Planning With Nature at the Center

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson once observed that the human species "has grown up with nature." It is not surprising that nature seems to cast such a magical spell on us: it taps into our deepest feelings of home and, as the concept of biophilia suggests, it is encoded within our genes.

The research confirms that we are smarter, happier, less stressed, and even more generous when we have nature around us. More than two years of a global pandemic have provided ample evidence of our need for nature, as more people sought the essential refuge of outdoor nature, whether a park, a forest, or a backyard garden. Time away from the office has meant more time to see, listen, and connect to the natural world around us.

Nature is an essential refuge, creating spaces where people can relax, recharge, and connect (ep_jhu/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Nature is an essential refuge, creating spaces where people can relax, recharge, and connect (ep_jhu/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0))

Embracing Nature in Urban Planning Vision

On the downside, we experience a world reeling from climate change and a global ecology unraveling in real-time. We are literally burning up, knocking down, and tearing away the biological fabric that makes life possible — and also worth living.

Nature is not a cosmetic or ornamental design feature, and a city is not a sterile or artificial stage set. Rather, a city is an ecological system, a complex one at that, and one very much in need of restoration and repair.

But a different way of thinking about cities and a new way of planning is emerging. Biophilic Cities represent at once a global movement, a network of partner cities, and an emerging body of practice that puts nature first and at the center.

The vision of life in a biophilic city is one where we are immersed in nature; we are not separate from, but intimately embedded in nature.

A biophilic city is a place where the experience of awe becomes a daily — or even hourly — occurrence, and where we are curious about and actively celebrate nature. It is a city that includes wildness and wild spaces. It is a vision where we aspire to a multispecies community designed and planned to coexist with and make room for many other nonhuman forms of life. It is good for humans as well; we want and need to see the night sky, hear birds sing, and smell the scent of wildflowers or pine trees.

Nature-centered Cities Enhance Humanity, Combat Climate

But how we put this vision into practice is a major challenge. Planners can look to PAS Report 602, Planning for Biophilic Cities, for guidance, inspiration, and a challenge to rethink their approaches to plans and planning.

For the most part, our comprehensive plans lack attention to nature; few prioritize nature or recognize the essential role that planning can play in restoring and repairing the natural world we have so efficiently been destroying. Through biophilic city planning, cities can begin to incorporate biophilic goals and principles and set targets and metrics that emphasize nature. Planners must center equity as they work to create biophilic cities, ensuring the ability of all residents to enjoy nature through careful attention to its proximity, accessibility, and comfort.

The co-benefits are abundant and profound: beyond enhancing our humanity, nature plays a key role in mitigating and adapting to climate change and extreme heat, and will be an indispensable factor in creating the sustainable and resilient smart cities of the future. The biophilic city is an idea whose time has come, perfectly timed for the perfect storm we find ourselves in.

Planning Advisory Service

PAS has been providing resources for planners since 1949. Want to explore more? APA members and PAS subscribers can download (and nonmembers purchase) more than 300 PAS Reports, PAS Memos, and PAS QuickNotes, offering practical guidance on a wide range of planning topics.

Top image: Center for Neighborhood Technology/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the Author
Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the department of urban and environmental planning, school of architecture at the University of Virginia. He is the author or co-author of more than 15 books, including Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning.

October 26, 2022

By Timothy Beatley