What Is Biophilic Design & Who Benefits From It?

A figure enjoying a workspace using elements of biophilic design.

Experiencing the healing and restorative benefits of nature without leaving the city is no longer a pipe dream.

Biophilic design is revolutionizing urban living, by creating spaces that nourish and rejuvenate our bodies and spirits.

So what is it, and can everyone benefit from it?

Biophilic design aims to close the gap between the natural world and most urban dwellers through both simple, accessible methods and more complicated technologies.

Let’s take a look at what it takes to create healthy green spaces that benefit us as much as our ecosystems.

What is biophilic design?

Aesthetic trends nowadays love to include plants and greenery in design.

Biophilic design, however, goes beyond aesthetics – it’s the art and science of connecting humans with nature in urban environments, and a powerful way to reconnect people with surrounding ecology.

Urban living is a new invention: for most of our history, humans evolved in adaptive response to the natural world. As a result, we’re biologically wired to connect with nature, and suffer when disconnected from it.

Visitors enjoying the natural features of 
Greenwich Park in London, UK.

Which brings us to the fundamental idea behind the biophilia hypothesis, popularized by American biologist Edward Wilson.

While humans are innately fond of nature, even our most sustainable cities are currently not designed to support our basic need to connect with it. Urban dwellers now spend an alarming amount of time in artificial, man-made spaces, and it’s no secret that this is taking a toll on our physical and mental health.

This is where biophilic design comes in.

What are the principles of modern biophilic design?

Directly experiencing nature is vital for us, and the basic idea is to bring nature inside and make it a part of our daily lives. And this can take on many forms, ranging from directly incorporating plant life and water features, to proximity to more complicated living systems full of biodiversity.

Indirectly experiencing nature is just as important, and can be achieved by using organic materials like wood, stone, and bamboo – as well as natural tones and biophilic patterns like curves, fractals, and other natural geometry.

Public biophilic rooftop principles seen in the gardens of the library of Burmingham, UK.
Image by Sharon V. via Flickr

Biophilic design is also about maximizing natural light, and leveraging changing intensities of light and shadow to create a more dynamic environment.

This is often combined with design features that mimic natural climatic shifts, focusing on subtle changes in ambient temperature, humidity, and airflow. Integrating more natural ventilation systems or vegetative shading can help to create spaces that feel alive and natural.

All of these design choices are effective in creating a nourishing and soothing environment, reminding us subconsciously of the natural world.

A peel-up bench design common along the High Line biophilic walkway in New York City, USA.

Finally, connection with natural systems themselves is another key dimension of biophilic design. Spaces can be designed to ebb and flow according to things like seasonal changes; being surrounded by healthy, functioning ecosystems fosters a closer connection with the natural world, even in the heart of a bustling city.

Are biophilic design elements good for us?

While most of us know that being in nature makes us feel good, these instincts are being increasingly supported by scientific research as well. This body of knowledge began with landmark studies from the 1980s, which noticed dramatic differences in recovery rates between medical patients with and without nature views.

More recent research at the intersection of neuroscience, biology, and architecture shows that our brains are wired to respond positively to natural spaces. These spaces help improve cognitive function, creativity, reduce stress and enhance overall mood.

The practice of immersive walks in nature, also known as forest bathing, has even been found to trigger the production of anti-cancer proteins.

Two hikers walk through a dense, thick forest.

In places like Scotland, doctors are already prescribing nature-based activities such as birdwatching or gardening to treat mental health conditions. Hospitals are taking note of these ideas too, as we can see with Singapore’s Jhoo Teck Puat Hospital, where lush greenery and the soothing presence of water creates multisensory healing experiences for patients.

Exposure to nature can stimulate creativity and productivity, enhancing our curiosity and expanding our thinking – important factors in troubling times where climate grief and other anxieties are at an all-time high.

A raised biophilic office space designed by Proici Commercial Interiors.
Image by PCI via Flickr

Natural environments show wonderful promise for our attention spans, in particular: a Harvard study showed a 14% increase in direction-attention performance for those who spent time in a biophilic space.

According to a report by Human Spaces (PDF), around 50% of employees have little to no access to natural light within their workplaces. But the tide is turning, with some of the world’s biggest businesses like Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple leading the way in rethinking office design to promote worker productivity and well-being.

How does biophilic design relate to sustainability?

In general, thriving ecosystems bring us a whole range of benefits known as ecosystem services, things like clean water and soil, or reduced flooding. These essential processes are at the forefront of climate change mitigation, and biophilic design fills a niche as well.

Biophilic spaces can even help produce cleaner air by absorbing harmful pollutants produced by fossil-fuel powered transport and industry, and these are the same particles and pollutants that consist of known carcinogens that can even damage the central nervous system’s of children.

