Biophilia in YYC

And the Best Architect Award goes to: Mother Nature.

At first glance, the idea is simple: nature makes people feel, well… more natural. Connecting with nature makes us happy, relaxed and empowered. Or, as Edward O. Wilson put it in the 1980s: 

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” 

In 1973 psychoanalyst Erich Fromm coined the term “biophilia” to account for this idea. Urban design has a lot to learn from the concept of biophilia, and many cities – Calgary included – are already taking huge strides in this direction. 

Before we go on, it’s important to distinguish the principles of biophilic design from those of biodiversity. Not only does biophilia promote the “living-alongside-ness” of humans and all sorts of animals, it implies something more about human-made structures: they should mimic, and above all not interfere, with natural systems. Examples might include more opportunities for natural light, locally sourced materials, and/or careful arrangement around pre-existing wildlife habitats. In short, biophilic design shifts focus from humans first, to nature throughout.

In this video, Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life, we learn about how our mental and physical wellbeing depends on integrating nature into our cities. Interacting with nature leads to contemplation, rejuvenation and cognitive strength. Buildings designed with biophilic principles at the forefront include hospitals where people heal faster, schools where students’ test scores are higher, communities that thrive and offices that boost productivity. Human structures composed in this way will function sustainably for generations, in part due to their thoughtful materials and futuristic technology, and in part because we humans are more motivated to look after them.

Calgary has several current projects, and some on the horizon, that take the concept of biophilia seriously. First, let’s take a look at our ultra-cool up-and-coming New Central Library.

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The silver lining of the devastating Alberta floods of 2013 is the launch of thoughtful, modern, and sustainable projects like the NCL. Industry is working with The City of Calgary and the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) to produce a green building down to every last detail. All the design decisions are made to support the overall goal of flexible, natural workspaces, “from the fabric on chairs to the door handles on meeting rooms.” The geometric exterior cladding is “inspired by Chinook arches,” and the internal functions of this building will meet the highest, futuristic technological standards while remaining largely invisible.

Nearby is the 31-acre park in East Village called St. Patrick’s Island. After a year of research that took 6000 Calgarians’ opinions into consideration, the CMLC embarked on redeveloping this long neglected space. 

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Revitalizing the island was a challenge. After literally 60+ years of underuse, river channels needed reversing, and native plant and animal species reintroducing. Not to mention, crews were needed to remove contaminated ground before restoring the area with rich, clean soil.

At an extra cost and difficulty, water channels were restored to allow us to dip our toes in the river if we please, a small, but essential biophilic decision that helped it win the 2015 Top Project Award for Alberta.

Upcoming projects include a $75 million upgrade to existing parks and green spaces throughout the city thanks to the Enmax Legacy Parks program, and Parks Foundation Calgary (PFC), with plans to build 1000km of paths to encircle the city. The next five years will see more off-leash dog parks, more family fitness parks, unique play structures and even interpretive centres. 

Lastly, though it may sound gruesome, since 2005 the city has been keeping painstaking records of all road kill found and removed within the city limits. The numbers are striking, and meaningfully impact the legislation of future infrastructure and development planning within our urban frame. Innovative, biophilic structures like the wildlife crossings in Banff, show not only our ability as a species to respect and work along side other species, but reduces the burden on municipal funds. It costs over $6000 to remove and dispose of deer carcasses on roadsides, which really adds up considering there were 558 hits in 2016 alone.

It will take generations for cities to completely embrace sustainable, nature-first design into municipal planning standards, but in the mean time, Calgarians can celebrate the innovative brushes with nature we’ve already built into our lives.  



July 13th, 2017
Updated: September 18th, 2017

Our first tastes of biophilic design make YYC better.