Benefits of Biophilic Design Explored Through Human Ecology

Melissa Montgomery
Kansas State University

Keywords: human ecology models, biophilia, well-being, nature, built environment


This paper provides an overview of human ecosystem models, well-being, and biophilia. A model is proposed which draws connections between nature, human ecology, well-being, and biophilic environments. There are links made between humans and nature, in order to improve life, within both biophilic design and human ecosystem models.


Biophilic design seeks to improve well-being through the principles of biophilia – humans’ inherent connection to nature. Biophilic design is especially called for in urban environments where manmade elements have caused a separation between humans and nature. Human ecosystem models explore the interconnected relationships, patterns, and processes between social and natural systems in order to sustain and improve quality of life. There is a correlation between biophilic design and human ecosystem models in that within both there are links between humans and nature in order to improve life. Biophilia viewed through a human ecosystem model allows the exploration of the benefits within nature contributing to the well-being promoted by design. This paper will give an overview of human ecosystem models, well-being, and biophilia. This overview informs the proposed model which links human ecology, nature, and well-being to biophilic environments.



Ecology is defined as “the study of the interrelationship between organisms or life and the environment, organic or inorganic” (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993, p. 1). According to Bubolz and Sontag (1993), ecology, may focus on people. “Human ecology is concerned with the interaction and interdependence of humans (as individuals, groups and societies) with the environment” (Bubloz & Sontag, 1993, p. 4). This ecological focus on people is important in current times where humans are increasingly adapting the natural environment to fit their contemporary needs. A new type of ecology, transformational ecology, is being explored to aid in controlling how humans effect the environment. Transformational ecology investigates how patterns of thoughts and behavior impact the environment around us (Garrison Institute, 2014). The Garrison Institute, an environmental non-profit organization, has an initiative on transformational ecology that “applies insights from current research in many disciplines, and draws on contemplative-based approaches to develop people-centered strategies for shifting behaviors and their impacts” (2014). In summation, ecology deals with organisms and their environment in general; human ecology focuses on people in their environment; and transformational ecology guides human behavior and its effect on the environment.

A basic ecosystem is a specific environment with functionally linked organisms and physical attributes (Pickett et. al., 1997). Ecosystems can be used to explore and define which patterns, processes, and relationships effect a specific environment (Pickett et. al., 1997). Traditional ecosystems exclude the human factor. Humans play a large role in manipulating their environment because contemporary needs often use an excess of natural resources (Pickett et. al., 1997). Within human ecosystem models there is a reciprocal relationship between humans and ecological processes – the two work together interactively rather than opposing each other (Pickett, et al., 2004). Figure 1 below a compares and contrasts prominent human ecosystem and resource models. The models differentiate in some respects but they all have a common goal – to sustain life. The ecosystems within this model are healthiest when all life is being optimally sustained.

Bubolz & Sontag (1993)

Bronfenbrenner (1994)

Machlis (1997)

Pickett (2004)

Primary Concern


Human Development







Common good


Proximal Processes

Interdependence Growth





Biophysical vs social factors

Limit vs direct







Social systems


Human vs Environment









Social institutions

Social order

Timing cycles




Social institutions

Social order

Social cycles






Figure 1. Human Ecosystem Models

The Human Factor

The integration of humans and the biological ecosystem is important because humans not only impact their physical environment, but can also learn from their environment. Humans are naturally curious, engaged, responsive, and reactive to their surroundings (Pickett et al., 2011). A key process of Human ecology is how humans adapt to their environments (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993). Humans have the ability to recognize when something is awry in their environment. They also change aspects of resource management and other processes to better the ecosystem. Humans’ means of adaptation affect survival, quality of life, and conservation of the environment (Bubolz & Sontag, 1993). People learn from past events and adapt processes – especially regarding interaction with natural elements and resource allocation – to better society for the future. This process of adaptation is what transformational ecology is trying to achieve, studying human behavior in order to guide behavior to impact the environment in a more positive way.

