Biophilia: “An Innate Emotional Affiliation with Nature”


Bill Browning, LEED AP, Terrapin / Bright Green LLC, Keith Bowers, ASLA, Biohabitats, and Carol Franklin, FASLA, Andropogon Associates covered developments in biophilic building and landscape design. Biophilia, as defined by the famed biologist E.O. Wilson, is “the innate emotional affiliation of human beings with other living organisms.” Some argue that biophilia is the result of “genetic memories.”

Browning said he first became interested in biophilia when examining case studies that showed that mail room workers became 6-16 percent more productive when they had access to sunlight. Another seminal 1984 study by Roger Ulrich found that patients recovering from surgery did much better viewing some trees and shrubs than those that just had a view of a brick wall. Additionally, those with views of nature took half the painkillers and made half as many nurses calls as the ones without the view. These results helped spur on the healing gardens movement, which has spread to many hospitals (but unfortunately, not all).

There are a number of ways people experience biophilia:

1) Nature in space: “This is obvious — it’s about bringing people into contact with nature,” said Browning. Flowers in an apartment, goldfish in a bowl, indoor plants, and outdoor courtyards are examples of “bringing nature to us.” However, nature really has to be outside to “grab our attention.” Plants moving in the wind grab people’s attention instantaneously because of the subtle shifts of plants’ fractal movement (see earlier post). “It may also be why we are so fascinated with fireplaces and light dancing on waves,” said Browning.

2) Natural Analogs: Ornamentation, patterns on or within buildings read like nature to us even if they are made out of stone.

3) Nature of the Space: “This is the most powerful and maybe the hardest to understand.” Humans are attracted to both prospect views (clear views of expanses) as well as the oppositive, refuges or close, tight safe spaces. Browning posited that people are trying to recreate the prospect views of the Savannah when they create lawns, parks, or golf courses (these are all natural analogs). “We feel comfortable in these spaces so we keep recreating.”

The idea is to use these all these ideas in landscape design. In addition, Keith Bowers, ASLA, said biophilia can inform big-picture work in landscape ecology, conservation biology, and restoration ecology. He said there’s an inherent human need for nature and universal design strategies, which can be used to create life-enhancing environments. Bowers pointed to large-scale restoration projects in South Carolina and the San Francisco Bay area to demonstrate how restored landscapes can provide intense biophilic reactions.

But there are also a range of challenges that are increasingly complicating ecological restoration work. “We are now in the largest period mass extinction in 65 million years — the Holocene Era.” According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List, some 1/4 mammals, 1/8 birds, 1/3 conifers, and 1/3 amphibians face the threat of extinction. An additional 51 percent of reptiles, 52 percent of insects, and 73 percent of flowering plants are also on the unsafe list. Additional challenges include habitat fragmentation, top soil loss and nitrification, water shortages, invasive species, and climate change.

To create biophilic landscapes and address these challenges, landscape architects may need to restore for the future, not the past. “We need to create the original ecosystem plus its eventual trajectory.” In addition, the result may be “new novel ecosystems” that the planet has never seen before. However, Bowers noted that “all of this needs to be rooted in science — in biology, ecology” (see earlier post).

Carol Franklin, FASLA, said LEED has some major problems because it often results in “hideous” buildings and landscapes. By using LEED, designers sometimes “lose biophilia,” and create a non-living landscape. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is, in large part, landscape architects’ response to the issues they see with LEED. Overall though, it represents an attempt to find the metrics to define how a living landscape performs. “SITES sees landscapes as living systems.”

The Living Building Challenge (see earlier post), a rating system Franklin was particularly excited about, considers multiple scales, encourages retrofits (instead of new unsustainable development), and mandates that buildings provide beauty and inspiration. “LEED only give us a minute number of points for innovation,” while the Living Building Challenge seems to keep innovation at its core and call for bioregional approaches to design. “The Living Building Challenge encourage us to measure aliveness.”

