By Christopher Reinhart, Director | Sustainability + Research
Complexity and Order. A rich field of sensory information that contains hierarchy and thematic organization. The plaza outside Bloomington City hall opens up for a delightful moment of urban prospect. Having moments to view our surroundings over a bit of distance, especially within urban environments, is wonderfully calming. Here, the experience is coupled with the richness of natural and built forms that play off of one another through a landscape that riffs on the local heritage of connection to stone (quarrying) and wood (furniture-making).
On a crisp and sunny morning early this month, a small group started our day sipping toasty coffee and nibbling on tasty lemon poppyseed muffins from the local co-op, Bloomingfoods. We sat on the sunny outdoor plaza on the south side of The Mill, “Bloomington’s center of gravity for innovators, remote workers, entrepreneurs, and creators,” where Cripe’s Bloomington office is located. This lovely outdoor space is at the heart of the Trades District, a focal point of recent and continuing development in the city. We gathered here not just to enjoy some camaraderie, our morning treats, and a beautiful Bloomington day, but also to discuss biophilia and biophilic design, and how we find it around us in the spaces we inhabit each day.
This event was hosted by the Bloomington Living Future Collaborative, a local advocacy group which I co-facilitate, dedicated to the restorative work of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), whose mission is to “lead the transformation toward a civilization that is socially just, culturally rich, and ecologically restorative.” There are many local collaboratives around the country and the world, like ours, that provide education and engagement opportunities in our local communities to encourage positive transformation of our built environment.
And on this delightful fall morning, we weren’t the only ones gathered to discuss the human-nature connection and how it can be expressed through design to enrich our daily lives. In Columbus, Ohio, another Living Future Collaborative was gathered around the same concept. The idea to have these gatherings in various cities throughout the Ohio Valley was the brainchild of Andy McIntyre, Regional Sales Manager for Kingspan Insulated Panels. At the Living Future “unConference” several years ago, Andy heard that the collaborative in Australia had a done a “walking beauty tour,” and the idea stuck with him.
As Andy thought about doing a similar event here stateside, he realized that it would be a great opportunity to build regional connections. “The Ohio Valley region has all these things in common… when you look at the climate and the building archetypes, the people doing business in the region, the people designing in these areas… we all have a lot in common in terms of our challenges and similarities,” he told me. Based on a suggestion from ILFI’s Sunni Wissmer, Andy decided to call the event #ResilientBeauty—the hashtag being a way that participants from around the region could tag the photos that we took on our walks so that we could all see what others were up to. Searching the hashtag would yield a tapestry of photographs highlighting the beauty and human-nature connection expressed throughout the Ohio Valley region. The title also references the upcoming Building Resilience conference, in Cleveland, Ohio on November 7 and 8.
What lies beyond? Mystery. One of the evolved human-nature connections of biophilia. Hints that beckon us through sight, sound, or smell. The B-Line Trail in Bloomington offers moments of mystery and anticipation along its curving path.
As we round the bend on the B-Line at the Showers plaza, the trail spills into a space of biomorphic forms and patterns, material connections with nature, and complexity and order.
In both Columbus and here in Bloomington, the event began with a discussion and overview of biophilia and biophilic design. The scientist E.O. Wilson has described biophilia as the innate connection between humans and nature. Biophilic design is an approach that centers around this connection, seeks to understand the physiological and psychological effects it has on people, and develops patterns for practically implementing these ideas into designs. At the forefront of this practice is Terrapin Bright Green, a firm that has published many wonderful resources on the web related to biophilic design. In Bloomington, we used their report “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design: Improving Health and Well-Being in the Built Environment” as the basis for our conversation.
As we talked through the various patterns of biophilic design, participants shared ways that they have experienced these patterns in their homes, workplaces and cities. This conversational approach allowed everyone, even those not previously familiar with biophilic design, to get a feel for the concepts and patterns that we would be looking for as we explored the B-Line Trail, a rails-to-trails project that forms a curving spine—the backbone of our pedestrian and bicycle network—that runs through our city and adjacent to The Mill. Attendees were given a handout with the patterns listed to refer back to during our walk on the B-Line, as we sought to find these patterns expressed around us.
This sculpture at Bloomington’s City Hall has material connections to nature (a local material, limestone, and check out the detailed biomorphic sculptural textures in the upper left), and also provides a place of refuge for Farmer’s Market goers that are looking for a quiet moment away from the bustle.
Refuge. A space where individuals can feel protected from behind and overhead and out of the flow of activity. Another of the evolved human-nature connections of biophilia.
Our group began as a small core of four people, but as we walked, talked, and photographed our way along the B-Line and through the Farmer’s Market, we engaged many more friends that we encountered in our adventure. I was delighted to see some of our participants eagerly sharing their new knowledge with others. Biophilic design is easy-to-understand, and once you begin seeing the patterns at work, you can start to see them expressed in big and small ways all around us. Everyone left the event in great spirits and with a much better understanding of biophilic design.
The Columbus, Ohio, event was also a big success, drawing fourteen people. Johnna Keller, co-facilitator of the Columbus Living Future Collaborative and event organizer told me, “I was pleasantly surprised that the event drew people from all walks of life—not just from the building profession but also from the community at large. I thought a beautiful outcome of the event was that people were connecting with this idea of biophilia and biophilic design on a new level, not necessarily on a design level but more on a human, instinctual level.”
Johnna, like myself, is a design professional with a focus on sustainability, and we were both delighted to find a meaningful way to engage non-designers with a topic that may be new and unfamiliar, but that has a profound impact on the ways we feel in our built environments. Oftentimes, design can seem inscrutable because it is cloaked in technical language. Experiences like this, that help people connect through their senses with design principles, help overcome the barriers of technical jargon and generate an understanding that anyone can carry forward to positively impact their environments.
Peril. A controlled amount of risk in our environment creates delight. The presence of water is a strong biophlic design element, enhancing our experience of space through the senses of sight, sound, and touch, and also introducing a small amount of peril that children (and adults) can’t resist engaging with.
Because of the success of the events, and the positive feedback we received from all those that attended, Andy, Johnna, and I have already begun brainstorming for a similar event for next year, with a fun new twist—a photographic scavenger hunt for biophilic design principles! If you are interested in this event or similar events, feel free to email me and join the Bloomington Living Future Collaborative mailing list. In the meantime, you can learn more about biophilic design through the ILFI’s Biophilic Design Initiative. Look around you in your home and workspace and discover ways that biophilic design is already a part of your life. What new ways can you find to strengthen the human-nature connection in the spaces you inhabit?