We are in a remarkable period of urbanization of the planet, as the percentage of the world’s population living in cities continues to grow, likely rising to 70 percent by 2050. However, it is not clear that we are creating cities and urban spaces that inspire, that invoke joy and wonder, and that nourish the soul. In many parts of the world, the cities being designed and built are antiseptic, detached and disconnected from the ecosystems in which they sit. Residents are profoundly disconnected from the nature that has sustained our bodies and spirit for millennia.
This is the essential insight of the Biophilic Cities idea and movement: that we need nature, we need daily, hourly, frequent contact with the natural world. Nature is not an optional design element, but an essential ingredient in leading happy, healthy, and meaningful lives. Nature, moreover, should be understood as a destination, as a place to visit. It should be all around us, integrated into the spaces and places where we spend most of our time: our homes and offices, our urban neighborhoods.
Biologist E.O. Wilson is often credited for developing the idea of “biophilia.” Biophilia refers to the innate affiliation we have with nature. When Wilson wrote the seminal book Biophilia, in 1984, the evidence of this innate connection was fairly limited. Today, more than three decades later, the evidence is robust and growing. We know that a walk in a forest (what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”) lowers stress hormone levels, and boosts our immune systems. Nature has the ability to alter our mood, to enhance cognition, and to calm the many stresses of modern urban life. There is even evidence from psychology that in the presence of nature we are more likely to be generous, more likely to be cooperative, more like to think longer-term. Nature helps to make us better human beings.