Taking Nature to the City

In Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Timothy Beatley, Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia, argues that planners and landscape architects must design cities so people feel intimately connected with nature. Beatley hopes his book will foster a dialogue about biophilic cities by first defining what these are, offering a set of indicators for measuring biophilic interactions, then imagining how these look at various scales, and finally outlining what institutions and organizations can do to build communities more in tune with nature.

Beatley describes how biophilia, a term coined by famed sociobiologist and conservationist E. O. Wilson, can inform how we plan, design, and manage our cities. He defines a biophilic city as one that puts nature first. “It recognizes the essential need for daily human contact with nature as well as the many environmental and economic values provided by nature and natural systems.” In addition, these cities are places where “residents spend time enjoying the biological magic and wonder around them. In biophilic cities, residents care about nature and work on its behalf locally and globally.” 

Throughout, there’s a strong case for the psychological benefits of urban nature. E. O. Wilson writes in the foreword: “The evidence is compelling that frequent exposure to the natural world improves mental health, it offers a deep sense of inner peace, and, in many ways we have only begun to understand by scientific reason, it improves the quality of life.” Beyond improving humans’ well-being though, fostering biophilia among residents can also increase cities’ resiliency to future changes.  

Beatley compiles research and case studies that highlight the environmental, economic, and quality-of-life payoffs of nature in the urban setting. He breaks down several indicators of a biophilic city while acknowledging that urban design and planning is concerned with various scales: regional, community, neighborhood, street, block, and building. “The best biophilic cities are places where these different scales overlap and reinforce biophilic behaviors and lifestyles. Ideally, in a biophilic city these scales work together to deliver a nested nature that is more than the sum of its parts.”

He explores a number of indicators for determining how well a city creates biophilic connections:

Conditions and Infrastructure

Beatley covers the growing body of biophilic architecture (see earlier post) and then inspires to translate them to the broad scale. He also argues for improved accessibility to green spaces. At the broad scale, he asks policymakers to consider how well they facilitate access to nature:

  • What percentage of the population is within 100 meters of a park or greenspace?
  • Per capita, how many miles of walking trails exist in the city’s borders? 


The residents and institutions of a biophilic city celebrate the unique biodiversity of their place and actively enjoy and participate in the nature around them. Beatley writes that cities can encourage us to connect with nature through programs and offering volunteer opportunities. Some questions for the cities trying to measure the biophilic connections created through activities:

  • What is the percentage of time residents spend outside, understanding that climate must be accounted for?
  • What percentage of the population is active in nature or outdoor clubs or organizations?  How many of these organizations exist in the city?

Attitudes and Knowledge

The metabolism of a sustainable city relies on residents both knowing and caring about its unique nature, natural history, and restoration opportunities. Beatley points to Tadao Ando’s “Sea Forest” plan for an 88-hectare parcel in the Tokyo Bay where trees will be planted on landfill, educating all who visit about the benefits of nature. In this area, there are some questions to evaluate how actively residents participate in the natural city:

  • What percentage of the population can recognize common species of native flora and fauna?
  • To what extent are residents curious about the natural world around them?

Institutions and Government

To facilitate the growth of biophilic connections, many players must become involved. Most important: there should be education programs to foster connectedness to nature- locally, regionally, and globally. Institutions that could have particularly strong roles include botanical gardens, municipal zoos, natural history museums, and conservation groups. Beatley writes about Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden of Richmond, Virginia, which grows food for its community. It has five “learning farms” for urban youth to work at and earn an income.  To determine whether governments and instutions are doing enough, questions are directed at how well cities are protecting and building their biodiversity and investing in education:

  • Has the government adopted a local biodiversity action plan or strategy?
  • Has priority been given to environmental education?
  • Has the government adopted green building and planning codes, grant programs, density bonuses, green space initiatives, dark-sky lighting standards, etc?

Overall, the city should be a place that is deeply connected to nature; it breaks the average urban resident’s feeling of alienation from nature. Planners and landscape architects need to mediate and facilitate this process so that we envision our cities as a living environment. With many case studies and best practices, the book offers exemplary ideas for professionals to consider as they re-naturalize the urban world.

Read the book and learn more about biophilic landscape design.

This guest post is by Amanda Rosenberg, 2010 ASLA advocacy and communications intern.

Image credit: Timothy Beatley / Island Press

2 thoughts on “Taking Nature to the City

  1. Kirk Meyer 03/31/2011 / 4:06 pm

    One way we can foster a new generation of biophiliacs is to design and install green schoolyards at all K12 schools. As Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson and others have often remarked, it all starts by creating a bond between children and the natural world. This bond motivates the learning process and in the end creates stewards of the Earth. This is especially important for city folks because they will be voting on issues that support sustainable environmental practices. An eight year old will vote in 10 years. There are active systemic green schoolyard programs in Boston, NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, Washington DC, Houston, Buffalo, Forth Worth, Los Angeles and beyond. These outdoor classrooms are exposing kids to nature and teachers tell us that student engagement is off the charts. For more information visit the Green Schoolyard Network at

  2. Urban Choreography 04/04/2011 / 12:16 pm

    Is this just another new term for an existing discipline like ‘Landscape Urbanism’ or is it another naive call for ‘more nature’ saying it benefits people when it does not really consider people other than as statistical or numerical evidence for advancing its own cause? I need to read it before I’ll know but I have my doubts…. Donovan Gillman

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