As an example, Franklin pointed to the Rubinstein School of Natural Resources at the University of Vermont and the Center for Sustainable Landscape at Phipps Conservancy, two buildings and landscapes that met the Challenge’s goals of zero-energy, zero-water, and capturing all water on-site. In the case of a new landscape Andropogon Associates is working on at the Center for Sustainable Landscape, there will be stepped terraces providing a Savannah-like view for employees and visitors, zones of vegetation, and an engineered, regenerative landscape that will treat and circulate water. Jose Alimana, FASLA, (see an interview) said the detention basin for the water will be a “swimming pool, made naturally clean by the plants and soils.”

Image credit: Pine Forest / Flickr

Dr. Richard Jackson: “We Are No Longer Creating Wellbeing”


Dr. Richard Jackson, Chair of the School of Health at UCLA, and former head of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), argued that how we shape our environment impacts our health. There are now deep-rooted structural issues with the built environment that are creating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and depression. Also, the current way of dealing with these structural issues is only just increasing the annual amount of spending on healthcare (now at 17 percent of GDP), instead of addressing the underlying problems. “We are now medicalizing the problems people are experiencing with their environment. We are no longer creating wellbeing.”

Instead of addressing the public health impacts of the absence of trees, low-albedo streets (which contribute to the urban heat island effect), as well as a lack of sustainable transportation planning, which can help spur the growth of public transit options, we are instead “looking at the end of the pipeline,” the medical effects. Our environment is sending us a message: “We are appendages to our cars.”

Jackson outlined a few of the structural issues that need to be addressed:

How we build affects how often we are injured

Jackson said 24,000 lives could be saved each year if the country had the same low car crash fatality rates as New York City. The city provides easy access to public transit and safer street designs. 

How we build affects the air we breathe and the water we drink

“Any place where we can cool the air, we can improve health.” When ground-level heat indicators go up, ozone levels also rise. Ozone is a leading contributor to asthma, a chronic disease that disproportionally impacts inner-city areas.

Cars are heavy contributors of ozone so “we need to invest more in public transit and biking.” One “natural experiment” demonstrated this: In Atlanta during the Olympic Games, people drove less, taking public transit to get into the city center. As a result asthma hospitalizations dropped by some 30 percent.

How we build affects what we eat

Each year, the CDC calls between 100,000 and 200,000 people nationwide, and goes through an hour-long questionnaire about their health. Through these studies, public health policymakers have found that obesity rates have gone through the roof. “Now there’s only one state where less than 20 percent of the population is obese.” Over the past twenty years, the obesity rate for teenagers has also tripled.

Obesity is a “common cause epidemic,” and a related health impact, diabetes, is now a “crushing health crisis,” driven in large part by the sedentary, car-based lives we are leading. Sprawl, in effect, kills.

How we build affects how active we are

Less density equals more driving. “We are engineering exercise out of people’s lives” by creating suburban cul-de-sacs and putting places of work and living far from each other. Higher density equals more walking. “This is an issue of life and death,” argued Jackson.

He also called for Fitnessgrams to be added to every report card. “Right now, 3/4 of graduating high school students can’t run or walk a mile in under 12 minutes.” By creating car-dependent communities,” we are taking away walking,” exacerbating the epidemic of obesity among kids as well.

How we build affects our home (earth)

There have been dramatic increases in C02 emissions over the past 150 years. More recently, our air has gotten hotter, the ground has gotten hotter (which impacts the fertility of soils), and ocean temperatures have gotten hotter (which combined with increased C02 levels has led to acidification).

Weather change is just oscillation around a central average, but climate change is impacting “hardiness zones.” Over the past twenty years, in New Jersey, “we’ve moved from hardiness zone five to seven.” This will have major impacts on what trees can exist in these areas.

Another major issue: reduced water. California alone is facing billions of new infrastructure investment to deal with the reduced ice caps in its mountain regions.

