Biophilic urbanism – cities connected with nature

by Tania Wannenburg
Fallingwater pablo sanchez

Biophilic designs seek to integrate natural features and qualities into everyday living in urban environments.

One doesn’t have to be a scientist to realise that there is something special about affiliating with nature and that being in contact with the natural world stimulates our senses and impacts our wellbeing.

Over the years, good architects have intuitively incorporated natural elements into urban designs in an attempt to create better spaces for people in the built environment, without cognitively putting a name to it. With urbanisation becoming ever more prevalent, these practices, categorised under the term “biophilic design”, are helping to satisfy our innate biological need for contact with the nature.

In a report written and published by Terrapin Bright Green, called “14 patterns of biophilic design”, the firm suggests implementation guidelines on how to apply biophilia effectively in urban environments, sprouting from interdisciplinary research “that supports measureable, positive impacts of biophilic design on health and wellbeing”.

The report states that good biophilic design draws from influential perspectives – health conditions, socio-cultural norms and expectations, past experiences and user perceptions – to create spaces that are inspirational, restorative and healthy, as well as integrative with the functionality of the place and the (urban) ecosystem to which it is applied.

These identified biophilic design patterns are organised into three categories: nature in the space, natural analogues and nature of the space, which provides flexible and replicable strategies that enable thoughtful incorporation into the built environment.

Nature in the space
Bringing plant life, water, even animals, as well as breezes, sounds, scents and other natural elements into a built space creates direct and meaningful connections with these natural elements. Some of the strongest experiences are achieved through diversity, movement and multi-sensory interactions. Common examples include potted plants, flowerbeds, bird feeders, butterfly gardens, water features, fountains, aquariums, courtyard gardens and green walls or vegetated roofs.

Biophilic design patterns:
1.    Visual connection with nature: A view to elements of nature, living systems and natural processes.
2.    Non-visual connection with nature: Auditory, haptic, olfactory or gustatory stimuli.
3.    Non-rhythmic sensory stimuli: Random and ephemeral connections with nature.
4.    Thermal and airflow variability: Subtle changes in air temperature, relative humidity, airflow across the skin and surface temperatures that mimic natural environments.
5.    Presence of water: Either through seeing, hearing or touching water.
6.    Dynamic and diffuse light: Varying intensities of light and shadow that change over time to create conditions that occur in nature.
7.    Connection with natural systems: Especially seasonal and temporal changes.

Natural analogues
Natural analogues refer to the recreation of objects, materials, colours, shapes, sequences and patterns found in nature. As organic, non-living and indirect evocations, these include artwork, ornamentation, furniture, décor and textiles in the built environment. Mimicry of shells and leaves, furniture with organic shapes and processed natural materials such as wood planks and granite table tops, each provide an indirect connection with nature.

Biophilic design patterns:
8.    Biomorphic forms and patterns: Symbolic references to forms, patterns, textures or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.
9.    Material connection with nature: Elements from nature that, through minimal processing, reflect the local ecology or geology.
10.    Complexity and order: Rich, sensory information that adheres to a spatial hierarchy similar to those encountered in nature.

Nature of the space
Addressing spatial configurations in nature, these patterns focus on our desire to see beyond our immediate surroundings and our fascination with slightly dangerous situations, when they include a trusted element of safety. The most effective application is when these nature of the space patterns are combined with those of nature in the space and natural analogues.

Biophilic design patterns:
11.    Prospect: An unimpeded view over a distance.
12.    Refuge: A place for withdrawal from environmental conditions or the main flow of activity, in which the individual is protected from behind and overhead.
13.    Mystery: The promise of more information, achieved through partially obscured views or other sensory devices that entice the individual to travel deeper into the environment.
14.    Risk/peril: An identifiable threat coupled with a reliable safeguard.

Architects and urban planners have the unique obligation to advance biophilic design beyond the building-centric green design. It is about how wild nature can be restored in urban environments in order to reduce stress, restore health, enhance creativity and clarity of thought and overall improve citizens’ wellbeing.

Read the full report on www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/publications.

Full thanks and acknowledgement are given to Terrapin Bright Green, www.biophilicdesign.net and www.biophilicities.org for the information given to write this article.

Key qualities of biophilic cities:
•    Abundant nature in close proximity to citizens.
•    Ample opportunities to be outside and to enjoy nature.
•    Rich multisensory environments, where the sounds of nature (and other sensory experiences) are as appreciated as much as the visual.
•    Biophilic cities place importance on education about nature and biodiversity, and on providing many opportunities to learn about and directly experience nature.
•    Social and physical infrastructure such as natural history museums, wildlife centres, school-based nature initiatives, or parks and recreation programmes and projects.
•    They are globally responsible cities that recognise the importance of actions to limit the impact of resource use on nature.

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