Integrating nature from urban planning to interior design has direct implications for improving people's quality of life. Credit: Vincent Callebaut.

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Beyond parks and green spaces, biophilic design integrates architecture and nature into buildings from a dual perspective, improving the health of citizens, as well as opening the way to more sustainable cities. But what is the scientific basis for this trend?


For more than 99% of the history of our species, humans have developed biologically as an adaptive response to natural forces, not to an artificial environment like the one that surrounds us now in our daily lives. With this background, it is easy to understand why designers, psychologists and architects now advocate the creation of spaces that integrate natural elements into their design to maintain our innate affinity for nature.

The concept of biophilia (a translation from the Greek "love for life") was coined by the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm in his book The Heart of Man (1966), but it is the prestigious naturalist and also philosopher Edward O. Wilson who is credited with popularising the term in the 1980s. Biophilia is a young concept, but based on very old evidence; humans need a connection with the natural world, something that science is now corroborating from very different perspectives.

Environmental psychology explores the scientific foundations of biophilic design through two theories: Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Recovery Theory, which both point in the same direction: some (natural) environments can actively help people recover physically and emotionally. Following the guidelines of biophilic design in a hospital room, for example, accelerates the patient's recovery, as do the views outside, as confirmed by a study published in the journal Science. Having natural elements (such as light) in workspaces helps workers be less stressed. A study from Northwestern University in Illinois, USA found that working in a room with natural light can increase productivity, improve mood and boost sleep quality. Even the isolated gesture of looking at a natural landscape for several seconds has been proven to have beneficial effects on our brain.

According to the latest research, natural spaces in healthcare settings can speed recovery for patients. Credit: Altro.

Deconstruct the zoo to reconnect with nature

The first practical applications of biophilia go back, curiously, to the most radically artificial spaces created by man: zoos. In the early 1990s, when psychologist Judith Heerwagen was still a student and worked at the Seattle Zoo, the cages of the great apes began to be redesigned. She observed that the primates housed in the old cages had more aggressive and antisocial behaviours than those that had spaces with more elements from their original natural environment.

It turns out that humans, like our closest relatives, are better, calmer and healthier in spaces that allow us to connect with nature. For example, a study from the University of Aarhus (Denmark) determined that when children live surrounded by green spaces, the probability of developing mental disorders in their adult life decreases by 55%. Plants are also beneficial in the work environment, as has been shown by psychologists from different American universities, who have been able to demonstrate how they reduce stress and increase our ability to tolerate pain. It has also been shown that being surrounded by images of water and even the sound of the current itself has restorative effects. The view of vegetation from a window also has beneficial effects for the well-being of the occupants of an interior space.

Contact with nature in workspaces has been shown to reduce stress. Credit: Construcía.

As biologist Edward O. Wilson explained in his book Biophilia: the human bond with other species, the benefits of contact with nature often depend on repeated experience, so our instinctive inclination to be surrounded by nature must be nurtured to remain functional. Given that the average American spends 90% of their life indoors, including biophilic design in the environment would have significant results for their health. Although this percentage is not maintained across all cultures, the truth is that in all urban areas and in most buildings, we are surrounded by an artificial and relatively new environment.

In an increasingly populated planet with ever-larger cities, biophilic design opens the door to a new level of connectedness with nature on an urban scale. Biophilic cities, based on the same scientific foundations as interior design, will also be sustainable and resilient, two fundamental qualities to face the urban challenges of the 21st century. Incorporating natural elements in urban planning beyond green areas is already the path followed by some cities in their transformation within the principles of the circular economy. But living in a city connected to nature has repercussions not only at the macro-economic level; it also improves the quality of life of its inhabitants, their economic status and their physical and mental health, thanks to the benefits that this contact with nature has on our brain. And it also helps to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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