Biophilic design is a building design concept used to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment. Stephen Kellert was one of the pioneers of biophilic design and with Elizabeth Calabrese published The Practice of Biophilic Design. Kellert also identified the nine values of biophilia, five of which formed the basis for our 2017 pathways to nature connectedness. Since 2015 there has been a rapid growth in research into nature connectedness, both the benefits to human and nature’s wellbeing, and how to improve it. This has led to the pathways to nature connectedness being widely used. So, I’ve been thinking about how the pathways to nature connectedness integrate into Biophilic Design to maximise the benefits it can bring.
Why consider nature connectedness?
‘Nature connectedness’ refers to the way we relate to and experience nature. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings. It is grounded in scientific study and measurable which allows research to establish the benefits and the design of interventions to improve it. Greater nature connectedness delivers better mental health and is key for both carbon cutting pro-environmental behaviours and wildlife friendly pro-nature conservation behaviours – more so than passive exposure to nature. Some interpretations and applications of Biophilic Design can focus on built elements and exposure alone. However, incorporating the pathways to nature connectedness brings the original Biophilic Design principles of meaningful and emotional engagement with nature back to the fore. Finally, incorporating recent research findings from nature connectedness increases the evidence base and justification for Biophilic Design.
Biophilic Design Principles
In The Practice of Biophilic Design, Kellert and Calabrese state five basic principles essential for the successful application of biophilic design. Three of these are highly related to nature connectedness:
- Biophilic design requires repeated and sustained engagement with nature.
- Biophilic design encourages an emotional attachment to particular settings and places.
- Biophilic design promotes positive interactions between people and nature that encourage an expanded sense of relationship and responsibility for the human and natural communities.
These principles are of great relevance to nature connectedness and overlap with some of the pathways to nature connectedness, which are based on Kellert’s values of Biophilia. They are more behavioural elements of the eventual users of a biophilic design.
The Application of Biophilic Design
In The Practice of Biophilic Design, the categories of the biophilic design framework are described as:
- Direct experience of nature – actual contact with environmental features such as natural light, air, plants, animals, water, landscapes, fire and ecosystems.
- Indirect experience of nature – contact with images of nature, natural materials, colours, shapes and forms that evoke and mimic nature
- Experience of space and place – providing spatial features characteristic of nature that have advanced human health and wellbeing. Such as open views and places for retreat and refuge within organised diversity, clear pathways with natural waypoints and cultural and ecological elements that help develop attachment to place.
Considered alone and apart from the basic principles, the dimensions can be seen as material and physical elements for inclusion. If this becomes the focus, the need to foster engagement, emotional attachment and positive interactions to build a relationship with nature can be lost.
Research Evidence and Biophilic Design
Review articles (e.g. Gillis & Gatersleban, 2015; Hung & Chang, 2021) into biophilic design have presented evidence of the wellbeing benefits of individual elements of Biophilic Design, such as the use of plants, water, wood. However, these reviews have focussed on the three categories of application (direct, indirect, space and place) rather than the principles of biophilic design. Understandably, they also compile evidence on studies that have empirically tested an individual natural element, not necessarily within a biophilic design. There is less research on the impacts of the benefits of actual applications of biophilic design.
When considering empirical work on individual elements the context should be noted. For example, in the research showing the benefits of touching, or viewing images of, nature (for managing our emotions), people had to attend to the image or touch the material for a period of time, e.g. for several minutes. To gain the benefits the natural engagement must be engaged with – remember the principle above ‘Biophilic design requires repeated and sustained engagement with nature’.
The biophilic design principles are an essential element. When considering the principles, nature connectedness research provides further general evidence, although as above, to support their inclusion and use, rather than from actual biophilic designed buildings.
Recent nature connectedness research highlights the importance of the biophilic design principles, with findings showing that:
- People’s nature connectedness (emotional attachment), rather than contact with nature, best predicts wellbeing.
- When measured alongside nature connection and noticing nature, time in nature uniquely explained just 1% of happiness, a worthwhile life, and higher wellbeing.
- Simply noticing ‘the good things in nature’ (positive interactions) brings sustained benefits to mental wellbeing, with clinically significant improvements for people with common mental health problems.
- People’s nature connectedness, rather than contact with nature, predicts pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours.
The Importance of Direct Engagement
Further, the nature connectedness research shows which of the three categories of biophilic design are likely to contribute most to the benefits of biophilic design. In research on the relationship between nature connectedness, time in nature, direct and indirect engagement with nature, nature connectedness and direct engagement with nature consistently emerged as being the significant and prominent factors in explaining mental health and wellbeing. Time in nature and indirect engagement were not significant.
Direct engagement involved simple activities, noticing and engaging with nature. Or engaging with the natural features supplied by following the direct experience of nature biophilic design category. As we’ve seen above indirect images of nature can also bring benefits, but they need to be noticed and engaged with. When a natural element is provided (directly or indirect) there is a need to consider how will it be engaged with? Why will it be engaged with? How can the design prompt that engagement?
