Meet up Summary: Biophilic design and mental health (London)

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This meet up had a roundtable format to discuss Biophilia and its value, place and direction in the built environment.

In 1984 Edward Wilson released the aptly titled book ‘Biophilia’ that put forward the hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems, that we have “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Unlike phobias, which are the aversions and fears that people have of things in their environment, philias are the attractions and positive feelings that people have toward organisms, species, habitats, processes and objects in their natural surroundings.

32 years later, we are a long way away from its adoption into mainstream design. The purpose of our meet ups are to bring differing minds around a table to develop ideas around a topic. Attending, we had a Physiotherapist, Journalist, Architects, Philosopher, Village Green Operator, Surgeon, IP lawyer, Editor and Publisher, and a Programmer alongside the Conscious Cities team.

Need to define

There were contrasting views in whether biophilic design should be something that’s defined or whether definition leads to further debate, preventing personal action. Whilst there is merit in leading for personal discovery and application of a theory, the general sentiment in the room was that a failure to have a grounding was preventing its widespread understanding and adoption. We first proposed whether we need to separate the language of biophilia to indoor and outdoor/interior and exterior/micro and macro?

Biophilia for the masses

At present the privileged with budgets get to experience the benefits of biophilic design via high end interior design. The Mayo Clinic in the United States has been incorporating biophilic design for over a decade. Companies such as Google & Apple implement biophilic design into their offices. Residential towers such as 25 Verde in Turin, and One Central Park in Sydney are good, if not flamboyant approaches. However, these do not serve a purpose for those who for arguments sake need the social benefits of biophilic design. They remain to the benefit of the privileged and the few.

Beyond adding greenery

Though London is quite a green city, it should not be assumed that this is enough to classify our surroundings as biophilic. We must question whether it provides a bond between human beings and other living systems? This includes every aspect of our daily routine, not just when walking the streets, and should also consider social connectivity as an important bond to living systems.

“The city is not lifelike, people are disconnected.”

We are part of biophilic design

Can biophilic design be engineered for social behaviour rather individual experience? The rhetoric of a smart city is a technology led one, but we can learn from examples where design was used to facilitate social connectivity. “Once dubbed the ‘most dangerous city on earth’, Medellín is now one of Colombia’s liveliest and most creative” (The Guardian). In exploring the definition of biophilic design we must understand that communities are biological in their curation, activities, and their outputs.

How will it happen?

We debated whether scientific evidence is effective in itself in changing legislation and the architectural profession. Most in the room felt that both government and the design profession had a responsibility to mainstream knowledge on the benefits and implementation of biophilic design.

Other points included:

  • Architects in the room felt that unless clients are legally forced to evaluate the quality of design, it is often too difficult to persuade them invest. Developers will most likely focus on the short-term economic benefit of building rather than the long-term psychological effects their project will have on users. Sadly, developers often see architects as agents who help them attain planning for development.
  • Others felt that it is the responsibility of the architect to push themselves and their clients to understand the long term values and virtues of biophilic design into developments.

“Sharing the management of understanding”

This phrase was brought up to suggest a more cohesive voice and rhetoric on the subject. Like any political movement, isolation of voices thinly connected together fail to unite under a convincing policy. Do we need to become more dogmatic in our approach to architectural design, creating definitions in order to avoid stochastic development?

Biophilic design is not a tick box system, but rather a broader set of design heuristics that should become a standard approach to our built environment. This very much is the purpose of Conscious Cities meet ups: our aim is to take on board a meta-analysis of views and comments in order to build a grounding that can be widely understood and adopted on a micro and macro level.

Join us at the next meet up in London by joining the meet up group.

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