Biophilia and Healthy Lifestyles
The concept of biophilia as an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems was first used by the German psychologist Erich Fromm, which he considered part of the human ‘state of being’.
The term is arising more frequently in common usage, with many of the world’s great cities, including Birmingham in the UK, now acclaimed as ‘Biophilic Cities’, and even the Icelandic musical visionary, Bjork, devoting an album and performances to the concept. So what is it, and why is it important to green space professionals?
The evidence shows that merely being in good quality green space, even for only fifteen minutes, results in lowered blood pressure, reduced blood toxin levels, reduced stress, improved cognitive performance and enhanced memory retention; any physical exercise taken would be a bonus.
The Biophilia Hypothesis, proposed by the eminent biologist, Edward O. Wilson (who coined the term ‘biodiversity’) suggests that humans are genetically ‘hard-wired’ to be more contented and function better in natural environments, both physiologically, emotionally and cognitively.
He explains this is due to humankind evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, living with, depending on, working closely with nature, understanding plants, animals, the land and water and the changing weather and seasons, and eventually manipulating nature.
For a mere fraction of that time, we have been living in urban environments. Even though towns and cities emerged about five thousand years ago there was, even then, reasonably close contact with nature; modern industrial urban environments are only a few hundred years old at most, and today’s high-tech urban living is now practically divorced from contact with nature. Now, 54% of the world’s population live in cities
So, why do we need healthy landscapes, why and why does nature make us less stressed.
We benefit from the ‘Biophilia Effect’ when we are reconnected with nature and, very quickly, our chronic stress levels are reduced. There are the direct effects of nature on the brain; in good green space there are less bad things, less noise, pollution, excess heat, poor aesthetics and more enjoyment and opportunities for physical activity and social interaction. This means that the benefits of any physical activity in green spaces are significantly increased.
However, research has shown that the benefits of the ‘Biophilia Effect’ depend greatly on the quality of green space. Not unexpectedly, evidence shows our preference for sites to be readily accessible,welcoming and appropriately maintained -free from urban nasties such as litter and graffiti. People need to feel safe, unthreatened and comfortable.
There needs to be variation and variety in landform, features, planting and terrain; with colour, texture, naturalness, but with a sufficiently clear arrangement and places of shelter to prevent it being wilderness.
The implications for health services, schools, universities, mental health carers, etc. of the phenomenon of improved physical health, mental wellbeing and happiness, through connection with nature and outdoor exercise, is only just beginning to register.
The impact of this knowledge on education service and child physical and cognitive development, on tackling the obesity and diabetes crisis, and on the caring professions should be profound. Every year, more research exposes the amazing healing and health-giving properties of green spaces yet, somehow, every year parks and green spaces become more invisible and their importance remains undervalued.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
By William Butler Yeats
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.