Part of the solution may be to design for wellbeing, which can also reduce the negative impacts of the built environment on public health.

For example, new green hospitals are including organic food gardens that help patients recover faster. Studies of patient experience demonstrates that views of nature (or even just images of nature) improve patient outcomes. Most patients respond positively to nature art; looking at nature (or images of nature) can reduce the need for medication; and exposure to sunlight shortens hospital stays.

To sum up, Jackson said, “cars are not more important than people or trees.” But landscape architects also need to plant the right trees in the right places, and create long-term plans to keep trees in place. Additionally, capturing water on site is important given increased water shortages. He also called for ASLA to lead a charge on school gardens, adding that “ASLA members could adopt school gardens” in their neighborhoods and help integrate organic food into communities.

At the national level, the upcoming transportation bill, where President Obama has focused his continuing recovery efforts, will need to dramatically increase investment in public transit, bike routes, and safe routes to schools. 

To learn more, read “Built Environment: Designing Communities to Promote Physical Activity in Children,” a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (see earlier post). Also, read Dr. Jackson’s book, “Urban Sprawl and Public Health: Designing, Planning, and Building for Healthy Communities” and check out his upcoming PBS special.

Dr. Jackson made the case that landscape architects are “health leaders,” and since the days of Frederick Law Olmsted have been focused on improving people’s health and wellbeing. See an interview with Paul Morris, FASLA, on CDC’s Healthy Communities program, and how design can improve health.

Image credit: Suburban Parking Lot / Sprawled Out

Quantifying the Benefits of Beauty


Barbara Deutsch, ASLA, Executive Director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) hosted a panel on landscape performance, covering how to measure both the environmental benefits of sustainable sites and the cultural benefits of site aesthetics. Heather Withlow, LAF, Susan Olmsted, ASLA, Mithun, and Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, University of Virginia, discussed the connections between hard data and aesthetics.

LAF’s new Landscape Performance Series

LAF is a think tank founded in 1966 and is dedicated to increasing the capacity of landscape architects to achieve sustainable development goals. In its effort to promote next-generation best practices, LAF issued its new landscape performance series, which includes a set of case studies quantifying the environmental benefits of landscapes.

According to Heather Whitlow, the impetus for the project came from seeing all the readily-available green building performance data online, and realizing there wasn’t any equivalent set of information for landscapes. LAF saw a need to create a framework so landscape performance data could be easily gathered and disseminated. LAF’s first 15 case studies are the first step in creating a unified set of landscape performance data.

For firms seeking to quantify the benefits of their projects, LAF recommended thinking about performance data at the beginning of their projects, investing in collecting and obtaining actual measurements and monitoring data,estimating savings based on quotes and calculations, and using online tools / calculators.

Check out LAF’s series and additional resources. The LAF hopes to expand its series and invites firms to send in more case studies. Also, see ASLA’s sustainability toolkit series, which provides a range of tools for calculating the economic value of projects.

Mithun’s Focus on Math and Beauty

Mithun, a Seattle-based landscape architecture firm, is guided by a set of principles that form its integrated approach to sustainable design, says Susan Olmsted. One principle is “do the math”; another is “create beauty / spirt.” Olmsted said metrics and aesthetics were interdependent — it’s the mix that creates a “sense of purpose.”

As opposed to solely measuring maintenance, management, and monitoring data, Olmsted argued that there is a great opportunity to apply performance ideas in the beginning during the design and construction phases.

In an example of a high-performance landscape, Olmsted pointed to Mithun’s well-known High Point affordable community project in Seattle (see a case study). High Point features a range of sustainable landscape elements, including some 15,000 feet of bioswales, but Olmsted focused in on some benefits that had been quantified.

