This week's blog reveals the second part of our presentation at this month's First Tuesday- 'biophilia', our inherent need of nature. 

What is Biophilia?

As hunters and gathers, human beings were once part of nature, and as such evolved to survive successfully within it. As civilisation developed we built villages, towns, and cities, however the natural environment still remained fundamental to people’s well-being. Stephen Kaplan, a leading researcher in the field, even goes as far to suggest that nature is vital for life, saying ‘People often say they like nature; yet they often fail to realise that they need it. Nature is not merely “nice.” It is not just a matter of improving one’s mood, rather it is a vital ingredient in healthy human functioning’. Biophilia is the study of human-nature interaction and can help us re-connect the gap between plants, animals and people. 

The term biophilia was coined in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, who used it to help describe the innate connection to nature that he believed humans have. Wilson argued that this love of nature is shared amongst everyone and that humans have the ‘inclination to affiliate with life and lifelike processes’. Its opposite is biophobia, think: fear of spiders and snakes.

A key element of biophilia is that nature does not just mean ancient woodlands, pristine parklands, nor remote wilderness. Research has found that environmental preferences are strikingly consistent amongst cultures, with environments that are considered to support human needs, given preference. This is important to remember when considering how it can improve our cities using biophilia, we are not reforesting, but seeking new ways of integrating elements of our natural world with our urban one.

Bringing nature into Cities can bring ecological, health and social benefits:

Ecological Benefits

The ecological benefits are probably clear, if we can create new habitats with in the city, particularly areas which we aren’t using, such as roofs, we can provide new homes for wildlife which we have displaced. This can then lead to more ecologically sustainable and diverse environments. Indeed it has been shown that roof gardens have attracted wildlife that have found it too harsh to live on the city floor. 

Increased ecology can also add to the atmosphere of the city, providing more small-scale interests and provide new learning opportunities, particularly for children who might not otherwise have access to nature. We need nature so that our children can experience the joy that we experience.

Social Benefits

For most us, on a sunny day we head outside to parks, public squares and gardens, this can be seen quite clearly in Nottingham’s Market Square. Simply bing in areas where there are opportunities for being social is important for well-being and is one of the major biophilic principles can can be used to improve our public spaces and our social connections.

Nature can be used as a connector of people, as it is an essential part of being human, a point picked up by Rachel Kaplan who wrote: ‘The fondness for trees is deep-rooted. The joy that flowers bring is pervasive. There is reason to think the answer includes people across a wide spectrum of human characteristics.’ In some regards community gardens follow biophilic principles, by using the innate love of plants to create a community.

In addition, horticultural therapy has been shown to be beneficial in the management of dementia, depression and other illnesses and allows participants to be social in a safe and active environment.

Health Benefits

The role that green spaces and woodlands can play in improving people's health and wellbeing has been the focus of a growing body of research. Recently the NHS has reported that increasing people’s access to green space could save £2.1 billion pounds a year. Benefits are most pronounce in helping with obesity, mental health, dementia and autism. 

Nature promotes exercise, head to any canal path or urban park, and you’ll find an abundance of cyclists and runners. By bringing nature into the city we can make places more enjoyable and thus promote physical activity. 

Mental Health Benefits

It is becoming increasingly clear that biophilic elements have real, measurable benefits relative to such human performance metrics as productivity, emotional well being, stress reduction, learning and healing. 

Studies have shown that concentration improves after spending time in Nature, or even looking at scenes of Nature. Because our minds evolved surrounded by nature it adapted to make surveying our surroundings as efficient as possible. When viewing nature, our subconscious is activated in an effect that is know as “effortless attention”. Think of a time when you’ve watched clouds drift lazily across the sky, listened to leaves rustling or watched flowing water, they all act to sooth the mind, this is know as the Attention Restorative Effect.

The human mind even responses differently to images of a brick wall and of a natural scene, such as this woodland. The first can see stress levels increasing, the second, studies have shown, can relieve the symptoms of stress decrease in under 5 minutes.

Nature is the key to employing the Attention Restorative Effect in cities and can provide many benefits including increase concentration and even increase recovery times in hospitals. One researcher has discovered that in some cases some patients recovered up to five days quicker when presented with a view of nature.

The Attention Restorative Effect appears to only last for short periods however, a much bigger intervention would be needed in order to sustain the benefits.

We need nature because it is a vital part of being human, ultimately we are a part of nature and concrete cities will never fulfil us. Nature and biophilia can have a marked impact on our social lives, as well as our mental and physical health and Nature needs to be a holistic part of our city.