Social hierarchies and social norms play a large role in the overlap between social and ecological aspects of ecosystems. Evidence shows that repeatedly throughout history the allocation of natural resources within an ecosystem has been controlled by hierarchies of wealth, knowledge, power, status, and territories (Pickett et al., 2004). Pickett et al. (2004) argue that these five sociocultural hierarchies are integral to patterns and processes within the human ecosystem. Social norms also tend to guide human behavior. For example, certain “lifestyle status symbols”, like the desire for a well-kept green lawn, may be based on desires for societal status in a specific neighborhood (Pickett et al., 2011). In other words, society defines the sought-after norms that guide the alteration of a natural ecosystem. Transformational ecology aims to guide social norms in order to influence behavior of an ecosystem to better life for humans and the natural environment.

With evidence backing up humans’ integral role in urban ecosystems—such as, societal cues influencing preference and hierarchies influencing the allocation of resources within ecosystems—the link between social and biological sciences is stronger than ever. Urban ecosystems are arguably the most altered by humans. According to Pickett et al., (2011), “it is increasingly difficult to determine where biological ecology ends and social ecology begins” within the modern study of urban ecology (p. 345). When it comes to the urban built environment, biophilic design attempts to link the biological and social sciences to improve the well-being of designed environments.


The Biophilia Hypothesis

Biologist Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis popularized and defined the idea of humans’ inherent connection to nature. Wilson defines biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms” (Kellert & Wilson, 1993, p. 31). The biophilia hypothesis suggests there is a biocultural and gene-culture evolutionary explanation behind human’s connection to nature (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). Biocultural evolution is the process of certain behaviors being learned over time within specific cultures. Gene-culture evolution links specific genes to these behaviors which are passed down through generations following specific cultures (Kellert & Wilson, 1993).

The human mind has evolved to recognize and seek out beneficial environments, living organisms, and natural processes that sustain life (Heerwagen & Gregory, 2008). Similarly, biophilia potentially enhances development of self, among many other physical and psychological benefits (Kellert & Wilson, 1993). The biophilia hypothesis stresses that the connection between humans and nature is a biological predisposition through evolution. By this definition, nature is beneficial to humans because of human’s original upbringing in natural (as opposed to manmade) environments. Biophilia explores the connection between humans and their natural environment. This exploration correlates with human ecosystem models, which link human social processes and natural resources within an ecosystem.

Applying Biophilia to Design

In recent years, the biophilia hypothesis has been translated to design in order to apply the benefits gained from human’s connection with nature to the creation of living and working environments. Biophilia, when applied to design, provides an optimal opportunity for uniting social and natural sciences to implement scientifically proven benefits of nature in design. The connection between the two sciences promotes the main goal of design–well-being. Nature is lacking in urban environments where the manmade built environment often takes over the natural environment. Nature integrated in the urban environment promotes more of a connection between the human social and natural resource systems. Biophilia viewed through a human ecosystem model – where the interconnected relationships, patterns, and processes between social and natural structures are explored – has the ability to give us a better idea of how these benefits present themselves and contribute to the well-being promoted by design.


Well-being, in its simplest form, is defined by Oxford Dictionary as a state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from a public health point of view well-being includes multiple aspects, such as: physical well-being, economic well-being, social well-being, development and activity, emotional well-being, psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and engaging work and activities (2013). Biophilic design is heavily centered on well-being because it poses benefits for a variety of users in a variety of environments, regardless of age, abilities, and economic status (Heerwagen, 2006). Over decades of research, environmental psychologists have found that architects, urban planners, and professionals in related fields have unintentionally designed built environments in a way that threatens well-being by decreasing restorative qualities often present in nature (Hartig, Bringslimark, & Patil, 2008).

Well-being is also contingent on the health of an ecosystem. Robert Costanza, professor of sustainability at Portland State University, describes ecosystem health as a “comprehensive, multiscale measure of system vigor, organization and resilience” (2012, p.1). According to Costanza, ecosystem health is “closely linked to the idea of sustainability, which implies the ability of the system to maintain its structure (organization) and function (vigor) over time in the face of external stress (resilience)” (2012, p. 1). However, ecosystem health also depends on cultural values and social norms (Tzoulas, et al., 2007). For example, if a culture values vibrant green lawns, this value could cause a water shortage through neglecting natural resources in order to keep the lawns green. While human’s ability to adapt their ecosystem as a way to maintain well-being is beneficial, a conflict presents itself when human wants and needs (especially regarding lifestyle status symbols) outweigh the limits of the ecosystem (Pickett et al., 2004). Promoting biophilic design as a social norm has the potential to increase the likelihood of human wants and needs improving ecosystem health rather than degrading it. This promotion of biophilic design is an example of transformational ecology.

