seen to be less than the benefits of urbanism, to be close to people, to jobs, to services and to urban culture.

The data in all US cities is showing this new urbanism with astonishing reductions in car use of 23% between 2001 and 2009 amongst the under 35 age group. Two cities where it is also dramatic are Sydney and London. In Sydney the inner area in the past decade grew 15%, the middle suburbs 11% and the outer suburbs just 8%; at the same time total car use plateaued at 1% (per capita it declined), train use grew 13%, buses 9%, biking and walking 6%. In Central London total traffic declined 19% between 2000 and 2009 and a recent article in The Times suggested that the whole area is moving towards becoming car-free with ‘café culture replacing car culture’.

The new economic competition between cities is how walkable and attractive they are for people on the street. Traffic is out, dense walkable urbanism is in.

Its all good news and means a lot for issues like climate change and peak oil…but what about biodiversity and nature? What about all these suburban kids coming back into the city? My belief is that biophilic urbanism is part of the need for a more urban response to the big issues of our day. Now we want to see how dense urbanism can be greened at the same time as responding to the need to reduce car dependence.

So, we love to see those beautiful, artistic green walls and green roofs that bring biodiversity, cooling the urban heat island, reducing run-off, insulating buildings, and making public amenity so much more attractive – especially to all us people in the street who are walking!

Peter Newman

CUSP, Australia