Life and the Geometry of the Environment
How can people live in a way that is more fully human? Quality of human life comes in large part from contact with nature, and from
processes that evolved from our intimate contact with nature. Industrialization and mass production have unfortunately led to
dehumanization. Confusing humans with machines represents the negative side
of the industrial worldview. In parallel with scientific and technological
advances that raised the quality of life to unprecedented levels compared to
what humankind had to accept before the industrial age, there followed a
concomitant loss of human qualities. The predominant worldview in the
developed countries now neglects effects on quality of life that come from
The machine aesthetic is part and parcel of the machine society. A
mechanistic worldview negates the complex mathematical properties of nature,
and in so doing it reduces nature and detaches human beings from the
biosphere. Increasing efficiency has to do with industrial production, but
nothing to do with human wellbeing directly. Society by the 1950s had accepted the faulty
equation linking the quality of life proportionally with energy expenditure. This relationship is false: it held true for a brief period in our history,
but the effect is indirect and is misinterpreted. Governments the world over
now promote social fulfillment through increasing energy use, which is
catastrophic because it is unsustainable.Following Christopher
will introduce different metrics to measure the quality of life through
factors that do not destroy our natural environment.
Re-orienting our worldview means rediscovering the biological connection
between humans and their sensory space. Certain very specific geometrical
properties of the natural and built environments exert a positive, uplifting
effect upon our organism.
The mechanism depends upon the intimate informational
connection between human beings and nature. Therefore, enhancing quality of
life includes coding the geometry of the built environment to a considerable
degree. This effect does not require the expenditure of energy: on the
contrary, obtaining informational nourishment from the built environment
could replace the present alarming consumption of fossil energy in the
pursuit of a consumerist lifestyle.
The crux of the biophilic effect in the artificial environment is that
science has discovered and demonstrated patterns in building that either
objectively contribute to or detract from our psychological and spiritual
wellbeing. Current Western-inspired architecture not only lacks such
patterns: it teaches architects and planners to build in such a way that the
biophilic patterns are not present. The irony is that we worship an image of
science that is not scientifically credible. To make that point clear, we
need to set the stage for a change in consciousness in the reader.
The new scientific discipline of Biophilia describes how we connect in an
essential manner to living organisms. Introduced by the American biologist
Edward O. Wilson, biophilic effects are increasingly well documented, and
these include faster postoperative healing rates and lower use of
pain-suppressing medicines when patients are in close contact with
Biophilia includes the therapeutic effect of contact with domestic animals. Explanations of the biophilic effect are still being developed, yet what is
incontrovertible so far is that the very special geometry of natural and
living structures exerts a positive effect on human wellbeing. It could be
that Biophilia is a largely mathematical effect, in which our perceptual
system recognizes and processes special types of structures more easily than
The most basic component of Biophilia is the human response to natural
environments, and surroundings that contain a high degree of living matter. Since we evolved in living environments, we process that information in an
especially easy manner, and even crave it whenever it is absent from
artificial environments that we ourselves build. Hence the primordial human
desire for a garden, or an excursion to the countryside to restore our
An information-theoretic approach to Biophilia would make sense out of our
evolution as it occurred in very specific visual environments. Yannick Joye
is working on this theory.
Our neuro-perceptive system more easily processes a
structural environment that embodies fractal properties and the organized
complexity found in nature, than an environment whose geometrical order
contradicts the spatial complexity of natural structures. Our instinctive
ability to recognize unnatural objects through alarm lies deep within our
neurological makeup and is responsible for our being here today due to
evolutionary adaptation. Certain geometries that we perceive as “unnatural”
generate anxiety and alarm, and thus degrade psychological and physiological
comfort when we are exposed to them for too long.
In the thesis proposed here, a major component of human physiological and
psychological wellbeing is directly attributable to biophilic effects from
the environment. Therefore, quality of life depends upon the presence of
those very special mathematical properties. Since a major factor of
Biophilia requires having intimate contact with natural forms, then saving
the natural environment becomes a priority that is distinct from the usual
arguments for conservation. Up until now, Western conservationists have
argued that saving the environment is necessary to maintain biodiversity,
which is an explicit benefit for the biosphere and an implicit benefit for
humankind. I am arguing that the natural environment has immediate benefits
to our health, so that saving it provides not an implicit, but an
benefit for humankind.
What is Biophilia?
Human evolution occurring over the past several million years
(from the era of a common ape ancestor not recognizably human who however
possessed all of our sensory apparatus) determines how we interact with our
environment. Living in nature predisposed us to process fractal information,
color, and to interpret spatial experiences in a very precise manner to
guarantee our survival. Our neurological imprinting then determined how we
began to construct our built environment, mimicking and developing upon
prototypical concepts of spatial experience, with interesting natural
details becoming ornament, and color used to enhance and provide joy in the
artificial environment. In this manner, the mathematical structure of the
built environment evolved right along the lines defined earlier by human
biological and social evolution. As in all evolutionary developments,
subsequent adaptations had to rely upon previous elements in place. It is
therefore essential to re-discover archetypal qualities that generate human
wellbeing directly from the built environment.