Biophilic Design

There are two basic dimensions of biophilic design according to Kellert, the organic or naturalistic (shapes and forms in the built environment that reflect inherent human attraction to nature) and the place-based or vernacular dimension (buildings or landscapes that connect to culture and sense of place) (2008). There is a multitude of characteristics within these two dimensions of biophilic design. Terrapin, a sustainability consulting and strategic planning firm, suggests fourteen patterns of biophilic design that have been shown to impact stress reduction, cognitive performance, as well as emotion, mood, and preference (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014). Figure 2 provides an overview of these patterns and their benefits. According to environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, biophilic design seeks to engage all of the senses rather than focusing on visual stimulation (2014). Biophilic design also seeks to provide a sense of exploration and curiosity through stimulation and enticement (Augustin, 2014). The many patterns of biophilic design draw from various aspects of nature to create a beneficial environment for inhabitants.


Figure 2 Patterns of Biophilic Design (Adapted from Browning, et al., 2014)

Evidence of Benefits

Through biophilia, humans have a biological link to nature which has developed an inherent link to its many benefits. Studies conducted in the past reinforce the validity of the benefits of nature being present in a variety of human environments. A 2001 study of residents at Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes (a public housing complex of 28 identical high rise buildings some with views to trees and others without) demonstrated the benefits of natural views in residential housing. Inhabitants with views to nearby trees had higher levels of attention and self-discipline, less violence and aggressive behavior, lower crime rates, and better interpersonal relations (Frumkin, 2008). Research by Tennessen & Cimprich in 1995 similarly found that students in residential dormitory environments had higher attentional capacity when they had exterior views to nature (Kaplan, 2001). A 1981 study at Ernest Moore State Prison of Southern Michigan showed a comparable result (Frumkin, 2008). Prisoners in interior cells with no exterior views had 24% higher sick call visits. The study concluded views to nature may reduce stress (Frumkin, 2008). One of the most recognized studies was completed by Roger Ulrich in the 1970s. Ulrich (1984) demonstrated patients with tree views at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital had statistically shorter hospitalizations, less need for pain medication, and fewer negative comments in nurses’ notes compared to patients with views of an exterior brick wall. Kaplan (2001) theorized that windows provide micro-restoration in that they allow views to unknown natural scenes to entice human’s natural curiosity from a secure home environment protected from potential dangers. The framework of prospect and refuge has a prominent place in biophilic design. Exploration of nature (prospect) with a sense of safety of the built environment (refuge) provides inhabitants with a secure space. An alternative explanation of benefits derived from visuals in nature has to do with fractals, which are geometric patterns at fine scales that often appear in nature (Baldwin, 2012). Wise and Taylor argue fractals with a dimensionality range between 1.3 and 1.5 have a strong link to cognitive and emotional processes. These fractals have a “high survival value for human ancestors in our evolutionary history” and are related to horizons, watercourses, hills, and tree lines (Wise & Taylor, 2002, p. 854). Many of the psychological benefits of nature in design may be a result of the fractals ubiquitously present in natural elements and views (Wise & Taylor, 2002). This means biophilic design can incorporate fractals of natural patterns, textures, etc. into urban environments where physical views to nature are not prevalent.

Other studies of human response to built and natural environments also show benefits for human exposure to nature in an environment. A study where images were shown to participants of natural versus urban scenes demonstrated that natural scenes of trees evoked more positive emotions than the inanimate objects (Lohr & Pearson-Mims, 2006). The trees were also seen as more relaxing and attractive than scenes of inanimate objects. This suggests trees and other nature would be beneficial to mood in urban environments. A study at the University of Michigan had undergraduate students walk around either an arboretum or busy downtown street and then take an array of psychological tests of attention and memory (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). According to their results, the people who walked around the urban environment were in a poorer mood and overall scored worse on attention and memory tests (Berma et al., 2008). Looking briefly at photos of urban scenes also affects the outcome of the psychological tests in a negative way (Berman et al., 2008). Urban environments impair mental processes because of over stimulation. Kaplan’s attention restoration theory is based on past research showing two distinct components of attention: “involuntary attention, where attention is captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, where attention is directed by cognitive-control processes” (Berman et al., 2008, p. 1207). According to Berman et al., urban environments differ from nature in that they contain bottom-up stimulation (e.g., car horns) that intensely captures attention (2008). In addition, urban environments require “directed attention to overcome that stimulation (e.g., avoiding traffic, ignoring advertising, etc.), making urban environments less restorative” (Berman et al,, 2008, p. 1207). This evidence suggests that nature has positive effects on well-being while urban synthetic evironments can have damaging effects.

