Nature has always been an escape for me…

“Nature has always been an escape for me. Growing up in Boy Scouts and in my small town, I was always outdoors. Every time I am out in nature, I experience a wave of awe along with strong feelings of physical and emotional spirituality. Nature is the oldest thing on Earth and needs the upmost preservation and conservation in order for generations to experience the same waves of awe.”

Nolan Legg

What is Biophilic Design and Why is it Important?

“Nature” much? If your answer is “no” then you are not alone. As a culture, we have erected artificial as well as actual barriers between ourselves and nature. Our houses, cars, roads, and even our shoes are all byproducts of us removing ourselves from the natural world that once surrounded us.  While this separation may have brought us many modern comforts it also left our souls with a strong  yearning for nature. This phenomenon even has a name: it is known as the biophilia hypothesis or BET. Many modern architects and urban planners are now taking this idea into consideration when building their cities and buildings. All over the world, biophilia has become a new and exciting phenomenon that has captured the hearts of millions. In a lot of ways, the people of the world are taking a new look at nature and ultimately, slowly bringing it back into their lives. 

With that being said, getting out in nature is easier said than done. As a student at the University of Illinois, I am often swamped with homework and I trudge through my days thinking I have no time or energy to go outside. I believe that many Americans share this attitude. “There are just not enough minutes in the day,” a fellow student told me as we walked to class together. “I am just too crammed with papers and tests. I have to stay indoors to get good grades!” Studies show that my friend and I are not alone in with this dilemma. Americans now spend approximately 90% of their lives indoors (Klepeis, et al., 2001). 

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Ikea’s indoor sphere garden design © Joany. via Wundr Studio on Office Snapshots

Biophilia is more than just a feeling– it represents our innate primal need to experience ourselves interacting in nature. We can do this in a variety of ways, from taking a casual stroll outside to hiking the great Pacific Crest Trail. In whatever way you can get it, obtaining your daily dose of nature is truly vital to your health and well being. Interaction in nature has been shown to improve a vast array of conditions from stress, aggression, and anxiety to depression (Frumkin, et al., 2017). If more of us ventured into nature every day, we would live in a much more happy and healthy society.

The compelling notion of biophilic design has been around for centuries. Throughout human history, artists and designers have taken inspiration from nature and incorporated it into their work. Some famous examples include the Alhambra garden courtyards of Spain, the hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the papyrus ponds of Egyptian nobles among many others (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014, p. 6). The peoples of these cultures lived in close proximity to nature and did not have to look hard to find it. They generally used nature for aesthetic appeal. Just like modern landscape architects, these people used their natural environment to their advantage to achieve their aesthetic goals. As it turns out, we can do the same thing in modern times, just using slightly different techniques.

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Hanging Gardens of Babylon © History.com

Biophilic design is composed of complex parts that each play a role in making us feel immersed in nature. The different types of biophilic architecture and landscaping can include both organic and vernacular design. Organic design is defined as using nature itself as well as naturalistic shapes and symbols in the built environment. This may include rocks, plants, water, lighting, and sometimes even living animals. Vernacular design focuses more on the local aspects of culture and tradition within the regional area. Usually, using this type of design means using resources from the geographical area. It could also mean decorating the built environment with native plants and local species (Kellert, 2006). Most architects use both techniques when creating a layout of their biophilic designs.

Your entire environment does not have to be completely redone to implement biophilia into your everyday life. One significant thing you can do is add a small native plant or orient your desk closer to a window to get the maximum amount of natural light. Even though these may seem like minor changes, the benefits can be enormous. A visual connection with nature can improve your mood, attentiveness, and may even lower your blood pressure. In addition, letting more natural light into your life decreases stress on your eyes and repairs your circadian rhythm (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

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Natural lighting and indoor plants are small ways to incorporate biophilic design © EarthTalk

There are several other things you can do to implement non-visual biophilic designs components into the workplace or home as well. This requires trying to engage the rest of the four main senses in the body. One easy way to do this is using water. Running water stimulates your senses of hearing, touching, and smelling. The resulting auditory stimulation tends to speed up the rate of recovery after a stressful event, although sounds are heavily correlated with visual aspects. Studies on the olfactory systems after exposure to nature have been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. Sadly, the hepatic (touch) and gustatory (taste) responses have not been studied enough to form concrete solutions but studies to date suggest actions resulting from this induce relaxation, at the least (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014).