To apply Biophilia to the artificial environment, consider our sensory
apparatus. We have evolved to process complex information that is of a very
specific mathematical type: organized complexity where a lot of information
is presented in terms of detail, contrast, pattern, color, and texture that
mimics in an essential manner similar information already found in nature. At the same time, all of this information needs to be organized using
mathematical techniques such as connections, symmetries, patterns, scaling
symmetries, harmony among distinct colors, etc.
A delicate balance between the two
complementary mechanisms of increasing information and increasing
informational coherence generates an optimal state of biophilic information
in the artificial environment.
There are significant implications of this thesis to the large scale. The
original geometry of human settlements underlies a form of “urban genetic
code”, and subsequent developments in the industrial and electronic ages
develop on top of these original pieces of code. We can discover these early
segments of urban code as “patterns”: buildings enclosing a central plaza,
low-rise but high-density occupation and mixed-use buildings, a pedestrian
network connecting distributed plazas, a vehicular network superimposed on
the pedestrian network, etc.
When cities are instead planned according to abstract and
formal designs, then we have rejected the urban code that evolved along with
us. Replacing genetic code in biological systems could lead to an
unsustainable disaster because evolution has been violated. That is
analogous to species extinction or even genocide, since the process is
deliberate and is carried out by humans themselves upon a particular set of
inherited “genetic” information.
In the urban case, building cities according to a code that is neither
evolved nor tested generates one of three situations: a) a dysfunctional
region that is abandoned by its original inhabitants and may later be
occupied and transformed by squatters; b) a dysfunctional region that cannot
be abandoned (e.g. social housing blocks) whose brutal geometry generates
rage, crime, and self-destructive behavior; or c) an urban region that is
kept functional only via a tremendous expenditure of energy. Cities with an
urban geometry poorly adapted to human activities can indeed be propped up
by extending the normally requisite energy and transport networks that drive
a city to function, but their geometry requires wasteful energy expenditure. Most cities today suffer from the imposition of such non-evolved urban
typologies, misleadingly labeled as “modern”. Someone pays for showcasing
the sculptural geometry of such non-evolved urban fabric.
The first human settlements defined a connective geometry that enables people
to interact on the pedestrian scale, and to coordinate the many distinct
functions of simple human society within a very compact spatial region. That
is the definition of a city built on the human scale. Contemporary cities
are most successful in those regions where the original “genetic” material
has been respected, and a hierarchy of subsequent developments has been
added on top of the original code. By contrast, where the original code has
been erased and substituted entirely by twentieth-century urban typologies,
the urban fabric is found to be dysfunctional, unsustainable, or dead. True,
in large metropolises the population forces are so strong that even dead
urban fabric can be kept artificially alive, but the energy cost is
tremendous, and the cost to residents in terms of psychological stress is
Quality of Life Comes through the Nurturing Environment.
Five Points for Regeneration.
Several factors contribute to a positive quality of life
for human beings. I am going to focus on those factors that are related
to the immediate environment (and thus relevant to architecture and
urbanism) and ignore all the others. Let me list some of the necessary
- Access to clean air, water, shelter, and living space.
- Access to biophilic information in the natural environment:
plants, trees, animals.
- Access to biophilic information in the built environment: texture,
color, ornament, art.
- Access to other human beings within an anxiety-free environment:
public urban space, open-access residential and commercial
- Protection from anxiety-inducing objects: high-speed traffic,
large vehicles, threatening human beings, cantilevered and
I clearly distinguish between nourishing and anxiety-inducing
environmental information. Although this distinction is fundamental,
events in the art world have confused our natural instincts with fashion
(but discussing this issue generates controversy). It just so happens
that much contemporary art avoids connecting positively to a viewer via
visceral physiological responses. Regardless of how this type of Art may
be valued in the art-gallery circuit, appraised on the art market, and
promoted in the press, it is not healing. Any doubt is resolved by
referring to Biophilia. Healing emotions include a set of physiological
responses that reduce distress and empower the body’s natural defenses
to work so as to maintain a healthy steady state. Art that generates
healing emotions uses our neurophysiology to induce positive
neurological, hormonal, and other responses within our body, but Art is
not healing if it generates the opposite feelings of alarm and
From gallery-type art—objects, sculptures, installations, etc—move into
public art such as urban installations in public places: large
sculptures, fountains, monuments, benches, tree planters in plazas, etc. For the past several decades, such public art objects have also been
representative of geometries that are not biophilic. Those objects tend
to range from non-healing (neutral) to anxiety-inducing (negative)
provocations and therefore directly influence the quality of the urban
space in which they are placed. For stylistic reasons, very little
biophilic structure is now being erected in the public realm. And yet,
our experience of a public space is determined to a large extent by its
public art installations. Worst of all, architects are being
commissioned to “upgrade” an older public space by inserting non-healing
objects, and by so doing destroy the space’s useful biophilic
Every human being responds physiologically in the same manner, and thus
is able to judge viscerally whether a work of art or architecture is
providing emotional nourishment, or its opposite. This is really a key
point. In my description above of what healing emotions entail I assume
that psychological conditioning cannot alter our biology, and our
instinctive reaction is the one we need to pay most attention to. It
matters very little to the user’s physical experience if a non-biophilic
