Biophilia and the Importance of Designing for Human Health

Biophilia, a term coined by social psychologist Erich Fromm and popularized by biologist E.O. Wilson, is the philosophy that humans have an innate, biological affinity for the natural world. Importantly, research shows that there is a positive influence of greenery on human psychological and cognitive functioning; by using plants and their inherent shapes, colors, forms, and even smells to influence design we can help to alleviate much of the inherent stressors District users are accustomed to; from nurses and doctors to patients and patient visitors, the variety of District user experiences varies widely on a daily basis.

Designing a park and streetscape that incorporates the healing and revitalizing aspects of nature appear to be the best approaches to meeting the needs of such a unique and multifaceted area demographic. Restorative, or healing gardens originated in Persia, Egypt, and Asia hundreds of years ago; even now horticultural therapy practitioners utilize these benefits to aid in modern healing techniques. Healing gardens have also become popular in healthcare settings in recent years, through their use in the aid of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with veterans, (Anderson, 2011).

Research shows there is a positive influence of greenery on human psychological and cognitive functioning. According to the ‘Stress Recovery Theory’ exposure to nature leads to more positively toned emotional states. Also known as ‘Stress Reduction Theory’ (Ulrich, 1981), it proposes that natural environments promote recovery from stress, while urban environments tend to hinder the same process. Harvey (1996), a well-known geographer and theorist on sustainable development argues that seeing the values that reside in nature provide immediate security and a sense of permanence, while also giving meaning to our otherwise ‘transient and fragmented’ lives.

Greenscapes not only provide energy savings, improve air quality, assist with surface water management, and provide visual and noise buffers, but also, as social scientists have learned, having nature nearby helps people cope with stress and anxiety, and even aids in children’s overall development. Trees, and nature in general, provide environmental benefits, but they also provide many indirect benefits, like contributing to the economy of communities. For some time, scientists have studied the role of trees in human communities to better understand environmental and social benefits, and many of these benefits also translate to economic benefits, (Wolf, 2001).

For example, having an urban forest, balanced with built elements in cities, can reduce infrastructure costs as stormwater management systems are downsized. Trees also are associated with higher property values. Several studies around the country have analyzed the relationship of forests and sales prices of residential properties, revealing a 6% increase in value found in one study. Businesses are also often more willing to locate in places where a better quality of life can be used to attract and retain employees.

Additionally, so many metropolitan areas are most at risk of extreme heat waves thanks to the lack of tree cover or the presence of too much asphalt (or impervious surfaces). Both of these factors have been shown to exacerbate the urban heat island effect, raising surface temperatures, suggesting that people who live in these neighborhoods may be at the highest heat risk of health disparities with warming temperatures and other climactic events, (The Inequality of Urban Tree Cover, Bloomberg, 2013), and notably minorities are significantly more likely to live in these heat-prone neighborhoods.

Streetscape improvements are a key strategy in revitalizing business districts. In research conducted by the University of Washington, consumers were asked to compare their shopping behaviors in places that had no vegetation with business districts having an urban forest. People were also asked to report their potential willingness to more pay for products; consumers were willing to pay an average of 12% more for goods in a landscaped district. The collective appearance and quality of a place, including its urban forest, send cues about the experience of place; a healthy, well-maintained community landscape tells visitors and prospective businesses about the pride and values of a community.

While we think of trees contributing to the ambience of a neighborhood, community or entire city, trees also have a significant impact on individual people. Environmental psychologists are learning that working and living near quality green spaces can satisfy deeply felt psychological and physiological needs. For instance, having a view of nature from one’s office window has been shown to increase employee job satisfaction and reduce feelings of job pressure. Employees with nature views also reported 23% fewer health ailments, a probable influence on absenteeism, (Nature and Consumer Environments).

Moreover, research done by Roger S. Ulrich, PhD, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, has found that nature can help the body heal, too. In his most well-known study, Ulrich investigated the effect that views from windows had on patients recovering from abdominal surgery. He discovered that patients whose hospital rooms overlooked trees had an easier time recovering than those whose rooms overlooked brick walls. Patients able to see nature got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications and required less pain medication than those forced to stare at a wall. Like other researchers, Ulrich has found that simply viewing representations of nature can help. In a study at a Swedish hospital, for instance, he found that heart surgery patients in intensive care units could reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by merely looking at pictures depicting trees and water.

Gardens, in the form of a park or otherwise, are concentrated and perfected forms of place-making (Hunt, 2000), even one plant can improve a person’s happiness and help relieve fatigue or stress, (Helphand, 2006). For instance, you can look at the fractal patterns on a leaf, or the tree rings on a tree stump, this has been shown to elicit restoration and relaxation, (Terrapin, 14 Patterns) or look at the concept of ‘Forest Bathing’; spending mindful, intentional time around trees — what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku, is said to promote health and happiness.

A locality with a strong sense of place creates a sense of belonging, a collective meaning, and authenticity, (Arefi, 2004); by utilizing this collective experience, that of planning for the SWMD, with all its stakeholders and varied interest groups, we are helping to create a District that is a vector for self-realization, for community building, and an opportunity for urban dwellers and any District visitors to reconnect with nature. Much like the roots that connect plant and place, the metaphorical concept of having roots entails deep linkages between people and place, (Malkki, 1992).

According to Canadian geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (2001) creating any attachment to a place turns a space into a place. To Harvey (1996), a space only becomes a place when you give value to it. Therefore, by developing places that are engaging and memorable where place-making becomes a collective action that increases the value of spaces by incorporating the physical, cultural, and social identities that characterize that place, (Project for Public Spaces, ‘What is Placemaking?’) as we continue to transform the Southwestern Medical District in meaningful ways, it is important to keep all users and their needs in mind, a sentiment we still hope to capture through the equitable engagement component of the project, and through the many coalitions we have formed and are still forming throughout the development process.

Featured Image Credits: Terrapin Bright Green (SWMD Partner) 


Anderson, B.J. (2011). An Exploration of the Potential Benefits of Healing Gardens on Veterans

with PTSD. All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. Retrieved from

Bloomberg, 2013. The Inequality of Urban Tree Cover.

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Harvey, D. (1996). Justice, Nature, & the Geography of Difference. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

Helphand, K. (2006). Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime. San Antonio, Texas.

Hunt, J.D. (2000). Greater Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia, PA.

Malkki, L. (1992). National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of

National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. (Feb., 1992), pp. 24-44.

Nature and Consumer Environments. A summary of multiple studies:

Project for Public Spaces, ‘What is Placemaking?’.

Terrapin Bright Green. 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design.

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Tuan, Y. (2001). Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (5th ed.). University of Minnesota Press. Accessed on Google Books.

Ulrich, R. S. (1981). Natural versus urban scenes: Some psychophysiological effects. Environment and Behavior, 13, 523–556.

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