The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) supports the idea that spending quality time outside or looking outside restores our mental capacity and focus aptitude (Kaplan, 1995). One can only attain full restoration though, when they give their “soft fascination” to nature (Izenstark & Ebata, 2016). Soft fascination allows the mind to wonder, without paying attention to one thing. Hard fascination, on the other hand, holds and keeps all our attention in one place at one time. This can be something as simple as reading a book. Studies have shown that nature helps restore our soft fascination which in turn restores our mental fatigue.  

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Biophilic architecture at Bosco Verticale, Boeri Studio in Miano, Italy © Pxhere

In one experiment, scientists asked 90 people to either look out a window at a natural landscape, watch a TV screen containing the same landscape as the window, or stare at a curtain after experiencing mild stress. The subjects heart rate recovery was then noted. The study found that the recovery rate of the people looking out the window and seeing actual nature, in-person, was much faster than the people looking at either the TV or curtain (Kahn, et al., 2008). The results of this experiment were touted as a reason to use biophilic design to improve productivity in the workplace.   

Biophilic design has become very popular in the last few years and use is projected to rise in the foreseeable future. As people become increasingly aware of the benefits of letting nature back into our lives, it is sure to become a much more widely used practice. Taking inspiration from past architecture may help us create new and innovative designs while helping us preserve traditions and cultures. With the help of biophilic design, employers can significantly improve the psychological and physiological lives of their employees and clients. You too can do many things to improve your life by letting just a little bit of nature back into your environment. And if all else fails, just try your best to #GetOutside! 

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Biophilic designs can include greenery, natural light, flowing water, air ventilation, nature sounds, natural materials, and much more © Home Stratosphere

For further reading:

  • Browning, W., Ryan, C., & Clancy, J. (2014). 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: improving health and wellbeing in the built environment. (A. Hartley, Ed.) Washington: Terrapin Bright Green LLC. Retrieved from http://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/14-Patterns-of-Biophilic-Design-Terrapin-2014p.pdf 
  • Frumkin, H., Bratman, G. N., Breslow, S. J., Cochran, B., Kahn Jr, P. H., Lawler, J. J., . . . Wood, S. A. (2017, July 31). Nature and Human Health: A Research Agenda. Environmental Health Perspectives. doi:https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP1663 
  • Izenstark, D., & Ebata, A. T. (2016, June). Theorizing Family-Based Nature Activities and Family Functioning: The Integration of Attention Restoration Theory with a Family Routines and Rituals Perspective. Journal of Family Theory & Review (8), 137-153. doi:10.1111/jftr.12138
  • Kahn, P. H., Friedman, B., Hagman, J., Severson, R. L., Freier, N. G., Feldman, E. N., . . . Stolyar, A. (2008, May). A plasma display window? —The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology (28), 192-199. 
  • Kaplan, S. (1995, September). The restorative benefits of nature: toward and integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology (15), 169-182. 
  • Kellert, S. R. (2006). Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Renewable Resources Journal (24), 8-11; 23-24. 
  • Klepeis, N. E., Nelson, W. C., Rott, W., Robinson, J. P., Tsang, A. M., Switzer, P., . . . Engelmann, W. H. (2001, July 24). The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology, 11, 231- 252. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.jea.7500165
  • Rogers, K. (2010). Biophilia Hypothesis. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/science/biophilia-hypothesis

 

 

The National Parks are Great, So Why Doesn’t Everyone Go There?

