It’s time to bring nature into our built environments

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Ensia

The best design includes nature at its core.

If we think about where we most enjoy vacationing, it usually involves some beautiful natural location such as a beach, an island or the mountains. The restorative experiences nature offers are a quality of biophilia, the innate human need for a connection with nature.

Chances are, you enjoy a sunny spot on the windowsill, a crackling fire, a lush pocket garden, a leafy plant in your office space, a richly patterned rug or a water fountain. These might seem like luxury items, elements you desire but find no concrete justification for purchasing for your office space, demanding in your child’s school or expecting in your hospital room. However, growing evidence from the fields of psychology and neuroscience would challenge your stinginess. The practice of incorporating nature and natural elements into the built environment — known as biophilic design — has been proven to measurably reduce stress, enhance cognitive function and creativity, improve our well-being, and expedite healing.

And that makes dollars as well as sense. U.S. businesses squander billions each year on lost productivity due to stress-related illnesses. A significant reduction in worker stress could translate to increased profits and happier, healthier employees. Not only that, but restorative environments have repeatedly been shown to increase learning rates in our schools and healing rates in our hospitals. For instance, architect Lisa Heschong discovered that employees at a LEED Gold–certified utility company call center had great access to daylight, but because their workstations were perpendicular to the window they had to move their chairs to see the view to the trees outside. When the workstations were then set at an angle so employees could see the trees in their peripheral vision — a $1,000 investment — call handling efficiency increased 6 percent, for a $2,990 return. After compiling numerous studies like Heschong’s, our design firm, Terrapin Bright Green, published The Economics of Biophilia outlining the quantifiable benefits of biophilic design.

Biophilic design is not just good for humans, it also intrinsically promotes environmentally sustainable practices. Since the main aim of biophilic design is to connect humans with nature, greater environmental awareness and stewardship are likely to follow.

Ultimately, we all should recognize and operationalize the fact that biophilic design is not an aesthetic extravagance, but an imperative strategy to improve human health, environmental resilience, and the bottom line.

Which brings us to the Big Question: How? If we accept that biophilic design is an important practice, we then must consider how to implement it. Fortunately, there are an emerging number of psychological, physiological and neurological studies on the human benefits of nature interactions that teach us which interactions with nature are awe-inspiring or restorative and which are fear-inducing or stressful. Understanding how people viscerally respond to interactions with nature and how such beneficial experiences can be supported in urban settings is essential for bringing the benefits of biophilia to bear on shaping a healthy and vibrant society.

In an effort to define what constitutes good biophilic design, Terrapin Bright Green has distilled research from a number of fields, including environmental psychology, endocrinology and neuroscience, to develop a new set of guidelines we call 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. These guidelines can be applied to both interior and exterior environments and are flexible and adaptable to just about any design project, large or small. Essentially, they give designers the tools to help create beautiful, restorative environments that connect us with nature.

The 14 patterns fall into three broad categories. “Nature in the Space” patterns entail direct contact with nature or natural systems. “Natural Analogues” patterns relate to representations of nature. “Nature of the Space” patterns are spatial conditions found in nature.

The patterns range from expected, such as “visual connection with nature,” to unusual, such as “spatial properties that create a sense of risk/peril.” Some can be applied fairly intuitively, whereas others require more careful planning. For example, with the pattern “complexity and order,” designs with too much complexity can induce stress, designs with too little can bore, but designs in that Goldilocks zone of just enough complexity can stimulate and interest a viewer.

Implementing biophilic design strategies is not hard. You just need to do it, and now. Biophilic design that (re)connects humans with nature does not just improve the habitability of spaces — it transforms them into rejuvenating, inspiring places that lead to increased health, productivity, healing and learning for all. And this translates to financial savings as well as a heightened connection to natural systems that in turn can lead to increased environmental awareness and stewardship. Biophilic design should be a core strategy for any designer, planner or business endeavoring to make people — and the planet — more healthy, happy and whole.

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