May 9, 2011

Book Review: Biophilic Cities by Timothy Beatley

 I enjoyed Timothy Beatley's book Green Urbanism, so I was enthusiastic to read his latest, Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature into Urban Design and Planning.

The term biophilia is probably familiar to those who have read E. O. Wilson or Stephen Kellert. Wilson originally developed the concept in his 1984 book Biophilia. A decade later, in 1993, The Biophilia Hypothesis by Kellert and Wilson was published. Beatley defines biophilia as “the extent to which humans are hardwired to need connection with nature and other forms of life.” The biophilic city is a city that is full of nature (“nature-ful”).  In Chapter 2, Beatley narrates where nature in cities are: above us, at the ground level, and below us. It exists in different sizes and forms. Some of this nature is remnant and some is designed.  Furthermore, biophilic cities have developed strategies to foster a “nature-ful” state, to provide access to and knowledge of nature in cities.

While Beatley argues that “there is no single or definitive definition” of a biophilic city, he outlines the components of this type of city, offering a list of potential indicators. A biophilic city could be measured by its biophilic conditions and infrastructure (ex: percentage of city land area in wild or semi-wild nature or number of community gardens and garden plots); activities (ex: percentage of population engaged in nature restoration and volunteer efforts or extent of recess and outdoor playtime in schools); attitudes and knowledge (ex: percentage of population that can recognize common species of native flora and fauna); and institutions and governance (ex: priority given to environmental education or number of city-supported biophilic pilot projects and initiatives). Each of these dimensions and measures are grounded with cases from around the world (see Chapter 3, pages 50-81).

The design and planning of a biophilic city occurs at several scales; the primary ones are the region, the city, the neighborhood, and the building. In Chapter 4 (Biophilic Urban Design and Planning), Beatley argues that “[t]he best biophilic cities are places where these different scales overlap and reinforce biophilic behaviors and lifestyles….” This is my favorite chapter in the book. Each scale is addressed separately but Beatley deftly makes the connections among them. Restoration and designing anew are giving equal footing in Beatley’s discussion of nature cities. Also, he does not rely on the “usual suspects” to illustrate the four scales or the design elements of each scale. Some examples are the Ballard Public Library’s green roof in Seattle (building), Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. (block/school), Teardrop Park in New York City (neighborhood), San Luis Creek in San Luis Obispo (community), Understenshojden, Sweden’s eco-village (new development), and Hannover, Germany’s “green ring” (region). Urban agriculture is one of Beatley’s “biophilic urban design strategies” and he discusses the Montreal Rooftop Garden Project, the vegetable gardens at McGill University, Community Roots in South Boulder, and Urban Farm in Phoenix. Like Green Urbanism, most of the cases in this book are located in North America, Europe, and Australia. Buildings in Zimbabwe (page 54) and Abu Dhabi (page 60) are featured in the book.

The list of biophilic projects and initiatives is impressive given the regulatory and socio-cultural barriers that Beatley outlines in Chapter 5. Beatley points to San Francisco sidewalk gardens program; City Repair in Portland (Oregon); and New York City’s Summer Streets as examples of relaxing engineering standards “while also protecting human health and safety.” On the socio-cultural side, barriers are aesthetic in nature as well as stemming from “fears about nature itself” and fear of danger and harm from other humans.” Jane Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” is invoked but Beatley also offers community policing and a volunteer trail watch program in Anchorage, Alaska as community institutions that have worked to allay fears of being in the environment. Two fascinating aspects to this chapter are Beatley’s examination of new roles for existing institutions and the role of urban leaders in mainstreaming the biophilic city. An example of a new (biophilic) role for an existing institution is one that may be familiar to some of you. A traditional horticultural society, in this case, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, created several urban (inner city) greening programs under its Philadelphia (Philly) Green program.

Beatley argues that [m]ayoral leadership…has been essential in a number of larger cities….” He points to New York City’s Bloomberg (think PlaNYC) and Chicago’s Daley (think green roofs and Millennium Park) as well as Seoul’s Lee Myung-bak (creek daylighting) and Curitiba’s Jaime Lerner (invented bus rapid transit). Leadership is not limited to mayors; architect Jane Martin was influential in San Francisco’s redesigned permit for sidewalk gardening, for example.

Beatley begins Biophilic Cities with thorough review of the literature on nature benefits and ends the book with future research questions (budding scholars take notice).  In his concluding Chapter 6, he also provides examples of how technology can be used to actually experience urban nature more regularly.  I will end this review with an extended quote from this chapter:
There is a remarkable amount of nature in and around cities, and in addition to creating more environmentally sustainable urban areas it can and should serve as the foundation for deeper, more meaningful lives….It is a different concept of nature from the more Arcadian notions that tend to underpin our national park system, for instance. It is a nature that has been heavily impacted by the human hand yet no less sheltering and restorative of mind and spirit. And increasingly it is a designed nature, as when we seek to include green elements such as green rooftops and vertical gardens.

The extent of the wildness will depend on where in the metropolitan area we are looking, of course: In the very dense core of a large city it will be harder to see it and to nurture it, but easier perhaps on the edge. But cities must increasingly be understood as essential to preserving and restoring nature, for instance, by reducing the size and land area consumed by buildings and hard spaces, and at the same time integrating new nature into those cities (from sidewalk gardens to vertical green walls, to recycling urbanized land into new wildlife habitats) and creating the conditions essential for a biophilic form of living that facilitate and nudge urbanites to live healthier, more physically active outdoor lives (emphasis added).
I would like to see a biophilic cities website of the cases in the book as well as an interface where readers could add their own examples of biophilic design elements. If you are interested in the concept of designing nature in cities, check out our nature making [pdf] project. Finally, our thanks to Jamie Jennings and Meghan Bartels at Island Press for a review copy of Biophillic Cities.

Stay tuned for reviews of Seeds: One Man's Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton by Richard Horan and Under Cape Cod Waters by Ethan Daniels.  We have reviewed Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities by Peter Harnik and Flora Mirabilis by Catherine Herbert Howell.

4 comments:

  1. Great review! I've been wondering about this book, I had read E. O. Wilson's initial book but not the others on the theory. I will certainly pick this one up.

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  2. Thanks Kelly. Beatley is the keynote speaker at Urban Wildlife 2011 http://urbanwildlife2011.tpwd.state.tx.us/speakers.php.

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  3. Heya¡­my very first comment on your site. ,I have been reading your blog for a while and thought I would completely pop in and drop a friendly note. . It is great stuff indeed. I also wanted to ask..is there a way to subscribe to your site via email?

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  4. Tamilnadu Cities, welcome.

    I will add an email subscription option -- look in the sidebar, and thank you for the suggestion.

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