There is a high chance you’ve heard of or visited places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. These are all national parks within the United States and are seen as natural gems by millions of people. The ability to visit and explore stunning natural landscapes that our earth has created has helped define the United States, as it has created symbolic images that are known across the globe. Fifty-nine national parks span from coast to coast, and according to the National Park website, these parks attract millions of visitors annually as they are a great way for people to explore the outdoors.

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Yellowstone National Park

People visit national parks in order to explore nature and to “get away from it all”. Many people go with their friends and families to participate in activities such as hiking, swimming, camping, wildlife viewing, and backpacking. While you might go with the intention of engaging in various activities, the one thing that is bound to happen is that you will leave feeling inspired and refreshed. An article by Florence Williams published in Outside Magazine discusses how being in nature has been proven to refresh your memory capacity and relieve mental fatigue because your brain is not focused on the stressful tasks that occur in daily. Nature then helps foster introspection, which in turn allows for you to think deeply about your own life, who you are, and what your goals and dreams may be.

            Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015).

Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015). This indicates that there is a significant race disparity between national park visitors.

The main visitors of national parks appear to be older, white people. Studies have suggested that this population has a greater financial ability to visit national parks in the regular because the majority of them have at least a graduate degree and therefore make over 100k+ annually (Kearney, 2013). Although it may not seem expensive at first glance, there are significant costs associated with taking such leisurely trips to different parts of the country. Many national parks are isolated, so at least a sturdy car and money for gas is required to get there. Flying to these destinations is even more costly. If you are camping, you need a tent, sleeping bag, food, and various other camping and safety gear that is required based on the location. There are also entrance fees to these parks, which are usually per car instead of per person. Plus, employed people would need to acquire time off of work to be able to go on trips and lower-paying jobs usually do not offer many vacation days.

Arches National Park Photo by National Park Service
Arches National Park Photo ©National Park Service

However, this gap in economic resources is not the only reason for the lack of minority visitors at national parks in the U.S. Many minorities who were interviewed about this topic in Washington, D.C. stated that they had less of a drive to visit these places due to a general undesirability of the outdoors, a perception that such places are unsafe, or feeling unwelcome. Most people dislike being around bugs and mosquitos and many people fear bear attacks, so the concept of being in the “Great Outdoors” is overall unappealing to minorities (Kearney, 2013).

Cultural differences play a role in this divide because not everyone is crazy about nature. One’s own individual values, rural or urban upbringing, and their perception of what nature is to them are all factors that must be considered. Religious differences can also be reason that people are not interested in becoming involved in nature (Schultz et al., 2000). The functional view of nature between cultural groups can also vary, but overall nature can be used to answer human needs, but there is a requirement for respect and responsibility towards nature (Bujis et al., 2009).

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Grand Teton National Park

This race disparity problem needs our attention because it is important for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, to get outside. Dr. Ming Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies the effects of nature on people. Dr. Kuo claims that the mental and physical benefits of nature are countless, such as lowering blood pressure, combating obesity, relieving stress and anxiety, and helping one focus, to name a few (Kuo, 2015). If nature can provide significant medical aid in human health, there needs to be an increase in efforts to encourage people within all racial backgrounds to engage in nature.

Personally, I believe that efforts can be made by creating diversity programs within the national park system. There currently is a diversity program for underrepresented college students and young adults. This can be implemented and grown so the next generation of people seeking the outdoors can be welcomed and encouraged to enjoy national parks.

Stay tuned for more in my next article for Diversity in National Parks series!

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Yosemite National Park

For further reading:

  • Bujis et al. (2009). No wilderness for immigrants: Cultural differences in images of nature and landscape preferences. Landscape and Urban Planning. 91, 2-3
  • Kearney, R. (2013). White People Love Hiking. Minorities Don’t. Here’s Why. The New Republic.
  • Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology. 6, 2-3.
  • Nelson, G. (2015). Why Are Our Parks So White? The New York Times.
  • Schultz, P.W., Zelezny, L., Dalrymple, N.J., (2000). A multinational perspective on the relation between Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and attitudes of environmental concern. Environmental Behavior. 32, 576–591.
  • Williams, F. (2012). Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning. Outside Magazine.