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Leaf Litter Talks "Biophilic Cities" with Timothy Beatley

Find out why this professor believes cities are our best hope for addressing today’s environmental challenges.

By Amy Nelson

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Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities Department of Urban and Environmental Planning, School of Architecture, University of  Virginia

Tim Beatley believes that sustainable and resilient cities represent our best hope for addressing today’s environmental challenges. For more than 25 years, Tim Beatley has studied, taught, and written about the subject of sustainable urban communities, and creative strategies by which cities and towns can fundamentally reduce their ecological footprints while becoming more livable and equitable places. He is the author or co-author of more than 15 books, including Ethical Land Use, which was declared one of the “100 Essential Books in Planning” by the American Planning Association.

In the 1990s, Beatley moved to the Netherlands for a year in order to study the progress and policies of 25 European cities leading the way in sustainable planning and design. In his book Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities, he shared both lessons and inspiration gained from that experience. With the 2012 publication of Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism, which he edited, Beatley adds new information and insight to this powerful discussion.  Beatley also shares effective strategies from other corners of the globe. He has co-authored two books with Australian planner Peter Newman: Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under: Learning From Sustainable Australian Communities. He has collaborated on numerous films about green cities and urban nature, including The Nature of Cities.

Beatley’s more recent work focuses on the integration of “biophilia” in urban planning and design. The term biophilia, popularized by Harvard University myrmecologist E.O. Wilson, is the idea that humans have an innate need to connect with nature, a built in “love” for living things. In his book Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning, Beatley argues that cities can and must be designed to permit daily contact with the natural world. Beatley outlines the essential elements of a biophilic city and provides examples and stories about cities that have successfully integrated biophilic elements – from the building to the regional level – around the world. From urban ecological networks and connected systems of urban greenspace, to green rooftops, green walls and sidewalk gardens, Biophilic Cities reviews the emerging practice of biophilic urban design and planning and tells many compelling stories of individuals and groups working hard to transform cities from gray and lifeless to green and biodiverse. Beatley has continued this exploration with the creation of the Biophilic Cities Project. Initially a research initiative funded by the Summit Foundation and the George Mitchell Foundation, Biophilic Cities is a growing network of cities striving to advance the theory and practice of planning for biophilic cities through collaborative research, dialogue and exchange.

You wrote in Biophilic Cities: “The way we design and live in cities is critical to our response to climate change and our future global sustainability.” Broadly speaking, what role can cities play in attaining global sustainability?  

When we think about the huge challenges of transitioning away from fossil fuels in the direction of renewables and trying to deal with global reductions in the availability of oil, water and food, cities must be at the fore. We are an urbanized planet now. When we think about where consumption takes place, where greenhouse gasses are emitted, and where energy is consumed, we have to focus our attention on cities. At the same time, cities represent the best possible hope we have for reaching a more sustainable condition and for living richly with a smaller ecological footprint. The urban frame is remarkably important in addressing the whole set of sustainability challenges we are facing.

Much of your work has focused on lessons we can learn about sustainable urban planning and design from European cities. Why/how did European cities emerge as leaders in this area?

One could argue that in places like Denmark and the Netherlands, where there isn’t room to sprawl, they have had to find ways to live more sustainably and compactly. But it is much more complicated than that. There certainly is the fact of having a long history of living in cities and recognizing the virtues and values of urban life. In the U.S., we so heavily subsidized and supported the dependence of automobiles and the expansion of highways. The commitment to the car happened later in European cities, and Europeans have been much more sensible about the signals they send when it comes to the consumption of gasoline. They tax in a significant way at the pump and then invest that income in good public transit. Some would also argue that their political systems give more voice to green interests. In places like Freiberg, Germany and Copenhagen, green values are much more prominent in the political setting than they are in America. There are a variety of reasons [for Europe’s emergence as a leader in sustainable urban planning and design], but what it means for us is that we can go to these places for inspiration about what is possible.

