Have you ever had a stressful day at work? An argument with someone or a difficult paper to write for a course that has just added too much stress to the already busy daily grind? Perhaps you needed to relax and get your mind off it all and went for a walk outside or for a run. Or maybe you just stared out the window and gazed out onto your garden or the trees on your street. Without even knowing it, your subconscious has turned to nature to help to calm your senses. Biophilia, the innate human attraction to nature, is a concept that has been recognized for several decades by the scientific and design communities.
The term Biophilia (from the greek root – meaning love of nature) became a popular idea in the 1980’s when a biologist – Edward O. Wilson, realized the long term consequences of our suburban sprawl with our destruction of nature, and our insensitivity to the natural world around us . He pioneered a new school of thought on bringing people back in contact with nature. “Biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” The concept of biophilia suggests that humans hold an actual biological need for a connection with nature. This connection is based on physical, mental and social levels. Our connection to nature (or lack of connection) can greatly affect our personal well-being, productivity and societal relationships.
But is that possible? How could we even quantify it? Is this just some flowery idea made up by the liberal, left wing, environmentalist hippies…..?!?
In reality, improving community well-being through biophilia can impact productivity costs and the bottom line. There is actual financial potential for businesses to grow their profits by this sound, economic investment. There are good economics behind Biophilic design. There have been many studies, based on scientific research that shows the very real savings on today’s high productivity costs. In 1978, ING Bank directors shared a vision for their new 538,000 square foot headquarters in Amsterdam. The focus of the building design was to maximize natural lighting, integrate organic art, and install water features to enhance the productivity of its workers while also creating a new image for the bank. The productivity savings in this case were astounding: absenteeism decreased by 15% after construction was completed. Employees looked forward to coming to work and voluntarily tended to the natural features in the office. The bank additionally saved an estimated $2.6 million per year after all energy system and daylighting units were installed. Overall, ING’s image as a progressive and creative bank corresponded with the growth of users who decided to switch to ING as their primary bank, bumping it from the fourth most popular bank to the second most popular bank in the Netherlands (32. Romm and Browning, 1994)
Biophilic design can also help patients to heal more quickly in hospitals. I attended a landscaping conference a few years ago where a speaker talked about the effects of his garden designs in hospitals across North America. The healing benefits of the gardens he designed and installed were astounding. Not only did it create a space that improved a patients recovery but also helped improve the day to day living with a terminal illness. Healing gardens promote good health, evoke pleasurable memories and act as a place for social connections for patients. Even family members visiting patients feel more relaxed, rejuvenated, and positive. The effects on the health care staff were also recognizable as they were able to use the garden space to take breaks in and get some time to relax and recoup from their demanding jobs. The health and alertness of nurses in hospitals is crucial to the comfort of the patients. Many hospitals in North America are now incorporating large-scale healing gardens into their design layout.
In Japan there is a name for the healing process of surrounding patients in nature. Sharin-yoku is the ancient Japanese practice of restorative walks in nature. In English Sharin-yoku translates into “Bathing in the atmosphere of the forest”. There have been many studies in Japan to look at how effective these walks can be. In the forest, volatile and non-volatile compounds called phytoncides are emitted by plants. Inhaling these organic compounds has been proven to decrease blood pressure and stabilize autonomic nervous activity (Ohtsuka, 1998).
Our bodies response to daylight is also another important clue on how we can harness the power of biophilia. It is proven that exposure to natural light helps to balance our hormonal levels of serotonin and melatonin. Using natural light in the design and planning of hospitals, work places and schools can only increase our health and productivity.
So, next time you are feeling stressed out and even if you sometimes feel like life is beating you down – head outside into the fresh air and bathe in the atmosphere of nature. Afterwards, you will feel better – its biophilia dude!…everyone’s trying it!