The word “biophilia” literally means “love of life or living systems” and was first used by social psychologist Erich Fromm in the mid-1960s. The term was popularized in a 1984 book of the same name written by biologist Edward O. Wilson. In the book, Wilson defines biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Since that time, numerous studies in a variety of fields have shown that contact with nature and other living things have significant emotional, physiological, and social benefits for human beings.

Wilson and others theorize that, because we evolved in a bio-centric world, we are “hard-wired” to seek out features and attributes of nature that are beneficial to survival. This includes not only living organisms, but also life-sustaining elements such as light and water. “Biophilic Design” has become the term that describes the incorporation of natural elements into our built environment in order to take advantage of their beneficial effects on our lives.

Biophilic design has been used by architects to create buildings that include plants, natural light, water features, and views to outdoor natural settings. Stephen Kellert, in his book Biophlic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life, presents data showing that these techniques have a measurable positive effect on worker productivity in office settings and on recovery time in health care facilities. Kellert argues, that in addition to actual natural elements, we can also benefit from designs that incorporate natural shapes and forms, patterns, and textures. The characteristics of a space or spatial pattern can also mimic natural settings. Two of these are referred to as “prospect” and “refuge”. “Prospect” describes an elevated location where you can look out over an unobstructed space. “Refuge” is a small, protected area. These characteristics can be combined to create comfortable and interesting spaces reminiscent of natural locations.

More recently biophilic design has been touted as an element that should be included in urban planning and development. Timothy Beatley, in his book Biophilic Cities and on his website www.biophiliccities.org explains that, due to the increasing urbanization of our planet, “nature-ful cities is an ever more urgent need.” Beatley discusses many different techniques for including nature in our cityscapes. “Parklets” are a feature being used in San Francisco and other cities where individual parking spaces are turned into mini-parks by the addition of sod, benches, planter boxes, and even trees. In Seattle, property adjacent to a city reservoir is being developed as an urban orchard of fruit and nut trees as well as “p-patches” for individual family gardens. Many cities, including Portland, have begun developing “green streets” using bio-swales and rain gardens to treat storm water at its source and lessen the impact on storm sewer systems and downstream rivers and lakes.

Beatley acknowledges that there is much research that needs to be done to quantify the benefits of a biophilic city. For example, is access to a larger forest area more effective than a neighborhood full of street trees? However, he strongly believes that research will confirm that biophilic cities are “profoundly restorative, magical, and wondrous”.

From the research that has been done and is continuing to be done, it seems clear that biophilic design principles can be used to improve the quality of our lives and should be considered in the design of our buildings and our cities.

By Suzanne S. Hunnicutt,
AIA, LEED-AP

Suzanne Hunnicutt is Vice-President of Architecture, and works out of Chastain-Skillman’s Sebring office. Her work focuses on the design of office, institutional and industrial buildings for both public and private clients. Suzanne received a Bachelor of Design degree in 1975 and a Master of Architecture degree in 1980 from the University of Florida. She can be reached at [863] 382-4160 or shunnicutt@chastainskillman.com.