Combining Nature Connectedness and Biophilic Design

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. However, their basic principles around the need to foster engagement, emotional attachment and positive interactions are often overlooked. Instead, people often focus on the categories of the biophilic design, these aspects can be seen as material and physical elements for inclusion and can be ‘ticked off’. Our latest paper outlines how the pathways to nature connectedness can be integrated into Biophilic Design to maximise the benefits it can bring and it has just been published in Building Research & Information. The accepted version can be downloaded here.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Biophilic Design & Nature Connectedness Framework

From Design to Use: The Need to Prompt Engagement

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.

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

  1. Use the pathways to enact the biophilic design principles
  2. Prompt direct experience of natural elements rather than passive exposure
  3. Provide guidance and ideas for those using biophilic designs.


Richardson, M., & Butler, C. W. (2021). Nature connectedness and biophilic design. Building Research & Information, 1-7.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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