Biophilic Design and Calgary’s Future Cityscape
I stumbled across a memory the other day.
I was paying an evening visit to the library, looking for a couple of books to cite for this blog entry when I stumbled across Richard Register’s Ecocities…for the second time in my life.
The first time I discovered the aforementioned book was when I randomly picked it off of a friend's shelf in Victoria back in 2010. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ecocities was the kind of book that would completely change the direction of my life. I have a distinct memory of thumbing through the pages, engrossed in Register's Bill-Peet-esque sketches, detailing dreams of futuristic urban centers - worlds of densified, plant-coated skyscrapers bereft of cars, roads and suburbia. Ecocities was the spark that inspired me to fall in love with the gardenscapes of Vancouver Island, to take my Permaculture Design Certificate and beyond.
Being the young, distracted 20-something-year-old that I was, I neglected to write down the title and author of the book. As a result, I spent nearly a decade of Google-searching key words like "green cities, pencil drawings, no cars" to no avail. When I glimpsed traces of Registrer's hallmark sketches amongst the crowded spines on the library shelf, I knew in an instant that I had found my long lost treasure.
Register’s book wasn’t precisely what I was searching for that night (don’t you always find what you’re looking for when you least expect it?), because Ecocities didn’t literally identify itself as a work of “biophilic design” per-se, but after comparing it side-by-side to Kellert, Herwagen and Mador’s Biophilic Design and Beatley’s Biophilic Cities, how could I have ever missed it? Elements of biophilic design like green walls, organic forms and human relationships with nature appear in almost every facet of Register’s work.
What is Biophilic Design?
From the root biophilia or “the hypothetical human tendency to interact or be closely associated with other forms of life in nature” (Merriem-Webster, 2019), biophilic design is inspired by, mimics, and incorporates elements of the natural world. It recognizes the acute need for human contact with our environment and so strives to emulate and embed natural systems, forms and living matter in all things. Biophilic design puts nature first in both planning and management - this is key! The products of the design process are human-crafted extensions of the natural world, and so proper placement, installation, maintenance and decomposition (life-cycle) must all fit into the greater picture.
Biophilic design shouldn’t be confused with Green Urbanism which has a stronger focus on technology and inanimate infrastructure - which are still very important things! Biophilic design instead busies itself with the living aspects our environment.
Biophilic Design Elements
Biophilic design, whether in a home, neighborhood, or enveloping an entire city should exhibit one or more of the following attributes.
Environmental features (plant material, water, wildlife, views and vistas)
Natural shapes and forms (plant motifs, spirals, arches, branching)
Natural patterns and processes (information richness, aging, growth and efference, fractals, balance and tension)
Light and space (natural lighting, filtered and diffused, shadow, reflections)
Place-based relationships (connection to place, orientation, culture and ecology)
Evolved human-nature relationships (prospect and refuge, curiosity and enticement, security and protection)
These elements are used to transcribe recognizable natural frameworks for our built environments. For example, a biophilic home might be surrounded by a lush garden of edible plant matter and native species. It could have a green roof dotted with flowers to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and a cozy outdoor nook to curl up and read a good book in. It could have a central spiral staircase made from salvaged driftwood leading up to a skylit loft, letting natural sunlight stream in during the day and facilitating uninterrupted stargazing at night. Now think bigger, on a community scale. On a city scale. Even a global scale.
Why Biophilic Design?
Well, aside from looking rather nice and improving our environmental resilience via resource production on a local level, and through carbon sequestration on a global level, biophilic design makes people feel good. This somewhat subjective argument is backed by health-based evidence such as reduction in stress, pain, and depression alongside improvements in immune function in hospital patients exposed to natural vistas (Biophilic Design, p. 88-101, 2008).
I know what you’re thinking. These benefits sound like they might be pretty tough to measure. I thought the same. But environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich carried out and published a study that explored the effects of nature views on healing time and pain relief in patients confined to stressful hospital environments. He exposed half of his selection of patients to garden views from their hospital beds, and then compared their recoveries against the other half of his subjects, who were housed in rooms with bare walls. He discovered that the overwhelming majority of people from varying socioeconomic classes and cultures responded more positively to nature views, experiencing less post-surgical complications, requiring smaller and more infrequent doses of pain medication, and shorter healing times (a day on average) than their visually limited counterparts (Ulrich, 1984).
Could it be done here?
The great news is that biohpilia is becoming more and more prominent in our cityscapes. It is very trendy to incorporate natural elements in modern architecture, both in an out of doors. Even in the concrete-clad Downtown core of Calgary, the city that I currently call home, biophilia is clambering out from the cracks and into the daylight.
