What is Biophilia?

Biophilia. Sound familiar? Or sound like an AP biology term you never learned in high school? Most likely you’ve come across the term “biophilic design.” This once architectural industry phrase is today trending into the mainstream. But biophilic design is more than just putting some plants on your office desk. It has a deeper history than you might imagine, and it could be a new approach to making real progress combating climate change. 

The term biophilia is actually Greek for “love of living things.” A Harvard biologist named Edward O. Wilson popularized the term. Wilson wrote the book The Biophilia Hypothesis in 1993 with the social ecologist Stephen R Kellert. They argued that humans are innately connected to nature, emotionally attracted to the natural world because our biological make up can only fully develop when we are focused on life and life-like processes.

The book is filled with examples of empirical evidence proving our attraction to nature (biophilia) and fear of nature (biophobia) are part of our genetic makeup. Some of the core examples lay it out as follows: First, humans are inexplicably fearful of natural species like spiders and snakes more than man-made dangers like guns and cars. Second, humans are more attracted to trees that are climbable and have large canopies of shade-providing leaves than other kinds of trees. Third, humans prefer looking at ocean views, vegetation, and flowers rather than concrete. 

This is exactly where biophilic design comes in. Advocates of biophilic design hold new buildings and architecture to a higher, more green standard. For a building to be biophilic it must not only be energy efficient with a small carbon footprint, but also be a place fit for a tree, and a human, to live sustainably. 

Americans spend 90-percent of their lives indoors, but there’s so much evidence proving we need more from our indoor spaces. If we don’t get enough natural light, we can get depressed. If we visit the park, we become more focused. Hospitals, schools, and office spaces have all been studied and the results are clear: those with natural light, open airways, and greenery all produce happier, healthier humans. 

Biophilia advocates take this one step further and believe that until our everyday lives are enhanced with biophilia design will we never truly understand and feel the power of the natural world—the feeling that Wilson wrote about all those years ago. And until we have this feeling, we won’t put genuine, progressive efforts into fighting the climate crisis. 

This idea is not dissimilar to those in other science writing and theories. Naturalist and professor at the State University of New York Robin Wall Kimmerer argues in her book Braiding Sweetgrass that humans who don’t grow up with indigenous people’s stories about the origin of the earth don’t have a lived-experience understanding of our connection to the earth. She believes that once we learn these indigenous stories and feel the powers of the earth in our own spaces, will we believe enough to actually do something about the climate emergency. 

Advocates also argue that without biophilic design, society will continue to become estranged from the natural world and our whole quality of life will continue to be reduced. So let’s do something about it! 

Singapore’s Changi Airport has more than 500,000 plants, and some 250 plant species. It also produces about 3,000 plants a month in its own nursery. PHOTO BY GETTY via Nat Geo.

The core elements of biophilic design are:

  1. Plants: Big and standing, two-inch tall, fuzzy and full, or sharp and striking—however they look, indoor plants are the core tenant of biophilic design. The more the better! Horti’s subscription service paces you so you learn to take care of one plant at a time, and then grow your jungle a little more each month. Our online care guides help keep you on the right track. We provide trouble-shooting advice, seasonal plans, and playlists to help facilitate your connection to your plants. 

  1. Art: Artworks on the walls can now pop outside the frame. Sometimes called “living green walls” or “plant paintings” they are typically wood installations filled with moss, ferns, and lichens. These paintings are irresistible to look at and provide a sense of quiet. 

  1. Windows: Biophilic design is not just about creating spaces with good natural light for plants but for people too. Large windows, sky lights, and clear open spaces allow for maximum photosynthesis for your plants and yourself. Experts say that natural light and day light help keep humans alert, awake and calm. Sunlight impacts your mood and regulates your circadian cycle—during the day you produce melatonin, so if you aren’t getting enough sunlight you might be prohibiting your body's ability to sleep when night comes. Proper ventilation is key too. Make sure you have the option of opening up windows to let fresh air inside. 

  1. Natural materials: Incorporating materials like wood, stone, or brick is a great way to bring the outdoors indoors. They complement your plants and help ground you in a space might otherwise feel sterile. 

  1. Warm colors: Natural, warm colors also help boost your mood. Humans are naturally drawn to warmer colors. Your space will actually begin to feel cozier and be more welcoming. Humans all over the world have different color preferences, but a rule of thumb is that warm but not overly vibrant or hectic colors have the ability to reduce stress levels. 

  1. Outdoor spaces: Increasingly more and more offices are building terraces and patios for people to opt out of the indoor desk space. The New York Times recently reported that companies are increasingly thinking beyond bringing outdoor elements indoors, instead opening up unused roof tops and turning them into gardens. CookFox Architects, Hines’s 609 Main, Facebook, and LinkedIn are just a few of the biggest companies leading the way. 

  1. Flooring: Carpets, wood floors, and tiles featuring plant design can set a foundation for excellent biophilic design. Natural textures and natural colors will help imitate the natural earth floor.

At horti, we believe that supplying you with plants and the knowledge to care for your plants not only makes your workplace and home happier but shares the power of biophilia with the world. When we feel the power of plants, it can inspire us to take action toward building a more sustainable future.

Cover photo: The Green Planet, the Middle East’s first bio-dome, complete with a biodiversity of more than 3,000 plants and animals, in the spirit of a rainforest.