From parking garage walls carpeted in plants to small lot urban gardens, there are a number of ways that urban areas are becoming more biophilic.

Topic: Other Planning Resilience Type: Essay

Biophilic Cities – say what?

Authors: Molly Mowery

Last month I attended the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s 24th annual conference. Although this year’s theme was “Western Places/ Western Spaces – Building Fair & Resilient Communities,” the opening keynote presentation by Dr. Timothy Beatley had a much broader message for all communities: make them biophilic!

If you’re anything like me, my first reaction was: bio, say what? Beatley, an acclaimed sustainability professor and author, quickly enlightened us. Showing us slides of vibrant urban environments draped with green vegetation, Beatley walked the audience through a number of examples from around the world in which cities have taken the initiative to re-introduce nature into the everyday pedestrian experience.

The term biophilia as explained by conservationist E.O. Wilson in his 1993 book, Biophilia, is “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Biophilic cities are places that promote this deeper concept of integrating nature into everyday experiences, providing humans with a greater sense of connectedness and meaning. Almost a dozen international cities are highlighted on the Biophilic Cities blog, a resource that explains the biophilic movement in detail. Examples include Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oslo, Phoenix and Singapore.

As I listened to Beatley’s presentation, I had a few of my own reflections. I have always welcomed the experience and wonder of living in places where nature is abundant. Edinburgh, Scotland, was one of my favorite cities to live in, an environment rich with urban vegetation. Living in Colorado, I can’t help but ask myself what’s appropriate for urban areas in the West that might have challenges with drought and wildfire risk? How do you encourage plant life when water resources are limited and vegetation near buildings can increase their vulnerability to ignition?

Intuitively I believe there are solutions where nature can be abundant and compatible in western contexts. Indeed, we have science on ignition zones to guide us; we also have myriad examples of river restoration, rainwater harvesting, and desert/green roof initiatives. Fitting the biophilic model into dry western places is still, however, going to look different than a lush urban parking garage with plants carpeting the concrete wall. As the biophilic cities movement grows, I anticipate that new examples will emerge to showcase and embrace these differences.

Acknowledging our unique landscapes and local conditions is also something we strive to do with the FAC Learning Network. We know that fire adaptation will look differently across the country, not just because of the ecosystems but the cultures that shape each place. Tying the human experience with nature is an important aspect of what motivates us to take action to enhance our environment.

 In the spirit of biophilia, Happy Earth Day!

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