Biophilic Design, Part III: Cities

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CED Program Interns & Students

bioBiophilic design offers solutions in the face of a world that is quickly urbanizing and taxing our health, our wallets, and our environment. Compared with more rural settings, urban environments make people more stressed, do greater harm to the environment, and cost their taxpayers more money. There are costs to city life. Urban environments – with their steel, concrete and crowded spaces – are, quite literally, unnatural. Yet that’s where the world is headed and we need answers on how to best exist in these spaces.

As discussed in the first and second blogposts of this series, biophilic design is the idea of bringing aspects of nature indoors and it offers numerous benefits to a building’s occupants. It boosts worker productivity, decreases the length of hospital stays, improves student test scores, and increases residential property values, to name just a few.

The idea of ‘biophilic cities’ is the same, except that here, nature is incorporated throughout a city, not just in a single building. (Biophilic Cities are not strictly large cities. Members of the Biophilic Cities Network also include smaller communities such as Bradford, PA, with a population of 8,630.) Most importantly, this idea of Biophilic Cities provides clues about how to design our communities moving forward, as the world’s population continues to migrate to cities.

Next, this post will discuss real world examples to highlight the different ways in which a city can be made more biophilic.

Application 1: Adding Nature

The most developed parts of a city, such as its downtown, tend to be void of trees and other forms of nature. Here, the City might consider re-introducing nature into these settings, such as through a tree planting or green roofs program.

Chicago, IL – Green Roofs Program

The City of Chicago Green Roofs program provides several incentives – an expedited permit review program, a density bonus, and technical assistance – to developers to include green roofs on new downtown developments. This combination of incentives has been very effective. Chicago has more green roofs than any other city in the US, with 509 green roofs spanning over 5.5 million square feet.

Benefits: From the public’s perspective, green roofs provide several environmental benefits. They sequester carbon, keep rainwater out of overburdened sewer systems, reduce urban temperatures by minimizing the urban heat island effect, improve the air quality in densely developed neighborhoods, and reduce a building’s energy usage because they provide rooftop insulation. The appeal of this incentive is that it offers these benefits without any net cost to the local municipality. Further, this type of program is simple for a municipality to administer. Together, this makes the program politically feasible.

Chicago City Hall, before and after Green Roof Program was utilized.



Application 2: Preserving Nature

Every city, at some point in its existence, was full of nature. For those that still are, preservation is a key biophilic cities tool.

Atlanta, GA – Atlanta Tree Trust Fund

Atlanta, GA is known as the ‘City in a Forest’ because the city’s skyline has always been colored by a green sea of treetops. Like other Southeast cities, Atlanta has recently seen a boom in population growth and real estate development which is now threatening the city’s remaining nature. The City of Atlanta just passed an ordinance allowing it to purchase forested areas of the city for future preservation, thanks to funding from the City’s Tree Trust Fund (which was previously used for just new tree plantings.).

Benefits: Atlanta’s tree preservation program will reduce the urban heat island effect and stormwater runoff while sequestering carbon dioxide and conserving region’s biodiversity. Once a tree canopy has been cut in a rapidly growing city, it is rarely every fully replaced, so preservation is an effective strategy in these settings.

Atlanta, the ‘City in a Forest’


Application 3: Integrating Nature Throughout a City

Even the most sustainable cities that are focused on reducing their environmental impact frequently overlook the concept of biophilic cities, and miss out on physical opportunities to connect with nature. ‘We’ve got to inspire people with uplifting places all around us on a daily basis, integrated into our normal lives, not in some park far away.’ says Tim Beatley, a professor at the University of Virginia, who created the Biophilic Cities project four years ago.

Singapore – Park Connector Network

Over the last 20 years, the City government has been building a Park Connector Network that will measure 300km once complete. Like the High Line in New York City, the PCN features elevated walkways, and these walkways pass through forest and offer opportunities to see wildlife that has returned to Singapore since the parks were established. Known as the “City in a Garden,” Singapore has fully adopted a Biophilic Cities approach to city planning. For example, when developing the PCN, it considered how it could make a person’s commute the most enjoyable part of their day.

Benefits: Increased well-being of residents through improved access to nature and exercise on the PCN; increased connectivity between different parts of the city; improved air quality and decreased traffic by reducing the number of commuting cars on the road.

                                    Cyclists enjoying Singapore’s Park Connector Network


How to Learn More

For those interested in learning more about Biophilic Cities, check out this site or consider joining the Biophilic Cities Network, where cities, organizations, and individuals exchange different approaches to integrating nature into urban areas.

Luke Patton is a second-year business student at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is currently a Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.

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