From Green Cities

Sustainable Cities are Biophilic Cities

shutterstock_197954798 (1)Towards the end of 2015, I spoke at an event organised as part of Bristol’s Festival of the Future City, as one of several people offering ‘provocations’ intended to stimulate debate around the challenges and opportunities for making Bristol a more ‘resilient’ city, socially, economically and environmentally.  Each provocation was meant to be confined to just five minutes, but of course, everyone overran, including me!

The title I’d been given, ‘What needs to be done in the city to rebalance our relationship with Nature?’  was hardly snappy; so I subvertised it, a little crudely, to ‘Who ya gonna call? Police, Fire, Ambulance, Nature..?’ The aim being to highlight the critical services Nature provides and which sustain human society – at least, when such ‘ecosystem services’ are understood, recognised and protected.

Natural Health Service

With the delegate list showing a preponderance of town planners, civil engineers and ‘urban futurologists’ and the conference format being highly (and unreliably) dependent on web-based SMS polling and voting, it felt a daunting if not futile task as I stepped up to the mic in that air-conditioned, hermetically-sealed room to make the case for nature as an integral part of, rather than merely an adjunct to, the city’s infrastructure.

I cited the familiar, but still compelling statistics, from peer-reviewed studies, evidencing the benefits to people’s physical and mental wellbeing from access to and interaction with nature:

  • patients healing quicker after surgery if they have a view of trees or vegetation
  • Japanese research showing immune boosting T-cells rising after just 5 mins of Shinrin-yoku (literal translation, ‘forest bathing’) in a woodland setting
  • crime rates reduced by more than 50% in housing estates where trees, vegetation, greenery present.

And the ’killer’ fact, that would surely provoke moral outrage and most powerfully make my case that a high quality and quantity of nature should be accessible to everyone in every neighbourhood, that …

…people who live in ‘biodiverse poor’, nature-deprived postcodes die 7 years earlier and succumb to debilitating diseases 17 years sooner than those with homes in leafier, greener areas.  Not just because they’re better off financially, but because they are richer in wildlife.

Delegates who weren’t reading messages, texting back or working out how to use the SMS polling system applauded with modest, automatic politeness at the end of my polemic. But not even that last shocking statistic, taken from Sir Michael Marmot’s seminal report, ‘Fairer Society, Healthier Lives’, stirred or shook them. It was clear that despite the organisers having the vision and understanding to put nature on the agenda and give me the opportunity to provide a provocation, for the audience it was no more than that – an opportunity to hear a rather shouty man, the type with a placard and a collecting tin you’d seek to side-step in the street, make a few interesting, occasionally amusing observations but not ones central to the context of the event.

Nature still suffers from the ‘N’ word – nice to have, nice to look at; especially when being talked about by the ‘Nation’s Greatest Naturalist and Nicest Man’, Sir David Attenborough (although he’s getting a bit edgier in his old age, viz highlighting human population pressure for pushing ever more species to the brink of extinction). Nature is seen as nice, but not necessary and certainly not essential for the good of civic society.  It lies low on most policymakers’ list of priorities, as per George Osborne’s statement at the 2011 Conservative Party conference,‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business’.

Beyond my brief, politely ignored provocation, nature and its value to us humans, never mind its intrinsic value, barely got a mention. The slightly too warm controlled atmosphere of the conference room hung heavy with ‘C’ words – civic society, civil engineering, community, commerce.The consensus defaulted to a moderately adapted version of business as usual: smarter construction and engineering solutions – still primarily the pouring of concrete, rather than any radical rethinking of a future city in which nature was viewed as a critical partner for creating long-term resilience and sustaining the wellbeing of its citizens. George Osborne would have been grinning like the Cheshire Cat in a hard-hat.

I left the event despondent that I’d failed to characterise and communicate Nature as that vital ‘5th Emergency Service’, underpinning all the others – filtering out pollutants from our air, locking away carbon dioxide, slowing the flow of rivers to reduce flooding, storing groundwater for our drinking water, providing tranquil space and respite for our minds and bodies etc. And failed in a city, more blessed than most with a plethora of green and blue space in walking distance of its citizens. Where, despite of, rather than because of, town planners, wildlife weaves its way across, through and over the city-scape: foxes and badgers finding refuge from persecution in the countryside; eels migrating into the heart of the metropolis via the Avon thousands of miles from the Sargasso Sea; otters, hard and hungry on their tails, taking up residence within yards of Temple Meads station; peregrines stooping from their tower-block and cathedral eyries onto unsuspecting pigeons whilst shoppers below go about their business oblivious to the aerial combat above their heads.

