The Nature of Biophilia

By Timothy Beatley

When the two American Yellowwood trees bloom in my front yard, they boast beautiful white draping flowers, aromatic miniature lanterns, and put on a magical show of color and scent. We look forward to this with a marked improvement in our outlooks and mood. The birdsong is rich and pervasive, and the evenings close with the melodic song of the wood thrush. This nightly concert takes me immediately back to my childhood. These wonderful, nature-filled elements of my Charlottesville home enliven the spaces around me and are deeply calming and therapeutic—the stresses of the day fall away and clenched muscles relax.

These experiences are daily demonstrations of the idea of biophilia—that we have innate attractions to nature, that we are drawn to nature and other living things. Having trees, gardens, birds, and water nearby is like a magical elixir. And time spent in nature helps to restore us, lower stress, shift our energy in positive ways, and enhance our cognitive function.

This is not a surprise, of course, as we have “grown up with nature,” says E.O. Wilson, Harvard entomologist who helped popularize the concept of biophilia. We carry with us our ancient brains, after all, so it is no wonder that we are more likely to be happy, healthy, and lead meaningful lives—to flourish—when we have nature all around us.

But if we live more densely in cities, do we necessarily have to lose that essential connection with nature? What if we could bring nature to our living spaces?

Having nature all around us is a key design principle for biophilic cities. Nature cannot just be something visited on vacation, a trip to a national park on a summer break. Nature must be something we experience daily, hourly, through the course of our day, and it must be designed into the work and living spaces where we spend most of our time.

The best biophilic cities recognize not only the importance of abundant nature, but the need to engage residents directly in experiencing and caring for that nature. This means that cities must invest in efforts at educating and fostering an intense sense of curiosity about the nature around them. One goal of a biophilic city is to maximize the potential “moments of awe,” to encourage children and adults alike to look for and see the natural wonders around them in daily urban life. Such moments might include watching a diving peregrine falcon, ants living on and in the sidewalk, or an unexpected glimpse of a whale or other marine organism. Biophilic cities help cultivate a sense of the vastness and diversity of nature, some of it hidden and out of view, but much of it nearby and visible, if we would only look.

As the planet continues to urbanize at a rapid pace, we need more compelling models of the kinds of cities we want to live in, where we are not separated from the natural world, but deeply part of it. We want cities that we can share with the abundant wildlife—birds, bats, even coyotes—and that serve as a response to the loss of habitat elsewhere.

In St. Louis, the previous mayor Francis Slay made the planting of butterfly gardens (for Monarchs) a priority and now some 370 gardens are planted, including the idea of a butterfly corridor along the Mississippi River. Pittsburgh seeks to reconnect its residents to the city’s three rivers with new waterfront parks and trails, and even a water trail for kayaks and canoes. Austin, Texas, has become famous for its 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats, which each spring and summer take up residence under the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown. Hundreds of people show up each evening to watch the spectacular emergence of the bats as they go off to feed.

While each city has its own special opportunities, the vision of immersive nature suggests that we take a more holistic view and begin to see that nature can and must be included in every project, at every planning scale—from room (or rooftop) all the way to region or bioregion, and every scale in between. In this way it represents a “whole of city” approach.

Cities today and in the future will face a remarkable number of pressures and challenges, and resilience in the face of climate change has become a major goal. Any step towards growing nature, whether through urban tree-planting, new food forests and gardens, or installing green rooftops and living walls, will make cities more resilient, healthier, and more sustainable. But it also acknowledges the innate need we have to connect with nature and all living things, and the immense amount of joy and meaning we gain from that daily (or hourly) exposure.

Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia and the project founder and director of BiophilicCities. Much of his work focuses on creative strategies by which cities and towns can reduce their ecological footprints while becoming more livable and equitable places.