Mother Nature, M.D.

How Biophilic Design Can Help Manage Chronic Disease

Mother Nature, M.D.: Connecting the Built Environment with Nature

Can simple design interventions and connections to nature be a prescription to manage chronic disease?

For several years now, healthcare has shifted from a practice focused on sickness and cure to one driven by wellness and prevention to manage and prevent pervasive chronic diseases through early detection, improved diet, exercise and treatment therapy.

Buildings and indoor environments — the places where we spend 90% of our time — can be a part of that equation through biophilic design. Biophilia is described as our innate human tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. It literally translates as “love of nature.”

Explore the Characteristics of Biophilia

Biophilia is a broad concept, which can be divided into a number of subsections and categories, making it easier to understand and easier to apply in specific situations. Below, explore how biophilic elements can be introduced within the built environment.

How Does Biophilic Design Work?

To truly appreciate its importance, it’s helpful to understand biophilia’s neurological/physiological underpinnings. Neural channels in our brain connect to the autonomic nervous system, which is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system stimulates the body for cognitive function; the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down. In chaotic or unsafe environments, the sympathetic system is highly active, suppressing the parasympathetic system. This disrupts the homeostatic balance of the two systems, resulting in energy drain and mental fatigue.

Consider this: A 2010 study found that, on average, the presence of salivary cortisol (a stress hormone) decreased by 14.6%, pulse rates dropped by 5%, and systolic blood pressure fell for those who walked in a forest compared to those who walked in an urban setting. Parasympathetic nervous system activity increased 56.1% for forest-walkers; sympathetic nervous system activity decreased 18.4%. In layman’s terms, the subjects who walked in the forest experienced significant drops in stress levels; city-walkers did not.

The built environment tends to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in stress and anxiety; natural environments work in opposition to this. However, when biophilia manifests within a constructed space, it can have surprising results.

In one study, employees who had views of trees and landscape took an average of 57 hours of sick leave per year, compared with 68 hours of sick leave per year taken by employees who didn’t have a view.

Another study reports that patients exposed to greater dosages of sunlight perceived less pain, took 22% fewer analgesic medications per hour, and accumulated 21% less in pain medication costs for the length of their stay.

Biophilic Design Decisions — The "Natural" Choice

Given the choice between a room with a view and one without, we would always choose a view. Natural light always feels better than artificial. Air cooled by water feels fresher than air that has been conditioned.

Biophilic design can be applied to diverse types of building types and environments. Engaging the senses means a great deal more than just interesting art or colors.

It can include natural cues instinctive to all:

  • How dynamic lighting with shifting color tone ranges can mimic daylight throughout a day to create ease.
  • How a view of a garden or indoor plants can be restorative.
  • How relaxing sounds and soothing smells can reduce stress.
  • How providing a range of levels of privacy can empower staff and visitors and lower blood pressure.

By bringing nature and patterns evolved from nature into our buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and infrastructure, the new thought leadership in design promotes the direct link of nature to the well-researched benefits of health and overall well-being. In the end, combining both low environmental impact design and wellness-focused design results in restorative human-centered design.