UVA Professor Promotes Natureful Cities

Jun 1, 2016

For most of human history, most people lived in rural areas or small villages.  Now, however, more than half of us live in cities, and by 2050 two out of three people will make their homes in urban areas.  Recognizing that trend and the fact that human beings benefit from proximity to nature, planners at the University of Virginia have formed a group committed to growing plants and promoting wildlife in every corner of the urban jungle.

Cities, of course, sound like traffic, car horns, commuter trains and sirens, but if UVA Professor Tim Beatley had his way, there’d be a whole lot more bird song and bubbling brook.  Beatley believes in biophilia -- a term popularized by Harvard conservationist E.O. Wilson, who argued humans were hard-wired to nature.

“We have co-evolved with the natural world, and so we have this deep need to affiliate with the natural world," Beatley explains.  "We want it around us.  We’re calmer, less stressed.  We get lots of benefits from having nature nearby.”

Parks have long been a feature of good urban planning, but Beatley says it’s time to go beyond parks, growing gardens on rooftops, cultivating plants on building walls and removing the pipes that channel streams through cities so we can see and hear them again.

“Let’s think about all the spaces between buildings. Let’s think about daylighting a stream.  Let’s think about re-imagining parking lots as butterfly habitats for example – thinking about cities as bird friendly," Beatley suggests. "Every little space in the city is a growing opportunity, an opportunity for this immersive garden to take hold.”

To exchange ideas on how this can be done, Beatley created the Biophilic Cities Network, and more than a dozen urban centers have already joined.  Singapore and San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon, Milwaukee and Wellington, Oslo and Rio are now connected – talking about new programs, laws and designs that are turning cities into centers of natural activity.  With a website and webinars, a journal, e-newsletter and films featuring each partner, Beatley hopes to jumpstart a movement.

“Cities are, in fact, ecosystems," Beatley says.  "We know that, and at the heart of it, that’s what this Biophylic Cities movement is about.  It’s imaging that, in fact, the city is a garden, and in fact one of our member cities, Singapore, just changed their motto from Singapore a Garden City to Singapore, a City in a Garden.”

So far, no city in Virginia has joined the Biophilic Network, but Beatley hopes they will and is planning a conference in Arlington this fall.