object or building is praised in the press and by newspaper and magazine
critics. Whenever persons face such a deep contradiction between
emotions and bodily responses that are antithetical to the authority of
experts, the individual goes into cognitive dissonance and is confused. A person can either remain in cognitive dissonance indefinitely (itself
a state of high emotional and physical stress), or eventually come out
of it by deciding to trust his/her own bodily responses. The
anxiety-inducing objects are supported by an ideology or selfish
Let me now discuss the five points listed above for the quality of life. The first requirement, Point 1, concerns a person’s private domain, the
inside of one’s dwelling. For a large portion of humanity basic housing
itself still remains a problem, because there are not enough living
quarters. People in the developing world have to build their own houses
out of scrap material, often in unhealthy or dangerous terrain. The
result is the slums and informal settlements of the world. Nevertheless,
it should be noted that many slums are economically vibrant, and the
quality of life there is enhanced by ornamentation by their owners,
something that is forbidden in a state-sponsored social housing
outlined elsewhere, 
the forced move from informal settlements to
government-built social housing blocks gains in health but loses in
Point 2 addresses our contact with nature. It is possible to achieve a
balance with the natural environment such as occurs in traditional
villages and cities that are not too poor. Even in slums, if vegetation
is abundant, the residents profit by having intimate contact with
nature. Nevertheless, there are examples of the degeneration of the
natural environment in informal settlements that ranges from dwellings
built among vegetation towards the other extreme of a city built from
junk without any trace of plant life. The need to use wood for heating
and cooking can soon destroy the biophilic component of an informal
settlement. On the other hand, the wealthiest Western societies
habitually cut down trees to build suburban sprawl, and replace the
native vegetation with lawn. The grass that makes up a lawn is a
monoculture plant that is non-native to the majority of sprawling
suburbs. A lawn is thus a reduction of nature and a cruel joke on people
who buy those suburban houses.
Urbanists after World War II created a city
fit only for the car, applying a fundamentally reductive conception of
nature. “Green” in the city or suburbs is substituted by its superficial
appearance from afar, thus lawn glimpsed as one drives by is judged to
be enough for a contact with nature. But this is a deception: the
biophilic effect depends upon close and intimate contact with nature,
and definitely increases as the complexity of the natural environment
increases. Human beings experience its healing effects from having
contact with a fairly complex natural ecosystem, even if that only means
a tree with some bushes, but not from just looking at lawn. Biophilic
interventions in hospitals create small complex gardens inside hospital
public spaces, and interweave complex gardens with the fabric of the
hospital wall so that patients can experience the plant life at an
Point 3 concerns architecture itself, and underlines a drastic schism
between the architecture of the twentieth century and all architecture
that occurred before then. Ornamentation was banned from the built
environment after 1908 (minimalist environments
becoming a fetish with architects thereafter), so that we progressively
lost the healing effects of ornamentation in both interior and exterior
built spaces. The intensity of the effect is not in question here:
studies of Biophilia repeatedly demonstrate that ornament which is
derived from natural structures induces the same healing effects as
actual natural structures themselves, only to a lesser extent.
architects refer to this as mere “copying”, I do not believe this to be
the case. Yannick Joye argues that the biophilic effect depends upon the
brain’s ability to effortlessly process complex information, and thus it
is irrelevant whether this biophilic information comes from a living or
an artificial source.
Point 4 forces us to focus on the destruction of the public pedestrian
realm in our cities following planning practices after World War II. Governments the world over engaged in a
frenzy of rebuilding that replaced human-scaled city centers with
environments fit only for fast-moving vehicles. The human pedestrian
city was erased by forces linking the automotive industry and the steel
industry with governments that satisfied every wish of those powerful
political lobbies. Just as public space was erased from the built
environment, however, private space was being offered in shopping
centers outside cities, isolated within a car environment. People still
crave personal contact in an urban space, but in many locations this is
only possible in a commercial shopping center or mall. Governments now
used to working with builders and real-estate developers who build such
malls promote this model.
Point 5 focuses on certain environmental forces from which we have to
protect ourselves, because they degrade our quality of life. The growth
of the car city means that most outdoor environments are now threatening
to humans unless they are protected inside their car. Automobile
connectivity and the infrastructure it requires have been allowed to
take over and replace the human-scale city. Therefore, the vast open
spaces in the world’s cities are either psychologically unsafe, or are
fast becoming so. Such spaces are not spaces to live in, because they
are threatening and anxiety-inducing. The actual living city of
sheltered pedestrian experience has therefore been reduced to internal
space, whether private living space, private commercial space inside
restaurants or bars, or to equally private commercial space in shopping
Another aspect of being protected from anxiety regards structures
perceived as threatening, and this can occur for several different
reasons. We cannot re-wire our perceptual apparatus to suppress
neurological signals of alarm at buildings and structures that are
twisted, unbalanced, or which protrude towards us. Such buildings
generate feelings of alarm. Perhaps they are interesting to look at from
afar, but having to be next to them, enter them, and use them generates
psychological and physiological anxiety. The same is true for sheer
impenetrable walls and glass floors: the former communicate exclusion
and lack of escape, whereas the latter generate anxiety and vertigo. These anxiety-inducing features routinely appear in contemporary
buildings, but that does not change their negative effect on our sense
of wellbeing within the built environment.
