openalex: Biophilic Cities: This is Your City on Nature

[I wrapped up last week getting into research on biophilia and biophilic cities. The post originally went up over at @SustainableCitiesCanada. The impact that lush green spaces have on us is impressive. Well beyond what I would have expected. It seems, according to comments on the original piece, that even eating dirt is good for us.]

Another summer city weekend is almost here. Chances are there is a park in your future: urban parks offer the ultimate escape from the noise and the heat. Great parks are a defining feature of great cities – Montreal’s Mount Royal, Stanley Park in Vancouver, the Retiro in Madrid or whatever your favourite green spot is in your own neighbourhood.

But there is more going on than Frisbee and picnics. A growing number of studies show that time spent in natural settings measurably improves our ability to concentrate, our sense of wellbeing and even fights depression. We are, in a word, a biophylic species, hard wired to draw support from contact with the natural world.

Research on biophilia isn’t new.  The term was coined in the 1980s by prominent American biologist E.O. Wilson and work on the theme has been ongoing ever since. I’ve been digging through some of the material recently though, and have been hooked by what I’ve found. It’s fascinating reading. More than that, it makes you wonder how what we know about the relation between green spaces and well-being could influence the way we redesign our cities.

Your Brain on Nature
Perhaps the most startling finding of studies into biophilia is that being in natural settings actually changes the chemistry of our brains. Views of a forest for example – as compared to say gray streetscapes – stimulate the brain’s pleasure systems, triggering our opioid receptors and the release of dopamine.

Beyond pleasure, a University of Michigan study [pdf]  conducted in 2008 also showed that people’s attention and memory skills improved notably after a walk through a forested park. The authors argue that lush green spaces relieve the brain of the constant multi-tasking necessary to negotiate the crowded sidewalks and multiple stimulus of city streets. Like sleep, this restores the brain’s ability to focus and function effectively.  Earlier this year the same team conducted a similar experiment with patients who suffered from severe depression. Here again participants experienced significant improvements in their level of wellbeing.

Relatively small changes to building and landscape design have been shown to have measurable effects. Even something as simple as access to natural lighting or views of outdoor trees have been shown to improve wellbeing and workplace performance. But an upcoming study in the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning suggests that for full effect nothing beats settings that completely cut off our views of the surrounding city.

These don’t necessarily have to be immense parks. Even small green spaces if properly designed can provide the experience of being immersed in nature. (As it happens, even on a small scale natural spaces with denser canopy cover also significantly increase urban biodiversity.)
The exploding interest in green roofs, green walls, urban gardening, and natural infrastructure are all  new avenues for weaving nature and the city closer together. Path-breaking work by Timothy Beatly at the University of Virginia provides an excellent look at these and other interventions. They all have multiple benefits that are relevant to everything from reducing urban heat islands to increasing air quality and food security.  But the truth is that people are also just drawn to well designed natural spaces. And it seems we have good reason to be.

Another Take on “Green” Cities
Discussions of urban sustainability often become incredibly technical. But, fundamentally, what we are talking about is reshaping what has become our primary habitat: the city. In that process we can’t  loose sight of the impact that living in cities has on us, in terms of our well being, sense of connection to each other and to the natural world that supports us.

As well as being efficient or having a low-carbon footprint green cities need to be places where people thrive. But saying that “trees are nice” isn’t very helpful when it comes to making planning decisions.  The work around biophilia gives us another strong link between urban sustainability and human health.

It also raises some interesting questions. Parks are great, but what happens when you scale up? What would a biophilic city look like?  Would it simply mean more tree canopy, more immersive parks, and greener bike and pedestrian routes? Or would it go beyond that to change the fabric of our streetscapes in more fundamental ways?

There’s a challenge implicit in the concept of biophilia. A challenge to design cities in ways that enhance our sense of self and our connection to the world around us. That’s a challenge worth taking seriously. What exactly cities would look like if we do is a wide open question.

image: SustainabilityMatters

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