Adding nature to our grand designs

  Last updated October 8, 2019 at 11:18 am


Incorporating nature into our urban landscapes is more than just adding a few pot plants.

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Garden by the bay in Singapore.

Why This Matters: Getting back to nature doesn’t necessarily mean getting out of town – and that could improve health and wellbeing.

With all the hype over boosting the well-being of city workers and dwellers, it’s common to see splashes of greenery throughout our urban environment. But is adding a few pot-plants to the office really going to make a difference to our health and happiness? Instead, could we design our whole urban landscape to mimic nature?

Architects around the world are increasingly looking towards nature for inspiration, using the concept ‘biophilia’. It’s the idea that humans have an innate desire to connect with living things, leading architects to create buildings that try to bring people closer to an experience of being in nature.

“Biophilia is our human desire to be part of nature,” says Phillip Roös, an expert in environmental design and architecture at Deakin University.

“If you’re in a forest, it’s not only that I see the tree and the soil, but I also hear things, I smell things, I feel things… There’s lot of avid connections that happen in that space. Can we bring that back into built form?”

“It’s a pattern language that’s deeply inherited in our make-up.”

But the benefits go beyond just being pleasant to the eye, say proponents like Roös. Being in the presence of nature can positively influence our physiological and psychological state – and even our behaviour. In areas with more greenery, there are lower levels of vandalism and building destruction.

Watch: Biophilia: the concept of nature in design

Indeed, numerous studies have found interacting with nature to have benefits for health and wellbeing. Green spaces have been found to reduce stress measured by self-reporting and also stress hormone levels, decrease anger, increase happiness, and reduce the chance of depression in adulthood. US researchers also found that hospital patients recovering from abdominal surgery had an easier recovery if their rooms had a window facing a tree rather than a brick wall.

Even short-term exposure seems to help. Workers who participated in tasks which caused attention fatigue performed better after walking in a park than others who were not allowed outside. Similarly, children perform better in attention tasks after spending time in green environments.

“If we don’t have nature in the city then we won’t have health and wellbeing,” says Roös.

More than just pot plants

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The newly built Changi Jewel complex at the Changi international airport. Credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The lazy approach to trying to get these benefits is by throwing some pot plants into building spaces. But biophilic design goes beyond that, says Roös.

“A lot of it is superficial. It’s just using a few pot plants in an interior space. That is not biophilic design. It (biophilia) is an emerging science and understanding. We are only now really scratching the surface.”

Instead, true biophilic design is a holistic approach that embeds natural cues within the building design itself. The aim is to replicate the experience of being in nature. While trees and plants are often the natural starting point, Roös work also incorporates the natural flow of water, the different geometric forms and textures, even the transitions in light and colour due to climate and time of day.

What biophilic design looks like

One of the best examples of biophilia in design is Singapore, where a vast number of buildings incorporating nature into their design.

This includes skyscrapers, hotels and apartment buildings which incorporate nature into their very structures, to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, which was designed with biophilia very much in mind. Greenery cascades across the buildings from upper levels to open basements, creating the impression of a building that is deeply enmeshed in a garden. Water features and scented plants provide natural sounds and smells, as well as attracting birds and wildlife. A stormwater catchment pond was also converted into a more natural setting with aquatic plants and a walking trail.

The result of this approach is that wellbeing of those in the hospital is significantly better than other hospitals, including a higher sense of calm and lower stress.

Also: Tweets suggest a visit to the park may lift your emotions

Even Singapore Changi Airport has many biophilic cues, especially in its newest development The Jewel. Its centrepiece is a gigantic indoor forest incorporating nearly 65,000 plants, while instagrammers flock to the world’s largest indoor waterfall which sends water cascading 40 metres. Light passes through the glass shell of the building to light the interior naturally.

Closer to home, Roös and his colleagues at Deakin have been collaborating on the new Melbourne Metro project. The new network of train stations will incorporate biophilic design cues, including natural light that will change the feeling of the stations through the day, wood, and innovative ways to experience water.

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Roös and his colleagues are working to incorporate biophilic design in the new Melbourne Metro designs. Credit: Deakin

Incorporating biophilia at home

For people with a passion for nature and design, architecture that involved biophilic cues is a way to combine both.

However, while an architectural approach is beyond the rest of us, there are some elements we can take for ourselves every day to inspire the design of our own living and work spaces.

The first step is the simplest – bring more greenery and vegetation inside. Roös also says It’s important to bring in geometric patterns, textures and colours that remind you of nature. Timber is a great natural material to use, as it’s reminiscent of trees and provides texture. Consider the light that’s entering your room. Dynamic diffuse light means we can see the changes in sunlight intensity and colour due to the natural transitions from day to night and seasons to season. And finally, try to expose the way water works by letting it flow naturally. Or failing that, aquariums can help.

“So, don’t just close yourself up in a square box with a small window, try to connect more with outside. Those simple things will really help.”

With thanks to Deakin University. 

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About the Author

Sophia Taplin
An immunology and genetics student at The University of Adelaide, Sophia Taplin spent a few amazing months channelling her keen interest in science and communications as an intern for Australia’s Science Channel. She also loves dinner time convos but gets distracted trying to teach her pet canary to speak English.

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