Experienced Space and Socio-geometric Connectivity
The twentieth century’s scientific and technological advances
enabled a whole new level of living that brought quality of life in terms of
vastly improved medical care, transport, energy availability, and
communications. In our time we have come to take all of this for granted. Nevertheless, in parallel with these developments, humankind lost a timeless
connection to the world that did not involve science, because this
connection is not quantitative.
We tend to forget and dismiss our inherited
socio-geometric patterns whenever they cannot fit into the mentality created
by advancing technology. This loss of patterns has caused the loss of
essential aspects of human existence, and it has profound implications for
energy use. 
Talking about connecting viscerally to a building characteristically makes
people in our contemporary culture uneasy. We have lost part of our sense of
attachment to a place, even if we normally don’t notice it consciously. We
have grown accustomed to buildings that emphasize the look and feel of
technology: buildings that are, in fact, little more than an image. How,
really, do we connect with a building, with a space, with a place? How do
the parts of a building connect with each other? Connectivity can be
described in mathematical terms through processes occurring in space; it
depends on how we perceive that space. For millennia, our ancestors built
sacred places and buildings that connect us to something beyond everyday
reality. For them, living in a pre-industrial age, it was easier to
understand this connection than it is for many of us today.
We connect to our environment—as distinct from merely reacting to it—only
through coherent complex structures. Coherence and symmetries of form make
possible the continuation of the biophilic effect from living systems into
artificial complex designs or structures. Twentieth-century and contemporary
buildings that have either minimalist or disordered forms cannot connect
with the user. The result is an intentional lack of coherent complexity in
the built environment.
A dramatic demonstration of the principles of Biophilia and human
socio-geometric patterns can be seen when they are violated. Failing to
respect evolved architectural and urban typologies, twentieth-century
architects and urbanists went ahead and constructed block housing and
high-rises with segregated functions as the solution to urban problems. These implementations were uniformly disastrous.
Firstly, architects and planners ignored evolved urban codes that had proved
themselves through the centuries. Instead, they built monstrous blocks. These architects showed incredible arrogance in their approach to design,
believing they could force their will on both people and urban functions and
override forces that shape urban form and human use. For example, they
designated the fourth storey and roof for specific commercial activities
that never took place. Socio-geometric patterns of human use preclude such
spaces and locations from ever being used in the imagined manner, just as
the “playgrounds” and “plazas” designed according to some abstract geometry
have remained despised, feared, and unused.
Secondly, architects and planners constructed dwellings and neighborhoods
devoid of any intimate contact with nature. A family isolated inside an
immense block housing project is detached from nature. Their quality of life
drops. Even the fundamental pattern of “Two– Meter Balcony”, which could at
least be used to grow plants, is stubbornly ignored by architects of
apartments in high rises.
Having some trees in a vast windswept plain outside the
block is totally useless. Most twentieth-century attempts at living
environments have failed because they contradict all the rules for the
traditional design of urban spaces and gardens in the interest of a “new
style” that is image-based.
Thirdly, architects and planners created mono-functional urban segregation,
which violates the most basic urban patterns that make a city grow in the
first place. Cities exist in order to connect people with each other and to
mix activities. Incredibly, twentieth-century urbanism took the anti-urban
slogan of spatially separated uses as a starting point, and governments used
it to reconstruct their cities after World War
II. These anti-urban practices were legislated into zoning laws
so that it became illegal to build living urban fabric. The problem is that
self-proclaimed experts were offering toxic advice on architecture and
planning, and some of these people held positions of great academic and
media prestige. Politicians and decision makers followed their advice simply
out of respect for authority.
Connecting Beyond Everyday Experience
I highlight here questions about connecting to place in a
more complete manner. How far can we intensify our emotional connection and
still explain it biologically? Emotional highs come from love, music, art,
architecture, poetry, and literature. Mechanisms of response are all
biological (sensory apparatus), although the most important elements are
still incompletely understood. Connection is achieved through dance, music,
art, and architecture. The common properties among these creations include
patterns, regularity, repetition, nesting, hierarchy, scaling, and fractal
structure. They are demonstrable geometrical patterns, not mystical
properties. Going further, the highest artistic expression is related to
, generations of
anonymous artists and architects of Islamic art and architecture, and
mystics of the world achieved such profound connection. By seeking God
through beauty, human beings have attained the highest level of connection
to the universe.