The overall “green” aspect of the project cost just three percent of the total, but yielded 20 of the annual utility savings for the residents, many of which have low-incomes. Additionally, the decentralized green infrastructure system used throughout the housing community enabled the designers to use a smaller detention pond, which freed up land that could be sold, expanding economic gains. In five years, the Seattle Housing Authority “broke even.”  Through their work, there had also been a 433 percent increase in density in the community and a 300 percent increase in trees.

Can we actually calculate the benefits of aesthetics?

Elizabeth Meyer, FASLA, said aesthetics aren’t about visual appearances, but refer to the science of perception — the emotional and psychological impact of a place, form, or image on our mind and body. “Aesthetics perform on us.” Meyer added that aesthetics are not absolute — there is no preferred way. “Aesthetics can be messy or dissonant, not always pleasing.”

Recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment definitions of ecosystem services also include the cultural services ecosystems provide to people, including spiritual or religious value. However, while data on provisioning and other types of ecosystem services is being collected, there is a dearth of collected aesthetics-related data. “We now know one of nature’s benefits is aesthetic, and nature contributes to our psychological well-being,” argues Meyer, so data collection on the aesthetic value of ecosystems also needs to increase.

Without landscape architects’ input, Meyer fears the definition of ecosystem services will evolve to value “found” or natural landscapes more than  designed ecosystems. In addition, she thinks the focus could evolve towards “positive aesthetics,” or ideal pastoral scenes, instead of “place-based aesthetic metrics.”

Image credit: High Point, Seattle / Mithun

Complete Streets: Streets as Public Space


At the 2010 ASLA Annual Meeting, Keith Robinson, ASLA, Caltrans, Robin Gyorgyfalvy, ASLA, U.S. Forest Service, Tracy Newsome, City of Charlotte, and Philip Erickson, AIA, Community Design + Architecture highlighted different forms of complete streets taking shape across the U.S. Complete streets were defined as streets that include sidewalks, bike and car lanes, some green infrastructure component, and are accessible to “all ages and abilities.” To date, some 350 complete streets have been completed, but many view this as just the start of a budding nation-wide movement.

In California, the transportation department has been focusing on rolling out complete streets under an act that started to be implemented in early 2009. The law is directed at cities and communities and calls for streets to be accessible for all users. Even highways and about 25 percent of freeways are getting dedicated bike lanes, said Keith Robinson, Caltrans.

The goal, Robinson argued, was “to make streets part of public space” and green and attractive. Streets should be community assets, compatible with built and natural environments, and reflect the balanced needs of the community and transportation networks. 

In Charlotte, which won an E.P.A. Smart Growth award for its urban street design guidelines (see earlier post), the goal is provide more and better travel options, said Tracy Newsome. This will be hard to reach given the city expects an extra 350,000 residents by 2030, and “these people aren’t bringing their own streets with them.”

Through a rigorous process of public engagement in street design, city planners in Charlotte have found that resident like trees, buffers, and moderate speeds and don’t like bare, sidewalk-less streets. Additionally, people view their nearby streets, even if they carry high-amounts of traffic, as neighborhood streets, and so have some sense of ownership.

A multistep process designed to gather community input led to a complete street design that has reduced congestion and improved safety — the street model has 16 feet of landscape, 11 feet of travel lanes, 8 feet of planting strips, 5 feet of bike lanes, and 8 feet of sidewalks and sidewalk easements.

Still, one big challenge for the city is incorporating isolated complete streets into broader traffic networks and eventually forming a network of complete streets.

San Francisco calls their complete, green streets plan, which has been approved by the city, “Better Streets,” says Philip Erickson, AIA, Community Design + Architecture. Some 25 percent of San Francisco is covered in streets, but the city sees these as an opportunity for expanding green infrastructure. The idea is to green city streets to deal with the city’s stormwater management problems, which are caused by its aging combined sewer infrastructure.

The challenge in San Francisco is getting all the different city agencies to play well together and coordinate. Planning, public works, transportation, and the mayor’s office of disabilities all have responsibilities for pieces of any better street.

