Why on earth

#2 | Why you need more nature in your life

Episode Summary

“People love nature,” this seems very intuitive and obvious, yet, we don’t act as if we knew that. In the second episode of “Why on Earth” we question people’s need for nature and how design can help with that. With the expertise of Judith Heerwagen, researcher and faculty member at the University of Washington, we discover everything there is to know about biophilic design, the connection between nature and humans, and why we need to bring nature back in our lives.

Episode Notes

Why you need nature in your daily life

If we understand our connection with nature, why have we built ourselves away from it? In the second episode of ‘Why on earth’, we uncover how our connection to the nature is rooted in our evolution, and why you may need more of it, for your benefit and the planet.

“We design zoos for animals better than we design buildings for people,” a quote by pioneer in the field of biophilic Judith Heerwagen. A view on architecture and design that stops many people in their tracks. 

With the expertise of Judith Heerwagen, today a researcher and faculty member at the University of Washington, we discover the roots of biophilic design and the connection between humans and nature. In this episode we shed new light on biophilic design and answer important questions like “Why is the connection with nature critical for your wellbeing?”, “Why is biophilic design not a standard practice in design?”, “How much nature do we require?” and “Why should we build habitats instead of buildings?”.

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Episode Transcription

Ashlee Anvik [00:00:01] Have you noticed that a walk outside during lunch leaves you feeling calm for the rest of the day? How about how the sound of raindrops on the windowsill puts your mind at ease? Alternatively, does the sight of a slithering snake in the garden startle you? It turns out there's an explanation for why we respond this way to nature, one that is rooted in our evolution. Hi, I'm Ashlee. This is Why On Earth, a break in your day where we pause to question big ideas around design that may just make the world a better place. And today we are questioning your intrinsic connection to nature and why you actually may need more of it for your benefit and the planet. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:00:49] It seems so intuitive and so simple, yet nobody had ever begun to look at how people used nature decor. It almost seems so obvious, and I think that's part of the problem here. It seems so obvious. Yes, we know people love, love, nature. So what? But we don't act as if we knew that. And we have an opportunity now to really rethink how we're designing buildings. They aren't just places where you put people in a chair and they stay there all day long. We need, you know, life in its many forms. We need to experience the natural environment as it is and bring nature indoors. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:01:29] That was Judi here walking. And what an honor it is to have her on this episode. She is one of the early prominent researchers of nature's effects on her health and well-being, specifically as it relates to how we need to incorporate it in the environment we've built around us. She is a faculty member at the University of Washington School of Architecture and has co-authored the book Biophilic Design, The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. 

Before we share her insights, I want to shed some light on the science that her whole career is based upon. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans are innately drawn to nature and more broadly, all living things. Basically, we are lovers of life. I know that sounds very idyllic and pretty logical, actually. But consider for a second that we are connected in a more biological way to nature. To understand this, we must go back in time when the earliest humans lived in caves or huts and spent their days hunting and gathering. Let's just say life was no walk in the park in this Paleolithic era, the way we interacted with nature was for survival. Reconstructed tools out of stones spent most of the day searching for our next meal and seeking shelter from various threats. We sought recovery from stress and illness with nature surrounding us. As the human species evolved and technology advanced, though, we boxed ourselves in and completely out of nature. Constructing tall, sterile buildings with little to no connection with the natural world. And now we spend 90 percent of our time there. 

Today, we're uncovering why that is all wrong. Though we don't spend our days in such close proximity with nature for basic elements of survival, our bodies and minds actually still depend quite heavily on it. To give you an example. Studies show that even just a 20-minute walk in the forest reduces stress, lowers your blood pressure, and increases immune function for up to seven days after your walk. Forest bathing, as it is called today, is now considered a common therapeutic practice in Japan. Another study by Oliver Heath found that incorporating nature in schools increased students learning rates by 20 to 25 percent, improved their attendance, and reduced the impacts of ADHD. 

To further prove that our modern-day affection for nature, though, is indeed rooted in our evolution, we can look to the savannas of East Africa. It is said that the earliest humans preferred certain environments where they felt safe and more connected to modes of survival, say, for example, an open savanna with the occasional sheltering tree, as opposed to a lush, thick forest with trees and vegetation. Why? Well, because it was easier to monitor their surroundings for threats and often easier to seek out water and food; basic needs of survival. And what's really interesting about this is that modern studies show that even humans today prefer these urban settings that have a sort of savanna-like properties of spatial openness. The occasional cluster of trees and especially those with scenes of water. 

