Biophilia needs to be applied to urban design more often in more places. Doing so would make people healthier and happier. In the past, incorporating inspirations from nature into buildings was both necessary and beneficial - think of the high windows and ceilings of pre-war apartments that allowed abundant daylight, surrounded by moldings of flowers and animals, overlooking pocket gardens and trees on the street. Modern constructions employ convenient manufacturing that overlooks quality of living. But we are returning to a period in which designers are beginning to pay more attention once again to the ways in which nature interacts with our built environments. Biophilia is a guiding principle for this newfound interest.
Biophilia goes deeper than just general access or “love” for nature. There are three pillars of biophilia: Nature in Space, Nature of Space, and Natural Analogues. By categorizing the aspects of biophilia, we can more easily understand how to holistically apply it to our surroundings. Let’s start with Nature in Space. Nature in Space, in its most basic interpretation, is direct access to actual natural elements such as daylighting strategies within interior spaces, potted plants, exposed wood grain, and the use of natural materials. Access to wooded areas in city parks, urban forests or restored wetlands in urban areas would fall into this category.
Natural analogues are one degree of separation from nature in space, in that they are design elements meant to remind us of nature. Artwork and decorations that mimic nature’s patterns such as leaves on trees, grasses in a field or flocks of birds in the sky. These types of nature-ish things provide the backbone of natural analogues. Another example includes a molding shaped like a lion’s head or a column capital carved to look like a bunch of grapes and flowers. These moldings evoke nature without involving actual natural elements. While the effect on our physiology is not as strong as that of nature in space, it is nevertheless a powerful design tool.
Nature of Space refers to the spatial characteristics of an interior. Our relationship to nature of space is particularly fascinating for its abstraction. They mimic the spatial characteristics of habitats which humans have become accustomed to throughout our existence and convey prospect, refuge, enticement and peril. Prospect gives dramatic views out to open spaces, while refuge creates enclosed interior spaces that make a person feel safe and protected. A combination of these two spatial characteristics in a building is a hallmark of emotionally resonant building design (think of sitting on the covered porch of a slightly raised bungalow, looking out over an expanse of greenery). Enticement and peril add spice to building design. Enticement would, for example, give occupants a peek at a winding hallway that disappears out of sight (leaving one wanting more), while peril would give people views to (no surprise here) perilous views down below.
Understanding all the pillars of biophilia is critical to understanding how to implement it into green design. Biophilia is not just a design afterthought intended as a final decoration. It is purposeful and conscious design with nature in mind, with the understanding of what a connection to nature can do to a person physiologically. Separate from other energy and resource-saving forms of green design (although these benefits are often a side-effect), biophilia is the study of how a connection to nature can improve our health and well-being. Knowing how biophilia could be incorporated into building designs will allow the concept to materialize in our minds, rather than remaining an abstract idea mixed in the ether of green design. Armed with this knowledge, everyone can incorporate these elements into their home and places of work, improving their health and well-being along the way.
(This series on biophilia was co-written by Chris Garvin and Namita Kallianpurkar of Terrapin Bright Green)