The Biophilic Design Movement Takes Shape (Part 1)

Buffalo Bayou Park playground, Houston, Texas / Mommy Nearest

While green infrastructure is needed to manage stormwater and cool the air in our cities, these systems, as currently designed, aren’t enough. In the future, they must also boost biodiversity and help forge richer connections between humans and nature, argued a set of policymakers, academics, planners, and landscape architects, who are part of the nascent biophilic design movement. At the Biophilic Leadership Summit, which was hosted at Serenbe, an agricultural community outside of Atlanta, and organized by the Biophilic Institute, the Biophilic Cities Project, and Serenbe founder Steven Nygren, the main themes of biophilic urban planning and design were explored in an effort to achieve greater definition. Much work, however, still needs to be done to codify, measure, and popularize the strategies discussed.

As Timothy Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the central leaders of the movement has explained in his recent book, The Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design, 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.

The three-day summit mostly focused on the human side of the human-nature interactions fostered through biophilic design principles. What was missing was a discussion by ecologists and scientists on how biophilic planning and design actually benefits species, how to best measure a city’s biodiversity and human exposure to it, and therefore determine if a city is making real progress in their path to become more biophilic. Still, there were some valuable conversations.

One panel delved into strategies for improving connections to nature among children. Nygren said it has been nearly a decade since Richard Louv’s now-famous book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, was published. What has happened since then and where do we need to go?

“There has been a huge amount of progress in the last 15 years. But on the negative side, the growth of children with health issues has been enormous,” argued Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative. Indeed, today, one of out three children in America is overweight or obese because of poor diets and a lack of exercise. Children now spend seven hours in front of some sort of screen per day, and just 10 minutes in “unstructured outdoor play.”

Mikaela Randolph, director of cities and nature at the Children & Nature Network, was less positive to start, stating that not all children, or adults, enjoy nature to the same degree in their communities. In many underrepresented communities of color, there are fewer trees, playgrounds, and parks. “That’s an issue of life and death. Is that segment of the city going to live as long?” Studies have correlated tree cover and mortality rates, and the conclusions for those without daily access to nature in their communities are grim.

Moore said we must get serious about coming up with a strategy for incorporating nature into the places where children spend most of their day: schools, child care centers, and playgrounds. He called for targeting municipal, county, and state decision makers. “Changing the laws and codes is the next step.”

Furthermore, homeowners associations, which often just drop in standards created by a national organization, need to change their model, so communities can becomes “more nature and children focused,” argued Hayden Brooks, co-founder, Children in Nature Collaborative. Nygren agreed and said “developers know every rule for cars but don’t know the rules for pedestrians and kids. What if developers had to demonstrate a connection to nature?”

Randolph and Hayden explained how their organizations help local non-profits in a set of cities come together to maximize their impact. The Children & Nature Network, which partners with the National League of Cities, removes obstacles to “green school yards, early childhood education, out of school time, youth leadership, and park activation.” The Children in Nature Collaborative enables local planning processes. One successful result of their efforts is the Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, which was just passed by the city council of Austin, Texas.

Their efforts also yielded one of the best ideas discussed at the conference: “green school parks,” which are about first involving communities in redeveloping and greening school yards and then making them accessible to the community outside school hours. “These places are then co-owned by the communities. They have access too.”

Lastly, Moore cautioned that while green infrastructure is great, “there needs to be places for kids in it.” He pointed to Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, which was designed by landscape architects SWA Group, as a positive example of what to do. The entire park and flood mitigation system makes room for a nature playground. It’s on a steep site and periodically floods, but “it’s where we want it to be — embedded in the urban environment.”

Read part 2.

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