So if we understand this notion of being intrinsically connected to nature, why then have we built ourselves away from it? And how can we bring it back into our daily lives? To answer these questions, I'd love to welcome Judi today on her podcast. Hi, Judi. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:05:17] Well, thank you, it's great. So you obviously are very interested in this topic. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:05:22] Yes, we're very interested in this topic, and right now, it's so relatable to all of us. Judi, to help our audience understand biophilia and the roots of the science behind it, I want to start with the basics. In the days of our earliest ancestors, I guess nature was not an accessory or a luxury. It was the means to every end. Food, water, shelter, is there anything that I'm missing from that equation as it relates to how we've evolved with and around nature? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:05:53] Well, I think that if we just look at our evolutionary history, if you're out hunting and gathering, you're right, it's survival. You have to find food. You have to find safety. And at the end of the day, the thing that really moved human evolution forward was fire. And there's a lot of interesting work on that because before fire, our ancestors had to go to sleep. They were in danger if they moved or had any activity at night because of nighttime predators. This is interesting work in anthropology, looking at what happened with fire? Why was it such a monumental shift in human behavior? It's because the fire extended socializing into the nighttime, so you sat around and talked and danced all of those hallmarks of what being human is, are those kinds of things that fire enabled. You know, we could live and survive without fire. But it's that social leap forward, the storytelling, the dancing, the cooking together, all of those things that we now think about as part of our normal experience really were implemented by the use of fire. And I think that fire also has protection. And you look at people, they love campfires, they go camping and they love to build fires. You know, it's sort of, you know, sitting around and relaxing. At the end of the day, we have fireplaces you look at, you know, the use of fire for not just cooking, but for fun. And it's also horrifying when it's out of control. But I think fire is one of those things we don't think about when we talk about biophilia. But I think it's the strongest connection to socialization, to the essence of who we are as people. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:07:47] I guess you could say the human-to-human connection is also part of biophilia. Judi, you've been studying this human affinity for nature for over 20 years now, specifically as it relates to the effects on architecture and design of our modern world. Can you share an experiment that maybe you were part of that helps us understand this modern-day affection and need for nature in our daily lives still today? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:08:13] I wish. I actually started my career in zoology. I was really interested in animal behavior, and as part of that, you look at how animals adjust to the natural environment and how they adapt. And so I began to say, you know, humans are animals too right? And began to say, OK, what do we know about how people react to the natural environment? So I started doing small kinds of experiments. 

One of the things I was interested in was how people in windowless environments decorated their offices. This was kind of the first article I'd written very simple research. No funding at all did it on my lunchtime basically and went around to places and looked at what people put on their walls and particularly right in front of them and in their visual field. Whether that, you know, if there were pictures of animals and plants of landscapes or they were just things, just odds, and ends of things that had nothing to do with nature and looked at people who were in windowed and windowless environments. And we found that people in the windowless environments put twice as many things with nature content, particularly right in their field of view, where they could see. And the research got a lot of attention. I was very surprised. But it was that sense that it seemed so intuitive and so simple, yet nobody had ever begun to look at how people used nature decor. 

And I started with a zoologist, Gordon Orients, whom I had worked with when I was a graduate student, and he was developing the savannah hypothesis, that people should be intuitively attracted to the savannah because it was the environment which humans evolved for millions of years before leaving the savannahs. And he looked particularly at trees, the kinds of trees that people should be attracted to; broad canopies and so forth. But we began also to look at just the spatial characteristics of the long-distance views, the sense of refuge from being under a tree. And that started my thinking about what are the elements here of biophilia in addition to plants, but at a landscape level. You know, an outdoor level of looking at what it is that people are attracted to where they go in the environment, what is it that people prefer? And if you look at a lot of our parks that were designed, you know, in the 1980s and all over, they really have these elements of Savannah like, you know, sort of the sense of being able to move through an open place on being able to find refuge places to sit, and it's that places to sit that is also very nice because it's where they put the benches. There's been research that looked at people are more likely to use them if they're in kind of a place where they've got vegetation around them, more likely to talk to strangers. It's a sense of comfort if you have a bench that's out in a natural space rather than in the middle of nowhere, you know, no trees and no vegetation around. So it was looking at behavior and why should we feel this way? 

Ashlee Anvik [00:11:35] And speaking of this observation of behavior, you once said we designed zoos for animals better than we designed buildings for humans. This quote stopped me in my tracks. Can you explain what exactly you meant by that? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:11:52] Oh my goodness, that was a long time ago. It was an interview that the University of Washington, the press office did with me, and I said at some point in the interview that we did a better job of designing zoos for animals than buildings for people. That was their lead. My phone was ringing off the hook after this came out, but some background on that is useful. When I was in graduate school, I did work at the zoo. And nationally, zoos were recognizing that animals were not flourishing. They could survive, but they were engaging in behaviors that were not normal, dying sooner. So what the zoos began to do in the Woodland Park Zoo and particularly in Seattle, brought in a lot of scientists who looked at animals in the wild, and they really want to understand how animals lived and could they replicate some of those features in the zoo itself, so they started designing more natural habitats...

