Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press
Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design / Island Press

People feel happier, healthier, and more social when they engage with nature. Their cognitive abilities go up and stress levels go down. So why is nature so often thought to be found only “out there” in the wilderness, or perhaps suburbia? For Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, nature should be found everywhere, but especially in cities. Cities must remain dense and walkable, but they can be unique, memorable places only when they merge with nature. If well planned and designed, a city’s forests, waterfronts, parks, gardens, and streets can make out-sized contributions to the health and well-being of everyone who lives there. In his latest excellent book, the Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, Beatley brings together all the established science, the important case studies, the innovative code and design practices from around the world in one place. Even if you think you already know a lot about how best to incorporate nature into cities, there will be some interesting new facets in this book for you to explore.

Some 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, some 4 billion people. That number is expected to reach 70 percent by 2050. As more of the world goes urban, we have a fundamental task ahead: to make the world’s cities ecologically-rich and emotionally satisfying. As Beatley puts it, we must use the “power of nature” to improve the experience of city life. As has been laid out elsewhere, increased amounts of urban nature and improved access to it can boost happiness, creativity, and cognitive abilities, reduce stress and crime, make communities wealthier and more social and resilient. Study after study demonstrate these benefits.

But Beatley unearths fascinating examples like the Mappiness Project in the UK. More than 60,000 Brits out and about in their daily lives were pinged by an iPhone app that asked them at random times to indicate how happy they were. Responses were then geo-coded to locations, with their relevant natural features. The study found “people are happiest when they are in nature. This is one of the main conclusions of the project.”

He also details the many ways cities can create room for nature. While creating connections to waterfronts and planting more trees are no-brainers, he calls for “an integrated, multi-scalar approach,” in which biophilic experiences are embedded at “interconnected scales and levels.” Biophilic encounters reinforce each other, and as they accumulate, the benefits increase. On a daily basis, people experience “doses” of urban nature in different ways — on their porch, walking down the street, on a park bench — and together these make up their overall “urban nature diet.” He recommends spending time a park or greenspace at least once a week, but the science is still out on what that ideal amount of time is. Beatley argues for direct contact in outdoor settings, like sitting under a tree, over indirect exposure to nature, like found in indoor environments or natural history museums.

Beatley has long held up a few cities as model biophilic cities, but he goes into more detail about what they offer. He explores Singapore’s sky-bridges that course through forests and vertical gardens set in skyscrapers, and Wellington’s comprehensive efforts to bring back bird song by restoring habitat and its pioneering launch of the world’s first marine bioblitz.

Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog
Telok Blangah Hill Park, Singapore / Travelog

But he also includes lesser-known success stories, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where 3,000 vacant parcels are being re-imagined as gardens and urban farms, and San Francisco’s Please Touch community garden, designed so the blind and visually impaired so can also have a multi-sensory nature experience.

Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner
Please touch community garden / Ekevara Kitpowsong, for S.F. Examiner

We then get to the nitty-gritty of how to make biophilic cities happen — through smart policies, thoughtful urban planning regulations, and breakthrough designs. There are 80 pages of interesting examples, with many works of landscape architecture, including Paley Park in New York City, designed by landscape architect Robert L. Zion, which he rightfully identifies as a unique multi-sensory experience that demonstrates the “power of water.” With its 20-foot-tall fountain, this tiny park, at just one-tenth of an acre, demonstrates the incredible potential of small, left-over urban spaces.

Paley Park / Pinterest
Paley Park / Pinterest

So many other projects are worth reading about — like the Aqua in Chicago, which is a bird-friendly skyscraper; the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which plants fruit trees in poor communities; Milkweeds for Monarchs in St. Louis, which incentivized citizens to plant hundreds of gardens for threatened Monarch butterflies; the Healthy Harbor Initiative in Baltimore, which is taking steps to achieve a swimmable, fishable harbor by 2020; the Vertical Forest, a residential tower in Milan, Italy, which extends trees upwards through 27 stories; and the 54-acre Qiaoyuan Park in Tianjin, China, which repairs a damaged ecosystem while storing stormwater and creating wildlife habitat.

Beatley concludes with a few thoughts that resonated with me about how the whole biophilic cities movement needs to evolve. As we green cities, we must aim to achieve a “just biophilia” in which everyone benefits. Given study after study demonstrate that access to nature can improve and even lengthen lives, it’s deeply unfair that not every community gets to have the healing benefits of nature. Plus, we must also must figure out how to reach an increasingly technology-fixated public, who are often interacting with nature through their phone’s camera. He promotes Sue Thomas’ book Technobiophilia, which argues we can better foster connections to nature through cyber-parks — real parks that leverage the Internet. 

2 thoughts on “Harnessing the Power of Nature to Improve Our Cities

  1. Neil Chambers 02/08/2017 / 8:49 am

    It’s great the conversation about combining cities with nature is still alive. It’s such an important and tricky topic. I hope all designers gravitate toward understanding that nature is the byproduct of large interconnected wild ecosystems. When I compare, say, conservation biology with sustainable city design, it’s obvious that sustainability still lacks the fundamentals for what it takes to rebuild the natural world (or if restoration is even possible). But, it’s also obvious that design is the key to translating highly technical information about things like ecology into practical, beautiful, installed examples of what is possible.

  2. Beth Kelley 02/08/2017 / 7:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Adding to my Reading List.

    (yes, even the city codes. That might seem a little dry to non-landscape designers, but they are important to understand as far as how to work with cities to promote and integrate more greenery).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s