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

One thought on “Biophilia: “An Innate Emotional Affiliation with Nature”

  1. Assaf Koss 10/18/2013 / 5:06 am

    Comparing between modern societies and South American Amazonian or African Jungle tribal societies, it seems to me that all human efforts into mimicking nature hardly reach satisfying results.

    The increase in movement towards a more natural and less constructed way of life is evidence for this, in the current generation. We enjoy the “small” unobtrusive technologies like computers, but we suffer the cement neighborhood and housing that we have. Little else is more romantic than a cosy log cabin.

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