Ashlee Anvik [00:12:58] Seems like common sense, right?

Judi Heerwagen [00:13:00] Doesn't it seem like common sense? But zoos were designed so that people could see the animals? That was the whole point. You don't hide the animals, you bring them out and put them in cages so people can look at them. And what they began to do was really look at habitats rather than cages. So they had this big, beautiful new savanna habitat where they had lots of species together. They kept the lions off of the savanna, obviously, but they had a lot of birds and giraffes and numbers of animals that would normally be together, and they did this throughout the zoo. They really tried to bring more natural habitats. The zoo attendance went way up, the animals were doing better, and I just, you know, the way that the reporter had asked this question, it just popped into my head. I said, we just don't design like that for people. You look at office buildings and you go in one and you go in another, and they look exactly the same; the same kind of furniture, the same kind of everything. 

And I think that we have an opportunity now to really rethink how we're designing buildings. They aren't just places where you put people in a chair and they stay there all day long. I think there's much more going on in the design field now about how we take advantage of the fact that people have been working at home for so long. So what does the office become? So I think there is really rethinking and that is quite frankly, a zoo approach. What is it that people need to flourish? I think it is in the same kind of thinking, to go back and think about behavior, why people need to be together, what they get out of it, how do we design different kinds of social spaces? And I think that that is going to be a transformation of how we think about working and where people work and why. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:14:55] Well, that will be a welcome change. I guess if anything good came out of this period, it was a pause to reflect and realize that maybe there's a better way to design the way we work and the way we live, the way we interact with each other. I know I've been starving for that. I'm 34, so I've been working for over 10, 15 years now and I can remember my first jobs were in these sterile, boring cubicles with terrible fluorescent lighting overhead, little to no views of nature. And over the last 10 years, I really have seen a shift. In offices, becoming more feeling, feeling like home and places to connect with each other and incorporating more, you know, verdant greenery and exposure to natural light and access to outdoor spaces. And I think this moment will even propel those trends that have been happening even further and at a higher speed. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:16:00] I completely agree, and I think it has been a gradual change that is kind of unnoticeable unless you look back from where it was, you are sitting in a cube. But I think the shift is going to be much bigger; much more attention to design and maybe to understanding what that culture of that organization is and how to begin to reflect that. I think it's going to be a much more thoughtful kind of design, with a lot of experimentation, some things will work and others won't. 

But I think it's so reminiscent of the redesign of the zoos that it's I hadn't even thought about it that way until you asked the question. But it is that thinking going back to why? Why do we come together? What is the purpose of that? We know that people can work at home and Zoom and any of these electronic media have changed things dramatically in terms of connection. But it's not the same as being together in the same space with your friends and your colleagues. So I think that now it's the recognition that work is social, that has really hit home. And we have a special we have needs for different kinds of places. We design our homes very differently than we design our offices because the homes are sort of fit to behavior much better than the offices typically have been. But I think that's going to change quite a bit. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:17:41] And on the topic of changes in design and incorporating elements of biophilia, we've actually seen in recent years an interest in bringing office work outdoors, whether at the office or at home. I guess being outdoors and in surroundings of nature is the purest form of biophilic design, but it may make people curious how much exposure to nature do we actually need to feel its effects? I believe you and your colleague. I've actually researched this, and one study -found that patients in pre- surgical holding rooms who viewed serene views of nature for just three to six minutes had blood pressure levels 10 to 15 points lower than other patients exposed to blank walls or other more action-based outdoor scenes. So to feel the effects of nature, we don't need to spend the entire day sitting outside, right? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:18:33] That's the important thing that we don't often think about when we think about biophilia. It's the short experiences. I'm walking around my neighborhood, sometimes it's a long walk, other times it's a couple of short walks, but just getting outside or just sitting outside, I think that they can be momentary. They don't need to be all-day experiences. They could be 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:18:58]Yeah, I love this quote by you, Judi. "If there is an evolutionary basis for biophilia, then contact with nature is a basic human need, not a cultural amenity, not an individual preference, but a universal primary need." And I guess to implement, you know, the decades of research that you and your colleagues have provided us, there has to be sort of tangible justification to invest in these sort of biophilic design principles. 

