Human Nature: the Health and Well-being benefits of nature in the built environment

Despite buildings and cities seeming to represent human disconnection or escape from the wild, nature has always had a place in the built environment. Parks have long been central to urban planning, the design of buildings and structures often incorporates nature or nature-like forms and patterns, and house plants have been utilized to improve the indoor environment for centuries. It seems that we have had an instinctive feeling about its benefits for years, but lacked the evidence to consider nature as a tool for promoting health and wellbeing.
However, the science is now catching up with intuition. Findings from numerous suggest that people who live in built environments with more nature suffer from fewer cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, have enhanced immune function, have lower odds of experiencing serious psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression, are less likely to require antidepressants, recover faster from illness, and live longer.
These results are prompting built environment actors to consider more seriously the value of bringing nature to the spaces we occupy in our day-to-day lives.

Linking nature to health and wellbeing

Several mechanisms have been shown to link nature with physical health in urban and built environments. Nature in cities and within buildings scrubs the air clean of pollutants and toxins, increases indoor thermal comfort and reduces the urban heat island effect, improves sleep quality, provides settings for exercise and social contact, and reduces physiological stress – all influential factors in physical health.
The effects of nature on mental health and wellbeing are slightly more nuanced. When compared with exposure to the same or similar settings lacking nature, exposure to nature-inclusive urban or indoor settings has been shown to: restore energy and attention; reduce psychological stress; enhance cognitive function, creativity and productivity; increase motivation and job satisfaction; and, improve mood states. These effects are not solely the result of viewing plants and trees. Various forms of sensory contact (especially visual, auditory and olfactory) with various forms of nature have been shown to induce convergent results. The social contact, exercise and improved physical health that nature encourages are likely indirect routes through which nature influences mental health and wellbeing.

Biophilic design

Moreover, the psychological effects of nature exposure don’t even have to involve real nature. Biophilia refers to the idea that our ancestors evolved neurologically- and psychologically-based responses to various forms and patterns that correlated with opportunities and threats in the natural environments they inhabited. These responses tuned them to their surroundings and influenced their behavior in ways that enhanced their chances of survival and reproduction.
Biophilic design seeks to exploit our inbuilt Biophilic affinities by integrating or mimicking forms and patterns that elicit positive reactions. In the built environment, these may be elicited from both the living and non-living elements of the environment. Rooms, buildings, developments and even entire cities can be implanted with biophilic design features, such as:

  • sights or sounds of running water (which to our ancestors might signal a freshwater source);
  • daylight-enhancing features such as large windows on the south side of buildings (or daylight-mimicking lighting schemes if indoors);
  • nature-like colors and patterning;
  • optimum thermal characteristics (including thermal variability);
  • presence of (non-threatening) plant and animal life (which might signal a productive and biodiverse ecosystem that harbors edible species and other resources);
  • spatial layouts that are open and navigable but also present opportunities for refuge or exploration, and various others that follow the principles of biophilic design.

Building nature into the built environment

Moving forward, policy-makers, urban planners, developers, and institutions may take actions to increase the amount and quality of nature in built environment public spaces. These actions might include policies, design and planning measures that aim to improve or increase:

  • Areas of conserved productive ecosystems, such as forests or wetlands;
  • Areas of manicured grass and trees, with benches and leisure amenities that facilitate social contact and exercise;
  • Allotments;
  • Community gardens;
  • Natural lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams;
  • Artificial lakes, ponds, rivers and streams;
  • Street trees;
  • Plant beds;
  • “Pocket parks” (small areas of nature); and,
  • Biophilic design, relating to e.g. spatial layout, patterning, daylight permeability and lighting schemes, etc.

The conservation and enhancement of existing nature in urban areas is also crucial to maintaining urbanites’ connection with the natural world.
At a smaller scale, any stakeholder involved in the design and fit-out of buildings or indoor environments (such as architects, interior designers and homeowners) can take things into their own hands to improve health and wellbeing with nature. The measures taken might include adding features such as gardens, green walls, green roofs, water bodies and water features, potted plants and plant beds, and biophilic forms and patterns. All of these features, with the exception of green roofs, may be implemented indoors or outdoors. Both settings shape health and wellbeing; focusing on one without the other would be a missed opportunity.

