Designing with views of nature, natural materials, abstract, non-repetitive patterns - biophilia - is enjoying it’s time in the sunshine thanks to research proving the human health benefits of these natural cues. But spending some time in the woods along the coast north of San Francisco made me think that there is potentially a less quantifiable, but equally resonant potential for providing a connection to nature in design. If we have a better connection to the natural world, we can be reminded to be good stewards of our environment.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a stale, modern apartment in downtown San Francisco. This morning, the sun woke me up to a view of the marine layer fog receding through the redwoods toward the Pacific. There was a relatively quick 3 hour car ride between these two locations, but they are worlds apart in their atmosphere. I’ve traded bird calls for car horns and three restaurant options for probably three-hundred. But both locations share one thing in common - California and, specifically, Northern California is suffering from an historic drought. Even amid the beauty of the coast, the landscape between watersheds seems uncharacteristically dry for a place where fog lingers on a daily basis.
But the presence of the drought and the common experience of an individual doing their best to mitigate its consequences feels like a far-off problem when facing the clamor of the city. Much the opposite, life in the rural coastal region is earmarked with notes about a strained water supply, statements about rationed glasses of water at restaurants or friendly coercion to take a quick shower. This is all simple citizen and resident-led (non-governmental) regulation and being convinced of its need is apparent in almost any glance outside
Here in the city, there is no friendly, yet urgent, reminder. It’s only been a few hours since returning here and I found myself thinking, a nice long shower would be nice. Here where most resources are consumed, there was no note gently reminding me that what I woke up to and where I am now are crucially connected. This is maybe the activist opportunity that exists in biophilic design.
Think about sitting on a porch with that stereotypical farmer who can tell the weather by the creaks in his joints and who knows the mood of the soil from the patterns of rain, wind and sun. Now sit in your office chair, your car seat, your recliner and see if you have the same fluency with the state of the natural world around you. In urban spaces, making a case to be stewards of the environment takes more PR than in rural places because nature has been supplanted by sprinkler systems, artificial lighting or air conditioning. Because we can’t look out our windows and see the soil beneath the street or the tree canopy beyond the skyline, design needs to provide us the natural cues to remind us gently of a natural world beyond - one upon which we rely and which relies upon us.