We at Lohm are city dwellers ever surrounded by concrete and hustle and bustle. It’s not always the easiest way to live, and there’s actually a scientific reason why this is. We spent the past three months researching biophilia, a hypothesis supported by the biologist Edward O. Wilson that suggests humans have a genetic need for connection with nature and that fulfilling that need results in greater satisfaction and happiness.
When was the last time you spent a day outside, uninterrupted by pings from your smartphone or the glow of a laptop screen? If you’re like a growing number of Americans, the answer is probably It’s been a while. The Nature of Americans National Report recently found that most adults in the U.S. spend five hours or fewer per week in nature—and that’s despite the fact that three-quarters of respondents say they consider a connection to nature highly valuable. Our obsession with technology is one culprit, but the other reason we're spending less time in nature has to do with where we live. As reported by London’s Natural History Museum, humans around the world are increasingly moving to urban environments, where, according to the EPA, we spend about 90% of our time indoors.
In some cases, the technology companies that are responsible for our unshakeable preoccupation with miniature screens are now taking steps to mitigate it. Tim McGee and Malaysia Marshall of the International Living Future Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to healthy and sustainable design, note that with its latest update, Apple is providing tools to help us become more aware of how—and how much—we interact with our devices. These experts also point to apps such as Forest that aim to help you control your tech interaction.
This article will help you understand:
Feeling disconnected from nature has encouraged everyone from architects to fashion designers to lean into the rising trend of biophilic living. “As society seems to become more aware and concerned about their overall wellbeing, health, and personal impact on the planet, there has been quite the nature resurgence, and [people are] looking to nature for solutions to design and health issues,” say McGee and Marshall. That means you're going to start noticing biophilia all around you—whether you're working in an office building with wall-to-wall vertical gardens, wearing a fashionable dress that changes color as you move, or satisfying a need for physical touch after spending hours engaged with digital technology.
Just ask anyone who has ever stayed at the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. All of the materials that make up this boutique spot were sourced right in Brooklyn. Plants line the concrete walls and floor-to-ceiling windows rise up to meet wooden beams. “Confronted with how far Americans were lagging behind in changing our consumption habits, I created 1 Hotels to show sophisticated travelers that they can do good, live well, and connect with both the world and the community around them,” Barry Sternlicht, the founder of 1 Hotels and the chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, told Prism. Earthly textures can be found throughout the space, from a rubber sculpture by Jarrod Beck to the obsidian boulders flanking a spiral staircase.
Why is the biophilia trend catching on?
Our widening disconnect with nature isn’t doing our health any favors. The Natural History Museum cites ample studies showing that people who lack regular contact with nature are less likely to be physically active, tend to have low levels of vitamin D, and are more prone to anxiety and depression—all of which can significantly shorten our lifespans.
But it wasn’t always this way.
“Many cultures around the world have developed methodologies for creating spaces that we love and help us thrive alongside and with nature,” say McGee and Marshall. “In the last 50 to 100 years, we have largely ignored these traditions, creating places that, instead of considering people or nature, consider the bottom line. For the most part, we have found these places are horrible to be in and in fact are damaging to our health. We are just beginning to uncover the specific neurological, psychological, and physical impacts that our built environment has on our lives.”
The good news is that there's significant evidence that biophilia can contribute not only to good health, but also to overall life satisfaction, productivity, and happiness. In some cases, the research goes back decades: A 1984 study analyzed patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a suburban hospital. It found that those whose rooms overlooked natural scenery were discharged faster, noted to be in better physical health, and required less pain medication than patients whose windows faced a brick wall.
It’s not just health that’s impacted, either. A 2015 study found that workers who treated themselves to a 40-second “microbreak” (in which they looked at a digital image of a green roof) saw improved focus and attention span, while the group that looked at a bare roof saw no benefit. The experience of those study participants backs up the results of a 2009 study that found that an environment devoid of nature may actually be detrimental to our health.
