Biophilia, Landscape Architecture and Design

Gardens by the Bay


This morning I came across the article, ‘Biophilia will definitely change your way of designing forever’. On an instinctive level biophilia has always been a driving force in the work I pursue. The desire to merge the ‘wild’ with the human landscape has always been a a reoccurring theme for me on an instinctive level. While the concept of biophilia is quite new I believe that this concept  has been a driving force in design for as long as humans have been engaged in design.

Biophilia’s definition is “a love of life; the affinity of human beings for other life forms”. Edward O. Wilson later made the concept of biophilia prominent with the release of his book by that name, Biophilia, where he discusses his concept of the Biophilia Hypothesis in that humans have a fundamental connection and draw to living organisms, natural systems and diversity that is evolutionary in nature – that is fundamental to our psyche. As this article states, “It was Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson who coined the term biophilia for design, defining it as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life” and arguing that every person has an innate and evolutionary-based affinity for nature.” 

While the term biophilia may be new or altogether absent in design conversation it remains a catalyst in the design and development process. We can see this clearly in a number of movements. During the industrial revolution as humanity began to dramatically remove itself from the natural world there was a clear recognition of the negative impacts of this separation that led to the public parks movement of the 19th century and the creation of great parks such as Central Park in New York. We still see the concept of biophilia in many of the design and development movements today such as Green Infrastructure, Green Streets, Urban Ecology, Regenerative Design, Artful Rainwater Design, New Urbanism and Permaculture all of which promote natural patterns and diversity.

backbayfens1885Back Bay Fens

I have always been drawn to project that incorporate natural patterns, systems and diversity in their design. One of my long standing favorite projects that reflects this concept of biophilia is Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens in Boston. This project that left an indelible mark on me and fundamentally shaped my appreciation for design. The Fens was designed to manage the stagnant and polluted bay water of Boston solving environmental, health and public open space issues in what I like to think of as Landscape Infrastructure. It demonstrates the power of merging natural systems, engineering and landscape architecture and mimicking natural patters and processes in the urban environment to the benefit of people and the natural world. Though the Back Bay Fens predate the concept of biophila by some 150 years this project demonstrates an inherent, perhaps subconscious, understanding of the important connection and attraction humans have to natural places, processes and diversity.

back-bay-fensBack Bay Fens

Indeed, when one looks there are plenty of examples of biophilia’s long standing present in human design. Looking back in time the most prominent example I can think of is the Fibonacci Sequence (Fn), the Golden Ratio (φ) and the Golden Spiral. To understand how these concepts are an important example of the historical importance of biophilia in human design we need to first understand what they are. The Fibonacci numbers were discovered by Fibonacci in 1202 and are an indefinite sequence of integers where each individual number is the sum of the two before it: 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc. What is interesting about the Fibonacci numbers and of particular importance in their relation to biophilia is that these interconnected patterns are also found in nature, “such as branching in trees, phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on a stem), the fruit sprouts of a pineapple, the flowering of an artichoke, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone‘s bracts.” From the Fibonacci sequence came the concept of the Golden Ratio (φ) (1.6180339887…) which states, “two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities.”  This concept mimics the Fibonacci sequence where any portion of an object is equal to the sum of the two proceeding portions ad infinitum. Then from the Golden Ratio is born the Golden Spiral, which is traced by the growing proportions that follow the golden ratio. The following infographic is an awesome introduction to the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio and the golden spiral ripe with examples of how it is a reoccurring pattern in the natural world that was created by (click it to see a larger version).



examples-of-the-golden-ratio-you-can-find-in-nature-26434Examples of the Golden Ratio In Nature

As you can see the Fibonacci Sequence, Golden Ratio and Golden Spiral can be considered to be a natural pattern. More importantly a natural pattern is one that hundreds of years ago was determined to be fundamental to beauty and aesthetics and employed in art and design. There are many examples of this principles use that was included either intentionally or instinctively employed in art and design that demonstrates the long standing presence of the Golden Ratio concept and by association biophilia in human design.


mona_lis_golden_ratioThe Mona Lisa 



Hokusai-Meets-Fibonacci-Golden-Ratio_artHokusai Meets Fibonacci, Golden Ratio by Ars Brevis



1-thegoldenmeaNational Gallery






65Neptune and Doryphorus


At this point I am just starting to ramble and so will wrap this up. To clarify my point is this: biophilia is definitely a powerful concept to include in the design of places and spaces. It is and has been a driving force in art and design whether we were conscious of it or not. Respecting the fundamental connection people have to the natural world and designing in a manner that triggers this illicit response is a powerful tool. A tool that we can use to help re-connect people to place and to the natural world.



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