The need to, and power of, prompting people to engage and notice nature can be seen through our noticing the good things in nature research. In this study people’s smartphones were used to alert them when they were in a green space and asked them to record a ‘good thing in nature’. Doing so and prompting emotional responses led to significant increases in nature connectedness and wellbeing.
Direct engagement with nature is also needed for beneficial outcomes for nature. Research shows that it is simple direct engagement through actively tuning into nature that best explains pro-nature behaviours.
In sum, the three categories of biophilic design (direct, indirect, space and place) provide opportunities for contact, but recent nature connectedness research shows direct engagement and the principles of biophilic design are essential. Thankfully, the pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for direct engagement and embedding the biophilic design principles.
Integrating the Pathways to Nature Connectedness into Biophilic Design
The pathways to nature connectedness can be combined with the three categories of biophilic design application to create an extended biophilic design framework. The pathways to nature connectedness focus on active engagement and have provided a new approach to nature engagement design. For example, in national programmes such as 30 Days Wild from The Wildlife Trusts and 50 things to do before you’re 11¾ from the National Trust.
Rather than design elements such as plants, wildlife and water, the pathways to nature connectedness outline the types of activity to prompt with those natural elements. They provide a framework with great flexibility of application. The pathways are:
- Senses: Provide opportunities and prompts to notice and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wildflowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.
- Emotion: Provide opportunities and prompts to engage emotionally with nature. Spaces to notice and reflect on the good things in nature, to experience the joy and calm nature can bring. Provide opportunities to express and share feelings about nature with others.
- Beauty: Provide opportunities and prompts to find beauty in the natural world. Create spaces and moments to appreciate beauty in nature and to engage with it through art, music or in words.
- Meaning: Provide places to use and explore how nature brings meaning to life. How nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art. Provide spaces to celebrate nature.
- Compassion: Provide opportunities and prompts to care for nature. Spaces to take action for nature, such as creating homes for nature or planting insect friendly plants.
The matrix below shows how the pathways and biophilic design categories can be combined to ensure interactions of different types across the three categories of application. For example, the direct experience of water provides an excellent opportunity for calm and a place of refuge. Further, pathways and design categories will interact and combine, a place to care for nature can facilitate direct and sensory experience through creating more nature. All the pathways do not need to be activated at every point, the matrix provides a prompt to design in the opportunity for interaction when the opportunity arises without becoming contrived.
From Design to Use: The Need to Prompt Engagement
The research evidence, pathways and principles show that biophilic design cannot be passive. The space and features must be used and engaged with. Sadly, evidence shows that most people do not notice nature. Therefore, there is a need make the natural elements salient, and to prompt and provoke people to notice. To use design to demand attention and the power of affordances to encourage interaction.
Affordance theory highlights the many possibilities that a space or an object can offer – a tree can be a climbing frame or a place to rest. Affordances are possibilities for action suggested by the environment. Affordances don’t involve thinking as they are direct perception-action processes; all of the information is available within the environment so no instruction is needed. That said, at times people might need inviting into activities in order to realise potential affordances the environment offers. The more diverse the environment the more diverse the affordances and potential experiences. Biophilic design for nature connection could afford reflection – a space to pause and notice – close to features that engage the senses, a place of beauty that evokes emotions. A place that becomes meaningful with experiences one might wish to share.
Moving from the design of a physical space and features within it, to the behaviour of people occupying that space is a difficult process, especially when the principles require emotions to be fostered. So, although good design can influence behaviours, guidance on how users might enjoy and use a biophilic building should be considered. Especially as research evidence can challenge assumptions, such as nature connection comes from knowledge and identification or simply spending time in nature.
A biophilic workplace may need guidance on break taking (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and wellbeing programmes that facilitate sustained engagement with nature. A biophilic school may need guidance on opportunities for extra curricula activities (e.g. 50 Things), or even a biophilic curriculum. Otherwise a biophilic space could soon become more of a background for work or learning rather than a place of positive interactions between people and nature. The interactions that encourage a close relationship and emotional attachment that can help deliver wellbeing and a sustainable future.
Three Key Points
- Use the pathways to enact the biophilic design principles
- Prompt direct experience of natural elements rather than passive exposure
- Provide guidance and ideas for those using biophilic designs.
Lumber, R., Richardson, M., & Albertsen, J. A. (2018). Hfe in biophilic design: Human connections with nature. In Ergonomics and Human Factors for a Sustainable Future (pp. 161-190). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.
Hung, S. H., & Chang, C. Y. (2021). Health benefits of evidence-based biophilic-designed environments: A review. Journal of People, Plants, and Environment, 24(1), 1-16.
Gillis, K., & Gatersleben, B. (2015). A review of psychological literature on the health and wellbeing benefits of biophilic design. Buildings, 5(3), 948-963.