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Why We Need Biophilic Cities

Cities and nature don’t need to be opposite ends of the spectrum. A city that lets its residents experience the natural world is a happier, more productive city.

The world’s urban population is ballooning. By 2050, 70% of humanity will live in cities. But that doesn’t mean that city dwellers have to be disconnected from nature.

The Biophilic Cities Project, an initiative organized by Professor Tim Beatley of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, aims to come up with best practices for creating “biophilic cities” that meld with the natural world. It’s the “idea that we have coevolved with the natural world and to be happy and healthy and lead meaningful lives we need contact with nature,” explains Beatley.

Biologist E.O Wilson coined the term “biophilia” two decades ago, describing it as “”the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary, and hence, part of ultimate human nature.” The idea has become popular in design, but it’s only recently that it has been applied directly to cities.

Beatley describes some of the ways that biophilia that can measured in cities in his book Biophilic Cities: the percentage of population within a few hundred feet of a green space, percentage of city land covered by vegetation, number of green design features (i.e. rooftop gardens), average portion of the day spent outside by residents, number of trips made on foot, percent of residents who can identify local flora and fauna, and priority given to nature conservation by local government are just some of the factors that go into making a biophilic city.

There is no one city that exemplifies all of the aspects of the biophilic city. But there are plenty of smaller-scale examples. Singapore, says Beatley, “shifted from being a garden city to one that aspires to be a city in a garden. Most people are living in high rise buildings they but have an amazing network of parks and greenspaces.” The city’s parks connector system links all of its parks together.

Biophilia is popping up even in the most unexpected places. In Scottsdale, Arizona (right near the ultra-unsustainable city of Phoenix), the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy is working to preserve 36,400 acres of native desert habitat–equivalent to one third of Scottsdale’s land area. When finished, the project will be one of the largest urban preserves in the world. “Hundreds of volunteers are out there almost on a daily basis,” says Beatley.

It isn’t just nice for city residents to have a connection with nature; it can also help the economy. In Austin, Texas, a massive colony of Mexican free-tailed bats decided in the 1980s to spend its summers under the Congress Avenue Bridge (the engineers designing the bridge put crevices in the structure that the bats love). At first, the city wasn’t thrilled about the 1,500,000 bats living under the bridge. But now the colony–the largest urban bat colony in the world–is a huge tourist attraction.

A new report from environmental consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green goes into detail about the positive economic benefits of biophilic cities. The report explains, for example, that “Economically, the value of a view to nature has been quantified. Strategic seating arrangements at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District call center revealed surprisingly variable worker performance results The numbers of calls handled per hour by employees with seated access to views of vegetation through large windows from their cubicles far surpassed the number of calls handled per hour by employees with no view of the outdoors. Researchers concluded that those with views of nature handled calls 6-7% faster than those with no views.”

Biophilia is also good for our health. In one study cited by the Terrapin Green report, overall parasympathetic activity in the brain (something that happens when we’re relaxed) shot up by 56.1% when subjects strolled through a forest. Sympathetic activity (which happens when we’re stressed) whereas decreased by 19.4%.

It’s not surprising, then, that biophilia is creeping into cities around the world (though not all of these cities would call themselves biophilic). “There’s no question that whatever the terminology is that you use that, it’s an area that’s increasingly important to cities around the world,” says Beatley.

The biophilic cities movement is only set to grow. Beatley and the Biophilic Cities Project are working with a number of cities worldwide, including New York City, San Francisco, Oslo, and Helsinki, to identify some of the things that can advance planning practices as well as the obstacles that hinder the creation of biophilic cities. “There’s a growing appreciation around the world that nature is not something expendable, it’s not something optional,” explains Beatley.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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