Co-benefits, trade-offs and challenges

As well as improving health and wellbeing, there are some very noteworthy environmental co-benefits of nature-inclusive and biophilic design. For example, green space may enhance local ecology by increasing habitat patch availability and connectivity, and the wider environment would benefit from the sequestration of atmospheric CO2 and pollution. Green walls and green roofs may provide similar benefits, whilst also improving thermal efficiency of buildings. The cooling effect of green space on the urban environment may lead to reductions in energy usage for cooling.

However, there are of course some trade-offs and challenges. For example, dedicating large areas of land to green or blue-space may increase overall urban expansion into native ecosystems in some cases. There are also challenges in creating equality of access and outcomes. Currently, lower socioeconomic status groups in the UK have poorer access to the benefits of urban nature, but are likely to receive greater rewards when they do. Working around these and other challenges will ensure that any measures provide maximal benefits where they are needed most.

Can we bring nature-based design into built environment sustainability assessments?

Appreciating that nature in the built environment can bring about rewards for its occupants, the next step is incorporating it into sustainability assessment methodologies in standards and certification schemes for the built environment.
Encouragingly, initial attempts have been made to do so. However, despite setting a positive example and generating awareness of the benefits of nature and biophilia in the built environment, the industry as a whole is currently falling short of providing comprehensive frameworks for using nature to improve health and wellbeing. This reflects the scarcity of research quantifying and predicting the precise outcomes of nature-inclusive or biophilic design methods.
Because nature is so varied in form and function, different measures can have very different results, and it is, therefore, difficult to determine what measures will achieve what results. Exacerbating this is the fact that the effects of nature exposure depend on many moderating factors, which may include the needs of the target population, as well as local environmental, social, cultural and economic conditions.
Research on these nuances is currently a research priority in the field, and it will be up to researchers to further our understanding of exactly how different measures can influence health and wellbeing.
Other gaps in the knowledge emerge due to the shortage of “real-world studies” examining the long-term effects of deliberate nature-based design interventions, and insufficient investigation into potential economic, social and environmental trade-offs and synergies. To help bridge this gap, BRE is carrying out a longitudinal investigation into the health, wellbeing and productivity outcomes of a full Biophilic refurbishment of a 1980s office floor.

In practice

Notwithstanding the challenges associated with certifying nature-inclusive or biophilic design and construction, many built environment practitioners and decision-makers seem to be aware of the potential rewards and are taking steps of their own accord.
In their 2016 report on urban health, based on the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, the World Health Organisation makes multiple mentions of the need to improve urban citizens contact with nature. Cities around the world are forming an expanding Biophilic Cities network, with Birmingham representing the UK and announcing its intention to become the nation’s first “natural capital city”. Large-scale ventures, such as the new 2450-home Kingsbrook housing development near Aylesbury and the Bosco Verticale (vertical forest) residential high-rises in Milan, are allowing nature to permeate our man-made environments more than ever, with the health and wellbeing of both humans and wildlife an explicit objective.
Public awareness of nature’s value in the built environment is also growing, spurring on initiatives such as London National Park City, backed by the mayor of London, which aims to enhance the city’s ecology and engender a greater connection between the public and nature by making London the world’s first National Park City in 2019.

Conclusion/Final thoughts

The world’s urban population is expected to balloon by another 2 billion people within 30 years or so. It is therefore critical that promoting health and wellbeing is a central consideration when creating environments for this growing population to live and work in. A built environment infused with a continuous network of natural and biophilic elements, both indoor and outdoor, could not only result in significant cumulative benefits for the health and wellbeing of the public but could also help to reduce mankind’s environmental footprint. Putting this into action will require closer links to be established between scientific research and built environment actors. Though the role that sustainability assessments have played in this process thus far is minimal, they are likely to become increasingly necessary as the transition to a more natural built environment gets underway.
This article is written Ben Cartwright, Graduate Sustainability Consultant, BRE

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