To write the book Green Urbanism, you visited 30 cities in 11 European countries and interviewed more than 200 officials from these cities.  More recently, you edited Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism, in which you brought together leading experts in sustainable urban planning and design.  What are some the key lessons we can learn from Europe, and how have those lessons changed in years between these books?

When we were launching the book Green Cities of Europe in 2013, I actually wrote a blog post that answers that question!

In the late 1990s, when my wife and I moved to the Dutch city of Leiden, we suddenly found ourselves in this place that I, as a planning professor, had been talking and theorizing about– a remarkable, walkable, compact city. I didn’t need to drive anywhere. In fact, we had transported a car with us and didn’t need or want it. One lesson I learned was the many ways in which that basic urban form, which is sometimes taken for granted in these European cities, touches our lives in so many ways. In the U.S., there is a lot of interest in the concept of healthy neighborhoods and communities. We’re trying to figure out how to overcome sedentary lifestyles and get people out of cars and exercising.  It is very hard to do that in the American setting. In Leiden [by contrast], my wife and I were getting all of the physical exercise we needed in the normal course of our day. Creating the basic urban form that is going to allow us to live compactly with less reliance on cars is part of the answer.

The best European cities, like Freiberg and Copenhagen, try to address the whole range of urban sustainability issues comprehensively. It’s not just energy, water, or transportation; it is all of these things seen as an interconnected whole. It requires understanding the entire city as a kind of ecosystem with a “metabolism.” Then, we begin to make connections between transportation, land use, and energy, and design things in ways that acknowledge that interconnected metabolism. Many Scandinavian cities are exploring the idea of a circular metabolism, where they rethink the concept of waste. For example, wastewater coming from a neighborhood could be the source of bio-gas that could be used as fuel in a combined heat and power station. In nature, there is nothing wasted, so as a city, we should aspire to that as well. The biggest lesson I have learned from these best European cities, is the ways in which they are reimaging the very idea of a city so that it can be understood in terms of this metabolism.

One city featured in both Green Urbanism: Learning from European Cities and Green Cities of Europe: Global Lessons on Green Urbanism, is Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain. One of three Basque cities, Vitoria-Gasteiz is known for having a very strong cultural identity. Do you think this strength contributed to the city’s emergence a leader in sustainability?

That is an interesting question because in Vitoria, there is a seamless connection between the deep cultural landscape, the rich history of the place, and the many things they are doing right now. Vitoria is the capital of the Basque country, so it is an important center that binds the region together. The municipality’s jurisdiction extends far, into mountains and forest.

In recent history, Vitoria has created an inner green ring that encircles the city and an outer green ring that follows ancient shepherd routes. A network of trails links the two rings and allows people to hike small or great distances. People go on very long walks on these trails. What we might describe as a landscape conservation strategy the people of Vitoria just see as normal. It is normal to understand and protect your history and your connections to place.

That said, there are a lot of other reasons whey Vitoria has emerged as a green and sustainable city. Last year, they were the European Green Capital, a prestigious designation for which many European cities now compete. In almost every issue, Vitoria seems to be leading the way. More than 50% of the trips made in that city are made on foot. They have a good public transit. By all conventional measures, they are doing very well. Your readers can learn a lot more about Vitoria-Gasteiz on the European Green Capital web site and in the book Green Cities of Europe.

© Biophilic Cities

In Green Urbanism, which came out in 2000, you proposed what was then a “different new urbanism,” one that is “dramatically more ecological in design and functioning and has ecological limits at its core.  In the book Biophilic Cities(2011), you explore urban design and planning that goes beyond “green design and ecological interventions” and actually fosters closeness to nature and entices people to actively restore, protect, understand, and enjoy it.  You have been studying and writing about urban planning & design for over 25 years. Biophilia was first introduced in the 1980s. What prompted you to reframe your discussion of urban planning & design around biophilia, and why now?

