A Natural Cure For Urban Stress

Biophilic design could hold the key to building better cities.

Idyllic outdoor scenes are often associated with peace, calm and relaxation. Turns out there might be a good reason for that.

Modern city living requires thousands of tiny decisions and judgment calls that tax our attention and deplete our energy, ranging from dodging traffic to checking email. According to some of the world’s leading urban planning experts, finding the antidote to urban ennui is a walk in the park. Literally.

Studies have shown that our connection to nature plays an important role in our mental health and well-being. Harvard University conservationist E.O. Wilson describes the instinctive human need to connect with nature as “biophilia”. This primal drive is the impetus behind a growing practice of “biophilic design”, a movement that aims to integrate natural features into our buildings and urban areas.

True biophilic design is more than just planting some trees and stopping to smell the roses. The ultimate focus is creating natural spaces, designed to facilitate contemplation and allow us to recharge our exhausted attentional stores.

What separates a biophilic city from one that’s simply biodiverse? In his book Biophilic Cities, researcher and author Timothy Beatley tells us what a true biophilic city looks like:

“It is a place that learns from nature and emulates natural systems, incorporates natural forms and images into its buildings and cityscapes, and designs and plans in conjunction with nature.”

A recent study aims to take this concept one step further and define what aspects of a natural environment foster the contemplative mindset that our psyche so desperately craves. By analyzing different photographs of urban parks and natural areas, researchers identified the exact features that trigger contemplation and rejuvenation. Their findings suggest people have relatively consistent views on what types of environments reduce stress and encourage a meditative state:

  • Panoramic vistas with long-distance views (more than 400 metres) like those found in Nose Hill and Fish Creek Park.
  • Large, open spaces. Think Prairie Winds Park, Edworthy Park or any of the Calgary’s riverside pathways.
  • Natural asymmetry, such as the view of the river through Weaselhead Park or the cliffs of Sandy Beach.
  • Stimulating skylines like the tree-lined hills and mountain views of Fish Creek park.

Now that these features have been identified, modern planners are hoping to incorporate these findings into contemporary urban design moving forward. As psychology professor and self-professed “environmental neuroscientist” Marc Berman says,

“You can design the built environment in more informed ways.”

While many biophilic features exist naturally in Calgary, leveraging this type of evidence-based design can help further integrate them into our growing city. As part of the Enmax Legacy Parks program, for example, City Council has approved a $75-million injection into Calgary’s parks system. This will support a series of enhancements to existing green spaces and catalyze new green space developments in all four quadrants of the city over the next five years.

In addition to the improvement and construction of parks, Parks Foundation Calgary (PFC) plans to build on the city’s nearly 1,000km of paths with its Rotary/Mattamy Greenway project. Once completed, the Greenway will be a network of 138km of pathways that will encircle the city. Instead of simply building paths, PFC plans to add unique amenities such as specialty off-leash dog areas, family fitness parks, educational wetland interpretive areas, and unique play structures along the way.

All of these efforts will add to Calgary’s already significant green space and ensure that Calgarians have plenty of places to contemplate, rejuvenate and escape the stresses of city life. As the era of biophilia begins, you can rest easy knowing that our city is well ahead of the curve.

March 3rd, 2015
Updated: September 14th, 2017

Biophilic design unlocks the secret to improving city life.