What's a “biophilic city”? Let Timothy Beatley explain

Professor and author Timothy Beatley founded the Biophilic Cities Network. (University of Virginia photo)

This week’s Citiscope innovation feature story looks at the ways Singapore fosters connections to nature in a dense urban environment. This is a subject Timothy Beatley knows a lot about. Beatley is the founder of the Biophilic Cities Network, a global group of cities that each in its own way is working at making nature a bigger part of the urban experience.

Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia School of Architecture. He’s also written or co-authored more than 15 books on cities and sustainability including Biophilic Cities. His most recent book came out last July. It’s called Blue Urbanism, and it explores the connections between cities and the sea.

I spoke with Beatley recently about the concept of biophilic cities and what the network of them is all about. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

​Christopher Swope: There’s all these terms describing environmental virtues of cities — we talk about green cities, sustainable cities, resilient cities. The term biophilic cities sounds related but different. What does it mean to you?

Timothy Beatley: For me, it’s hard to answer that question without answering how the concept differs from sustainable cities, for example. A biophilic city is a natureful city. It puts nature at the core of its design and planning, not as an afterthought or an ornament. It’s key to everything that happens in the city.

It builds on the concept of biophilia, and I’ll give credit to Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who developed the theory and popularized it. It’s the idea that we’re hard-wired to need connections to the natural world. We carry with us ancient brains, and to be happy and healthy and have meaningful lives, we need that connection with nature. And we can’t just get it on a holiday for a week or two during summer. It has to be integrated into our daily lives — everyday nature where we live and work. Nature we experience every hour.

A biophilic city also works hard to foster those connections and the engagement of people with nature. You could live in a natureful city and not be very connected to it. So it’s everything from encouraging participation in urban nature walks or spending time outside, to joining birding clubs and being engaged and caring about the nature around you. It’s fostering an interest and curiosity about nature.

And how we get there is different than when we think about sustainable cities. I embrace the notion of sustainability. We’ve been using that language frame for a couple of decades, and it emphasizes things like energy conservation, reducing your footprint, finding ways to live compactly, walking, bicycling and transit. Those are all important to us, but many of those things don’t necessarily represent a positive image of the place we want to live in. Bicycling and transit and compact urban form do, but things like energy efficient buildings are not particularly inspiring. Biophilic cities is a little different in that way because the emphasis is on imagining places we want to live that are full of nature.

Q: Is it a planning movement? A social movement? Both?

A: Well, and is it a movement at all? I often get the question: What’s the difference between biophilic cities and green infrastructure? They’re very parallel and complimentary but the framing is different. I like the word biophilia — the philia is as important as the bio. With green infrastructure, it’s a neutral way of saying we like wetlands and trees and forests because they provide services to us. That’s different than saying we need that connection to nature, that nature is intrinsic to the human experience. 

“A biophilic city is a natureful city. It puts nature at the core of its design and planning.”

But is it a movement? Folks in architecture- and design-related fields have been doing biophilic design for a long time — with greenery and natural daylight in buildings and the use of natural building materials. But in planning you won’t hear this language quite as often yet. If it is a movement, it’s still early in that movement. I hope it is. The concept really resonates and grabs hold of people living and working in cities, and mayors in particular.

Q: And how does it relate to the concept of resilience, which we’re also hearing a lot about these days? 

A: I’m a big advocate of the concept of resilience and resilient cities. My position is that biophilic cities are resilient cities, and virtually everything we advocate doing in a city to make it more natureful helps with resilience.

A number of cities are facing urban heat-island problems, drought, and extreme weather and flooding. At least on the physical end of it, these are all things that can be addressed by making cities more natureful, by putting nature at the core. By rethinking the shoreline edge and making it easier to have connections to water — that also offers setbacks and buffers and ways of managing sea-level rise. Tree planting, forests, and rooftop gardens are all things that can reduce temperatures in cities.

It also relates to obesity and public health. Birmingham in the UK is a good example. It’s a city that has a fair amount of disadvantaged neighborhoods and poverty. And they have several hundred miles of small creeks running through the city that are now either ignored or viewed as a hazard. In their planning, they imagine creating a network of trails and walking areas along them, to get people outside as a way to foster connections with nature but also to get people exercising.

Q: As we’re talking I’m thinking about New York’s Central Park, which has everything from ballfields to lawns to the more immersive nature experiences you’re talking about. Sometimes we talk about all of that as simply “green space” or “parks.” But from a biophilic city perspective, is there a spectrum?

“Virtually everything we advocate doing in a city to make it more natureful helps with resilience.”

A: There is a spectrum, a continuum of things we can do to insert nature into cities. And there’s a lot of value in conventional parks — we tend to like and enjoy spaces that are lawn spaces with trees, and some would argue that ties back to our savannah beginnings as a species. So I don’t want to diminish the importance of conventional parks.

There is no perfect example of a biophilic city or a singular way of doing it. I often talk about it in terms of the urban “nature diet” and the “nature pyramid,” kind of like the food pyramid, as a way of thinking about the different kind of nature experiences you could have. Those really immersive holiday-in-a-rainforest experiences are at the top of the pyramid, but you can’t build an entire diet around that. At the base of the pyramid is nature parks and conventional city parks and they may not have a lot of biodiversity but they’re important and can make up part of the diet.