Urban forestry scenes situated along the Manhattan, NYC skyline.

The benefits of green and natural spaces in our lives extend beyond our mental and physical health, too. Like mentioned above, biophilic elements are also natural allies in our push towards decarbonization.

A huge amount of energy use within our world’s cities is caused by poor design. We can save substantial amounts of energy, even in older buildings, by simply emulating natural ventilation and lighting dynamics – relieving the need for artificial, energy-guzzling technologies that we commonly rely on.

What are some examples of biophilic design?

Biophilic architecture is sprouting up all over the world, transforming the way we think about urban planning.

So what do they actually look like? 

The Bosco Verticale in Milan, also known as the Vertical Forest, is an experimental approach to high rises in which trees and humans co-exist.

The biophilic Bosco Verticale buildings in Milan, Italy.
Image by Irene Grassi via Flickr

This iconic structure, which gives off major eco brutalism vibes, provides the equivalent of 20,000m² of forest and undergrowth all within a small surface of 1,500m², offering a creative response to the challenge of greening our cities using minimal space.

The High Line in New York City is another example of biophilia architecture done right, where a 2.4km long unused railway track was converted into an elevated park criss-crossing Manhattan, turning it into an ecotourism hotspot.

Visitors enjoying a scenic misty walk along the High Line in New York City, USA.

The matrix of vegetation planted across the High Line recreates what is called a self-seeded landscape – an ode to the grasses, shrubs and wildflowers that sprouted naturally once the trains stopped running 25 years ago. High Rise gardeners were able to maintain the wildness of the landscape by mimicking native flora and respecting the seasonal cycles of wild growth.

New York City won’t be found near of anyone’s list of sustainable cities in the US, but it does manage to pull off biophilic design quite well.

Is biophilic design accessible for everyone?

But none of this is reserved for large-scale projects only, and it’s not very hard to learn how to incorporate biophilic design in our homes, workplaces, and community spaces.

One of the easiest ways of introducing biophilic interior design into your home or office is to get your hands on house plants, although that may have been a bit obvious.

To get an idea of what this looks like when taken to the extreme, look no further than Second Home, an open-plan co-working space in Lisbon where members can enjoy an abundance of natural light and over 1200 plants. The building itself has also achieved substantial energy efficiency through the use of radiant heating and cooling systems based on natural greenhouses.

And previously unseen possibilities are emerging with the integration of new tech. Unique examples like the CityTree showcase the experimental phase of biophilic design we’re currently in.

A CityTree biotech fine dust filter placed along a city street.
Image by Nanda Sluijsmans via Flickr

Known as the world’s first smart biophilic air filter, one CityTree has the potential to deliver 275 times the air-cleaning capability of a single tree.

It’s easy to get carried away imagining how environments like these could help reduce work-related stress and anxiety, even in small amounts. So why aren’t we implementing them everywhere?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, biophilia in architecture has taken on new urgency as a future which includes climate lockdowns appears to be approaching; biophilic streets are mushrooming around the world, providing a safe and healthy outlet for people to connect with nature and their neighbors.

The Pollinator Pathway project, which creates pollinator-friendly habitats in over 300 towns in the US, is one example of how grassroots biophilic design can foster a deep sense of community and ecological awareness.

Pollinator pathways like these are important ecological tourist spots for species like Western Monarch butterflies, who travel great distances over their lifespan.

A group of migratory Western Monarch butterflies.

As biophilic homes and design grows in popularity, efforts are being made to help it evolve into a movement that maximizes sustainability and mitigates various impacts of climate change. 

Does nature benefit from biophilic design?

It’s important to remember that biophilic design is a two-way relationship. Ecosystems and natural spaces can do wonders for our well-being and healing, but what can we give back to nature?

One way of ensuring we don’t take more than we can give, and contribute positively to local ecology is to intentionally use native species. Biophilic designers should rely on direction from those with a deep understanding of local environments; by incorporating the right mix of local flora and fauna, we can create designs that provide safe havens that curb biodiversity loss.

Another key factor is long-term maintenance, as biophilic spaces require ongoing care in order to ensure they thrive and provide benefits for years to come.

Luckily, this provides fantastic opportunities for social cohesion and a sense of belonging. By bringing people together to get their hands dirty, these patches of nature or concrete become a part of the community fabric – something we all need nowadays.

The more people interact with these spaces, the more they become emotionally invested in them, and this can have powerful snowball effects, creating a biophilic community and cultivating a culture of respect for the natural world.

Final thoughts

Our innate connection with nature is undeniable, yet our cities have largely failed to nurture this bond.

Instead, cities tend to distance us from the natural world, and biophilic design offers a realistic pathway to restoring this essential connection.

Are there any examples of biophilic design in your life?

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