Creating Resilient Communities through Biophilic Design

By Kristen Moree
Although it was over a year ago, I can still vividly reconstruct what the valley floor looked like below as I peered over my granite perch on the side of one of Yosemite’s acclaimed rock walls. I’d been climbing since dawn, and with the sun now setting over Half Dome, exhaustion had taken my body captive. I remember at first how strong and empowered I felt, looking down at the expanse of wall I had managed to trudge my way up, but then gazing across the valley’s quiet, humble vastness, this exhilaration was suddenly met with extreme humility. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the physical magnitude of the rocks towering around me and filled with immense respect for the generations of climbers that came before me. I began to notice how many elements - temporal, spatial and emotive – were swirling around this sacred place and filling in its depths: the stillness of the valley floor, the cultural history of the climbing community, the roaming wildlife who call this place home. There was a palpable energy sweeping through the landscape, and I felt part of it.
When we hold powerful connections to place, the typical boundary between environment and self begins to blur, resulting in an acute feeling of wholeness, community and vitality. This experience I had while exploring Yosemite is not rare in the outdoor community. In fact, it’s quite common. Establishing a primal connection to an outdoor landscape tends to make one feel small, inspired and alive. This raw connection has a name coined by the architectural philosophy Biophilic Design: ‘Spirit of Place’. Not surprisingly, studies have found that purposefully integrating this phenomenon into our daily lives can have profound repercussions on our overall well-being (see a list of several studies here).  And beyond mere sensory characteristics or impacts, these nature-inspired lessons have extremely practical uses as well; Biophilic design’s teachings can extend to the efficient processes used by nature to for self-restorative purposes, and can be directly applied to the ways that our cities function as interconnected systems. 

Biophilic Design & the Built Environment

Biophilia, or, “the innate affiliation we have with nature and other forms of life” (E.O. Wilson – Biophilia), calls for the re-establishment of our connection to the natural world. You may have noticed that a loss of this connection results in a depreciated quality of life (have you ever found yourself fleeing to the mountains after a week spent indoors sitting at a desk? Good news - this is an instinctual pull, and you should give in).
As humans, we spend 90% of our time in the ‘built environment’ – our workplaces, homes, streets, schools, neighborhoods, cars, etc. The built environment in our current cities, for the most part, creates a tension between nature and humanity. We spend copious amounts of time looking at screens and other forms of technology, sitting inside fluorescently lit buildings, opting for less interaction and more alienation, ultimately choosing comfort over connection. The repercussions of this isolated existence are depleted relationships with our environment, our community, and ourselves.
Biophilic design strives to reverse this isolation by cultivating our participation in the natural world, and does so through the thoughtful design of our built environment. It leverages buildings as mediators to nature, convening the natural world and the human experience. Picture an open room flooded with natural light, ventilated with fresh air, and surrounded by flourishing trees and lush vegetation. By linking people to unique landscapes and cultural traditions, calling for a more rooted connection to place, biophilic design can offer a slew of positive benefits, such as enhanced healing processes, increased learning outcomes, improved wellbeing, and deeper meaning in our lives.
Beyond Spirit of Place, the other guiding tenets of biophilic design include:

  • Inspiration from nature

  • Complexity and diversity

  • Connection and integration

  • Resource efficiency

  • Resilience

To achieve these objectives, it incorporates a variety of design themes, such as:

  • Direct exposure to nature (natural light, ventilation)

  • Natural materials (wood, water, stone)

  • Evoking nature through form (rooftop pillars emulating vines up a tree, spaciousness, capturing motion of light through windows)

  • Natural fit (to environment, social context, etc)

Photo credit: Visarteam

Photo credit: Visarteam

Stewardship Development

At Bio-Logical Capital, we extend the philosophical underpinnings of biophilic design from buildings and architecture to land use and community development. Through our model called Stewardship Development, we integrate diversified enterprises, such as regenerative agriculture, renewable energy, water stewardship and ecological conservation into large landscapes in efforts to create vibrant, resilient communities while restoring the land. This unique approach delivers lasting value by investing for the long-term and integrating diverse, complex sustainable business development with environmental regeneration and social wellbeing.  

We mimic cattle grazing patterns after wild herds.

We mimic cattle grazing patterns after wild herds.

Drawing from biophilic design principles, Stewardship Development is centered around the following four themes...