To address this coordination challenge, the city focused on creating a pilot Better Street where zoning rules were thrown out and new concepts tested. The pilot greenway used permeable pavements, planters, trees, and landscape along with bike lanes to show the city how the new streets could work. The idea was to create a policy and regulatory framework and set of street standards that can be used to make Better Street development easier in the rest of the city.

Robin Gyorgyfalvy, ASLA, U.S. Forest Service, said even state parks in rural areas are getting on board with complete streets. In a National Park in Oregon, multi-modal transportation is enabled through complete streets. Bikes, cars, and buses are bringing residents from nearby Bend, Oregon into the park. The park service has also been especially focused on bringing inner-city residents into parks — many who live an hour away have never been to the forest.

Image credit: Better Streets, San Francisco City Government

The Netherlands’ Evolving Relationship with Water


Jerry Van Eyck, ASLA, of Melk! explained how the Netherland’s efforts over the past few hundred years to “control and conquer” its landscape have been driven by its “aggressive” need to create more land for dairy and agricultural production. The development of Netherlands’ system of dikes and reclaimed land has also been driven, more defensively, by its need to “keep feet dry and survive.” However, now, the country is ceding land back to the sea in a calculated retreat and creating “soft coastal engineering” systems to protect against sea level rise.

The Dutch have always “controlled and conquered water” for their own economic benefit. Like colonization, which led to a massive expansion of Dutch land overseas, water management and land reclamation has been a process of domestic expansion.

A few strategies have been used over the past hundred years:

Terps: Since before 500 BC, early Dutch were creating “terps” or hills to escape rising sea waters.

Dikes: These are systems for controlling rivers. In between summer and winter dike lines are flood plains that manage flood water. Given more than 50 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level, a system of dikes has been in constant use for a few hundred years to reclaim and then protect land.

Polders: More than 3,000 “polders” or reclaimed lands are in place across the country. Since the early 1600’s, polders have turned “swampy, peaty, warm, humid places” into land that can be farmed out. For centuries, dikes were first created in a circle around a piece of land and then windmills were used to pump out the water. Later, steam-based pumping stations made the creation of polders industrial, “enabling higher levels of reclamation.”

Two major land reclamation efforts include the “Zuidersee works” along Amsterdam and the “Delta works” in the southwest corner of the country.

The Zuidersee works enabled “huge land reclamations” and featured a closure dike some 20 miles long. The soils on the reclaimed land, once desalinated, were found to be particularly fertile and suited for cow grazing and agricultural production. At the same time, they were also a disappointment in terms of population expansion — few wanted to move into these flat, desolate areas at first.

The Delta works uses a pair of massive revolving doors to control water levels. “Each door is as big as the Eiffel Tower.” Storm surge barriers are something out of “Star Wars” — “They are science fiction” made real. 

Due to increased dairy and agriculture production efficiency, polders once used for farming are now being sold back to local governments for use as new suburbs. Some three percent of Holland’s population produces agriculture in such an efficient way that the country is one of the top three exporters of agricultural products worldwide (behind the U.S. and France). 

On climate change, Van Eyck says the Dutch don’t have all the answers. “Nature always fights back somehow.” Soils are shrinking, putting land back below sea levels again. Weather changes are creating monsoon-like rains, meaning some dikes won’t be able to hold the increased water flow. With increased water flow, the soil balance is also changing, “deteriorating.” 

The  Netherlands is now going through a process of “de-polderization,” a calculated retreat where land is given back to the water. The country’s landscape architects are also creating a new system of “soft infrastructure” along the coasts to protect the country against climate change-induced rising sea levels. “We discovered we can’t put more dikes, or ‘hard’ infrastructure in place to control against sea level rise — water seeps through the weak spots. Instead, we need to use ‘soft coastal protection.'”

These soft coastal engineered systems, or “sprayland” consists of mud that has been sprayed under water for years, creating strips of coastal land. Airplanes then throw Buckthorn bush seeds out in order to vegetate these strips. Bulldozers then come in to create fire escape lines through the vegetation.