My first experience in Calgary with what could be called biohpilic design involved my mother packing us into the family car and driving halfway across the city to take us to our orthodontist. Our destination was a square and squat professional building with an external facade of rectangular glass panels (1990’s skyscraper vogue), and a rather unusual indoor feature…at least by YYC’s standards. Several stories of grey-walled offices surrounded a sunlit central atrium, European courtyard-style. I remember the warmth of the tangerine heat-lamps, towering palm-leafed trees and a sunk in pond complete with a couple dozen giant goldfish, swimming along their meandering paths and gaping their wide mouths for food. It was altogether so pleasantly abnormal and completely out of my everyday context that going to get my braces tightened was begrudgingly accepted, so long as it included a stroll through the atrium (talk about biophilia’s minimizing effect on pain!). Years down the road I had several opportunities to visit the ever popular Devonian Gardens and found an alternative year-round tropical oasis in the heart of the prairies without the prospect of dental discomfort. The charm of both well-aged botanical gardens has persisted to this day.
Of course, biophilia is evident in many places other than our atriums.
Calgarians have seen natural elements broached in functional public art, like in Stephen Avenue’s Galleria Trees which act as a wind-break against the gusts that funnel through downtown corridors. Biophilic shapes and patterns are depicted in our infrastructure, too. The South Health Campus cashes in on those biophilic health benefits with touches of our prairie ecosystem in everything from the brightly pixelated exterior panorama of plains and mountains, to the colours, shapes and botanical decoration of its interior spaces. The hospital environment is complete with views of the surrounding gardens and grassland vistas from numerous well-placed windows. Its not the lush green Eden of Singapore, but I think it suits it’s place just so.
The vast expanse of native grassland in the Northwest quadrtant called Nose Hill Park is the 6th largest urban park in all of Canada, clocking in at 1,127 hectares. Calgary has the largest combined area devoted to off-leash dog parks in all of North America. We also enjoy an exceptionally close proximity to thousands of kilometers of hiking trails in the Foothills and Rocky Mountains. Sounds like a lot of room to forge relationships with nature to me!
Perhaps one of our most recent and notable examples is the very building where I had quite literally sought out “biophilia” and found my way back to Ecocities. Calgary’s new Central Library is the crown jewel of modern architecture blended with biophilic design. It’s very essence oozes elements of the Foothills landscape, especially in the front entryway’s curvilinear “Chinook Arch” and the surrounding garden slopes of native plant species. The skylight, or oculus, opens the apex of the building to the city’s renowned sunny skies, flooding the building with natural light (Calgary Public Library Architeculral Brochure, 2018).
So, could Calgary be one of the future’s biophilic cities, or even one of Register’s Ecocities?
It is true that Calgary is cold, arid and brown for about half the year. It would be hard to image it in the same context as Register’s leaf-cloaked urban hubs, especially in the dead of winter. But the natural world has many different faces, and so must our cities.
A selection of Timothy Beatley’s indicators of biophilic cities include percentage of population within 100m of a park or “greenspace”, percentage of city-land area in wild or semi-wild nature, miles per capita of walking trails, percentage of population active in nature and outdoor clubs and number of city-supported biophilic pilot projects and initiatives (Beatley, p. 47-49). Sound familiar?
To the environmental, physical and emotional benefit of it’s citizens, biophilic design has taken root in Calgary. There remain many areas for growth, but I think the foundation for a flourishing biophilic community is certainly here. And we may not need to look far for inspiration. Dustin Bajer’s photomanuipulated renderings of neighboring Edmonton strike up visions of an attainable, sustainable ecocity just north of us (my favorite of Bajer’s renderings is of the implementation of a community garden in West Edmonton Mall…brilliant! I’d like to see something similar in the Saddledome!).
We are only finally beginning to recognize the urgent, world-over need for humans to rediscover their profound connection with the natural environment, and with it, Calgary has the opportunity to continue on its biophilic trajectory and redefine it’s future cityscape.
Kellert, Stephen R., Judith H. Heerwagen, Martin L. Mador, 2008. Biophilic Design. Hoboken, NJ; John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Register, Richard, 2006. Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature. Gabriola Island, BC; New Society Publishers.
Ulrich, Robert, 1984. View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery. Science. Retrieved from Pubmed on January 12, 2019.
Wilson, E.O. 2011. Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into urban design and planning. Washington, DC; Island Press.Liter