• Imagination comes alive atop the pink granite formations at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Central Texas. - photo by Rob Greenbon courtesy Defenders of the Wildlife

How can we better respond to nature’s call?

From birth, we hear the siren call of the wild—alluring and majestic—many of us bathing in nature as often as our modern existence allows. This inescapable desire gives rise to the primary affliction of the postindustrial human—that of being biophilic beings adrift in a disconnected world. To fully understand the depth of this rift and its significance for the built environment, we must dive beneath the surface of these biotic stirrings to discover important lessons for our modern age.

Human-Centered Biophilia

Biophilia isn’t a new theory. In the mid-1960s, German philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm cautioned that society needed to cultivate a “nondestructive relationship with the environment by fostering and perfecting the human potentiality of biophilia.” He knew that biophilia—the idea of humans having a love of living organisms and processes—centered our experience and is driven by our separation from the very nature we desired to be close to. Fromm stressed that fully loving the processes of life would not be possible until society could meet the prerequisites of security, justice, and freedom. In his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil, Fromm theorized that as long as we feel that our fundamental needs are threatened and our energy remains focused on food or housing insecurity, the natural affinity we have for living processes will not flourish. He also noted that “another important social condition for the development of biophilia lies in the abolition of injustice.” When one group exploits or limits another, “one social class is not permitted to share with others in the same basic experience of living.” A lack of freedom is also a barrier to biophilia. His caveats touch upon why the siren’s call to the wild has quieted for many amidst the cacophony of digital devices, economic stratification, social injustice, and hustle culture. If we are to experience biophilia, we must be free to create, build, imagine, and wander. This freedom, Fromm concluded, “requires that the individual be active and responsible, not a slave or a well-fed cog in the machine.”

The most well-known understanding of biophilia comes from famed entomologist, sociobiologist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Edward O. Wilson’s 1984 book of the same name. In it, Wilson asserted that humans have an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” basing his theory on evolutionary thinking. He argued that our dependence on water, plants, animals, soils, etc., led to an affinity for these elements. This suggests that as humans, our ability to find meaning and fulfillment is linked to this special relationship with nature. Wilson went on to write of the rapid loss of wild habitat and the growth of human developments as diminishing our experience of life as we lose our connection to an ever-decreasing wild. He wrote: “Any ethic worthy of the name has to encompass the distant future…. Values are time-dependent, making them all the more difficult to carve in stone.” 

Recentering Nature

Water is the great connector of all organisms. From crisp springs to verdant wetlands, all life is linked to its patterns. The premise of the biophilia hypotheses presented by Fromm and Wilson prioritizes humans, which is reflected in their perspective of the environment as a resource to benefit human experience of life. Their theories ignore what the environment needs from us and miss the most pressing issue at the heart of our climate crisis: Our survival is intrinsically linked to nature. As a result, we as architects have a great deal to learn from all of its inhabitants. 

In order to change this frame of reference, we must journey beyond the edges of urban environments and become reacquainted with Texas ecology. Leading the trek is Azalia Rodriguez, a wildlife conservationist at Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1947 and dedicated to the protection and restoration of endangered North American species and their habitats. “Texas is the number two hotspot in the United States for biodiversity,” says Rodriguez. “In Central Texas, we have a really unique ecosystem because this is where South, East, and West Texas all come together and create the beauty of the Hill Country.” Her roots are indigenous to northern Mexico, but she grew up in Dallas listening to the stories of her ancestors. Despite losing their tribal affiliation over time, Rodriguez’s family instilled in her a strong connection to the land values that had been passed down from generations before. She believes there is a lot that humans can learn from reframing the biophilia ideology.

Rodriguez is someone who reverberates the histories whispering in the wind. Her joy as she inhales the fresh morning air fills the space around her so that she glides rather than walks along the path toward Hamilton Creek. Passing by large limestone formations she stops to run her hand across the surface pocked by tiny holes. “Between three to 600 million years ago, Texas was fully underwater,” she says. “All the limestone is dead crustaceans that have fused together over time.” Limestone is a “live” material composed largely of calcium carbonate with a high absorption rate that helps mitigate heat and humidity. In a way, every hike in Texas is also a deep-sea exploration, forcing you reconsider what you know about time and nature. She turns her attention to the edge of the water where the roots of a majestic cypress tree stretch like fingers into the waterway. Its roots prevent erosion and strengthen the soil where rainwater filters into the creek. The tree canopy spreads out across a wide swath of area, mimicking similar spatial patterns as its roots. Shade helps to prevent evaporation, a fundamental benefit during droughts like the ones we’ve seen in the last few years. 

Drought tolerance among animals is varied. Rodriguez explains: “Bobcats are considered habitat specialists because they can survive in really dry areas. Often, they will eat plants to get water.” Other more vulnerable species, like salamanders, are always at risk. “Aquatic-dwelling animals don’t have the ability to move habitats, roam, or migrate like other animals. Many of them will bury themselves under rocks or under sediment to try to stay cool.” It’s easy to see a comparison to architectural designs that use earth berms to modulate internal temperatures or use chemicals to replicate the effects of mud coatings. As almost all the solar radiation that a roof or wall absorbs is converted to heat, reflecting light is paramount to heat management for buildings and to offset the urban heat island effect. 