You don’t always need a study to confirm that something is beneficial. As Lohm founder Kristina Libby recounts, she only recently learned about the official practice of forest bathing, or “taking in the forest atmosphere,” a restorative practice developed in Japan in the ‘80s. But as a child growing up in Maine, seeking out the forest for its myriad mental and physical benefits was something she did implicitly. As children often are, she was onto something: Forest bathing has been proven to reduce stress and blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve mood—among other benefits.
As eloquently described by the architecture firm Terrapin Bright Green, biophilic design can take a lot of forms, but “above all, [it] must nurture a love of place.” As the firm notes, offices striving to reduce workplace stress might install living green walls; in more controlled environments, such as emergency rooms, designers might replace abstract art with landscape paintings.
But design that connects us with nature is often much more complex than the simple installation of greenery. Biophilic architecture can mimic patterns, textures, or other arrangements with origins in nature. Biophilia also doesn't necessarily have to be built in a physical sense—for instance, you can implement it through the use of lighting that mimics natural fluctuations in the intensity of sunlight throughout the day or by modifying air patterns in a space so that its humidity and temperature are truer to those found outdoors. This is all done in an effort to infuse indoor environments with nature.
A prime example of bringing the outside is Moroccan riads. Now often hosting visiting travelers, these traditional houses were originally built to provide privacy and protection from the weather. While they usually lack large external windows and are sometimes difficult to spot from the street, they’re built around lush internal courtyards that serve as their focal point. Many riads include features like painted wooden ceilings, ultra-luxurious landscaped gardens, and brightly-lit bedrooms, as well as meals garnished with flower petals and accompanied by natural birdsong.
Living or working in that kind of environment isn’t just visually pleasing, it’s also good for your health and productivity—you’ll actually breathe in cleaner air. The EPA says that the air indoors is more polluted than what we breathe outside. And buildings such as riads, which embody the biophilic design pattern of refuge, provide a sense of retreat and withdrawal, meaning you feel safe and protected enough to let your mind wander. Terrapin Bright Green says a refuge experience can lead to reduced irritation, fatigue, and feelings of vulnerability, as well as better concentration and attention span.
It turns out that the same things we love in our homes, we also crave in the urban environments around us. This has led cities to adopt biophilic design by including more trees and more light, reducing levels of garbage and noise, and creating more space for human refuge, engagement, and respite.
Singapore, for example, has recently been named one of the greenest cities in the world. From architecture that incorporates nature to easily accessible hiking trails to lush botanical gardens to an enthusiastic embrace of a mixture of urban and green spaces, elements of biophilic design abound. In 2015, Singapore’s National Parks Board decided that it was time to systematically consolidate, strengthen, and intensify its biodiversity conservation efforts through its Nature Conservation Masterplan (NCMP).
The NCMP has four key implementation goals: 1) conservation of key habitats, 2) habitat enhancement, restoration, and species recovery, 3) applied research in conservation biology and planning, and 4) community stewardship and outreach in nature.
Other cities have followed in Singapore’s footsteps (even if they haven’t quite reached its level just yet), creating more healthy integration between green spaces and city dwellers. These cities think about the multi-sensory experiences from smells to visuals to even taste. They also allow urbanites to create more natural environments around them via the addition of bird boxes, honey bees, green roofs, and urban farms.
These cities also create their own initiatives, as St. Louis did recently by taking steps to educate about and promote habitat creation for monarch butterflies. Through an initiative called Milkweeds for Monarchs: The St. Louis Butterfly Project, they committed to planting 250 butterfly gardens around the city.
Other U.S. cities like Phoenix, Austin, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee are joining the growing tide of biophilic urban planning as well:
- Phoenix is creating urban agriculture programs like PHX Renews and the Roosevelt Growhouse. Additionally new zoning ordinances like the Walkable Urban Code are helping with more food production, green infrastructure, and pedestrian friendly development.
- Austin invites its community to grow a pollinator garden, plant a tree, and commit to bringing more nature into your life every day.