For millennia, human beings have sought to connect to some sacred realm
through architecture. Though we have as yet no scientific explanation for
such a phenomenon, we cannot deny either its existence or its importance for
the quality of human life. We experience this connection—a visceral
feeling—in a great religious building or a place of great natural beauty. The Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy
about the sacred structure even in everyday environments.
describes connecting to a larger coherence, and such a connection is in fact
one of the principal factors in enhancing our quality of life. Nevertheless,
we hardly even have the vocabulary to talk about it.
Without specifying any particular organized religion, spirituality grounded
in physical experience can lead to connectivity. Is this connective
mechanism by which we try to interact with our creator the same mechanism as
Biophilia? Maybe it is, only possibly more advanced and thus a far more
intense source of emotional nourishment than that obtained from strictly
physical experience. Can we transcend biological connection so as to achieve
an even higher spiritual connection? As opposed to religious experience or a
religious attitude, religious belief itself is abstract, being resident in
the mind. But the connection associated with religious experience can occur
through geometry, the physical senses, music, rhythm, color, etc. Religious
connection can be very physical, oftentimes intensely so. This physical
connection gives us the materialization of sacred experience.
Dance, song, and music express temporal rhythm. Bharatnatyam
, classical Indian dancing, African
shamanic dance, Native American religious dance, whirling dervishes in
Mevlana, Turkey, and Hassidic dances are all mystical dance forms that
contain geometric qualities of periodicity and temporal scaling coherence. Greek culture historically interlaced mystical dance with musical experience
giving birth to Classical Tragedy, features that evolved into the main
emotional component in the celebration of Christianity. In the West the
Masses of Bach
, and Mozart
fractal temporal structure—an inverse power-law scaling. Sacred chant in all
religions connects human beings to a story, ritual, and precious cultural
reference point. Holy days are marked by special song, such as the Byzantine
Easter service, Passion Plays, Kol Nidre during Yom Kippur, Buddhist
ceremonial chant, etc.
In architecture all over the world, the House of God displays the connective
qualities we seek, often to their highest possible extent. Independent of
the particular religion or style, this effect is found among all religious
building types. Architects of the past instinctively built according to
rules for generating scaling coherence. All the examples I have
mentioned—whether music, dance, art, or architecture—have common
mathematical qualities: fractals, symmetries, rhythm, hierarchy, scaling
distribution, etc. Deliberate creations by traditional humanity the world
over were trying to connect to something beyond everyday experience.
Within this biophilic framework, some religions have been
more successful than others in fighting against the despoliation of nature
and the dehumanization of human beings. The more conservative of the
organized religions seem to have fared much better at saving their heritage
in recent decades. Fearing the intrusion of foreign cultures and the
exploitation by foreign commercial interests, they have tried to shield
themselves from what are rightly perceived as consumerist and nihilistic
currents in Western art and culture. Ironically, many established religions
in the West have embraced those same artistic trends in an effort to remain
“up-to-date” so as not to lose members. We have concrete examples in recent
churches that, far from evoking the love and image of God, instead conjure
the image either of secular neutrality (warehouse/garage) or an expression
of evil (slaughterhouse/crematorium).
An established Church that sponsors and builds religious art and its own
temples in a style that induces anxiety will likely be judged as an
accomplice to a global nihilistic movement. Buildings that generate anxiety,
consciously or unconsciously, compromise the very continuity of such a
Church. Anxiety, alienation, and consumerism have little to do with love,
charity, and compassion. Anxiety-inducing forms are instead associated with
power, transgression, and sadism; therefore their attraction is that of a
cult of power. Negative reaction by more traditional religious authorities
against contemporary church buildings in the West is not usually reported
because of its politically explosive implications, but it exists, and it is
damning. New churches that are praised by the western press are condemned as
anti-religious by Eastern religious authorities (who apparently have not
lost as much of their sacred connection) on the basis of the fashionable
A State, too, can commission prominent public buildings that through their
style objectively evoke anxiety. A hostile reaction to buildings in a
nihilistic style that the government has sponsored turns into hostility
against the government itself. This does not bode well for political
stability in the coming decades, when citizens wake up to the fact that
public money spent on anxi ety-inducing buildings promoted by an ideological
elite drove their country into debt. The past few decades have seen a
building spree of inhuman structures (museums, art galleries, schools,
hospitals, libraries, government buildings, monuments, etc.) and
environments in an ill-conceived desire to conform to a “contemporary”
We have already witnessed foreign reaction to inhuman buildings in the rich
Western countries but we misinterpreted it as hostility towards the West’s
economic wealth rather than a legitimate critique of the architecture
proper. Nevertheless, similar buildings and urban regions built in
developing countries by those same “star” architects who build showcase
buildings in the West arouse the same hostile sentiments among the local
population. I believe that a correct interpretation of the negative reaction
ordinary people experience around contemporary buildings in the fashionable
style is based upon its rejection of Biophilia, but the soundness of this
negative reaction is conveniently negated by a powerful architectural
establishment that promotes such buildings all over the world. The
accusations of nihilism from both within and without Western society are
deflected onto “foreigners”, while critics of Western fashionable
architecture are deemed not sufficiently “contemporary”.