1) Inspiration from Natural Systems

One of the most important lessons nature has taught us is that complexity has its benefits – such as productivity, flexibility and resilience. How can we make land-use development projects resemble productive, flexible, and resilient ecological systems? How can we design our cities so that they reveal “the ordered complexity of the natural world” (Biophilic Design – The Architecture of Life)? In soil, there is a complex structural network of microorganisms and bacteria that holds it together. This network enables the soil to retain water and improve the health and productivity of the land. Unfortunately, our current agricultural practices of repetitive tillage and pesticide use break up this delicate network of organisms, resulting in a loss of soil organic matter, a reduction in the land’s ability to hold water (every 1% of soil organic matter lost = 16,000 fewer gallons of water per acre retained), and consequently, increased susceptibility to droughts, changes in climate, and other disruptions. A fracture to this system results in a weakened resilience in the land. Similarly, community components such as food, water, energy, the built environment, businesses and economies deteriorate when disconnected, but thrive when woven together into an interdependent system.


2) Place-Based Development

When assessing a landscape, we consider all of the nuances of a place that offer value to its long-term prosperity – such as the ecology, climate patterns, natural resources, demographics, community, culture, history, and business opportunities. From our perspective, ecology and commerce are synergistic rather than competitive, and we hold this belief at the forefront when designing regenerative land-use systems and enterprises. We’ve found that customizing development to place offers a much deeper understanding of the limitations and opportunities of a specific site, and therefore better enables the delivery of value, resilience and sustainability based off the specific resources available.

Photo credit: Terrapin Bright Green

Photo credit: Terrapin Bright Green

3) Diversity with Connection

In the words of E.O. Wilson (and one of the guiding themes of biophilic design), “If something isn’t beautiful, it probably isn’t resource-efficient.” Form has to meet function. Stewardship Development recognizes this occurrence of beauty in nature as nothing being wasted. Look at the reverse example of monocultures; monocultures are extremely rare in nature and are resource-intensive, inefficient, disconnected from their environment, and highly susceptible to disturbance (they also can be somewhat monotonous to look at – have you ever driven through the Midwest’s cornfields?). As a result, these crop systems cannot prosper without intense external intervention. On the contrary, diversity can create self-sufficiency and resilience by creating opportunities for connection, as seen in our soil example and felt in outdoor experiences that break our familiar routines and surroundings.

Stewardship Development applies this lesson by layering enterprises onto a single landscape, such as agriculture, energy, real estate, water, tourism and conservation, and linking them together so that each activity supports the health of the others, wasting none of their byproducts; the outputs of one are the inputs of the other. For example, agricultural waste can be used as fuel in a biogas power plant, which provides electricity for nearby homes. These homes produce wastewater, which can be treated in a natural wetlands system and reapplied as irrigation in the agricultural fields. Linking together the operations and revenue streams of food, energy, housing and water enterprises into a robust system generates a strong resistance to the ebbs and flows of the economic market and environmental climate alike, resulting in a richer, stronger community, for all of its members.

4) Lasting Prosperity and Resilience

In a diverse, integrated system, each individual has relevance. Businesses are more resilient when part of a local ecology. Landscapes are stronger when valued both intrinsically and financially by their inhabitants. The built environment has potential to build productivity and resilience for future generations when its design is aligned with the characteristics and needs of its natural habitat and inhabitants alike.

The conventional approach to land development and environmental value is in conflict with this approach – it has hinged upon the intuitive, yet false, understanding that a dichotomy exists between the built and the natural environment. As a result, our development patterns as a society have been dictated by an “extract and move on” method, sprawling farther away from nature and ultimately from each other. Rather than celebrating our connection to place, we have conceptually removed ourselves from it. Our estrangement has had a detrimental impact on the environment, but the greater blow has been onto humanity. We’ve forgotten our relevance in the world, and our vitality has suffered.

Refocusing on the environment

 To regain our sense of belonging, Biophilic Design and Stewardship Development provide tangible reminders of the natural, restorative communities that surround us, and offer pathways to settle back into them. Notice that they do not urge us to minimize our environmental impact – this isn’t about altruistic conservation practices. Rather, these approaches advocate for the thoughtful reconstruction of our perception of place in our cities, so that we no longer feel the need to ‘escape’ to catch those fleeting moments of connection to nature. When we focus our attention to ‘saving the environment’, we’re actually doing ourselves a disservice by setting ourselves in opposition to a thing separate from ourselves. A more efficacious way to frame our dynamism in the natural world might be to focus on saving our connection to the environment. In doing so, we are inherently including humanity in our definition of the natural world. As a result, we may be able to learn something about ourselves, and as a species and a planet, we will hopefully be better off because of it.