What are the positive human effects of biophilic urbanism?

Biophilic design is attracting more and more interest in the construction and urban planning sectors. Trying to integrate nature into buildings and public spaces aims to promote the health and well-being of people, as well as to create spaces that incorporate sustainability.

Bosco Verticale, Milan. Image Credit: Ivan Kurmyshov/Shutterstock.com

In recent years, many researchers have found strong links between more time spent in nature and better physical and mental health.

Nature’s effectiveness for mental health is particularly promising, as mental health problems account for up to one in three years that people live with a disability. The toll of mental health problems on the population as a whole is similar to that of cardiovascular disease and circulatory disorders.

Biophilic design proposes to help people better expose themselves to nature by bringing nature into cities, buildings and public spaces.

Some environmental engineers, like Anu Ramaswami of Princeton University in an interview with new scientist recently argued that green public spaces are just as important elements of city management and urban planning as housing, water, food, energy, connectivity and sanitation. City dwellers all need these things to live a healthy life.

What is biophilic design?

The biophilic design borrows concepts from biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson posited the “biophilia” hypothesis in 1984. He believed that our brains had been shaped by the environment we lived in, primed by it to respond well to signals that would help us survive.

Natural objects like trees, savannah, lakes, and waterways help mark places that would provide our basic needs like food, water, and shelter. For the first 294,000 years of our existence as a species, we always lived outside of cities.

When we finally started building cities around 6,000 years ago, our brains still craved to see and be near these natural markers of survivability in the environment. In fact, as a species, we’ve only become primarily city dwellers in the last few decades. But, by 2050, that figure will likely rise to around 70% of the world’s population living in cities.

Biophilic design attempts to link these two phenomena: biophilia which causes our brains to favor natural environments, and increased urbanization which takes us further out of natural environments and into man-made environments.

Biophilic design focuses on the inclusion of natural objects like trees, waterways, and plants in public spaces. Natural forms such as curves, irregular arches and shapes that smudge the light are also used in the exteriors and interiors of biophilic buildings to attract us.

This is supported by recent science. A 2019 study from the University of Exeter, UK found that between 120 and 200 minutes of recreational contact with nature each week was associated with good health or well-being. The study involved nearly 20,000 participants from across England.

Image Credit: EStock/Shutterstock.com

However, biophilic designs and time spent in nature may not be helpful for everyone. It is important to note that the majority of research on the effects of nature on well-being has been conducted in Western societies. The mental health benefits of access to nature are likely influenced by a number of factors, including age, gender, personality, socioeconomic status, and culture.

Examples of biophilic design in urban planning and construction

Some buildings, such as One Central Park in Sydney, Pasona Group Offices in Tokyo, and Bosco Verticale in Milan, exhibit biophilic design by incorporating plants and trees into their exteriors, interiors, and ground-floor built environment.

Urban areas have for many years been the subject of beautification programs, including the return of nature to the urban environment. An early example in the UK is the Garden City movement in the early 1900s, but the recent announcement that France will drastically reduce traffic on the Champs-Elysées and turn it green continues this tradition to the present day.

The Million Trees Los Angeles initiative and the large-scale greening program in New York are good examples of how city governments in the United States are responding to the benefits of biophilic design.

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Other Benefits of Biophilic Urbanism

Biophilic urbanism has myriad benefits for citizens and the wider environment.

There is ample evidence of the positive effects of nature on psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and mood disorders. Sleep, stress, happiness, emotions, social interactions, and even the meaning of life can all be positively impacted by spending time in nature. Attention, memory and creativity are also stimulated by time spent in nature.

Physical health is enhanced when plants and vegetation in cities work to absorb airborne particles and other pollutants from engine exhaust and heavy industry.

Natural space in cities also contributes to improving the sustainability of cities. It provides free environmental benefits like clean air and water, flood protection, and natural shade. On buildings, vegetation can help regulate temperature and air quality and reduce the building’s climate footprint.

References and further reading

Cohen-Cline, H., E. Turkheimer and GE Duncan (2015). “Access to green spaces, physical activity and mental health: a twin study. J Epidemiol Community Health. [Online] https://doi.org./10.1136/jech-2014-204667.

Dobson, J. et al. (2021). “The magic of the mundane: the vulnerable network of connections between urban nature and well-being.” Cities. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cities.2020.102989.

Douglas, K. and J. Douglas (2021). “Green spaces aren’t just for nature – they also improve our mental health.” new scientist. [Online] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933270-800-green-spaces-arent-just-for-nature-they-boost-our-mental-health-too/.

Grigsby-Touissant, DS (2015). “Sleep insufficiency and the natural environment: results from the US Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey.” Prev Med. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2015.07.011.

Orban, E. et al. (2017). “Residential surrounding greenness, self-rated health, and interrelationships with aspects of the neighborhood environment and social relations.” J Urban health. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-016-0112-3.

Vigo, D., G. Thornicroft and R. Atun (2016). “Estimating the True Global Burden of Mental Illness.” The Lancet. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00505-2.

White, MP et al. (2019). “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being.” Scientific representative. [Online] https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3.

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