• Opinion
  • November 5, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

Imagine the future cities that we would really want to live in

Opinion: Does clean technology play a role? Are they free from cars?

biophilic cities

This piece was written by JD Brown, Program Director at Biophilic Cities. It also appears in our environmental policy newsfeed.


Take a moment reader and envision a healthy city of the future. What is the picture that comes to mind? Does clean technology play a role? Is it free from cars and other carbon craving machines?

Is that vision also rich in nature? Such a living landscape is what we innately crave. E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis tells us that the human species has thrived in part because of our innate affinity with and connection to the living world.

An incredibly fruitful partnership — that has gone awry. Our current trajectory away from a symbiotic relationship with nature has disrupted the planet’s and our own prosperity in the currency of flourishing, healthy and happy lives.

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Evidence demonstrates that daily connection with nature in the places we live reduces stress, decreases rates of depression and anxiety, and boosts the immune system. A recent piece on Apolitical documents a UK government initiative to combat loneliness by planning for green spaces that reduce social isolation.

These important individual health benefits are augmented by the nearly unending co-benefits of investing in nature based solutions, including improved air quality; storm water control; increased property values; and reduced crime — to name a few.

We are an urbanising planet, with the expectation that 68% of the world’s population will live in an urban area by 2050. Cities are increasingly where we call home, and they provide a tremendous opportunity to connect with nature as part of our daily lives. In terms of setting the policies and implementing the plans to make this happen, cities are increasingly becoming global leaders in exploring and implementing innovative solutions.

Cities have also been places where traditionally there is the greatest disconnect from nature and where there continues to be a disconnect for large segments of urban populations — segments of the population where access to nature can have the most dramatic impacts.

In recognition of this imperative, Biophilic Cities collaborates with cities, scholars and advocates from across the globe to design solutions that embrace the value and contribution of nature in cities to the lives of urban residents. As a central element of its work, Biophilic Cities facilitates a global network of partner cities working collectively to pursue the vision of a natureful city within their unique and diverse environments and cultures.

The bold and simple solution of letting nature flourish

Through the partner city network, city leaders are exploring the policies and practices of planning and designing biophilic cities. The connected network of partner cities represents effective dispersed leadership that effectively aggregates the work of multiple cities, organisations and individuals to tackle complex societal challenges that do not fit neatly into the purview of a single discipline. The network provides an intricately weaved safety net below the high wire that is bold initiatives. With such a safety net, what would we attempt if we knew you could not fail?

Tanner Springs (Portland, OR). Image Credit: JD Brown

For one, partner cities are prioritising nature-based solutions. Pittsburgh has taken the forward-thinking approach of adopting a City-Wide Green First Plan to address degraded water quality from frequent combined stormwater and sanitary sewer overflows. Green infrastructure projects across the city are estimated to keep one billion gallons of water from entering sewer systems, significantly reducing overflows.

To address similar challenges, Portland, Oregon chose to forego a traditional large scale stormwater pipe infrastructure project by creating small scale biophilic, neighbourhood improvements on the east side of the city. The successful Tabor to River program resulted in an estimated $63 million in savings compared to the traditional infrastructure project alternative.

Partner cities are also examining the legal framework that underlies decision-making to emphasise policies that are adaptable, like the ecosystems that they seek to influence.

Partner cities are receiving pro bono legal research that is examining how cities can promote the protection of biodiversity across the urban landscape and how cities might incentivise living architecture as part of an overall sustainable development program.

Building on a growing library of legal codes promoting biophilic planning and design, partner cities are working with Biophilic Cities to undertake a comparative law examination of different legal systems to emphasise solutions that can be implemented in many different legal landscapes.

In addition, partner cities are creating new opportunities to promote equity through natural systems. Curridabat, Costa Rica, is addressing inequities through its internationally recognised Sweet City (Ciudad Dulce) initiative, through which the city is cultivating pollinator habitats in neighbourhoods to increase access to nature and to improve the availability of fresh quality food.

In Austin, Texas, the city has identified areas where there is the least access to nature as part of an equity mapping program, and the equity mapping is in turn driving the city’s site selection for its Green School Parks program.

Ciudad Dulce. Image Credit: Curridabat

Planning for a biophilic future

Critical to the success of the partner city network is participation from cities with unique and diverse environments and cultures. To this end, Biophilic Cities is actively welcoming new partner cities interested in the shared endeavour to conserve and celebrate nature in all its forms and the many important ways in which cities and their inhabitants benefit from the biodiversity and wild urban spaces present in cities.

In October 2019, the partner cities will gather in Singapore to collectively envision the next steps that the partner cities can take together to plan and design cities as the places we want to live; cities that can not only meet the current challenges of unsustainable growth and lack of human services but can become beacons of broadly accessible living systems. — JD Brown

(Main image: Supertrees at the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Image Credit: Gardens by the Bay.)

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