Van Eyck said the world sees the Netherlands as experts in water management, but increasingly, “there’s no solution to climate change,” only combinations of engineered hard and soft protections.

Image credit: Dutch Dike, Wikipedia Commons

Using Constructed Wetlands to Treat Wastewater


At the ASLA 2010 Annual Meeting, Carol Franklin, FASLA, a landscape architect with AndropogonJeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, an innovative smart growth planner, and engineers from the firm Natural System Utilities discussed the benefits of using constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. Along the spectrum of decentralized wastewater treatment systems, there are fully-natural systems (often used in rural or suburban areas), engineered constructed wetland (used in denser suburban areas), and membrane biological reactors (reserved for high-density urban areas because of their high cost).

Natural Systems

Used in areas where there is ample land, natural systems feature constructed wetlands that are “mechanically simple, yet biologically complex,” said Paul Knowles of Natural System Utilities. These systems feature a basin of gravel through which wastewater flows, and encounters a natural system with “biological, physical and chemical conditions for purification.”  They are often planted with indigenous plant species to enhance biodiversity. Plants and bacteria, which are powered by the sun, break down pollutants and cleanse the wastewater. “Nature has already done a good job already,” so the only thing to do is harness natural systems.  

Constructed Wetlands

Engineered constructed wetlands often feature “mechanical aeration” to enhance their performance.  “Numerous processes are responsible for wastewater purification, including phytoremediation, microbiological mineralization, filtration by gravel and gravitational sedimentation. All components of the system have a role to play.” Knowles explained: “these are the kidneys of landscape.”

In one example of on-site wastewater treatment in a compact neighborhood, Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA explained how wastewater flows out of household toilets and sinks into wetlands, then sand filtration systems. By this time, the water is about as high-quality as potable water, but “just to be safe, there is an additional mechanical filtration system” that uses UV to blast out any remaining pollutants. The water can then be reused to water landscapes or sent back to households for toilets. 

Carol Franklin, FASLA, also discussed the constructed wetland at Sidwell Friends school (see earlier post). In this green school for the sons and daughters of Washington, D.C.’s elite, there are two separate systems “that connect, but don’t interact”: a wastewater treatment system and stormwater runoff collection system. The wastewater treatment system runs toilet and sink water into a series of wetlands, where plants, soils (and sands) filter out pollutants so water can be reused to water roof plants and flush toilets. The wetland system is also educational: students can see and test the water quality throughout the wetland cleansing cycle.

Membranes and Biological Reactors

These rather expensive systems are often reserved for high-rise buildings in high-density urban areas. They are found in the basements of buildings, and are comprised of a series of tanks that filter out specific pollutants, and then push water towards a membrane filter. The Solaire building in Manhattan uses a bioreactor to recycle 25,000 gallons of wastewater each day to water gardens, flush toilets, and cool HVAC systems.

Speck concluded that these solutions can be “used at every scale and footprint.” The most cost-effective systems are spread-out — only four acres of wetland is needed to process the wastewater of 1,000 households. “These four acres can even be part of a park.” Additionally, spread-out systems require less up-front costs in comparison with bioreactors.

Another benefit: water in dry areas like Arizona and Texas is expensive for households. Pointing to a community in Arizona that uses a constructed wetland system, Speck said they are spending half as much on water in comparison with communities next door without these systems.

Also, these constructed wetlands can do more than treat wastewater. According to Knowles, they can deal with industrial effluents and be used in fisheries, agriculture/dairy facilities, mines (to deal with phosphate), landfills (to address leachate), and airports (to address runway runoff). “De-icers used on runways are particularly nasty. Buffalo airports’ runoff equals that of 50,000 people’s wastewater,” Knowles explained.

Image credit: Constructed Natural Wetland System / Wikipedia Commons