Planning for Biophilic Cities

PAS Report 602

By James Brown, Helen Santiago Fink

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A biophilic city connects the science of biophilia — humans' innate love of nature — and the practice of planning. Biophilic approaches to planning and design create built environments that support daily contact with nature as an essential human need. The benefits of planning for nature are myriad — from better physical and mental health to community resilience and economic prosperity.

PAS Report 602, Planning for Biophilic Cities, explores how biophilic planning and design supports human well-being, ecological health, and sustainable, vibrant cities. This report delves into the science of biophilia, summarizing the research on the benefits of nature for individuals and societies. It provides strategies and tools that demonstrate how nature can be integrated into plan-making and the regulation of urban environments. It emphasizes the importance of valuing nature-based solutions and investing in biophilic projects for their multiple benefits. And it emphasizes the importance of addressing historical inequities in our communities and co-creating inclusive nature spaces that meet proximity, accessibility, and comfort needs for all residents.

Biophilic planning provides opportunities to meet multiple community goals with an integrated approach — one that is often more cost effective for the long term. This report will help planners create biophilic cities that provide for human flourishing, ecosystem diversity, and economic sustainability that are also efficient, equitable, and responsive to the complex priorities of growing populations.

Executive Summary

A biophilic city is a green city, a city with abundant nature and natural systems that are visible and accessible to urbanites. It is certainly about physical conditions and urban design — parks, green features, urban wildlife, walkable environments — but it is also about the spirit of a place, its emotional commitment and concern about nature and other forms of life, its interest and curiosity about nature, which can be expressed in the budget priorities of a local government as well as in the lifestyles and life patterns of its citizens. (Beatley 2011, 17)

Understanding the role of nature in cities is of increasing importance for today's planners. The evidence of the myriad benefits of planning for nature — from health and well-being to community resilience and economic prosperity — has grown tremendously in recent years. Concurrently, the percentage of human populations living in urban areas is rapidly increasing across the globe. Cities are faced with the continuing challenges of sustaining economic opportunities and an equitable quality of life for a growing number of residents, while ensuring resilience and adaptation to the changing climate. They are increasingly turning to nature-based solutions to respond to these challenges.

A biophilic city connects the science of biophilia — humans' innate love of nature — and the practice of planning. It communicates a focus on planning and designing cities to support daily contact with nature as an essential human need. The elements of a biophilic city extend beyond a traditional planning focus on public parks and greenspace to include many other elements of nature in cities within both public and private realms, such as blue-green corridors, urban forests, pocket parks, green rooftops, waterways, urban agriculture, and pollinator habitats.

PAS Report 602, Planning for Biophilic Cities, explores how biophilic planning and design supports human well-being, ecological health, and sustainable, economically vibrant cities. This report provides strategies and tools that demonstrate how nature can be integrated into plan-making and the regulation of urban environments.

The design of urban landscapes requires a balancing of the needs for environmental health, mobility, and flourishing yet sustainable economic systems. Biophilic planning approaches provide opportunities to meet seemingly competing concerns with an integrated approach — one that is often more cost effective for the long term. Planners are well positioned to contribute to the creation of biophilic cities that provide for human flourishing, ecosystem diversity, and economic sustainability, but that are also efficient, equitable, and responsive to the complex priorities of growing populations.


A rich and growing library of research is illustrating the tremendous and varied benefits of planning and designing cities with nature as a leading consideration. Knowledge of the science behind biophilia enables planners to consider points for incorporating these concepts into existing plans and policies, and to communicate these concepts to broader city government and community stakeholders.

This report offers an overview of the compelling evidence for the myriad benefits of nature and makes the case that nature is critical infrastructure for cities.

  • Nature and health: Contact with nature improves baseline physical and mental health through the prevention of chronic health problems such as obesity, anxiety, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Long-term studies identify that proximity to parks and greenspace has a direct effect on levels of physical activity and better health outcomes. Individuals with access to nature have less mental distress, less anxiety and depression, greater well-being, and healthier cortisol profiles when living in urban areas with more greenspace.
  • Nature and resilience: Biophilic city planning aids in resiliency by fostering social and landscape resilience in the face of consequences of climate change, natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and various other shocks and stresses that cities have already started experiencing and will undoubtedly face with greater severity in the future. Direct resiliency benefits include reduced urban temperatures, flood and stormwater control, and improved air and water quality. More indirect resiliency benefits include improved social cohesion and prosocial behavior. Accessible, safe, and healthy greenspaces can be the social glue that helps bring communities together.
  • Nature and public safety: The presence of nature has a documented effect of reducing aggression and crimes associated with increased aggression. Two explanations are the positive psychological influence of time spent in nature as a means to support recovery from mental fatigue, and increased community cohesion and its resulting positive influence on community trust and bonding.
  • Nature and biodiversity: There remains significant biological richness within the borders of cities. Opportunities exist for cities to conserve and enhance unique ecosystems, allow for connectivity across the urban landscape, and inspire a connection to the larger living world. Biophilic city planning supports urban biodiversity by conserving large intact patches of habitat, creating ecological connectivity across the urban landscape, and nurturing a high-quality urban nature matrix.
  • Nature and economic prosperity: Biophilic city planning supports cost-effective investment in sustainable infrastructure in the form of nature-based solutions that, with maintenance, will not depreciate over time like traditional gray infrastructure alternatives. Evidence documents that biophilic infrastructure creates additional value in the form of job creation, property values, worker productivity, and commercial vibrancy.


