Bio­philia? I feel ya

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The word “hy­drophilic” has bounced around since 1901. Hy­bridized from the Greek roots for wa­ter (hy­dro) and love (phi­los), it means, “Pos­sess­ing an affin­ity for wa­ter.” Reg­u­lar read­ers of this col­umn may re­call ref­er­ences to hy­drophilic soils, plants, and wa­ter-har­vest­ing tech­niques. But please don’t worry if you’re new to this. You don’t have to be a per­ma­cul­ture prac­ti­tioner or an et­y­mol­o­gist to un­der­stand this month’s topic, bio­philic de­sign.

From bi­og­ra­phy and bi­ol­ogy, we know that “bio” means “life.” Bio­philic, there­fore, means pos­sess­ing an affin­ity for other forms of life. Har­vard en­to­mol­o­gist and uni­ver­sally renowned bi­ol­o­gist E. O. Wil­son coined the noun “bio­philia” in 1984 to present his hy­poth­e­sis that hu­man be­ings have an in­stinc­tual af­fec­tion for the nat­u­ral world.

Hav­ing worked closely with Wil­son, Yale pro­fes­sor of so­cial ecol­ogy Stephen Kellert was part of a team that edited a 2008 book called Bio­philic De­sign: The The­ory, Sci­ence, and Prac­tice of Bring- ing Build­ings to Life. With a new book, Na­ture by De­sign, to be pub­lished by Yale Univer­sity Press in 2017, Kellert is one of the key­note speak­ers at the Sept. 15-18 Santa Fe con­fer­ence of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Pro­fes­sional Land­scape De­sign­ers. Check out for con­fer­ence in­for­ma­tion. (Full dis­clo­sure: your faith­ful “Per­ma­cul­ture in Prac­tice” colum­nist will be speak­ing there, too.)

As it turns out, the sci­ence is pretty clear: Peo­ple heal faster, work more ef­fec­tively, learn more, and feel bet­ter when na­ture is used to soften our homes, work­places, civic spa­ces, and land­scapes. Our Carte­sian world of fences, walls, roads, util­ity boxes, and neigh­bors’ right-an­gled win­dows pro­vide many con­ve­niences, but when these rigid ar­ti­facts can be vis­ually deleted and re­placed by a splash of life, peo­ple re­ally dig it.

Al­ways want­ing to give you, dear reader, wis­dom di­rectly from the source, I tracked down Dr. Kellert via what might be called— but never is, nor ever will be again— tele­phonophilia.

“I’m a great be­liever in the benefits ap­proach,” Kellert, told me, “I don’t see bio­philic de­sign as a dis­pens­able amenity. It’s about our functioning as hu­man be­ings. If a project can’t demon­strate its ef­fi­cacy in terms of health and hu­man well­be­ing, then I don’t think it has the per­sua­sive value that it needs to have in or­der to em­body bio­philic de­sign.”

The Tweedy Ord­way Pro­fes­sor Emeritus from Yale’s School of Forestry and En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies went on to es­ti­mate that con­struc­tion costs in­crease in the neigh­bor­hood of 10 per­cent when bio­philic de­sign is ap­plied to con­ven­tional con­struc­tion. “But worker re­ten­tion and re­cruit­ment, en­hanced learn­ing, fewer sick days, and a gen­er­ally con­ge­nial en­vi­ron­ment can cer­tainly pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant re­turn on in­vest­ment,” he said.

Com­pared to per­ma­cul­ture, bio­philic de­sign tends to fo­cus less on food and en­ergy pro­duc­tion out­side a given struc­ture and more on user ex­pe­ri­ences in­side the built en­vi­ron­ment. Within the galaxy that is per­ma­cul­ture’s method of de­sign known as “zona­tion,” bio­philic de­sign pro­vides a so­lar sys­tem of sup­port for the im­por­tance of a healthy and life-filled zone 1, a zone that per­ma­cul­ture land­scape de­sign­ers tend to over­look too reg­u­larly. I feel ya, bio­philia. Thanks for the re­minder.

Nate Downey, the au­thor of Har­vest the Rain, has been a lo­cal land­scape con­sul­tant, de­signer, and con­trac­tor since 1992. He can be reached at 505-690-7939 or via www.per­made­


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