I want to mention a recent study of an administrative office building at the University of Oregon. It showed that employees with views of trees and landscape took significantly fewer hours of sick leave per year than employees without views of nature at all. And there's been several studies like this that really prove the effects of nature on our well-being, on our productivity. And the science is all clear; we understand that nature is a necessity in our daily lives. But how do we make sure that we do it right? There's many ways of incorporating nature in our daily lives, from bringing plants indoors to creating more access to outdoor spaces. But in your opinion, what are some things to think about to make sure that that that it's done in the right way? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:20:25] Good question. Biophilic design has gotten much more popular, at least the term. The question is the application. How? How do you really do it? There's no one way to do it. There's such a broad palette. But I think that if you're designing a biophilic space that is true to some extent to its environment, I think it has to look at its external environment. Where are we building and how do we reflect that natural environment around us? Or do you do things that are just universal everywhere? Do you import plants because they're beautiful, but they're not native plants? Biophilia has got to be much better connected to sustainability, bringing in plants that aren't native, if you're importing from somewhere, is that good or not? I would say probably not. When using any kind of materials, we really need to say, how are these things truly a merge and are linked together. This way you're creating a sustainable building that's biophilic so that you're helping the environment and at the same time, you're nurturing people. 

And I think that early examples of sustainability were not at all biophilic. They were so focused on the environment that the human experience of that new environment was kind of overlooked to some extent or not, given as much attention. But I think there's certainly more interest in this now. I think all of those things are beginning to be looked at, not separately, but as a habitat. I think that the notion of habitat is a really powerful one. If you use it in the ecological sense, it has many components, it has people and animals and non-living components. And I think that if you begin to think of it in those ways, then you begin to link things rather than separate them. How do you do biophilia in the most sustainable way possible? 

Ashlee Anvik [00:22:42] And on the topic of sustainability, I did want to ask you one important question. I want to reference a disturbing piece of information from Ed Wilson [Ed Wilson passed away at the end of 2021, ed.d] and the late Stephen Kellert's book called Biophilia Hypothesis. They said that if the current rate of habitat alteration continues unchecked, 20 percent or more of the Earth's species will disappear or be consigned to early extinction in the next 30 years. That book has been written a while ago, but it is true that the rate of species extinction over the last 100 years has gone from about one to 10 per year under normal circumstances to over a thousand per year. And we study biophilic design through the lens of how it's beneficial for humans, our well-being, our productivity, our longevity. But I guess, isn't that one-sided view a little bit selfish if we understand our dependence on nature? Shouldn't the end goal of biophilic design actually be getting humans to take better care of the nature they depend on? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:23:44] Oh, absolutely. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:23:45] I read that if children are exposed to more nature as a child, they're more likely to care for it as an adult. And so shouldn't that sort of be the end goal of biophilic design? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:23:57] I certainly would not be at all surprised if that were true. In fact, I think it makes perfect sense. You know, as a young child, I was always out in the woods playing, we were never indoors. My mother would just open the door and say goodbye,particularly during the summers. And I think that it's got to have an impact on you. Which raises the issue of how do we start this with our children, particularly in urban settings? And I think what is happening in urban settings is, you know, horrible sometimes. There's nothing, nothing left that's green. We're seeing a huge boom in Seattle, and land is so valuable that putting a park there doesn't seem to add the economic value that a building will. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:24:54] And that's really a pity. And it kind of ties back to something you said earlier of sustainable biophilic design is really incorporating the built environment into its natural habitat and weaving the natural elements of what's already there into what you're building. And I guess if we understand that it benefits not only us but nature itself.