The important thing is to move cities closer to that immersive experience. And that means looking to many other ways layer nature into cities, such as with green rooftops or walls. In Singapore, it’s skyparks and green balconies and terraces and nature in a vertical realm. That’s one major way they’re innovating.

My aspiration for a biophilic city is to create environments that are more immersive. It doesn’t necessarily have to sit in a large contiguous block of forest but could be the sum of many things.

In St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay unveiled a plan for planting 250 butterfly gardens. He made this mayoral declaration you don’t often see, that citizens might live in a city where you see and experience butterflies. A city shouldn’t be a place with gardens you have to walk to, or a park that’s 15 minutes away. Our vision is you are living in a park. Nature is all around you. It’s not something you have to go and visit.

“A city shouldn’t be a place with gardens you have to walk to, or a park that’s 15 minutes away. Our vision is you are living in a park. Nature is all around you.”

Then there’s Wellington, New Zealand, which has an amazing place called Zealandia, which is a large conservation area in the middle of the city, with a predator-proof fence around it intended to propagate native birds. And their tagline is “Bringing birdsong back to Wellington.” They aspire to an urban condition such that wherever you live in Wellington, you ought to experience birdsong. That’s a measure of progress of a city that we don’t often talk about.

Q: Tell me about the Biophilic Cities Network. How do cities join and share knowledge?

A: We’ve had ten or so partner cities from the beginning and we had a two or three year period of research that led to a big conference last fall and launching the global network of biophilic cities.

We have a draft protocol that we’ll publish in a month and will govern how cities join from now on — we’ll be ratcheting up the expectations for those cities. It will lay out the basic requirements for becoming a partner city in the future. It won’t be particularly onerous — it’s not meant to be a certification system. But it will look for things like what Birmingham has done, where the city council adopted a resolution joining the network and shows an intention to be a biophilic city by monitoring certain indicators and measuring those over time. 

We’re hoping cities will participate in webinars and share knowledge about innovative programs underway and host visits of delegations from other cities. And we’ll be organizing a second biophilic cities conference. We’re imagining that cities will have a chance to come together at a city or a location that will change. The website is a portal and we have an e-newsletter and a series of blogs where we’re doing a lot of exchange and sharing of information.

Part of the value of this network is to elevate the political importance of this idea. There’s value in each city helping to buttress the good work going on in other cities.

Q: Who are some of the cities in the network now?

A: In selecting the first ten, some of it was based on the literature and reputation. A place like Singapore consistently ranks atop every list. But we have several other cities that would not necessarily be recognized as leaders, where we could explore how these ideas might apply.

In Milwaukee, for example, we have a city reimagining itself, shifting from an industrial past to something new, and nature is becoming an important part of framing that future. So they’ve accomplished a lot but not at quite the same level as a Singapore. Phoenix is in the same category — they’re doing remarkable things with desert parks.

Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital of Basque country in Spain, they have been leaders and are doing many things. One of the most remarkable is the green ring, essentially a greenbelt that circles the city, and they restored the land and created a remarkable nature experience that’s close to where a lot of people live.

“If we’re on an urban planet, we’re also on a blue planet, and we don’t always connect those two. For that to happen, urbanites have to care more about things in the ocean.”

Oslo is another city that we’re studying. They don’t use the word “biophilic” so much but two-thirds of the city is in a protected forest. Norwegians have a word, marka, which means forest — there’s a great emotional connection there to trees and woods. And there’s a remarkable urban trail network, probably one of the best in the world. It’s easy to get out into nature.

Q: And then there’s Wellington again, which takes the idea of urban biophilia into the sea?

A: In Blue Urbanism, I argue that we need to be thinking more holistically in cities about aquatic and marine life. Wellington is a leading example of this. Much of the nature in coastal cities sits just beyond the land edge, but our conception of the city — and most of our planning — stops at that edge. Wellington has a harbor with a remarkable ecosystem, where orcas and stingrays come in, and they have a major marine park near the city. They’ve developed the concept of a “blue belt,” that runs parallel to the idea of having a green belt.

Q: Is it a bit of a stretch to extend this biophilic cities idea into the ocean?  Urban dwellers live above the water not below it.

A: There’s a running argument in the book, and evidence to support it, that in our biophilia, there is this human connection with water. And it may not necessarily be scuba diving and being underwater, but there’s a lot of evidence that we’re drawn to water and shorelines and there are evolutionary reasons for that. These are places that provided food and sustenance. There’s a lot of emerging neuroscience to show that swimming, being in the water and near the water calms us, reduces stress and makes us happier.

In Singapore, they discovered this new marine species, the lipstick anemone, and it sparked this fascination and curiosity and wonder that is so important to my notion of a biophilic city. Maybe you’ll never see one of these lipstick anemones, but just knowing they’re there, and understanding that the sea around you is harboring great life has this great value in it.

Part of the challenge in blue urbanism is to figure out how do we foster emotional connections to things we can’t see, that seem far away. But if we’re on an urban planet, we’re also on a blue planet, and we don’t always connect those two. For that to happen, urbanites have to care more about things in the ocean. And there’s all sorts of creative ways of building that connection. There’s the idea of cities having a marine “sister city”  — it’s maybe a little fanciful, but the idea is for cities to develop relationships with a part of an ocean and learn all about it and educate in schools about it and build those emotional connections and awareness.

MORE IN THIS SERIES: How Singapore makes biodiversity an important part of urban life

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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