The concrete jungle: how urban planning can learn from nature

Melbourne has been voted the most liveable city in the world by The Economist for seven years in a row.

To continue providing Melburnians with a high quality of life, the Victorian Government began significant infrastructure projects. One of these is the Metro Tunnel Project, designed to change the face of the city’s public transport network.

These large-scale projects provide the opportunity to use the systems of nature to guide the design.

As part of the Metro Tunnel Living Infrastructure Plan, the project is attempting to be greener than ever before. To do this, designs are planned to improve biodiversity, soil health, tree canopy coverage and water management in the heart of the city.

In the broader context of healthy cities, nature plays an important part in the urban ecosystem. Trees help provide a place for animals and plants, while also helping to cool the hot city centres which trap heat from large buildings. Plant life takes in carbon dioxide and other pollutants improving air quality, and gives shelter in wet weather while reducing runoff.

It’s not just about planting more trees though. As indicated in the Creating Healthy Places study done by Deakin University, using these biophilic design elements alongside art installations can enhance local character and help build a community’s connection to place.

This type of design is called biophilic design, based on the concept of biophilia, a term coined by biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984. Biophilic design consider the patterns that occur in nature, enhance the human-nature relationship, and connects communities throughout the infrastructure of the city.

Dr. Phillip Roös from Deakin University was Principal Technical Advisor for Sustainability to the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority when the project was still in its early stages. He says city shaping projects need to consider biophilic design and go beyond the standard sustainability approach and should incorporate as much as possible the patterns of biophilic design by considering all of our sensory experiences in the design response.

“There are patterns of biophilic designs that are observed in nature which, when combined with certain elements, can enhance the connection people feel to the place they are in,” Dr. Roös says.

“Instead of simply having a concrete wall, you are able to bring in patterns, ornamental diagrams and motifs that represent that place. It’s more than just the material effect, but how you incorporate it into the form or structure.”

Art plays a major role in biophilic design, according to Dr. Roös, especially in an Australian context.

“Any work of art that reflects the culture of the place is important. Biophilic design is a lot more than just vegetation, but also about a connection to the land. Art helps to reflect local culture, and especially in an indigenous context. It comes back to these patterns and encouraging psychological connection,” Dr. Roös says.

He says nature has a lot it can teach designers. Studying the natural world can lead to discoveries and products in other contexts.

“Think of how a tree is shaped – its strong structure, the way the roots work, the tree trunk and its branches – there’s a balanced and geometrical strength there. That’s how learning from nature can help us. Velcro is an example of how we have taken ideas from the natural world and repurposed it for new areas,” he says.

“There needs to be an understanding of the underlying systems and principles that make these systems so efficient. Going beyond biomimicry that is copying forms in nature, is the concept of biophilic design that also includes researching the structures, patterns, systems and the innate human connection inherent within.”

There are also significant health benefits when incorporating biophilic design into cities, Dr. Roös says.

“The benefits are both physical and psychological. Many studies show natural light, ventilation and plants lead to a 30 per cent faster recovery rate in hospitals. Ecological psychology also uses connection with nature to help treat patients that aren’t responding to other treatments,” Dr. Roös says.

“Stress reduction is also a benefit of biophilic design. If you look at the standard practice of bringing vegetation into indoor office spaces, the places with more greenery had vastly reduced stress levels. Bringing natural light and passive thermal systems, along with natural airflow and biomorphic forms, will reduce stress levels and have a significant mental benefit.”

Urban centres can often become very stressful environments and can have the effect of making people feel lonely in a crowd, Dr. Roös says.

“Cities are in danger of becoming unhealthy places. At the moment cities are unsustainable and take up a lot of the planet’s valuable resources. A harmonious, sustainable context that connects back to where we come from is much preferred,” he says.

“We need more green spaces and living things in our cities, more vertical walls and plant covering, more places with ornament and geometric patterns. Cities should be a place for people and not just function as part of the engine running the economy. By making these spaces more habitable for both humans and other species, it can help enhance the local culture and heritage.”

Dr. Roös says city dwellers and professionals need to look at the way we build and design our cities to make it more sustainable.

“If we integrate biophilic design from the beginning of our projects, there’s not much of an increased cost. You don’t need new or different materials, it’s purely how you manage the designs,” he says.

Biophilia isn’t a new idea when it comes to design, but it’s only now that it is being acknowledged and recognised as an alternative, explains Dr. Roös.

“A lot of psychological studies into health and wellbeing have been done, but only now are people beginning to apply them. The ultimate goal is for biophilic design to become similar to sustainable design and become part of how we plan our cities,” he says.

Dr. Roös believes the future of cities and projects would benefit greatly from understanding where we as a species come from.

“Practitioners need to embrace it first and foremost. There are many factors and politics that go into the design of a city, but I believe it will be greatly beneficial to have biophilic design become standard,” he says.

“The world around us is changing. We’re moving into a new era. The way we built structures was based on the past and what we knew worked. Now, a whole new world of design and planning is based around what we can do for the future.

“We need to understand that we ourselves are a part of nature, not above it. Examining how we understand the natural world and how we use that to develop better cities is important. Biophilic design is not the only answer to tackle the large issues facing us, but it is an important step forward for the future.”


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