- Pittsburgh has committed to eliminate the use of all pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, to increase the city’s tree canopy from 42 percent to 60 percent by 2030, to pursue when possible the daylighting of streams in stormwater management efforts and to develop more greenways.
- Milwaukee has started education efforts for children, re-forested and re-developed large tracts of land and is focused on becoming, in essence, the “new Portland.”
What are biophilic elements?
Biophilic elements are any elements that create a sensory experience which makes a non-natural space feel more natural. This includes a focused attention to:
Elements that interest or attend to one of our core senses will help heighten the feeling and belief that we are growing closer to and connecting with nature — even when we are in spaces that do not truly feel natural.
As noted in the 14 patterns of biophilic design seen in the above section (“What is biophilic design?”), specific elements of biophilia include:
- visual and non-visual connections with nature
- material connections with nature
- non-rhythmic sensory stimuli
- thermal and airflow variability
- the presence of water
- dynamic and diffuse light
- connection with natural systems
- biopmorphic forms and patterns
- complexity and order
To dig deeper into these topics, click here.
Simply put, the concept behind biophilic skincare is the idea that you can connect with nature by integrating natural ingredients straight from the earth into the products you use on and in your body. As New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino recently touched on, dedication to a daily skincare routine—increasingly featuring products with natural ingredients like donkey milk, placenta, and snail slime—has become a popular and nearly ubiquitous coping mechanism, as well as a source of renewal in this time of political uncertainty, social media toxicity, and environmental hazards (among other stressors). Tolentino writes that she's found herself turning to natural anti-aging serums and sunscreens that will pay off over the course of decades as a way to convince and remind herself that she will live to see the end of the Trump administration, even if it doesn't always feel that way.
At Lohm, we couldn't agree more.
“Biophilic skincare is a part of holistic wellness that acknowledges the role stress and unhappiness play on our aesthetic appearance,” says Libby. “By adding in natural elements—aesthetic, textural, ingredient-based, and olfactory—and momentary natural connections into our skincare routine, we are bringing nature and its relative benefits into an established wellness routine.”
We're not alone in discovering the healing effects of biophilic beauty. According to the research firm Kline Group, natural beauty sales are up nearly 10% in both the United States and China. As Kline points out, this is an evolution of the farm-to-table dining trend that has taken hold in the last 10 years. This new “farm-to-face” concept puts natural, organic, plant-based ingredients front and center in makeup, hair care products, lotions, and more. Another research report, this one by the product review site Influenster, agrees that so-called “green beauty” is on the rise. The most in-demand product ingredients, according to the site, are nut and plant oils, followed by plant and vegetable extracts and essential oils. In all, green beauty reviews are up by 126% on Influenster.
“The next phase for biophilic skincare is more mainstream adoption,” says Libby. “Why are we putting toxins on our skin and [using] products we cannot pronounce or trace? We wouldn’t put that into our body.”
In 2006, the International Living Future Institute introduced the Living Buildings Challenge, a quest for every new building to make the world a better place. This means buildings that are designed as “regenerative spaces” and that “connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.”
One such structure might be Spheres, Amazon’s downtown Seattle office that opened earlier this year. As reported by Fortune, it was conceived specifically to encourage creativity among employees. The building features some 40,000 plants ensconced in a rainforest-like space, a wooden meeting area that more closely resembles a bird’s nest than your typical conference room, and other biophilic elements.
Amazon isn’t the only company to incorporate biophilic living in their workspace’s design. As reported by Fast Company, Second Home, a coworking space in Lisbon, Portugal, made sure that its office would be a haven for creative companies. After adding more than 2,000 plants, including species after species of potted plants that line the hallways, the company went a step further with vaulted ceilings and a ventilation system, which mimic a greenhouse and the way air moves in nature, respectively.
