Growing Green


Spring 2017

The biophilic design and architecture movement is bringing nature to modern life like never before – and the benefits are enormous.

Studies show that a walk in the woods can improve mental health, natural sunlight has healing powers, and views of nature reduce employees’ requests for sick days. But for many Americans, especially those who live in urban centers, sometimes it feels like it’s easier to get a $5 latte than commune with nature. Enter the growing biophilic movement. Made up of architects, urban planners, environmentalists, wildlife scientists – really, any interest group concerned with getting people back to the earth – it’s not about recycling or taking shorter showers, though a biophiliac certainly wouldn’t dismiss these efforts. It’s about changing modern living so that interaction with nature is no longer an event but a way of life. Its root word, biophilia, refers to human beings’ innate need for nature. 

Modern biophilic architecture design in Singapore.
Modern biophilic architecture design in Singapore. Photo: Nikada / iStock
Nature is not optional; it’s absolutely essential. It’s something that should be part of every day, every hour, if not every minute of people’s lives, not something you just get when you’re on vacation.
Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities and urban planning at University of Virginia.

Several years ago, Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities and urban planning at University of Virginia, was instrumental in creating the Biophilic Cities Network, which is based at UVA and serves as a hub of information sharing and mutual support for partner cities around the world, all of which have demonstrated an ongoing commitment, says Beatley, “to being more nature-forward.”  

So, what exactly does that mean? “We’re seeing a city where you’re immersed in nature, where nature is all around you,” he says. “It’s not just that rooftop or side yard or that tree in front of your house, but all those different spaces that allow you to imagine your city as a garden, as a park, as a forest. Melbourne, Australia, is a good example of a city that is adopting a fantastic new urban forestry plan. They’re not speaking in terms of trees in the city; their vision is a city in a forest. Singapore changed its official motto from A Garden City to A City in a Garden, and that seems like a small change, but it’s profound.”

Gardens by the Bay nature park in Singapore.
Gardens by the Bay nature park in Singapore. Photo: r.nagy / Shutterstock

As lofty as his ideas may be, Beatley is quick to point out that it’s not always grand gestures, but a collection of small efforts by like-minded people that make for a biophilic city. “It’s a movement that celebrates connection with the natural world,” he says, “and there are a lot of different organizations and people working in that area, all framed by the emerging research showing nature’s ability to make us healthier and happier.”

Learn more about biophilic design.

3876 Noriega Street parklet in San Francisco (hosted by Devil’s Teeth Baking Company)
Green street rain garden in Portland.

The biophilic movement in the U.S. 

While Singapore and Melbourne, along with Birmingham, England; Wellington, Canada; and Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of the Basque Country, are well ahead in their movement toward biophilia, the trend in the U.S. is just starting to take off in a variety of ways. 

In San Francisco, the mayor’s office addressed the challenge of nature-deprived neighborhoods through a Pavement to Parks Program, which has led to the creation of parklets, or small public plazas with seating and landscaping features, throughout the city. In Portland, Oregon, the city council has pioneered the concept of green streets, which means that about 1,400 streets in Portland now have curbs or other sections carved out with rain gardens that collect and treat storm water, while simultaneously serving as spontaneous bursts of nature into dense urban settings. In St. Louis, there’s an initiative called Milkweeds for Monarchs, which has led to the planting of hundreds of monarch butterfly gardens. In Milwaukee, the brownfields of the Menomonee River Valley industrial base have been converted into a bustling business district with green architecture, restaurants and more than 60 acres of trails and parks. And in Pittsburgh, the most recent inductee into the Biophilic Cities Network, Frick Park, a 644-acre municipal park, has just opened the Frick Environmental Center, a nature education hub. Interestingly, in the past few years, has called both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh “the new Portland.” In other words, biophilia is hip!

Menomonee River Valley in Milwaukee.
Frick Environmental Center in Pittsburgh.

Biophilia in the built world 

The biophilic movement is not just about the natural environment; it extends to architecture and design. The idea is that, since we spend the majority of our time indoors while our bodies yearn to be outside, modern spaces need to change. One of the leading thinkers in the field was the late Stephen R. Kellert, co-author of the book Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. In the book, he pointed out that nature could be incorporated into buildings in different forms, both directly, via exposure to light, air, water and plants, and indirectly through images of nature and the use of natural materials, patterns and colors found in nature. 

Nature Boardwalk at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo designed by Jeanne Gang.
Aqua Tower in Chicago designed by Jeanne Gang.

Examples of biophilic architecture are not as common in the United States as they are abroad, but there are some. Chicago-based Jeanne Gang has devoted her career to bridging nature and urbanism, with projects ranging from the Nature Boardwalk at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo to the undulating Aqua Tower, a residential building that was imagined as a vertical landscape made up of hills, valleys and pools. In Seattle, Amazon has hired the architecture firm NBBJ to build a four-story, indoor forest filled with plant life from around the world, in a structure shaped like three overlapping spheres. Employees will be able to work and eat inside this LEED-Gold building – and presumably have fewer sick days. Even retailers are getting in on the economic benefits of biophilic design. Walgreens’ flagship store at Galter Pavilion in Chicago features a man-made tree canopy, and the store is flooded with light, the goal being that this will lead to a more relaxed state of mind for shoppers.

Robert Wyland with a “Whaling Walls” mural at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, Hawaii.
Robert Wyland with a “Whaling Walls” mural at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, Hawaii.

While Beatley works more in the realm of living nature rather than built environments, to illustrate the impact that even nonliving depictions of nature can have on people, he points to the famous “Whaling Walls”: large-scale murals, painted by marine life artist Robert Wyland, on the sides of skyscrapers, sports arenas and other buildings in 79 cities around the globe. “Is that biophilic?” Beatley asks. “I look at those murals and they may not affect me in the same way that living nature does, but there is positive reaction there, and it makes me happy to see them. They help us to remember and connect with nature.” 

Indeed, much like nature itself, the biophilic movement seems to have no bounds. And that may be its true power.

Four-story biosphere domes designed by NBBJ for Amazon.
Four-story biosphere domes designed by NBBJ for Amazon. Photo: NBBJ / Sean Airhart