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Andy Astruc
/ Categories: Outside the fence

Biophilic cities

Living at one with nature

A kākā from Zealandia visits a deck in neighbouring Brooklyn

From the Swiss Family Robinson, to the Lost Boys of Neverland, to Gilligan’s Island, we in the modern world have always had a bit of an obsession with mashing the man-made with the natural. The idea of living at one with nature—surrounded by lush greenery and multi-coloured parrots, instead of cold concrete and traffic jams—is immediately appealing to most.

Imagine if you could have that connection to the environment without sacrificing modern conveniences like the internet, television, public transport and indoor plumbing. Picture a city where trees and plants coexist with buildings and streets, where a thick cover of ivy snaking up the side of a skyscraper is a deliberate choice rather than a happy accident, where you might pass a dozen exotic species of flower on the way to work, or happen upon some friendly wildlife on your way to buy milk. Imagine turning the sometimes lifeless architecture of an urban environment into a symbiotic relationship; a biophilic city.

What is a biophilic city?

Biophilia refers to the idea that humans are inextricably bound and drawn to nature; that we need that connection to other living things in order to function properly. A biophilic city is one that integrates natural features into its designs. Such places provide many and varied opportunities for citizens to interact with and experience nature in their day-to-day lives, whether it’s a deliberate choice to head into a greenhouse or park, or just passing by the ivy that climbs up the centre of their new-fangled office building.

It’s about treating nature as if it has a place, for the good of the flora, the fauna and ourselves. Think of it like putting a plant on your desk at work, but on a massive scale.

The idea—first floated by Timothy Beatley, who is the founder of the Biophilic Cities Network and the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture—is to improve both the environment and the wellbeing of humanity. Trees and flowers and birds (oh my!) make people happier.

Diagram No.2 (Howard, Ebenezer, To-morrow.)If you look back a little though, you can see sparks and threads of similar ideas emerging from various corners of modern architectural thought. British urban planner Ebenezer Howard, in his 1902 book “Garden Cities of To-morrow”, proposed a design for smaller cities with large open spaces and a vast green belt. Each city would only have around 32,000 residents and would be linked to others in a circular fashion by canals and transit. The aim was to create a slum-free environment where workers could get a bit of both city and country living.

Another famous architectural mind from around the same era, Le Corbusier, envisioned an entirely different solution for a similar problem. He sought to solve overcrowding and pollution by splitting the functions of urban spaces. His solution was to build up, rather than out. His tower plan involved putting large high-rise buildings in expanses of green.

Biophilic design carries on this problem-solving tradition, albeit from a more inclusive and symbiotic direction.

Green potential realised globally

Garden By the Bay by Sarah AckermanWellington is already a member of the Biophilic Cities Network, which brings together like-minded urban centres that all have very different ways of incorporating nature into their cities.

Singapore, for example, has made a considerable effort to green itself in recent times, both figuratively and literally. An extensive network of trails and elevated pedestrian walkways connects various parks in the city, allowing residents to wind their way through trees and buildings with equal ease. Buildings have had “green walls”—vertical gardens, more or less—installed to take advantage of minimal space for maximum effect. There are schools overflowing with natural touches, hospitals with rooftop gardens, and high-rise apartments with dramatically leafy terraces.

Conceptually, biophilia is the idea that these kinds of changes resonate with people; that there is actual psychological benefit to being physically closer to nature. You can see the theory reflected in various forms of fiction, where cities of the future or an alternative present are often either portrayed as cold, emotionless, man-made monstrosities that suck the life from their population (The Matrix, Metropolis) or warm, enriching locations where nature is acknowledged and respected (Zootopia, your average Japanese RPG).

A look at Wellington

Given all these grand ideas about the future of urban development and the wellbeing of the human race, how does Wellington stack up as a biophilic city? We’re on the right track, at least. Obviously, Wellington has a massive advantage right off the bat, being sandwiched as it is between forested mountains and hills, and a rather glorious bay. Biodiversity is already knocking on our door, so to speak. It’s important to take that momentum and keep it going.

Zealandia EcoSanctuary - view of Roto Kawau and Historic Valve TowerThe city already has numerous parks, of course; many of them right in the thick of modern life. Central Park is perfectly positioned as not only a lovely location to visit with the kids, but also a green transit route between suburbs. Trips to Brooklyn are a lot more pleasant when surrounded by trees and birds, rather than traffic. The recent transformation of the area around the War Memorial (Pukeahu) has also added some much appreciated green to the CBD, changing it from a place you walk past to a destination in and of itself. I know I’ve altered my route to the shops many times just to be able to walk through the new park.

Wellington also has around 30 community gardens, all run by volunteers. In case you weren’t aware. And then there’s that 225-odd hectare ecosanctuary over in Karori; Zealandia, I think it’s called? Zealandia is committed to a mind-blowing 500 years of planned ecosystem restoration, and has already been responsible for reintroducing 18 species of native wildlife back to the area. It’s not just some fenced-in bubble, either, as the birds bred in the ecosanctuary are spreading beyond the borders and merging back into the NZ environment at large. On top of all that, there’s inherent value in Wellingtonians and visitors being able to pop down the road for a quick stroll (or boat ride) through a world of birdsong and babbling brooks.

Perhaps the greatest example of greening that Wellington has under its belt so far is Waitangi Park. What has, in the past, been a morgue, a stream and a bus park, now functions as a public space and wetland, with vegetation and gravel designed to filter an underground stream. Flax at Waitangi Park by Rebecca CoxThe park provides recreational space and areas for walking, and allows people to passively interact with the type of nature often relegated to national parks or isolated areas.

As a city, there are two important questions: what more can we do to integrate nature into the future of Wellington (and NZ at large)? And is that actually what we want?

The first question has a lot of answers, and looking to what cities like Singapore have done, and continue to do, is a great first step. Maybe future construction will allow for projects like green walls and rooftop gardens. Perhaps it’s worth looking into reducing the amount of light pollution blocking out the beauty of the night sky. Maybe there are ways to bring the magic of the waterfront, or places like Zealandia, or the Botanic Garden, to more clinical areas of the city proper.

As for the question of whether this is something we want to happen, well, that also has a lot of answers, I expect. Depending on who you are. I suspect a lot of the work will revolve around changing attitudes to the idea of a green city. It’s currently something viewed as more of an obligation than anything else. Protect the environment because it’s “the right thing to do”. Not exactly an inspiring line of thought. That’s the beauty of the biophilic city concept, though; work with the environment instead of just protecting it, enjoy the results instead of simply patting each other on the back.

Think it’s worth a try?

 

Written by Andy Astruc
Edited by Audrey Rendle and Judi Lapsley Miller
Images from Wikipedia and Flickr, with CC attribution or with permission

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