Planning for equity in the biophilic city requires addressing profound disparities in the distribution of nature and creating physical access in terms of proximity and abundance. It also requires recognizing and addressing the psychological barriers to access. As this report points out, biophilic planning is not a one-size-fits-all concept. Depending on characteristics such as age, gender, differing physical and neurological abilities, cultural background, and many others, people may experience nature differently.

In addition to addressing proximity, attention to two aspects of design can improve equitable access to nature. Accessibility seeks to address differences in ability and awareness of availability. The better able individuals are to navigate green spaces and to develop expertise regarding their benefits, the more individuals will avail themselves of these spaces. Comfort speaks to both personal physical and mental well-being. Equity requires designing spaces that create a sense of inclusiveness and "belonging," whereby community residents feel welcome and safe to help shape and maintain such spaces to meet their needs and priorities.

Planners must engage with community members to determine their preferences and ensure that nature spaces are designed to support their use by existing residents. Planning for equitable nature must invite participation and leadership from communities where new projects are needed. Through targeted and meaningful inclusive community engagement, planners can appreciate how needs and preferences might vary across a community and develop responsive projects.

For sustainable long-term success, community ownership and maintenance of nature spaces is critical. The long-term adoption of nature spaces by communities and a commitment to co-maintenance by members of the community is a cost-effective means to sustain these spaces and to create a welcoming sense of identity, as community members can shape nature spaces to most directly meet local needs.


Current planning practice sees the inclusion of biophilic concepts as an important element in many different types of plans and policies used by cities. This PAS Report offers guidance for planners in how to incorporate biophilic goals and principles into a city's comprehensive and functional plans.

Effective comprehensive planning begins with the initial step of assessing current conditions through effective data gathering. With an understanding of baseline conditions, planners can incorporate a variety of indicators and benchmarks within a comprehensive plan to monitor and assess progress over time towards biophilic planning goals and aspirations.

All comprehensive plans include some discussion of nature, whether in the context of parks and trails, clean air and water, biodiversity conservation, or economic development. However, to fully reap the benefits of biophilic planning and design, planners should take an integrated approach that incorporates nature to the fullest extent possible within all relevant plan elements. To advance the concepts of biophilic city planning most effectively, planners should consider the adoption of a stand-alone comprehensive plan element that is based on a biophilic city framework. A stand-alone element will serve to coordinate biophilic goals, objectives, and actions that meet a range of city priorities through a consistent lens of nature-based solutions. This report provides a template for a stand-alone biophilic city comprehensive plan element.

Biophilic city planning is also important to a range of functional plans, including plans for resiliency, greenspaces and green infrastructure, urban forest management, wildlife management, and urban biodiversity conservation. Plans that focus on specific biophilic or environmental features or systems in the city, such as parks, trees, and forests, often represent prime opportunities to enhance the connections of a city and its residents to nature.

A Regulatory Toolbox for the Biophilic City

A regulatory toolbox of standards and incentives is required to carry forward the biophilic visions set forth in comprehensive and functional plans. Such interventions are varied in a biophilic city with the need to reach stakeholders at multiple scales to influence the shape of the urban landscape.

This report delves into how cities are creatively integrating nature into existing land-use systems. Incentives can encourage private landowners to apply biophilic approaches, serving as an initial stepping-stone to larger implementation of biophilic concepts. Local governments can also lead by example, using investment in city-owned buildings and landscapes as proving grounds to validate the efficiency of biophilic improvements.

Planners can use several zoning tools to implement biophilic planning. Overlay zoning adds a layer of biophilic standards and goals to existing zoning schemes. Viewshed protection ordinances maintain visual connections to surrounding nature, and open space zoning keeps lands free from development. Performance zoning identifies an end goal, such as increased tree canopy coverage, but leaves the specifics of how development will be implemented to the developer, provided that the end goal is accomplished.

Site development standards also represent a critical point of intervention for cities to support the implementation of small-scale biophilic interventions and the conservation of valuable biophilic assets such as trees and native species. These standards seek to extend the practice of biophilic design into the spaces between buildings and to raise the baseline performance of buildings themselves.

The public right-of-way provides further opportunities to allow for private investment in shared improvements accessible to the public. With set parameters and guidance, cities are inviting those who inhabit urban spaces on a daily basis to reshape public, shared spaces to increase the presence and abundance of nature in cities. Recognizing the limitations of city budgets and staffing, cities are responding to grassroots initiatives to improve public spaces with small-scale biophilic interventions.


Biophilic strategies provide impactful and cost-efficient alternatives for jurisdictions of varying sizes, capacities, and resources to address numerous urban issues, such as stormwater and flood management, climate regulation, and social cohesion, in ways that are more sustainable and equitable compared to business-as-usual practices.

