Biophilia in Urban Design – Patterns and Principles for Smart Australian Cities

Over thirty years ago ecologist EO Wilson proposed the Biophilia hypothesis – a powerful idea which asserts that humans have an instinctive bond with nature and that it is an essential part of our well-being.

The idea was tested over the years and in 2008 the concept of Biophilic Design was formalised and popularised by social ecologist, the late Stephen Kellert, and cohorts. It has been further developed by Peter Newman and others, particularly Tim Beatley who has written extensively about Biophilic Cities. Biophilic design has been codified for commercial acceptance, notably with the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, informed by empirical evidence and interdisciplinary analysis of more than 500 peer-reviewed publications and promoted by Terrapin Bright Green LLC.

There is increasing application and acceptance of the hypothesis in Australian planning and design practice, relating human biological science and nature to the design of the built environment, and biophilic patterns and principles can be identified in numerous examples of Australian urban design. However, there is little evidence of the concept being applied to the design, development and operation of smart cities.

Surprisingly, biophilic effects can be achieved with no physical or tangible link to ‘nature’ at all. Indirect experiences of ‘nature’ can generate measurable biophilic psycho-physiological responses, for instance in hospital rooms when people are exposed to images of nature such as artificial sky.

These ‘illusory’ effects may be valuable for environments that cannot readily support real biological systems – such as rooms buried deep inside large buildings. There are parts of our cities where nature struggles to survive; in such places, biophilia may be evoked by technological, rather than biological means. In research with Deakin University my colleagues and I established that places like the new underground railway system in Melbourne justified the addition of another biophilic design ‘pattern’ to describe these ‘virtual’ biophilic effects.

Biophilia enhances well-being. Part of the agenda of smart cities is to do just that. Our research suggests that cities should embed a biophilia ethos in their urban design to ameliorate the negative results of overly reductionist approaches to efficient urbanism.

Paul Downton, Architect & Researcher

Article based on a paper presented at the 9th International Urban Design Conference in Canberra by Dr Paul Downton and colleagues from Deakin University, Prof David Jones and Josh Zeunert.

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