Biophilia has always made sense and been compelling to me. There are a couple of things that [prompted me to reframe the discussion around biophilia]. First, it was a growing concern that the kinds of buildings, neighborhoods, and places we were constructing under the concept of “sustainable/green” were not particularly green in a literal sense. We’d get fantastic, energy-efficient buildings, yet they seemed very sterile and not very connected to the life of our earth. That growing anxiety motivated me to circle around again and make sure that in our agenda of sustainable urbanism we pay sufficient attention to the essential connection that we need to have with the natural world in order to be healthy and happy, and to live meaningful lives. I had been feeling that anxiety for a long time when, around 2006, Stephen Kellert organized a biophilic conference through Yale. It was a “who’s who” in sustainable design and planning circles, and it helped to crystallize my understanding about biophilia and its importance in framing things. The conference led to the publication of Biophilic Design, a book of papers that were produced at the conference.

It is essential for us to understand the psychological, emotional, deep connection to nature that we need to have. I find biophilia a better way of talking about things because it emphasizes that there is an affective, emotional connection to nature, that we have co-evolved w/the natural world, and carry it with us our ancient brains. In some ways, the practice that follows from that is not all that different. Green roofs, green walls, and many of the things we’d now refer to as biophilic design elements, were already happening.  We were already talking about green infrastructure, for instance. A concept like green infrastructure is great, but to me, it emphasizes the utilitarian dimensions of that wetland, tree, or forest—it is doing a service for us, and we need it for that purpose only. But that nature is absolutely essential to who we are, how happy and creative we are, and how much meaning we have in our lives. A city that is biophilic is not simply a place that has done a lot of things to enhance the green infrastructure. It’s a place that understands itself as a natural home, where people are connected to nature all around them every minute, every hour. It is where we are conscious of the need to foster those connections to nature to stay healthy and happy.

One would think that even those who have never heard of biophilia, or those who disagree with E.O. Wilson, would not argue that the more you’re able to foster that kind of connection and engage people, the more likely any initiative is to be sustainable, particularly in a city, which is full of people…right?

Yes, but the evidence [supporting the theory of biophilia] just gets stronger and stronger. We all feel it deep inside. We go outside and have short experiences in the natural world, and we feel better. We kind of know that nature has this power for us, but the research is mounting. Everything from new European studies using EEG portable caps which show that certain parts of the brain that light up when we walk in parks to studies showing that we score higher on creativity indices when we are in the presence of nature. There is also evidence that we are more likely to exhibit generosity in the presence of nature. On so many levels, we’re more likely to be better human beings in and around nature.

Tell us about the Biophilic Cities project and what is happening with it today.

The Biophilic Cities Project is about exploring the different ways in which cities and built environments can be designed to foster connections with the natural environment. Much of the work over last two years has happened in collaboration with 10 partners cities, around the US and the world. In cities like Singapore, San Francisco and Wellington, New  Zealand, we have been trying to collect consistent data and GIS layers, on the way to developing more comprehensive metrics for defining and monitoring biophilic cities.

And we have been spending a lot of time just trying to understand what our partner cities are doing and documenting the tools, practices, and planning strategies they have been using to incorporate and foster nature. We are also trying to tell these many stories of biophilic cities in compelling wells, such as through films (see, for instance, our film about Wellington)

The Biophilic Cities project is coming on two years of funding from the Summit Foundation, and we just held our big conference. But we called the conference our “launch” event, because we are trying to launch a global network of biophilic cities. We have our ten partner cities that have been working with us for two years, but we want to go beyond this small group of collaborating cities and take it to a global scale.

We just posted a blog summary of the Biophilic Cities conference and launch.  In the weeks that have followed the Launch event we have been exploring different ways that the network might work, how cities might join, and what we expect of those participating in the network. We prepared a preliminary pledge statement for the Launch (found on the blog) and we are working on revisions to that. We envision a set of peer cities (as well as individuals and organizations) that will help to drive and advance the global biophilic cities movement. , We’d love for many cities to join us in this network and in this challenge of imagining cities full of nature, where connections to the natural world are naturally cultivated and fostered as a key principle of urban life.

If cities are interested in being involved in the Biophilic Cities network, what should they do?

We will soon unveil a web-based mechanism that will let anyone join the network, whether as an individual or a representing a city or organization. At the October conference, we drafted a pledge statement.