People working in any of these spaces are experiencing biophilic urbanism, which is the philosophy that rather than ditching technology and moving to rural areas, we can embrace our increasingly urban lifestyle, with all its sounds, sights, and smells, simply by adding biophilia to our environment. As Biophilic Cities notes, cities around the world are already beginning to incorporate biophilia into their holistic efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. For example, Madrid has begun covering its vacant lots, bare roofs, and sidewalks with plants and trees to reduce temperatures by several degrees in the hottest parts of the year while also helping the city retain its scarce rainwater. Similarly, Mexico City has invested in green walls and rooftops with the dual goal of improving air quality and combating food insecurity. Elementary schools in the U.S. and around the globe are installing gardens to feed their students healthy produce and teach about health and sustainability while also inspiring an interest in cooking.
As these kids learn to cook, they might enter yet another space in which biophilia proliferates: nature-themed cooking and dining. Trend Hunter notes that, because consumers are demanding foods that are natural but still fast and flavorful, biophilic cooking and dining can be found all over the world in the form of restaurants stacked high with greenery and herbs, rooftop gardens that provide the fresh vegetables in your meal, and even in the rising trend of organic fast-food or fast-casual restaurants. Amy’s Kitchen, the original healthy-yet-convenient source of organic frozen food, recently opened a fast-casual vegan burger spot, Amy’s Drive Thru, on a strip of California highway that also features fast-food staples such as McDonald’s. The success of the flagship Rohnert Park restaurant has Amy’s Drive Thru planning to expand around the state—and the country.
By now, you probably understand that every aspect of life can be influenced by biophilia, and that includes the clothes you wear. “We’ve seen more performance and lifestyle brands look to nature and organisms, more specifically for performance wear, especially waterproofing,” say McGee and Marshall. Just as in architecture, emerging technology is allowing nature to influence our clothing in new ways. For example, because Modern Meadow is conscious of the fact that fashion is the world’s second-most environmentally unfriendly industry, the startup has biofabricated an alternative to leather. The new material, called Zoa, is created from yeast, which can be engineered to work similarly to the collagen found in animal skin.
Another example is Plant the Future, a design firm and retailer that draws its inspiration from nature. Aside from designing biophilic retail spaces for the likes of Starbucks, Plant the Future has also collaborated with fashion designers Annette and Daniela Felder to create artistic looks such as a coral-infused jacket and crowns made from shells and plants.
For even more biophilia in fashion and design, check out Nature by Design: The Practice of Biophilic Design.
Is biophilia here to stay?
Remember that Influenster report on green beauty? It stated that the increasing demand for organic and natural products is particularly strong within one category of consumers: Generation Z. They’re the most likely to consider green beauty products effective—but that’s not the only reason they purchase these products. They’re also concerned about both their own health and the health of the planet.
If we’ve learned anything about the intersection of biophilia with design, technology, fashion, skincare, and more, it’s that our efforts are always evolving. McGee and Marshall are careful to note that as biophilia proliferates, it’s important to remember that the concept is about so much more than just “hugging plants.”
“[Biophilia is] about engaging our senses in ways we evolved to live and connecting us to the natural world we are a part of,” they say. “We still don’t know a lot about our brains, and the research is showing some subtle and interesting findings.”
Here are a few books on biophilia that will help you deepen your knowledge. In fact, we consider these the only books you need to read.
Biophilia, by Edward O. Wilson
- Biophilia is Edward O. Wilson's most personal book, an evocation of his own response to nature and an eloquent statement of the conservation ethic. Wilson argues that our natural affinity for life―biophilia―is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species.
Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life by Stephen R. Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador
- This book offers a paradigm shift in how we design and build our buildings and our communities, one that recognizes that the positive experience of natural systems and processes in our buildings and constructed landscapes is critical to human health, performance, and well-being. Biophilic design is about humanity's place in nature and the natural world's place in human society,where mutuality, respect, and enriching relationships can and should exist at all levels and should emerge as the norm rather than the exception.
The Biophilia Hypothesis by Edward O. Wilson and Stephen R. Kellert
- The editors draw together a collection of scholarly essays both supporting and refuting the biophilia concept, a term coined by Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson to describe humankind's innate affiliation with nature.