Biophilic design and biophilic cities: an explainer


by Kincaid C. Brown   |   Michigan Bar Journal

The COVID-19 pandemic brought into focus that outdoor activities in natural settings have a positive impact on mental health, and individuals participating in outdoor activity report higher rates of emotional well-being than individuals who do not participate in such activity.1 Biophilic design is an architectural practice that aims to connect people to nature through design concepts with one of the benefits being psychological.2 Other benefits of biophilic design include improvements to environmental quality, physical health, support of animal species and habitats, and more resilient and energy-efficient cities.3

While there is a breadth of aspects utilized in biophilic design, some major features include utilization of natural light and ventilation, inclusion of plants and vegetation (such as a living wall), visual connection with the natural world outside, and the use of natural materials and shapes. Examples of buildings that utilize biophilic design concepts are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore, and the Metropol Parasol in Seville, Spain.

The biophilic cities movement is one in which cities across the world work to incorporate biophilic design concepts on a citywide level to reimagine how urban areas interact with the natural world. Many cities are taking advantage of the positives of green (e.g., parks, trees, open space, urban agriculture) and blue (e.g., urban ponds and lakes, storm drainage) infrastructure4 because of the real benefits of better water management and energy savings, the population’s improved mental and physical health in these settings, and increased equity of access to the natural environment.5

Urban tree planting, planning, and maintenance are prime examples of biophilic practice that many cities have intentionally or unintentionally taken part in because of its myriad benefits. These benefits include reduced air temperatures leading to lower energy costs; reduced noise and environmental pollution; mitigation of runoff and flooding; and improvements to the health and well-being of the urban population.6 A 2020 report estimated that tree cover in urban areas produced more than $18 billion in air pollution removal and upwards of $5 billion in reduced building energy use.7 The Vibrant Cities Lab,8 created in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, is proponent of urban forestry for these benefits as well as other reasons including traffic calming,9 improved academic performance for children,10 and crime reduction.11 Many Michigan cities, including Ann Arbor,12 Detroit,13 and Royal Oak,14 have tree planting programs for these reasons.

There are many aspects to making a biophilic city.15 Most obvious is the relation the city has to nature including the availability of parks, proximity of natural habitats and tree cover, and impact on urban biodiversity. Other characteristics include the amount and demographics of the local population visiting nature, places where school children are able to have recess, community engagement in planning and programing, and ecoliteracy.16 A network of partner biophilic cities exists and includes cities in the United States like Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Missouri; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as well as international cities like Barcelona, Spain; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Singapore.17

There are many ways that cities can employ to embrace biophilic values that involve planning and governance. The most obvious one is allocating budget for urban greenery improvements including park and nature area conservation, tree planting, and incorporating green space in urban construction projects. Another is to plan and strategize toward carbon neutrality or flood mitigation infrastructure, like in Hoboken, New Jersey.18 Cities can also move in this direction by revising zoning, tax, and construction regula tions and ordinances to make development incorporating biophilic facets more cost-effective and attractive. Examples include biophilic standards or goals in zoning schemes, tax incentives to construct sustainable buildings, and guidance for builders to conserve habitat and public rights-of-ways. Other measures that cities can employ to embrace biophilic tenets include nature-based education in public schools, public support of nature-based events and stewardship programs, and community information sharing.19

While it is not mandatory to employ biophilic design elements in construction, there are certification organizations that employ biophilic elements in their standards. Two of the most well-known of these standards are the International WELL Building Standard20 and the LEED Rating System.21 While the two standards have similarities,22 they differ from their starting points. The WELL standards are focused on the individual, with the grounding that the buildings, where humans spend so much or our time, impact health and well-being.23 LEED, the more widely used green building rating system, has a focus on environmental, social, and governance benefits reached through sustainability, enhanced human health and community quality of life, and environmental benefits through reduced energy consumption and conservation of water resources.24

The views expressed in “Libraries & Legal Research,” as well as other expressions of opinions published in the Bar Journal from time to time, do not necessarily state or reflect the official position of the State Bar of Michigan, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement of the views expressed. They are the opinions of the authors and are intended not to end discussion, but to stimulate thought about significant issues affecting the legal profession, the making of laws, and the adjudication of disputes.


1. See, e.g., Fernandez, M. Pilar, et al., “Outdoor Activity Associated with Higher Self-Reported Emotional Well-Being During COVID-19,” 19#2 Ecohealth 154 (2022). (all websites accessed October 26, 2023). 2. “The Six Principles of Biophilic Design,” Neumann Monson Architects (2022).

3. Julia Africa, et al., “Biophilic Design and Climate Change: Performance Parameters for Health,” 5#28 Frontiers in Built Environment 1 (March 2019).

4. GreenBlue Urban, “Why Green and Blue?”

5. Tim Beatley and JD Borwn, “The Health Biophilic City,” IUCN World Congress (November 2019).

6. David Nowak, “Taking Stock: The First Step to Creating Healthier Cities with Trees,” 3#2 Biophilic Cities 22 (June 2020).

7. Id.

8. Vibrant Cities Lab,

9. Trees Improve Transportation, Vibrant Cities Lab

10. Trees Improve Education, Vibrant Cities Lab

11. Trees Improve Public Safety, Vibrant Cities Lab

12. Resident Street Tree Planting Program, City of Ann Arbor Michigan Pilot-Project.aspx.

13. Community Tree Planting, The Greening of Detroit

14. Tree Planting Program, Royal Oak Public Services

15. JD Brown, “Indicators of a Biophilic City,” 5#1 Biophilic Cities 46 (May 2023).

16. Id.

17. Partner Cities, Biophilic Cities 18. Michael Kimmelman, “A Climate Change Success Story? Look at Hoboken.” New York Times (November 3, 2023)

19. Brown supra, note 15.

20. WELL Building Standard, International WELL Building Institute

21. LEED rating system, U.S. Green Building Council

22. International WELL Building Institute, The WELL Building Standard: v1 with May 2016 addenda, (2016) at 212.

23. IWBI supra, note 20.

24. USGBC supra, note 21.