In the book Biophilic Cities, you propose a set of indicators of a biophilic city and you cluster them in four categories: Conditions & Infrastructure (e.g., miles per capita of walking trails); Activities (e.g., % of population in nature clubs); Attitudes & Knowledge (e.g., % of population that can identify a common species); and Institutions & Governance (e.g., budget allocations). Can you share some real examples for each category?

First, I should say that we are still very much developing the metrics of what a biophilic city is or could be.

Conditions  & Infrastructure

Oslo © Biophilic Cities

This category is about the presence of nature, and there are all types of metrics you can use. The European Green Capital application now requires that every city indicate what percentage of their population lies within 300 meters of a park or green space. So that’s one indicator. There are indicators that have to do with percentage of land area covered in some form of green. One of our partner cities is Oslo, Norway, where virtually every resident is within a few hundred meters of a park or green space. Two thirds of the area of Oslo is protected forest, and getting people to those large, forested areas is a priority for the city. They have a very elaborate network of urban trails, and they even site transit stations at the edge of the forest.

We have remarkable indicators in places like Singapore. Singapore has accommodated a major increase in population over the last 15 years, yet their percentage of green cover, based on Landsat imagery, has actually gone up.

Singapore has set aside significant areas of parkland and has worked to connect them to urbanites through a 200 Km-long Park Connectors system, with much of this pedestrian network in the form of elevated walkways and bridges.

The city has been pioneering the use of vertical greening measures, including green walls, and has even created a Skyrise Greening division within the Singapore Parks Board.  Singpore now incorporates into their planning standards a requirement that you replace whatever footprint you are taking [from nature] by incorporating it into this vertical realm.

There is a new office building called Solaris, designed by architect Ken Yeang,  where they have designed a kilometer and a half of forested belt that circles the building as it moves up.  We recently created a film about Singapore which your readers might enjoy: Singapore: Biophilic City.


It isn’t just the presence or absence of nature in a city that makes it biophilic; it is the degree to which people in the city are engaged and connected to nature. While it has been easiest for us to gauge the presence or absence of nature, and we have made great strides to do that in many cities, this category is more challenging to measure. How much time are people spending outside? Are they participating in nature in some way? Are they part of a stream restoration group? Are they bird watching? Do they belong to a native plant group? We have been talking about having some kind of survey or cataloging of what people do during their day using cell phone technology. We are still in the beginning of trying to understand this, but it is a very important metric.

One indicator might be a very high number of people involved in bird watching, for example. Portland, Oregon, is one of our partner cities. The head of the Portland chapter of the Audubon Society just told me that they have an incredibly large membership despite the relatively small size of the city. We have a lot of work to do in order to comprehensively understand how a citizenry is engaged in nature, but it is a very important metric.

Attitudes and Knowledge

We have done surveys that show that people do not recognize very common species of trees, birds, and flowers. I often give a survey in which I show a slide of a Silver-spotted Skipper, a very common species of butterfly here. I have given this survey hundreds of times, and only a couple of people have given me the correct answer. Most respondents tell me that it is a moth, or a monarch butterfly. It doesn’t look anything like a monarch butterfly! I have even had people identify it as a hummingbird.  There is a literacy dimension to this, and the knowledge certainly goes along with the activity.

How much do we care about the nature around us? How much value does it have for us? Do we celebrate and treasure it? Are we curious about it? A culture of curiosity is a key dimension of a biophilic city, and we can make it easier for people to be curious.

We recently filmed Mexican free-tailed bats in Austin, Texas, which is the largest urban bat colony in the world – a million and a half bats. When it was discovered that these bats had taken residence under the Congress Avenue Bridge, the first reaction was to eradicate them. But over time, that changed, thanks to good work of Bat Conservation International and others who helped change the view of that creature. That new sensibility about bats – the curiosity…interest–one could say “love”– reflects the kind of attitude that is in line with what we think of a biophilic city. Today, people come to Austin from all over to see those bats. They actually generate tourism dollars. There are bat-watching dinner cruises up the Lower Colorado River!

