Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life

Edited by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith H. Heerwagen, and Martin L. Mador

John Wiley & Sons, 2008, 400 pp., $75 hardcover

In the seven years since he presented the concept of “biophilia” to a New Urbanism symposium at Yale University, Stephen Kellert has done a magnificent job of exploring connections between people, design, and nature. A hefty new book — edited by Kellert, of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Martin Mador, who is working on a proposal for a museum on water and human civilization, and by psychologist Judith Heerwagen — brings together a huge cache of information from this emerging field. New urbanists will find much in it that’s thought-provoking.

Kellert’s core idea is that people crave connections to nature and natural processes. Access to sunlight, vegetation, bodies of water, views, and other elements of the natural world makes us happier, healthier, and more productive. This sounds like (pardon the pun) garden-variety common sense, but the 23 deeply researched chapters of Biophilic Design examine the effects of nature and the built environment in uncommonly nuanced ways, yielding remarkable insights. The book’s 34 contributors help us understand how the design of what we build, and what we leave unbuilt, can generate satisfaction for a wide variety of people — children as well as adults, in a broad range of settings, from homes to neighborhoods, to parks, to workplaces.

For years it’s been known that hospital patients recover faster when their rooms offer views of landscapes. You might think that discoveries of this sort would have led architecture schools to focus on the human-nature connection and on how people respond — socially, physiologically, and psychologically — to the man-made environment. Yet Nikos A. Salingaros and Kenneth G. Masden of the University of Texas at San Antonio report that architecture has regressed.

“The discipline of environmental psychology actually began in faculties of architecture, as a natural investigation of how built environments were affecting people,” Salingaros and Masden point out. “As soon as the first results (several decades ago) indicated that some of the most fashionable contemporary architectural and urban typologies, spaces, and surfaces might in fact be generating physiological and psychological anxiety in their users, fellow architects lost interest.” Most work on those topics moved out of architecture schools and into departments of psychology, where it remains today — distant enough for designers to act as if it doesn’t matter.

New urban critique
A few of this book’s contributors find fault with New Urbanism’s treatment of nature and outdoor spaces. Design researchers Robin Moore and Clare Cooper Marcus take new urbanists to task for placing such a high priority on good-looking streetscapes — traveled by vehicles that may pose a danger to children — and for placing vehicle-oriented alleys behind the houses. In a gridded layout with cars both in front of the houses and behind them, children have very few protected, green areas that are within sight of home and are bigger than a single back yard, Moore and Cooper Marcus say. Although New Urbanism produces many small neighborhood parks, the authors argue that a park three or four blocks from home is not the answer. “With increasing numbers of families where both parents are employed, safe, communal play space right outside the house is especially useful,” Moore and Cooper Marcus emphasize.

The two researchers make a case for generous shared green spaces, secluded from traffic (something easier to achieve through superblocks, a planning technique unpopular with new urbanists). One famously successful place that offers large, continuous green spaces is Village Homes, the community that Michael and Judy Corbett developed in Davis, California, in the 1970s. At Village Homes, the dwellings’ living quarters face away from the vehicular streets, and look instead onto shared landscapes — a sociable setting containing plants, water, and walkways. This layout “enabled daily contact with nature from the beginning,” according to Moore and Cooper Marcus. The downside of Village Homes, unmentioned by Moore and Cooper Marcus, is that its streets are not very engaging.

Another residential pattern that Moore and Cooper Marcus urge new urbanists to consider is the woonerf, a layout “first developed in the Netherlands to curb speeding traffic on inner-city, grid-pattern streets.” Yet another is the gated “green alley” introduced in the Patterson Park section of Baltimore. There, planters, potted plants, benches, and a barbecue grill have turned a conventional alley into a gathering place for the block’s inhabitants. Baltimore last year adopted an ordinance that allows neighbors to close an alley and turn it into what one advocate described as “a shared secret park.” A Baltimore organization, Community Greens, contends that green alleys “create a cozy sense of place, give children safe areas in which to play, and offer adults much-needed respite.” Moore and Cooper Marcus’s ideas deserve a hearing, even if their generalizations about New Urbanism seem occasionally too broad-brush.

One of the book’s later chapters, by developer Jonathan Rose on “green urbanism,” tells about the 27-acre Highlands’ Garden Village — an infill project in Denver that features extensive community gardens, a spine of parkland, and preservation of a formal park from decades ago. Highlands’ Garden Village is not bad at all in terms of access to nature, and it is certainly New Urbanism.
Nature, and human nature, are so all-encompassing that the book ends up delving into all sorts of unexpected topics. Essays dealing with proportions, patterns, building materials, and ornament are outstanding, and will appeal especially to people who appreciate traditional architecture. Salingaros and Masden argue that biophilic design borrows heavily from Christopher Alexander and his landmark book, A Pattern Language — probably the best guide there is on how to design satisfying buildings and places.

Kellert and Heerwagen do not claim to be starting from scratch. On the contrary, they’re eager to learn from centuries of human experience, just as Alexander and new urbanists have been. “Although we present biophilic design as an innovation today, ironically, it was the way buildings were designed for much of human history,” Kellert and Heerwagen write. “Integration with the natural environment; use of local materials, themes and patterns of nature in building artifacts; connection to culture and heritage” — all these helped to produce “the most functional, beautiful, and enduring” structures of our world.

Make no mistake: Biophilic Design, all 400 pages of it, is one of the best design books of this decade.