Musings on a Monopoly Board…

So why this blanking of nature, this polite indifference, this relegation to it as ‘something nice’ to be turned to only when more core considerations have been dealt with? A clue came to me this Christmas in an unexpected form … via the Monopoly Board.  I was looking through the drawer holding all our old family games in search of something to play with my daughter – when I chanced upon the Monopoly box, containing, as I knew only too well, the means to wreck the carefully cultivated community spirit of any family suffused with a little too much sugar and alcohol post the Festive meal.  Its capitalist creed spelt out in the games’ rules in CAPITALS lest anyone think there was any other more altruistic purpose, ‘ THE IDEA OF THE GAME is to BUY and RENT or SELL properties so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and eventual MONOPOLIST.’ In fact, originally called ‘The Landlords’ Game’, Monopoly was created by a socialist feminist to teach American families how to manage their money in the face of rapacious landlords! In a fine irony, the game was plagiarised, adjusted into an unashamedly capitalist form and then claimed as his own invention by Charles Darrow.

It was only when out of curiousity that I unfolded the game board that the connection came to me: nowhere on the Monopoly Board past or present is any space allocated to nature. The closest it comes to identifying some form of ecosystem service or natural capital is via the ‘Water Works’ – even then under the infra dig description of a  ‘utility’, rather than a proper property. With the majority of the audience at the Future City event professionals in their 30s, 40s and 50s; for many of them, the Monopoly Board may well have been the first urban ‘map’ they were exposed to – subliminally (as intended) imprinting its characterisation of cities as places of concrete, bricks and mortar, where the main human activity is consumption, commerce and capitalism.

Certainly, we’re overdue reframing those mental Monopoly Boards. As some conservationists have sought to to do, by coining the planner-friendly descriptor ‘Green Infrastructure’ for championing nature in urban areas – although still a utilitarian term stripping the life and soul out of nature, reducing it to something that can be loaded up from a council depot and deployed like traffic bollards or street lights.

Providing Nature in daily, bite-sized servings

A more compelling and vibrant case for the presence and proximity of nature in cities has been made  by Professor Tim Beatley and his team at the University of Virginia through The Biophilic Cities Project. As in the Marmot report, Beatley makes the correlation between the greater presence of biodiversity in a neighbourhood and its lower incidence of mental anxiety and poor health. In a neat characterisation, that I wish I’d found ahead of the Future Cities event, Beatley talks of our need for regular ‘recommended calorific intakes of nature’  – adapting that now commonly understood dietary concept.  A minimum daily requirement of nature recommended for every citizen would be,  ‘a bite-sized serving of walking to work under a street forest canopy’ . Weekly nature nourishment to maintain a healthy, happy body, mind and soul amounts to a slightly bigger portion as found in urban parks or nature reserves within or on edge of the city; with these extended to monthly deeper immersions out in  the wider countryside. The pinnacle experience, as Beatley describes it an ‘annual banquet’, should be spent feeding and replenishing the senses on nature breaks in awe-inspiring places such as National Parks, mountain ranges, coastal areas – those remnant areas of near wilderness, where nature can be seen and absorbed on the grand-scale.


It is no accident that when the early industrialists and bankers – and their modern day equivalent, hedge-fund managers and rock-stars – had enough money, they sought to escape the city’s ‘pavements grey’ where they’d toiled for their fortunes and make their homes in country houses set in carefully landscaped estates – such as those created by the great 18th century landscapers, Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton.  Landscapes which closely resembled that of the East African savannah where our species spent 99% of its development – a landscape of grassland, watering holes, pockets of woodland and scrub, with low rolling hills, supporting a vast diversity of wildlife.  East African landscapes that neither the plutocrats or their landscapers were likely to have seen directly – yet were lodged in their ‘mind’s eye’. As world renowned biologist E.O. Wilson set out in his book Biophilia – revisited by Dr William Bird in a UK context (Natural Thinking) – human beings are hard-wired over several million years mentally, physically and innately (call it our soul if you wish) to be close to nature – and that has not been entirely eroded over the mere 10,000 years since settled farming started or the few thousand years later when the first ‘cities’ of Mesopotamia appeared.

It’s clearly not possible for city planners to create country estates for every citizen – although it’s noteworthy that two of the most popular places to visit at the week-end around Bristol are the Ashton Court and Blaise Castle estates; now owned and managed by Bristol Council and both landscaped by Humphrey Repton.  Those parklands, formerly for the privileged few, satisfy many people’s need for weekly greater nature nourishment as per Beatley’s categorisation. Further afield, Westonbirt arboretum offers the opportunity for monthly ‘Shinrin-Yoku’  sessions and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge centre set alongside the Severn with its vestiges of semi-wilderness provides connection with a significant diversity and sheer numbers of species other than our own – as I experienced on a recent visit , my eyes and soul hungrily soaking up the visual feast of wheeling flocks of golden plover, lapwing and teal hundreds strong.

Nature in every city’s blood supply

What is in shorter supply are those everyday ‘bite-sized servings’ of nature available readily to every citizen throughout the city. Trees and green spaces should not be seen as just  another bit of street furniture or ‘lollipop’ design feature to break up an architect’s drawing, but as a key network of ‘nourishment’ points infusing nature across and through the city like our body’s circulatory system – supplying that innate human need for contact with nature and the benefits it brings to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.