[I wrapped up last week getting into research on biophilia and biophilic cities. The post originally went up over at @SustainableCitiesCanada. The impact that lush green spaces have on us is impressive. Well beyond what I would have expected. It seems, according to comments on the original piece, that even eating dirt is good for us.]
But there is more going on than Frisbee and picnics.
A growing number of studies show that time spent in natural settings
measurably improves our ability to concentrate, our sense of wellbeing
and even fights depression. We are, in a word, a biophylic species, hard wired to draw support from contact with the natural world.
Research on biophilia isn’t new. The term was
coined in the 1980s by prominent American biologist E.O. Wilson and work
on the theme has been ongoing ever since. I’ve been digging through
some of the material recently though, and have been hooked by what I’ve
found. It’s fascinating reading. More than that, it makes you wonder how
what we know about the relation between green spaces and well-being
could influence the way we redesign our cities.
Your Brain on Nature
most startling finding of studies into biophilia is that being in
natural settings actually changes the chemistry of our brains. Views of a
forest for example – as compared to say gray streetscapes – stimulate
the brain’s pleasure systems, triggering our opioid receptors and the
release of dopamine.
Beyond pleasure, a University of Michigan study [pdf]
conducted in 2008 also showed that people’s attention and memory skills
improved notably after a walk through a forested park. The authors
argue that lush green spaces relieve the brain of the constant
multi-tasking necessary to negotiate the crowded sidewalks and multiple
stimulus of city streets. Like sleep, this restores the brain’s ability
to focus and function effectively. Earlier this year the same team
conducted a similar experiment with patients who suffered from severe
depression. Here again participants experienced significant improvements
in their level of wellbeing.
Relatively small changes to building and landscape
design have been shown to have measurable effects. Even something as
simple as access to natural lighting or views of outdoor trees have been
shown to improve wellbeing and workplace performance. But an upcoming study
in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests that for full
effect nothing beats settings that completely cut off our views of the
These don’t necessarily have to be immense parks.
Even small green spaces if properly designed can provide the experience
of being immersed in nature. (As it happens, even on a small scale
natural spaces with denser canopy cover also significantly increase
The exploding interest in green roofs, green walls,
urban gardening, and natural infrastructure are all new avenues for
weaving nature and the city closer together. Path-breaking work
by Timothy Beatly at the University of Virginia provides an excellent
look at these and other interventions. They all have multiple benefits
that are relevant to everything from reducing urban heat islands to
increasing air quality and food security. But the truth is that people
are also just drawn to well designed natural spaces. And it seems we
have good reason to be.
Another Take on “Green” Cities
of urban sustainability often become incredibly technical. But,
fundamentally, what we are talking about is reshaping what has become
our primary habitat: the city. In that process we can’t loose sight of
the impact that living in cities has on us, in terms of our well being,
sense of connection to each other and to the natural world that supports
As well as being efficient or having a low-carbon
footprint green cities need to be places where people thrive. But saying
that “trees are nice” isn’t very helpful when it comes to making
planning decisions. The work around biophilia gives us another strong
link between urban sustainability and human health.
It also raises some interesting questions. Parks are
great, but what happens when you scale up? What would a biophilic city
look like? Would it simply mean more tree canopy, more immersive parks,
and greener bike and pedestrian routes? Or would it go beyond that to
change the fabric of our streetscapes in more fundamental ways?
There’s a challenge implicit in the concept of
biophilia. A challenge to design cities in ways that enhance our sense
of self and our connection to the world around us. That’s a challenge
worth taking seriously. What exactly cities would look like if we do is a
wide open question.