This report provides an overview of various evolving strategies and business models planners can use to scale and mainstream investments in biophilia and nature-based solutions. Understanding the socioeconomic value and benefit of natural processes, systems, and spaces is essential for policy makers to acknowledge biophilic alternatives and be able to compare them to business-as-usual practices and costs. It helps inform strategic decisions on the use of biophilic approaches and determines which nature-based solutions are the most appropriate and have the best returns on investment.

To ensure that local governments are fully implementing biophilic approaches, it is important to integrate biophilic strategies and projects into a city's capital improvements plan (CIP). Embedding biophilia into the CIP process facilitates the mainstreaming of nature-based solutions across sectors and supports the sustainability of the city's natural capital. To ensure biophilic projects are included in the CIP, planners should consult with internal and external community stakeholders for project identification and project submission. Planners should also reach out to departments whose project requests are easily aligned with biophilic principles, such as parks and recreation or public works departments, to make sure no opportunities to integrate biophilic elements into proposed projects are overlooked.

Tools and resources available to support biophilic investments range from traditional and innovative uses of existing fiscal mechanisms to newly created financial vehicles, including voter-approved tax measures, green and environmental impact bonds, stormwater retention credit trading programs, and transfer of development rights.


What does the future of a biophilic city hold? The COVID-19 pandemic has offered a preview in some respects. In times of crisis, there is a need to expand human connections beyond our immediate radius to the broader physical and natural world. The pandemic has been an early warning of the poor resiliency of our systems and has underscored fundamental flaws in our societies and built environments. And yet, it has brought attention to promising potential answers to pervading challenges. Planning for a biophilic city offers opportunities to aid in addressing present and future urban challenges and provide numerous and multifunctional benefits for communities through the provision of nature.

Planning a biophilic future requires a number of key practices. We must recognize nature as critical infrastructure for our cities and integrate it at multiple scales — from the building and site scale to the neighborhood and city scale, and to the region and beyond. It is vital to center belonging and co-creation in biophilic city planning, and to proactively address the consequences of eco-gentrification, to ensure inclusive and equitable outcomes for all residents. Planners must ground biophilic planning in science, prioritizing native species and planning for biodiversity, and track progress towards biophilic goals by documenting and monitoring the quality and quantity of biophilic conditions in their cities. Pursuing broad partnerships can help promote biophilic investments, and planners should look for opportunities to repurpose underused spaces for the public benefits of greenspaces and nature-based solutions.

Embracing biophilia and nature-based solutions can play a valuable role in mitigating present and future threats. A positive urban relationship with nature can be a cornerstone for socioeconomic regeneration and sustainability. But the pursuit of a more equitable, resilient, and healthy quality of life requires individual and societal behavior change to create new social norms of respect and accountability to our natural world.

This PAS Report provides planners with the understanding of the benefits of nature and the wide range of tools and strategies they need to advance biophilia within their communities. Their role will be to work with community members to identify, support, and integrate the elements described in this report into a holistic, comprehensive vision for a biophilic city that offers accessible nature experiences for all residents. The potential for daily awe in the form of immersive urban nature offers an inspiring and welcome positive future.


About the Authors

JD Brown is the Program Director for Biophilic Cities. With a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and a degree in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia, he explores the intersection of law and planning in the form of legal mechanisms adopted by cities to promote abundant and equitably accessible nature. Through his work, he seeks to introduce successful, innovative law and policy to a global audience and to distill best practices that make these tools work for cities around the world.

Helen Santiago Fink is a climate urbanist, researcher, and consultant based in Washington, D.C. She currently serves as the Program Manager of the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Partnership (USASCP), a $10 million, 20-plus project initiative to address urbanization challenges in southeast Asia and has more than 25 years of professional experience in sustainable development, climate change mitigation/adaptation and community resiliency, urban systems planning, energy-efficient buildings, and community and economic development. She holds a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's degree in urban and regional planning, and has undertaken doctoral work in eco-cities and climate change at the BOKU/Natural Resources and Life Sciences University in Vienna, Austria.

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Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
Oct. 1, 2022
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Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Chapter 1: A Biophilic City
The Biophilia Hypothesis
A Biophilic City Defined
About This Report

Chapter 2: The Many Benefits of Nature in Cities
Nature and Health
Nature and Resilience
Nature and Public Safety
Nature and Biodiversity
Nature and Economic Prosperity

Chapter 3: Nature for All
Planning for Equitable Access to Urban Nature
Equitable Planning for Nature in Cities
Equitable Outcomes for Biophilic Investments

Chapter 4: Biophilia in Local Plans
Biophilia in the Comprehensive Plan
Biophilia in Functional Planning Areas

Chapter 5: A Regulatory Toolbox for Biophilic Cities
Overarching Considerations
Site Development Standards
Building Design
The Public Right-of-Way

Chapter 6: Investing in Biophilia and Nature-Based Solutions
Valuing Biophilic Benefits and Ecosystem Services
Making the Case for Biophilic Investments
Integrating Biophilic Investments into the Capital Improvements Plan
Financing Instruments for Biophilic Investments

Chapter 7: The Future of Biophilic City Planning
A Biophilic Approach to a Challenging World
Creating a Biophilic City
The Complete Biophilic City