Biophilic Cities: Or How I Learned To Start Loving Where I Live

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As the sustainable revolution motors along, I can’t help but wonder why it is taking so long to really catch on. What is holding back people like you and me and our neighbors from making it a priority? I don’t mean buying recycled paper towels.  This, while helpful,  slightly more expensive and a little less effective on spilled juice, is definitely not going to save our planet from deforestation. That needs to happen at a larger-scale. Rather, I’m interested in what is keeping us from becoming completely and personally invested in one of the most critical, watershed moments of our time? Is convenience really the only governing force driving our responsible or destructive habits? Maybe. But I’m inclined to think that we may actually be suffering from a disconnect that started when humans moved into cramped, urban living situations that were both destructive to the environment and tended to alienate us from nature. But the green revolution is changing all that right? Maybe.

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It took us a relatively short period of time to realize that there was something missing in these dark, concrete jungles and homogeneous, sprawling suburbs. And we are still trying to understand what that something is. I believe we unknowingly longed for our previous love affair with nature, a relationship that was readily available yet taken for granted before urban expansion. Luckily, we’ve gained some perspective on what not to do when designing homes, suburbs and cities, so now, it’s time to fall back in love with nature, literally. Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson who coined the term “biophelia”, which literally means love of living systems, believes our emotional and psychological connections with nature are a result of biological evolution and that there may be more at play with our affinities than previously thought. In this post I’ll outline a few reasons why biophilic design may not only positively affect our well-being, but may also affect our bottom line.

If loving nature isn’t simply an aesthetic indulgence, rather a biological requirement, then this invites us to re-imagine our relationship with nature. Most of us look at nature as a place to get away and relax. And the reasons we do this, according to recent studies, may be more than just an escape from our jobs. According to Timothy Beatly, author of Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, incorporating nature into our daily lives via design has the ability to “reduce stress, to aid recovery from illness, to enhance cognitive skill and academic performance, to aid in moderating the effects of ADHD, autism and other child illnesses.”  If we could create buildings that integrate natural features, then it may follow that well-being and personal happiness may have a direct result on productivity. Such natural features could include more daylight, natural ventilation, lush courtyards available for mid-afternoon walks. If the buildings we design had more of these feature and less of the toxic, polluted and dark qualities of most workplaces, it doesn’t take a scientist to understand that these things are good for people. However, it may take an economist to outline some incentives of biiophilic design.

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In The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature Makes Financial Sense, produced by Terrapin Bright Green, the authors state that productivity costs are 112 times greater than energy costs in the workplace. If this is true, then when pitching environmental design services to owners, we may begin to have tangible talking points, something that is actually quite difficult to pitch if you’ve ever tried it. This is especially true to larger business. When positioned as a way to help reduce costs associated with workplace productivity by increasing well-being via access to plants, natural views, daylight, etc. into the office, savings could be as much as $2,000 per employee per year. And when adopted regionally within the United States, this could reduce healthcare costs significantly, even by as much as $93 million, so state the authors. For the explanation of these items refer to the article, but on first glance, this seems like a tangible strategy no longer reserved for luxurious hotels, rather, something that could start to infiltrate more workplace environments at all economic scales.

Even if you aren’t planning on building a high-rise office tower or a new hospital, these biophilic design strategies can have profound affects when integrated into the home. While the place we work certainly consumes the majority of hours we spend on a daily basis, the home is where we regroup, shake off the day, compose ourselves, and then head back out. It makes sense that any measures we can take that can increase our well-being at home, better positions us when interacting with the rest of the world.

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