By Amanda Womac. Image renderings courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
In his landmark 1984 book Biophilia, acclaimed biologist Edward O. Wilson defined the term biophilia as “the urge humans have to affiliate with other forms of life.” Since then, individuals from a variety of disciplines have applied this concept of being one with nature to everyday living.
According to Wilson’s hypothesis, humans have an evolutionary need for designs that connect us with nature. Think about your own preferences. Would you rather work in an office with a window or in a dark isolated cubicle? Do you enjoy having plants inside your home?
Incorporating the concept of biophilia into architectural design creates spaces that satisfy our inherent human affinity for nature. However, rapid population growth and urbanization make it difficult to maintain that connection while developing new infrastructures.
“What most cities have in common are the interrelated challenges of getting to carbon neutrality while accommodating growth, creating resiliency, and repairing ecosystems,” said Philip Enquist, UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair for High Performance Energy Practices in Urban Environments. “Cities must meet future challenges while thinking strategically about the environment.”
To address this issue, Enquist and his City Design Practice team at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) are taking the concepts of biophilia and sustainable growth to a whole new level by encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration at UT and creating the foundation for new graduate programs in the College of Architecture and Design.
“As we look to the future, our focus is on nine game-changing design principles that we believe should guide the growth of urban regions while keeping their larger ecosystems healthy,” Enquist said. “Improving on ‘business as usual’ requires constant innovation to the design process and the technologies used in the projects.”
The Whole Nine Yards
The following nine principles represent a holistic roadmap to sustainable growth driven by the concept of biophilia as outlined by Wilson more than thirty years ago.
The livability principle promotes happy and healthful urban living by creating a sense of place and local identity. Good design instills comfort and convenience, which make us happy without our even realizing it.
The economy principle fosters broad-based prosperity and growth for the city or region. For example, one of Enquist’s projects is a master plan for Chicago Lakeside, a former industrial site on the shores of Lake Michigan. By presenting the city with new opportunities for infrastructure, such as retail and urban living projects, economic growth can be stimulated.
Preserving the natural world and enhancing the function and health of the natural environment form the basis of the ecology principle. “For ecological health, cities must foster biodiversity, expand the use of native species, and avoid breaking up species’ habitat for development,” Enquist said.
The food principle enables access to locally grown, fresh, healthy edibles. Every mile a piece of fruit or a vegetable has to travel reduces its freshness. Cities and regions that harvest food from their foodsheds can provide fresher products and decrease energy consumption related to packaging and shipping. “There are already many promising examples of regional agriculture contributing to our food supply, cutting down on transportation energy, and promoting soil stewardship at the same time,” Enquist said.
Mobility—providing efficient networks for movement of people, materials, and information—is Enquist’s fifth principle. Many cities with growing downtowns now have bike shares available for people who live, work, and play in the area but don’t want to deal with the hassle of driving.
Paramount to increasing urban mobility is ensuring that streets are safe and comfortable for all types of users, from bikers and pedestrians to transit riders and car drivers. “The term complete streets is widely used for streets designed to encourage alternative transportation and reduce the number of cars on the road,” Enquist said.
On a regional level, Enquist’s master plan for Chicago proposes a high-speed rail system that would connect Chicago to Toronto, Detroit, and Cleveland, creating a powerful corridor with potential for huge economic growth and reductions in carbon emissions.
The no–waste principle focuses on designing cities to minimize garbage. Recycling waste, waste to energy, and compost can help cut down on the amount of waste sent to the landfill.
The seventh principle of sustainable design is all about water. Installing rain barrels on or near buildings to capture rainwater for landscape irrigation or washing dishes helps support and protect natural water cycles. Greywater systems can be installed to recycle wastewater from showers, baths, and dishwashers for on-site uses such as toilet flushing. Recycling water through filtration will be a critical need.
“We need to build smarter systems for conservation and reuse of water,” Enquist said. “Water doesn’t recognize our political boundaries, so we also need governance at the watershed scale for policies that can mitigate urban and rural causes of water contamination.”
The resiliency principle refers to designing cities that are able to withstand extreme weather events and adjust to climate change. “Resiliency means preparing for climate uncertainty, reducing vulnerability to sea level rise and extreme weather events, and increasing our capacity to recover when disasters do strike,” Enquist said.
The final design principle is energy—powering cities with clean, renewable energy while at the same time cutting down on consumption. “We have to increase energy efficiency and expand renewable energy production to meet the remaining demand,” Enquist said. “We need longer-term solutions that leverage solar, wind, and hydro power at the scale of the city.”
Executing the Plan
Enquist and the greater SOM planning and design teams will have the opportunity to turn these ideas into reality thanks to a recently announced project in Egypt called Capital Cairo, a collaborative effort between the Egyptian Ministry of Housing and Capital City Partners Ltd., a private fund of global investors.
In the design, a third of the 700 square kilometers of land will be set aside for preserved natural areas, including one of the largest city open space systems in the world. The vision for the city and this project hinges on flexibility and accommodating population growth. According to Enquist, architecture, planning, urban design, and related industries are increasingly cognizant of the need for carbon neutrality and large-scale holistic approaches to sustainability.
“This is an exciting time for the design and engineering professions. There has never been a greater opportunity to positively influence the fundamental problems the world faces today,” Enquist said. “Mitigating climate change, developing resiliency, promoting renewable energy sources, increasing levels of energy efficiency, preserving fresh water resources, and enhancing human comfort and livability in an ever more populated world—these twenty-first-century problems require collaboration across disciplines.”
Even as local farmers’ markets flourish and green building policies spur eco-district developments, the struggle to maintain the delicate balance between nature and humanity persists. It’s a fight that will likely never go away, because, as Wilson believes, our need to bond with other living things is instinctive.