When British explorer Henry Hudson first sailed up the Muhheakantuck River in 1609 he would have seen native Lenape settlements dotted across a vast natural island landscape that would later be known as Manhattan Island. Fast forward 400-years and that island has become one of the least natural places in the world. The dense grid of high rise concrete buildings that now covers the island, sits at the center of one of the world’s biggest cities that stretches as far as the eye can see from each bank of what is now called the Hudson River.
The New York City metropolitan area is now home to over 18 million people, making it the 10th largest city in the world and one of a list of over 30 megacities with populations over 10 million inhabitants. According to a UN study, as much as 70% of the world’s growing population, projected to reach 9.8 billion people by the middle of this century, will be living in these “unnatural” urban areas. It has been estimated that to accommodate this projected growth would require constructing the equivalent of nine New York size cities every year for the next 30 years.
The spread of these unnatural urban landscapes is not only a concern for the animals and plants being displaced but also for the humans displacing them. Firstly, we depend on natural ecosystems to maintain the balance that allows the function of agricultural systems that sustain us and the natural environments we love to explore. Secondly, as nature disappears from the sprawling urban environments many humans call home, it severs the biological link we have developed with nature over millions of years of evolution by natural selection. Modern science is increasingly proving that this separation from nature has significant and negative impacts on human health and wellbeing.
“Biophilia is the concept of incorporating nature into the built environment. New research and insights from neurosciences, endocrinology and other fields are reinforcing older theories to help evolve the scientific basis for biophilic design.” explains our 2017 report on the Future Workplace. “Modern research in Biophilic design is proving there is something more intrinsically human about our connection with nature in our increasingly urban society,” the report continues.
Being in nature is healthy according to the study of Biophilia, fathered by American biologist and researcher Edward O. Wilson. “Humanity is a biological species, living in a biological environment, because like all species, we are exquisitely adapted in everything: from our behavior, to our genetics, to our physiology, to that particular environment in which we live,” wrote Wilson in his 1986 book: Biophilia. “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction,” he stated.
Today, biophilia is often poorly applied through the addition of indoor plants and tree-lined city streets. While this does bring a little touch of nature into our urban lives, the positive effects are massively overwhelmed by the ever-expanding concrete jungle that surrounds each natural element. Urban parks are better, vital in fact, but are slowly being eaten away by relentless urban growth that also pushes the city’s boundary with non-urban nature further and further from those living in the city center. New Yorkers should be eternally thankful for the 1850’s Greensward Plan that protected an area of Manhattan from urban development as it worked its way up the island, that area is now known as central park.
As the science of biophilia establishes itself within urban planning and development, we find ourselves in a world full of unhealthy cities that are growing quickly into even more unhealthy cities. Proponents of biophilia find their attempts to increase the size and number of natural spaces within cities going up against the economic and population growth demands for more and more buildings. In this unsustainable conflict, nature loses more often than not but as the urban areas become more unnatural and the science of biophilia becomes more prominent we will be forced to find solutions, such as the new concept of biomorphic urbanism.
“Biomorphic urbanism offers a theoretical foundation for how we can design and build cities to meet these challenges, while also enhancing the human experience of cities,” says Peter J. Kindel a Director of SOM City Design Practice in San Francisco. “Our patterns of urbanization must strengthen and restore natural systems, rather than diminish them. If cities and regions can adopt this approach, then we could accommodate a growing global population, while protecting local ecosystems and building strong, supportive communities.”
Like biophilia, biomorphic urbanism seeks to reconnect people with nature for the purposes of health and wellbeing but proposes solutions that also serve the development needs of urban growth alongside ecological sustainability. It envisions the city as two complementary systems, ecological and anthropogenic, each protected and enhanced for the good of the citizens, businesses, and the natural environment that make up a healthy city.
“For too long, anthropogenic systems have been dominant in how we plan cities. We must now retroactively shape our cities based on ecological systems. Every city has unique ecologies and cultures. These should be expressed through the city’s architecture and urban form,” writes Kindel in an article on Medium. Kindel believes that by prioritizing natural systems, densifying urban districts, diversifying land use, and better connecting communities, we can reverse the unsustainable way our cities are built and expand.
Kindel and his colleagues at SOM are turning the theory of biomorphic urbanism into practice with a set of guidelines for urban development. It all starts with documenting the ecological systems that could and should exist in these environments, from there an ecological vision plan can be formulated. On the urban side, those areas that have the least ecological value can be zoned for mixed-use city districts, many at much higher densities than we see today in order to make space for nature. Finally, ecological, cultural, and mobility connections must be developed to ensure that cities function in the ways that have made them the progressive jewels of human civilization.
“If projections are accurate, the amount of development needed to sustain a growing population poses a daunting challenge. The imperatives of climate change only make the task more complex. But it is far from impossible,” says Kindel. “Biomorphic urbanism gives us a framework for reimagining our cities at multiple scales — from the everyday life of the individual, to the health of entire regions and ecosystems. These concepts can be applied to communities of any size, from small towns and villages to major metropolitan regions and emerging megacities.”
SOM is leading the charge for biomorphic urbanism with a number of pioneering projects around the world. Their design for the redevelopment of India Basin in San Francisco aims to transform one of the city’s former industrial areas into an active waterfront. Their Seagull Island Master Plan, for an island in China’s Pearl River Delta, creates agricultural zones alongside urban development sites. While their plan for Jigna Eco-community outside of Abuja, Nigeria, preserves ecosystems in the face of rapid urban development. Each project sets new standards for how we can better incorporate nature in our increasingly unnatural cities.
“Importantly, biomorphic urbanism proposes ways to reconsider quality of life,” says Kindel. “As we reconnect people with the places they inhabit, we might rediscover a basic but often overlooked fact: that ecological health and human well-being are not mutually exclusive, but instead fundamentally connected.”