Cultivating Stewardship

Restoring the Human-Nature Connection through Biophilic Design.

By: Carissa Nelson, Manager of Sustainability

It is time to invite humans back into a kinship with nature, and we can do this through the design of our built environment. Design is a powerful tool, and when speaking on the scale of the built environment, the impact on people’s everyday lives is boundless. There is huge potential to affect the way people think, feel, and act through thoughtful design and focus on repetitive experiences within the environments they dwell. I imagine a world where our buildings resonate with the natural ecology & culture of the location in which it is built. These spaces will help to subtly connect people with the place, culture, and history, while building stewardship and a sense of belonging.

Biophilic design is the deliberate attempt to translate an understanding of the inherent human affinity to affiliate with natural systems and processes, known as biophilia, into the built environment. (Wilson 1984, Kellert & Wilson 1993, Kellert 2008).

There are countless avenues a project team can take to cultivate biophilic design, through exploring biomimicry, playing with shadows, offering natural ventilation, and tying the ecological and cultural aspects of a place into the thematic design of a building, to name just a few. But why do this? It would take far more than a short article to cover the topic of biophilic design, so for now; we will focus on the “why”. In honor of Earth Month, we want to explore why biophilic design is crucial to rebuilding our connection with nature and developing more ecologically sound buildings.

“Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed.”

– Wendell Berry (1972,68)

People are generally unmotivated to take care of the built environment unless they have a strong attachment to the culture & ecology of the place. Biophilic design acts as a glue that can help hold communities together with the places they inhabit. There is a common theme today amongst the younger generation – the feeling of being “alien” and detached from their surrounding world. This stems from nearly a century of removing people from nature and pushing the idea that the natural world is “unclean” while the humanmade and chemical-laden environment is “healthy”. Modern science has disproven this idea; however, the mindset remains within our society. This mistaken sentiment cries of a societal need to alter how we design our built environment. We must encourage a sense of unity rather than a displacement from the natural world. We must develop urban sanctuaries that resonate with history and shine with the promise of a future hand in hand with nature – rather than the 20th-century design paradigm of waging war against the natural world. This paradigm has resulted in unsustainable energy and resource consumption, loss of biodiversity, widespread chemical pollution & contamination, extensive atmospheric degradation, climate change, and human alienation from nature. (Kellert 2008).

The question we should all be asking ourselves, as designers of the built environment, is how do we encourage stewardship? How do we design spaces that feel like “home” and thus rally within us a desire to protect and cultivate?

Why does this all matter? Apathy is the greatest threat we face in the challenge of remediating damage done to our environment and building a more equitable future for all Earth’s peoples. For example, when people care about a place – feel connected to it, they might stop to pick up trash or take the time to advocate for improvements needed. There is power in many, and it will take all of us to cultivate resilient communities. Biophilic design is just one of the keys to unlocking the untapped potential for the future of our built environment.

I see a future where plants are not seen as “messy additions” but as necessary life support systems. I envision landscapes that take inspiration from the native biomes with which they grow, where we can rewrite the book on maintenance and throw out all the terrible ideas of traditional additive systems of land management. To achieve this new future of a truly regenerative built environment, we will have to endeavor to try new things, we will have to open our minds and scrap old ways of doing things. We will have to collaborate with nature and allow ourselves to be humbled enough to gain inspiration from the lands upon which we build.