Judi Heerwagen [00:25:25] I agree. And I think a lot of design firms still have trouble integrating biophilic design into the space. Part of the problem probably is the term. I think that more firms are beginning to say, this is the way we design, and this seems like an add-on. And it costs more, so forget it. And I think the economics of all of this has got to be addressed. And when you pull it out as a separate entity, rather than being part of good design, that's the problem. It should be a very natural thing that you do, just like we have windows - everybody knows that there's real value to windows. So it should just be kind of a component of that, you know, and not pulled out as something separate that's going to cost more. And I think it's a serious issue in how it's presented to clients and to design professions. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:26:34] And I guess if you're looking at it from a purely economic standpoint, there have been so many studies tying back these benefits on our well-being to actual economic impact. You know, for example, I mean, take a look at the research done in hospitals. Roger Ulrich proved that patients recovered from surgery quicker when exposed to views of nature. He figured that with hospital discharge rates even one day earlier, you could save over $160.000 in patient care. So if you want to look at it from an economic standpoint, there it is right there. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:27:08] If it's truly valuable, and we know from lots of research that it does enhance social behavior, sense of well-being and particularly the well-being notion, stress reduction, more positive emotional experience and so forth. If it's really important, it's important that everybody experiences it. I think biophilic design has a real equity problem. There are neighborhoods in every city where there isn't a living plant in sight. These are the kinds of things that biophilia really should be expanded to because these neighborhoods are generally poor. Parts of the city are beginning to plant trees and have little places to be outdoors, but they're all in the more prosperous, more affluent part. It's a serious problem. You know, that it should be available for everybody in some form or another. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:28:13] Well, I guess if we understand the science behind biophilia and are exposed more to it and more often, I guess more people will start to be interested in their homes, their workspaces, schools, hospitals, et cetera. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:28:26] Anything like this takes a while. It starts off kind of small, and at some point, it'll boom. It'll become what we do, boom. And I think that's not too far into the future, I really don't. Given the amount of research that's going on, the number of people who are asking this, the number of design firms who are putting it as one of the things that they do. I think it's going to be integrated and look like something just normal, and we'll ask why did we not do this before? I would imagine that in 10 years, it's going to be a norm, but it takes a long, long time. There's a lot of research, but it's the doing it that is hard, because architects don't learn it in design school. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:29:20] Yet! 

Judi Heerwagen [00:29:21] Yet. I think there will be more who are starting to integrate this into design studios and so forth. But and it may be a generational change that you need, to have people who are learning this as they're students so that it becomes part of what they do as professionals. There's the translation issue and the transition issue; transition to people who have this knowledge, and they'll do it just as part of the practice. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:29:49] Absolutely. I hope so. So, Judi, to wind down on a positive note, you know, the shift has been happening. I mean, you see it in the inclusion of green spaces in urban areas around the world. Some examples that come to mind are the New York City restoration project, the Miami underline, and Amsterdam has been investing in urban green spaces for years now. So another thing, I personally see a shift in individual interest in nature as well from people wanting to grow their own food at home, bringing greenery into their office. And even having company-sponsored vegetable gardens in some cases as a way to bring people together more often and get them involved with nature. So I hope with more education around this topic. Thanks to the research that you and your colleagues have offered us, we can help make this individual shift to caring more about nature around us. 

So one last question, Judi. As one of the pioneers in the field, what advice would you give to our listeners who maybe want to start incorporating elements of biophilic design into their space? 

Judi Heerwagen [00:30:55] There are so many ways to do this. You could use biophilia to make an exciting, sort of inventive environment. You can make it soothing and, you know, it really just depends on what you want to do with the place. It doesn't need to be huge, expansive things. There are ways you could do this easily, like some experiments in New York City where they closed off the traffic and allowed people to come outside and they had little tables set up here and there. That's where flowers and plants in gardens are really nice because they're small features that are relatively easy to do. You know, gets people outside. It gets them socializing. And getting outside is really important, but I think those kinds of examples are perfect. Biophilia can be done in so many different ways that that's what makes it, I think really valuable is that there's not a set recipe. It can be very simple, it can be patterns and colors, it can be real vegetation, it can be indoor-outdoor spaces, there are just so many ways to do it, it's just design imagination. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:32:19] Right! Oh, well, Judi, I knew I was going to ask at the beginning of the call what your view of nature out your window in Seattle looks like. And I see it's beautiful, green and sunny, so we shouldn't keep you much longer. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:32:31] Oh yes. I've got a big backyard and my crows are up in the trees waiting for me. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:32:37] Really, we are honored to have been able to speak with you, and thank you so much for being with us. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:32:43] Wow. Well, listen, this was fun for me too, so we've all enjoyed it. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:32:48] Well go and join your crows, make sure they get their seeds. 

Judi Heerwagen [00:32:51] Yes, I'll get their peanuts. OK, OK, bye. This was fun for me too. 

Ashlee Anvik [00:32:57] Okay. Bye, Judi, bye. 

This has been an episode of Why On Earth, a podcast brought to life by Extremis, a Belgian furniture design brand making so-called tools for togetherness, as a brand designing furniture that withstands all elements of indoor and outdoor environments, we are fascinated by the topic of biophilia and understanding why we should connect more with nature. We are honored to have Judi with us today to share the early, groundbreaking research of her and her colleagues on this topic. If you're interested in learning more. Check out our complete guide to biophilic design, why you need it, and how you can implement it into your daily life. You can find it on our website: www.extremis.com. 

We want to know what's on your mind if you are listening and questioning why on earth about a certain topic in design. Reach out to us at the link provided on our podcast page and we'll consider it as a topic for our next episode. Until then, try and enjoy a few more nature walks.