Spatiotemporal Rhythms in the City that Attracts Talent
A living city works well because it encourages actions,
interactions, and movements, all of which depend upon certain scales in
space and time. Spatial scales are defined by physical structures from the
size of a 3mm ornament on a park bench or public lamppost up to the size of
a city’s region that can be identified as more-or-less coherent within
itself. Biophilia requires the existence of the entire range of scales
corresponding to the human body (1mm to 2m) extending into the range of
scales of pedestrian movement (2m to 1km). With various forms of transport
our spatial experience expands to scales of the entire city and beyond. Quality of life depends proportionally on how we can experience all scales
in a non-threatening manner, with a priority placed upon the smaller scales
corresponding to the human body.
disdained the human scales, turning against them because smaller scales are
a defining feature in traditional urbanism. The complex spatial rhythms of
traditional environments are therefore missing by design from city regions
constructed during the past century. Even when a new environment is labeled
as being a “quality” environment, that label most often refers to how
closely the built structure (building, cluster of buildings, urban plaza,
public sculpture, etc.) follows a minimalist sculptural ideal that eschews
complex spatial rhythms. In the built environment of the past several
decades we find scales irrelevant to the range of human scales, except in
those crucial exceptions (restaurants, shopping malls) where retail
overrides design ideology.
An even more neglected aspect of urban life concerns its temporal
Everyday life is defined as a complex coherent system of actions and
movements on many different time scales. Some time phenomena are spatially
independent, but many depend critically upon the urban geometry. Again, the
shorter periods affect us most, as they have an immediate correlation with
our own bodily rhythms. We are dependent upon events that occur over times
of one second to twenty-four hours. Quality of life can be positive or
negative depending on whether our bodies interact harmoniously with the
temporal events caused by a city and permitted by its geometry. The temporal
dimension of urbanism is a poorly explored topic.
Time is defined either in abstract intervals, or much more physically in
terms of body movement. Motion could be a response to a physical need, yet
any movement is constrained by the physical space—furniture, room, corridor,
urban space—we occupy at that moment.
The geometry and material quality
of the physical environment impacts on our possible movement; we perceive
spatial constraints from non-biophilic structures, which limit us from
freely designing our own rhythms. Our daily routine involves a range of
movements and any pattern in our daily activity defines a temporal rhythm. Periodic events could occur throughout the day, or as once-a-day longer-term
rhythms. Some movements in daily routine are necessary, whereas we choose to
perform others for our physical enjoyment. We try to establish such rhythms
out of a natural need for temporal order.
A city wishing to attract new talent has to offer, among many other things,
an urban morphology that accommodates both Biophilia and daily life on the
human range of temporal scales.This is the “dance of life”, 
and like classical
dance forms from all cultures, urban movement has its rhythm, complex
fractal structure, and continuity.
People may not immediately perceive the effects of this
dance upon their bodies, but our organism accumulates either the positive or
negative effects of our daily routine, and will start giving us signals. Positive signals translate into wellbeing and being able to cope with
unavoidable stress, whereas negative signals wear us out so that we become
decreasingly able to handle normal stress in our daily environment. Our
health suffers because a weakened body is prone to both external infection
and to internal imbalances.
For example, a commuting trip of over thirty minutes generates stress,
regardless of the means of transport. Research has discovered that people
are willing to commute for up to one hour daily (round-trip), whether it is
through walking, private car, publ ic transport, bus, subway, or commuter
this time is exceeded, however, quality of life diminishes. Therefore, the
massive trade-off of enjoying a suburban front/back yard with lawn in
exchange for two hours or more of round-trip commuting is actually not
cost-effective as far as Biophilia is concerned.
Having access to a pedestrian environment (not necessarily strictly
pedestrian; the traditional city with wide sidewalks lined with stores does
very well) offers the possibility of excursions on foot that can be of any
duration. A complex connected pedestrian geometry allows periodic actions
of, say, fifteen minutes (e.g. a trip to a coffee shop or park), which are
unfeasible in a car city. Such trips do not need to be planned, just enjoyed
if the visual stimulation and other factors are positive, and the duration
of trips that are necessary for a specific function can be adjusted
according to the occasion. This flexibility in time is not possible when
driving to a destination, and the situation is only slightly better for
public transport. In the metropolitan transport of some central cities, a
passenger can profit from the commerce located in and around the stations,
but bus stops tend to be located in dreary places, with stations exposed or
in hostile environments.
“Innovation” requires an environment that encourages a state of physical and
The new dematerialized economy relies more and more on the material
structure of the immediate surroundings. Persons who are not dependent upon
the physical city for their work still rely upon the physical city for their
wellbeing, demanding an environment that permits spatiotemporal rhythms. They judge where to locate using spatiotemporal and biophilic criteria. People who work with ideas and who drive the knowledge economy are those
most able to relocate, and they will do so if repelled by a city with an
alien geometry, towards a city with spatiotemporal attractions on the human
scale. Many knowledge workers nowadays occasionally base themselves in
coffee shops with a wireless high-speed internet connection.
