Biophilic Cities: A Q&A With Tim Beatley

Tim Beatley, Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia.

The Biophilic Cities Project, begun by Tim Beatley at the University of Virginia, aims to explore innovative ways cities can incorporate nature into design and planning. As the site notes,

We need nature in our lives more than ever today, and as more of us are living in cities it must be urban nature. Biophilic Cities are cities that contain abundant nature; they are cities that care about, seek to protect, restore and grow this nature, and that strive to foster deep connections and daily contact with the natural world. Nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential to living a happy, healthy and meaningful life. This site is devoted to understanding how cities can become more biophilic, more full of nature, and to telling the stories of the places and people working to creatively build these urban-nature connections.

We agree heartily! So we sat down for a Q&A with Tim Beatley, Professor of Sustainable Communities, about how urban nature can be more developed, our ‘urban nature diet,’ sustainability and biodiversity, and more.

Open Voices: Why is it important that we address these issues at the city level?

Tim Beatley: We are an increasingly urbanized planet, so we’ve got to imagine how urbanites can have that close connection that they absolutely need with the natural world. The challenge is to figure out how we can integrate those natural experiences, how we can foster those connections with the natural world in and around cities.

Biophilia discusses a powerful premise that we’ve coevolved with the natural world and that to be truly happy, healthy and productive and to lead meaningful lives requires a connection with the natural world. One of our largest challenges in urban planning as we look forward is how we can design and manage cities in ways that foster those connections.

Open Voices: In your 25 years at UVA you must have traveled to a lot of fellow cities. Can you tell us a little bit more about what these cities have in common in the way they approach incorporating these qualities into the urban areas?

Tim Beatley: I’ve encountered a lot of cities over the years and I would say that every approach is a little different.

In Singapore, most of the residents are living in high-rise buildings. How do you foster that connection with the natural world there? One approach is a system of park connectors, which are elevated walkways that make it possible to easily get from where you live to a large park and to have an amazing natural walk through the canopy.

Singapore also promotes vertical greening, so virtually every new high-rise project that’s built has an impressive element of nature in it. The Singapore Parks Board even has a skyrise greenery division, that’s how important it is to them to promote these ideas.

Another example would be Oslo, where two-thirds of the city is in protected forest and residents are densifying the other third of the city and trying to live more sustainably, more compactly. They are investing in transit stations to help people get to the forest and also greening the areas of the city that are densifying.

Open Voices: I’m interested in your thoughts about why and how these cities got to this point where they’re making this such a priority.

Tim Beatley: I don’t think it’s any one particular factor, but rather a culture of being outside and cherishing that connection with the natural world. And I think part and parcel here is that the growing recognition of the power of nature to address so many of our concerns and problems in cities has helped to push things along.

Open Voices: We here at the TKF Foundation are interested in sort of creating these small natural spaces in the neighborhoods. Can you talk about San Francisco and the case study there?

Tim Beatley: San Francisco has the challenge of having some very dense urban neighborhoods where there aren’t very many opportunities to create large new parks. The challenge has been to find creative ways to insert nature into small spaces. For example, landscape architect Linda Martin has been lobbying to make it easier to take up some of the paving and sidewalks and convert it into gardens. Her work has led to the creation of a new kind of special permit in the city making it easier and less expensive to create sidewalk gardens.

Open Voices: One of the big things that TKF Foundation really believes in is the mental and physical health benefits from even small nature contact in cities. Do you have any examples of the human and health benefits you see in more biophilic cities?

Tim Beatley: The evidence is quite compelling and it’s coming from all over the world. The charity Mind in the UK has done this terrific study that demonstrates the positive mood effects of a walk in nature versus a walk inside a shopping mall. At the end of that walk in nature, your positive moods are enhanced and the opposite happens in the walk in the inside environment.

From Japan, work around so-called “forest bathing” shows definitively that people walking through a forest experience reductions in cortisol stress hormones and a boost their immune systems.

A recent study from Philadelphia shows that gun violence has gone down in neighborhoods where vacant lots have been greened and we also know the evidence shows that the greener the neighborhood, the more likely you are to walk outside. So by promoting biophilic urbanism, you get places where people are going to be more physically active, more social and more embedded in the community.

Open Voices: How have sustainability and biodiversity improved in biophilic cities?

Tim Beatley: There are a lot of efforts to understand the ways in which cities can help to advance the biodiversity conservation agenda globally. In Singapore, as a small example, there’s a biophilic hospital. They’re very interested in the emotional and physical health benefits of nature, but are also imagining their hospital as a way of conserving nature. They’re actually judging the success of their hospital by the number of species of birds and butterflies they see there. The word biophilic suggests an important affinity with and emotional value to that biodiversity. It says that the more nature around us and the more diverse that is, the more enjoyment and meaning we will have in our lives.

In terms of sustainability, I would say that becoming a more biophilic city helps in many ways to make your city more sustainable and resilient. You can go down the list and almost everything that we argue that we need to be a biophilic city “from urban forests to community gardens to green rooftops” will help us to be more sustainable.

Open Voices: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Tim Beatley: One thing we’re talking about now is as a way to understand what the minimum required nature is for urbanites. We’ve been framing it in terms of a nature pyramid that is analogous to the food pyramid. The base is made up of the nature that is around us and the peak might be an immersive nature experience where you go off to Costa Rica and enjoy something for an extended period. It is an important open question what makes up the foundation of our urban nature diet: what do we need to see, hear and experience daily (or hourly) to be healthy, happy human beings?