Influencing Sustainability

The modern urban built environment has furthered the degradation of natural systems and expanded the void between humans and nature. As the global population grows more urban, ensuring contact with nature becomes challenging (Beatley, 2011). Urban dwellers, especially in western culture, often forget the reciprocal nature of the connection between humans and the environment (McHarg, 2006). According to Kellert, this is more the result of design choices than a by-product of modern urban life. We designed our way into it by neglecting the natural environment and we can design ourselves out of it by promoting sustainability (Kellert, 2008). Without the positive benefits and associated attachment to buildings and places, people rarely have a sense of responsibility to maintain them for an extended period of time (Kellert, 2008). Similarly, when people do not experience the positive attachment and associated benefits from nature, there is less responsibility to care for the environment long term. As Timothy Beatley, professor of sustainable communities at University of Virginia said,

We live in disconnected times. Indeed, we are profoundly disconnected from the people around us and from the places and environments that nurture and sustain us…biophilic cities aspire to change these conditions and shift priorities such that citizens recognize and care about the nature around them (Beatley, 2011).

Connecting humans to natural elements in place strengthens the bond and people’s responsibility to care for their environments. Human social processes and the natural environments are interdependent as illustrated by human ecosystem models. If the bond between the social and natural components of the ecosystem is stronger there is more of a chance for them to work together rather than compete.


Looking at biophilic environments through a human ecosystem model can be helpful in understanding how natural elements of urban environments interact with humans to promote well-being for current and future inhabitants. By understanding the interaction, we can then understand how biophilic design promotes actions that are environmentally sustainable and promote well-being. Integrating nature into urban environments has proven benefits. More research-based evidence related to human ecology should be sought to further explore the benefits of nature integrated in urban spaces. In the human ecosystem model outlined below, three overlapping fields of biophilic environments – human ecology, nature, and well-being – demonstrate interconnecting benefits. Detailed characteristics of these fields are listed in Figure 3 below. Within this model the overlap of human ecology and nature represents nature in the human environment. The overlap of human ecology and well-being highlights where human health is optimal. Similarly, where nature and well-being overlap is where nature is at its healthiest. Biophilic environments exist where all three fields of this ecosystem model overlap. The premise of this model is that biophilic environments incorporate nature in the human environment and therefore both humans and nature are at their healthiest.

Human Ecology



Primary Concern

Human life




Environmental studies




Psychological well-being

Physical well-being

Natural environment




Social systems


Human vs Environment



Human vs Environment



Human vs Environment





Figure 3. Biophilic-Human-Nature table


Figure 4. Proposed Model

Humans learn from their surroundings and have the ability to be self-aware of their impact on the environment. Reestablishing a connection to nature through biophilic design will promote a change in human behavior to care for the natural environment rather than furthering the degradation. There is a reciprocal relationship between nature and human processes to be understood through a human ecosystem model. Understanding this relationship will allow us to integrate nature into a space to effectively increase well-being and influence positive interaction with nature. Once we understand how to best incorporate biophilia into design, we can use transformational ecology principles to guide human behavior towards more sustainable action. Creating biophilic environments will guide behavior towards sustainability and lead to optimum health for people and the natural environment.


Overall, using a human ecosystem model as a framework allows us to understand how biophliic design correlates with well-being to impact current, as well as future, users through adaptation and positive human interaction with the natural environment. This approach expands a body of knowledge that is currently lacking substantial evidence. Drawing human ecological connections between social and biological processes will continue to improve the understanding of the relationship between humans and the spaces they inhabit. This understanding will then allow further exploration of how the natural environment promotes human well-being and how to better integrate nature to gain benefits. Ultimately, the goal is to make a more stable bond between nature and inhabitants in urban environments to increase the well-being of people and planet. This bond promotes sustainable action as a result of connecting humans to nature in the urban environment.


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