It is the wish of almost every city to position itself as a magnet for
talent, for then it can attract knowledge industries such as Information and
Communication Technologies, finance, advanced technology, arts industries,
etc.to create a hub for the “Knowledge Society.” 
It is well known that a
concentration of talent and educated workforce pushes a city’s economy up to
international standards, with corresponding feedback that benefits the
entire city. Ever since the West’s manufacturing base shifted to the
developing world, industrial production became much less attractive. Even in
the developing world that has now captured industrial production, however,
key cities compete to attract knowledge-based industries.
What attracts the educated and the talented to a city? It is quality of life,
measured in part by the criteria I have outlined here, not by an alien urban
morphology that follows a modernist design ideology. Citizens wish, above
all, to enjoy a stimulating and pleasant everyday life, in which normal
tasks can be accomplished without too much stress. Their professional
activities reside on top of this basis of wellbeing. Examples abound of
intelligent professionals leaving a “magnet” city because everyday life has
become too stressful or expensive. Much of this has to do with
spatiotemporal scales: in the first case when working and living
environments do not offer the biophilic range of scales; and in the second
case when daily life is skewed towards uncomfortable time periods, as for
example a long commute to work, getting children to school, food shopping,
accomplishing regular out-of-house chores, etc. I realize that the above
thesis only presents a small part of a broader scenario, and, given human
nature and human interactions, we may live in an earthly paradise and still
be stressed from local crime, a corrupt government, or hostile colleagues at
work. I do not deny any of that. What I wish to bring to attention is the
component that comes directly from architecture and urbanism.
Myths around Energy Consumption
We have been led to accept the myth that quality of life
increases proportionally to energy consumption. While true for the onset of
industrialization, this correlation is also responsible for an unsustainable
global economy. The basic premise is a falsehood that has to be disputed
before it can be reversed. Early technological advances permitted an
improvement in the quality of life, but this does not mean that increased
happiness comes from wasting energy and natural resources. Unfortunately,
major world industries have developed that work upon encouraging consumers
to waste energy. The throwaway culture of shoddy consumer materials in the
wealthy countries destroys the environment of the developing countries that
produce all that stuff.
For example, we have developed an entire mythology (motion pictures,
literature) around the pleasures of driving a car. There is undeniably a
remarkable freedom in having a private vehicle that moves us fast on the
surface of the earth, and this is a liberating notion in many ways, but it
is a terribly expensive action as far as energy wastage is concerned. As
much of the world’s economy entails companies that extract, process,
distribute, and sell petroleum products, it has made sense for them to
create a car-oriented society through movies, media, and other components of
manufactured culture. Just note that at the speed of a moving vehicle,
biophilic effects from the environment diminish to the point of
insignificance, except when one is actually driving through wooded
Put very simply, quality of life depends upon nourishment from the
environment, and not upon energy consu mption. The consumer society has done
a very thorough job of convincing people the world over of an imaginary link
between quality of life and energy wastage. That conjectured relation has
only served the large part of our economy that runs upon energy production
and consumption. Because of both the size of those related industries, and
the present state of globalization, it is going to be difficult to reverse
the consumerist trend in the near future. Of course, the world will be
forced into a totally distinct mode overnight after an energy catastrophe
(due to shortages because of exhausted supplies, military action, or
disruption in delivery channels), but past experience with transient energy
shortages does not seem to have taught anyone a lesson about the future.
Placing this essay in the broader evolutionary context of humans and human
technology, most of the things we once thought of as solely human—tool use,
language, etc.—are now seen as more common to other animals. We distinguish
ourselves, however, in being able to influence our environment on a massive
scale. At the very heart of this process is the building of settlements,
which uses up tremendous resources. The unsustainable system now in place in
much of the world, supported by a consumerist philosophy and taken for
granted, is that development and Gross Domestic Product depend upon
increasing energy use. This system has a runaway positive feedback, and
nature cannot possibly support it.
The discussion of geometry becomes central, because life that depends upon
the geometry of the environment is an emergent system property, which is
qualitative, not quantitative. Certainly, Biophilia is essentially
structural—it arises out of complex structures involving fractals, networks,
etc.—but it is not easily quantifiable. Hence what is basically a totally
rational phenomenon requires very different tools for understanding and
managing, and necessitates those who wish to stop the older, unsustainable
paradigm to develop a different worldview. The profoundly simplistic
limitations of our present thinking neglect and consequently help destroy
the complex emergent properties that allow life to flourish in the built
The Threat from Deceptive High-tech Sustainability
The global industrial system has learned the appeal of
sustainability, and it is applying clever and deceptive techniques in order
to perpetuate its world business. Perhaps the greatest threat faced by
human-scale urbanism today lies in the nightmarish “sustainable” cities and
urban projects proposed and built by fashionable architects. The global
system has picked up the sustainable vocabulary and has used it to
re-package their extraordinarily expensive and fundamentally unsustainable
products (glass and steel towers, monstrous buildings, industrial-style
cities in the middle of nowhere) as “sustainable.” The trick consists of
using some technological gimmicks, and coming up with numbers for energy
saved through having some solar panels and double glazing on the buildings’
glass façades. But this is a fundamental deception, since the city or
country that buys one of these eco-monsters becomes totally dependent on the
consumerist energy system.