The Role of Cities

Density is a noun turned campaign slogan, causing virulent zoning board meetings and equally explosive backyard discussions. As cities struggle to serve their citizens and preserve the natural splendor that draws people to live in Texas, the inevitability of vertical construction cannot be ignored. Cities and municipalities must play the long game as they strategize how to grow and preserve at the same time, balancing current needs with projected goals. Protection for wildlife and their habitats is often left out of development codes in favor of economic growth and prioritization of human needs. This is starting to change as there is more of an interest in and research into biophilic theory. The environmental consulting and strategic planning firm Terrapin Bright Green recently published their second edition of The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense. The report arms architects and stakeholders with figures, outcomes, and key performance indicators to support the integration of biophilic strategies. 

Among the design community, the understanding of the human response to nature beyond vegetation has become more nuanced, as have the potential design opportunities and their relatable value to occupants and owners alike.
The Economics of Biophilia, 2nd Edition

Each chapter focuses on a different building typology and is followed with calculations and references for further reading. The authors cite rapid urbanization and our dependence on technology as crucial factors for why humans feel disconnected from nature. 

Austin’s Functional Green initiative was introduced to fight against that disconnection and provide guidelines to help grow the city with nature-focused policies. It would apply to sites proposing an impervious cover limit greater than 80 percent. The primary goal of Functional Green is to “enhance the vegetated area and ecological performance of dense urban sites.” Amy Belaire serves as the Texas Science and Strategy Program advisor for the Texas chapter of The Nature Conservancy. She had been working to implement many of the ideas from Functional Green back when it was attached to CodeNEXT, the City of Austin’s initiative to revise the Land Development Code. Now that it is its own piece of code, she hopes the benefits will allow it to become an example for other cities. “Certain strategies provide the most benefits, and the ones that rose to the top are simply to provide trees,” says Belaire. “Incorporating trees into your design is beneficial as an ecosystem service. When you have small elements integrated into hundreds or thousands of sites, it scales up, making a meaningful difference. We shouldn’t discount the power of small nature-based solutions.” 

Another important biophilic idea that is already being incorporated in Central and South Texas is the remediation of floodplains. Belaire is inspired by places where there is opportunity to reimagine what floodplains can look like, especially when they were previously developed before there was a full understanding of their significance. “When they are done well with equity in mind—like the Onion Creek buyout in Austin that was recognized as a great case study on how to do buyouts well and equitably—it’s a way to reimagine floodplains to provide ecological benefits. They become a real asset and resource for communities.” Several years ago, the Dell Medical School and its teaching hospital, Dell Seton Medical Center, opened along the Waller Creek corridor. Certified as a SITES Gold landscape, the Sasaki-designed master plan across 16.2 acres took a neglected riparian waterway and transformed it into a public amenity. Biophilic solutions include rain gardens, native vegetation, a green roof, and other green spaces that highlight the hydrologic cycle. 

Nature’s signature is comprised of complex shapes forming organic structures. Rodriguez laments the lack of these in architecture. “Patterns are something that our eyes are naturally attracted to,” she says. “I would love to see more patterns get integrated into our buildings, so it doesn’t feel so concrete.” The last half of the twentieth century and the first decades of this century have seen a lot of “box architecture,” embracing rectilinear forms that highlight structural efficiency. What nature offers by comparison highlights architecture’s lack of contextual intricacy. A natural vista might feature a giant boulder perilously balanced against a rock ledge. It probably fell thousands of years ago and is now a sculpture, unencumbered by an audience, reflecting both the permanent and precarious aspects of life. 

Texas is in a precarious position itself as the unyielding demand for urban growth and the rapid loss of wild habitat propels us into an uncharted climatic future. The state’s meteoric rise in population from twenty million in 2000 to a little over thirty million today represents almost double the growth from 1900–1980. These numbers are shocking, but what is even more surprising are the projections put out by the Texas Demographic Center estimating that nearly fifty million people will be living in the state of Texas by 2050. Architects must become more than sustainability experts. We must become climate experts, not in terms of flashy technologies but in a back-to-basics understanding of how to live in harmony with our environment. The ability to take the knowledge passed down by our ancestors, as Rodriguez demonstrates, and use it to build with nature as our partner in the great mystery of life will revolutionize the industry. 

With all the experiential and scientific data on the benefits of biophilic practices, it seems evident that architects should be embracing old and new practices to steer us back to the nature we long for. In reality, we are hindered by economic systems that celebrate demanding work ethics and the possession of capital. Chasing economic freedom, as Fromm cautioned, has separated us from the very biophilic tendencies needed for our survival. Perhaps the siren song isn’t nature after all, but the industrialized world that promises to satisfy our needs with hollow rewards. We have the answers in front of us, if only we can strap ourselves to the mast and sail beyond the systems that keep us moored to antiquated thinking. 

Jes Deaver, AIA, is an architect and writer in Austin.

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