Institutions & Governance

National History Museum, London

We do not yet have great measures for this category, but the commitment of local government would represent one important metric. For example, what percentage of a budget goes towards nature or supporting the education about nature? What percentage goes toward restoration and conservation?

[The presence and strength] of the cornerstone institutions in a community can be another measurement for biophilia. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which has become a partner city, has just opened the third branch of a local ecology center. Other cities have natural history museums, which have a huge role in fostering awareness of and education about nature.  It would be great if we could measure all of these aspects of governance, implementation, and the flow of resources in the direction of nature in a city.

Have you considered environmental justice in developing the indicators of a biophilic city? Not just percentages and numbers, but fairness in distribution?

Funny you should mention that. Environmental justice is addressed in the book Biophilic Cities, but perhaps not as prominently as it should be. At the Biophilic Cities Project launch in October, we had a great keynote address by Jennifer Wolch, Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. She made the point that in advancing the biophilic cities agenda, there are a number of marginalized groups whose interests need to be taken into account. She has done a lot of work in Southern California looking at disparities in access to parks. There is a profound equity concern. Environmental justice is implicit in some of the biophilic cities metrics but we want to make sure that the least advantaged neighborhoods in a city are most benefitting from the power of nature. It is in those places where nature is needed the most. There is a very important equity and justice dimension to this. “Biophilia for whom?” is what we might ask.

In Green Urbanism, you looked at urban ecocycles (input/output) but I didn’t see that–or even energy –specifically mentioned among  the biophilic city indicators. Why not?

Urban cities require all kinds of metabolic flows. Food, energy, water, building materials, etc. All of these things come from somewhere, and they often have a huge impact on nature and biodiversity. I think we ought to include some kind of measure to include the impacts on the natural world on the resource demand that cities create.  That is a good point. A biophilic city is a city that cares about nature anywhere in the world. New York City, which had a recent history of buying a billion dollars worth of tropical hardwoods, now has a policy discouraging the purchase of tropical hardwoods.  That one procurement policy has a huge potential impact on nature.  If cities are to be biophilic, they must think carefully about their consumption and metabolic streams. [A biophilic city’s] love of nature, that bond with nature, is one that understands a commitment beyond its boundaries.

Based on your research, what are the key barriers to achieving biophilic cities?

There are many different kinds of barriers that cities face in becoming more biophilic. Often the biggest initial barrier is a failure to imagine how profoundly wild and full of nature dense urban neighborhoods can actually be, and how much nature is already around us in cities (we still have a kind of bifurcated view of the world—cities and nature as polar opposites). There are the obstacles of perceived cost (though the stress-reducing and other benefits from nature in cities is a very cost-effective investment) and city codes that may make it difficult to apply some biophilic urban design ideas. And there are the mighty challenges of gaining the time and attention of urbanites who may be more inclined to be online than outside listening to birds and watching dragonflies.  How we effectively foster a culture of curiosity and care about nature in cities remains a major challenge.

How receptive are students to the concept of biophilic cities?

Very well! I feel like we have touched a nerve. I am getting a number of inquiries about working on the Biophilic Cities project. We have a new PhD program here at the UVA School of Architecture starting in the fall. I have received a number of emails saying, “This is the subject I want to work on and make into my career.”  I am currently working on a syllabus for a brand new spring class called “Cities and Nature,” with a biophilic cities subtitle, and over 150 students have already enrolled. I’m not always keen to start a new lecture class, but there does seem to be an interest in this topic. Students are very receptive. They get it at a very personal level.

There are a lot of fantastic ways of pursuing sustainability. There are people working on it in the engineering school, law school, in the environmental science–all over the place. New water systems, low energy buildings…all of these are very important, but there is something profoundly visceral about the nature part of it. It just grabs us in a way that seems completely natural, and when it does, we realize almost immediately that is has been missing or is less present than it should be in our lives. There is something about this topic, at this particular point in time, that seems to resonate with students.

For more information on biophilic cities, please visit the Biophilic Cities web site. 

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