Our Return to Eden: The Case for Biophilia
Nearly 200,000 years after anthropologists theorize that the first homo sapiens rose from East Africa, modern day scientists have only begun to understand humanity’s complex relationship with nature. Taking cues from architect and researcher Dr. Roger Ulrich, whose landmark design study in 1984 demonstrated a positive correlation between sight lines of nature and recovery from gallbladder surgery, numerous case studies have found evidence that nature provides profound emotional and physiological benefits to humans. These findings not only have the opportunity to revolutionize the built environment, they provide a scientifically sound ethos for sustainability and conversation.
A Brief Introduction to Biophilia
First introduced in 1964 by psychologist Eric Fromm, and later popularized in the book The Biophilia Hypothesis, author E.O. Wilson theorizes that humanity has an innate connection to and affinity for life forms and living systems. Rooted in theories of human evolution, biophilia suggests that humanity’s affinity for living systems was a result of bio evolutionary processes and essential to the survivability of our species. Wilson and other researchers suggest that observing nature and evolving alongside it not only helped us discern edible plants from poisonous ones, it may have increased our resilience, adaptability and creativity
But biophilia is much larger than our inherent reliance on Earth systems for food, water, shelter and medicine. According to the biophilia hypothesis, interaction with nature and other life forms is crucial to our emotional and physical wellbeing. While Dr. Roger Ulrich’s initial study demonstrated that patients with sightlines to nature recovering from gallbladder surgery required less pain medicine and received an earlier discharge, his work was just the beginning.
Since then, hundreds of studies have documented the positive impacts of incorporating nature into the built environment. For instance, a study conducted by Heschong Mahone Group in 1999 demonstrated a positive relationship between natural lighting in schools and test performance, noting a 5-18% improvement in scores. Other studies have validated the positive impacts of improved lighting and incorporation of plants into office settings, citing reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and higher job satisfaction. This was the case for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District Call Center, where researchers found that access to natural lighting led to a 6-7% reduction in call time and annual costs savings of nearly $3,000 per employee.
Another pivotal study exploring the relationship between vegetation and crime on a public housing development in Chicago, was conducted by Kuo and Sullivan in 2011. Amazingly, findings from their study revealed that 7 to 8% of all violent and property-related crimes correlated with minimal proximity to vegetation, demonstrating the potentially life changing impacts of plant life on reducing criminal behavior and violence.
A Return to Eden: Biophilia in Architecture & Design
In what could metaphorically be described as a return to Eden, the overwhelming body of biophilia research has encouraged psychologists, building developers and sustainability practitioners to take biophilia mainstream. In 2012 the University of Virginia launched the Biophilic Cities Project, an initiative designed to create a network of cities working to integrate biophilic principles into urban settings. Their work encourages cities to re-think traditional urban environments and create opportunities for residents and visitors to forge deeper connections with nature through innovative design and intentional promotion of natural spaces.
Singapore is perhaps one of the most well-known biophilic cities. As a big nod to biophilia and its well document benefits, Singapore recently changed its original motto from “A Garden City”, to a “City in a Garden”. It’s also home to some spectacular biophilic buildings, including the Park Royal Hotel, which boasts a rooftop fruit orchard, floating sky gardens as well as an indoor courtyard.
Biophilic design has also formally influenced design standards for green building construction. For example, the International Living Institute recently launched the Living Building Challenge 3.0, the most rigorous certification standards for sustainable buildings to date. What sets the Living Building Challenge apart from other green building rating systems and standards such as the Leadership in Environmental Engineering and Design (LEED) certification and the International Green Construction Code, is its commitment to both energy efficiency and restorative design.
Living Buildings are not only designed to create aesthetically pleasing structures by emulating the beauty of a leaf or flower, they are regenerative in nature- meaning they create, utilize and discharge their energy, resource consumption and waste in a closed loop system. As a result, living buildings are an ecosystem in themselves, utilizing 100% renewable energy for power, and managing waste from water consumption and materials onsite with composting technology and innovative grey water management systems.
The Future of Biophilia
Research on the benefits of biophilia and advancement in green building design present an incredible opportunity to re-imagine cities as we know them. It also provides humanity the ability to re-think their place in the global ecosystem. For the first time in human history, the majority of Earth’s 7.6 billion inhabitants live in cities. And while cities across the globe have committed to advancing green building policies and programs, the vast majority of cities are still over ridden with crime, waste, pollution and stress. Meanwhile, the resources required to fuel cities, has decimated our Earth’s ecosystems. In turn, this has lead to mass extinctions, habitat destruction and most notably, climate change.
For example, the Rainforest Alliance estimates that humans cut down anywhere from 3.5 billion to 7 billion trees every year. Similarly, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that we’ve lost 52% of the Earth’s bird, mammal, fish, reptile and amphibian populations since 1970 alone. Perhaps even more devastating, is our reliance on fossil fuels, which has increased global temperatures, amplified natural disasters and pushed humanity and Earth systems into crisis.
But there’s hope. From recent drops in the price of renewable energy production to 197 countries gathering in Paris to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, momentum from the sustainability movement may be enough to tip the scales on biodiversity loss, mass extinctions and climate change. And while it’s impossible to estimate just how quickly humanity can bounce back from the perils of our destructive behaviors, biophilia will be essential for ensuring that the cities of the future support more sustainable human evolution.
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