As the companies selling such industrial products are the major
multinationals tied into the power of Western states, it is extremely
difficult to counter the publicity effort that is devoted to their
promotion. Also, the selling occurs at the highest government levels, far
above any decision-making that can be influenced by ordinary citizens. The
client nation blindly trusts the giant Western-based multinationals to
deliver a sustainable product because that is what the media promises. At
the same time, the controlled media acting as a mouthpiece for the
multinationals praise the client nation for its “great foresight” and its
adoption of “progressive urbanism”. Since national pride is involved here,
even the most blatant urban disaster will not be discussed openly. Maybe we
will read of a new city that proved to be totally dysfunctional, or too
expensive to run, after several decades have passed, but certainly not
Centralized governments have always been enamored of large-scale industrial
solutions, industrial cities, massive five-year building plans, etc. Despite
all good intentions, such projects proved to be totally dehumanizing in the
past because they ignored human psychological needs and the human scale. Such initiatives are now reappearing as globalist urban applications, but
with a newly polished high-tech glamour. Many persons continue to support
such projects, seeing them as proof that technology can solve every social
problem. Old-style centralized industrialization is made toxic, however, by
skewing everything towards the very largest scale.
By contrast, genuine sustainability uses small-scale technology linked in an
essential manner to traditional socio-geometric patterns that connect a
society to itself and to its place.
A genuinely sustainable approach
enjoys the natural kinship of bottom-up entrepreneurial initiatives such as
the Grameen Bank. We begin from the smallest scale and move up through
increasing scales. A peer-to-peer network empowers the individual to work
and act within a society in a way that benefits that society.
Just as in any
stable complex system, different layers of functionality are added on
increasingly larger scales, yet the working whole requires a balance of
mechanisms acting on all scales, interacting horizontally as well as
vertically. The new techno-cities, tragically, are designed to work on only
one scale—the largest scale designed as an abstract sculpture on a
fashionable architect’s drawing table—in which case they may not work at
I feel the need to raise an alarm against a group of fashionable
architect/urbanis ts that are misusing science to advance their own agenda. Supported by our top schools and the media, this group embodies a
superficial grasp of popular science, using words such as fractals,
complexity, emergence, etc., and claims to offer a variety of sustainable
urbanism. Ordinary people are attracted to these false promises, because
they cannot tell the difference between true and bogus science. Nevertheless, the purpose of this movement is entirely self-serving.
In presentations that read very similarly to what could be one of my own
texts, this group’s discussions also introduce the keywords: “diversity”,
“unpredictability”, “accidental”, “indeterminacy”, “optimism”, and
“opportunity”. . . . Couched under a pseudo-scientific cover, however, the
message says that there is no science of urbanism and no shared framework
for effective design; therefore we have to build according to randomness. This assertion is as false as it is irresponsible. What this group proposes
is the continuation of inhuman ego-based experiments on the lives of human
beings begun by industrial urban typologies used as agents of social
engineering. As if its theoretical statements were not alarming enough, this
group’s marketing ploy always concludes by recommending its handful of
favorite “star” architects for large urban projects.
It would be a tremendous move forward if people could be
divested of their indoctrination that quality of life necessitates high
energy expenditure. To replace the pleasures of daily living now provided
through wasting energy resources, I propose a return to emotional
nourishment from the built environment. This is very easy to accomplish, and
only requires re-structuring our built environment to provide biophilic
information. At the same time, the proposed restructuring necessitates a
shift away from the energivorous car-oriented society towards a human-scaled
urban fabric. Already in the past several decades, cities are embarking upon
such a program of restructuring. Their motivation has been to save energy. What I am proposing is altogether different and goes much further towards
improving the quality of life.
Biophilic nourishment is a positive experience that can substitute for giving
up the thrills of riding around in cars at high speed. I believe that this
is the crucial factor that can make a new sustainable society possible. The
vast majority of people will not give up their present wasteful lifestyle
out of an altruistic desire to save their planet. We know from history that
populations would rather proceed towards their own extinction rather than
engage in self-sacrifice for the common good. What I’m proposing is
different: you simply get your pleasure from a different source. And it
works: environmental nourishment from Biophilia has sustained and satisfied
people for hundreds of millennia up until the twentieth century. We are not talking about an
untried experiment, but a return to something that we know works.
Lest critics raise objections about returning to the past, I would advise
them not to worry. We are going to apply all our technological knowledge to
solve problems that were present in urban living in previous times. Clean
technology replaces dirty technology. There is no going back to a
pre-industrial past of rampant disease unless it is brought on by economic
collapse due to energy depletion. All we are recovering through Biophilia is
the positive emotional experience, not the old problems in coping with
everyday existence that we have now bypassed.
I am very grateful to Jaap Dawson, Michael Mehaffy, and Sarah
Rubidge for their suggestions.
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