Find Your Happy Space


13 August 2021  |   7 min read

By 2050, two out of every three people are going to be living in cities or other urban centres, according to a United Nations report. In the midst of the fastest period of urban growth in history, it’s worth considering the impact of disconnecting from our natural environment.

“For the great majority of human evolution, our biological systems developed in adaptive response to the natural environments in which we were immersed. This innate affiliation with nature lends itself in very concrete ways to our mental health and wellbeing,” Dr. Denise Dillon, Associate Professor of Psychology at James Cook University Singapore points out.

As urbanisation has increased, stress levels and related mental health disorders have skyrocketed. Research has found mental health disorders to be more common in cities — one study found a significant increase in psychosis and depression among people living in more densely populated areas in cities than those living in more rural areas in Sweden. On the other hand, children who grow up surrounded by nature have 55% less risk of developing various mental health disorders later in life, according to another study.

Could biophilic design alleviate the mental health implications that comes with urban living?

What is Biophilic Design?

The ecology professor Steven R Kellert and biologist E.O. Wilson first developed the theory of “biophilia,” which describes humanity’s innate connection with the natural world.

Biophilic design involves infusing nature with the built environment. It offers us a way to reconnect with nature in our everyday urban lives, which improves our mental health as a result. “The underlying principle behind biophilic design is that, through our evolutionary past, humans have developed an innate tendency to affiliate with life and life-like processes,” Dillon explains.

The Mental Health Benefits of Biophilic Design

A pioneering study by Roger S. Ulrich conducted in 1984 revealed that simply having a window view looking out at leafy trees could lead to better outcomes for patients in recovery after surgery.

This study led Ulrich to develop Stress Reduction Theory, which states that looking at scenery involving natural elements like greenery or water creates positive emotions such as pleasure and calm, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and has a restorative effect by easing cognitive overload or a heightened state of alert following a stressful situation.

“When we engage in activities requiring directed attention, e.g. studying, writing a paper, or performing tasks that are monotonous or boring, we become cognitively fatigued. In contrast, when we have access to nature, our involuntary attention system kicks in, which means our directed attention system gets to rest and recover,” says Dillon. “[Researchers such as Stephen and Rachel Kaplan] and many others have shown that natural environments are effective in capturing our involuntary attention for various reasons, but essentially they let the mind wander rather than demand directed or voluntary attention,” she continues.

Incorporating nature into our daily built environments can reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, increase productivity, and our general perception of well-being.

Biophilic Design and Our Built Environment

Incorporating nature into our daily built environments can reduce stress, blood pressure levels and heart rates, increase productivity, and our general perception of well-being. In fact, one study found that residents of neighbourhoods with more than 20 percent forest cover had a 50 percent lower incidence of depression and 43 percent less stress. Another study found that children raised in less green neighborhoods were 55% more likely to develop a mental illness than children raised in greener neighborhoods.

“Decades of evidence-based research eventually led to the development of biophilic design principles for incorporation into contemporary building and landscape practices. In highly urban environments, it’s been seen as beneficial to bring elements of nature into the built design to enable repeated and sustained engagement with nature, to encourage emotional attachment to settings and places, and to promote positive human-nature interactions,” Dillion says.

Singapore has a long history of fusing city and nature. Widely known as the Garden City for decades (and city in a garden subsequently), the island city-state has been ahead of the game in recognising the positive effects biophilic design can have.

Biophilic design elements can be seen in many buildings in Singapore — from the building blocks which are designed in a V-shape to let in breezes to skim over a pond at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, to the glistening bed of more than 15,000 square meters of greenery built into The Royal on Pickering Hotel’s terraces and roof decks.

How to Incorporate Biophilic Design in Your Own Spaces

After being forced to stay indoors over the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become much more aware of our indoor spaces and how they affect our mental health. How can we incorporate elements of Singapore’s smart urban planning in our own personal and work spaces?

Biophilic design can be applied to three major categories of experiences: a direct experience of nature, indirect experience of nature, and experience of space and place. Here are a number of ways Dr. Dillon recommends you can incorporate biophilic design principles in your home or work space:

Direct experience of nature

  • Allow natural light into your home
  • Use natural ventilation for air flow
  • Include a water feature in your home
  • Aim to build up a collection of plants, preferably local species
  • If a collection is too big of an undertaking, start with a single plant — research has shown that even a single plant in a living or work space can significantly decrease stress and anxiety
  • Having animals at home (like a small fish tank) can be beneficial, but only if interactions will be positive. Avoid bringing in an animal just for expected benefits to yourself; positive interactions should go both ways

Indirect experience of nature

  • Display your favourite images of nature in your home. These could be photographs or paintings. Rather than a single item, aim to build up a nature imagery theme of your own that appeals to you
  • If there is limited natural light and air flow, simulate these where possible — for instance, with artificial light that mimics the spectral qualities of natural light
  • Use natural materials where possible; if not for building then for decoration (e.g. wood, stone, natural fabrics & patterns)
  • Consider using muted, ‘earth’ tones in your colour scheme (characteristic of soil, rock, plants), and avoid highly artificial, contrasting colours
  • If you can’t have it, fake it. Incorporate shapes and representations that evoke nature in some way (e.g. wing shapes, flower or tree motifs, etc.)

Experience of space and place

  • Due to our primal survival instincts as human beings, we tend to seek out environments where we can observe without being seen. Arrange your home in a way that you have the advantage of both prospect (the ability to observe and access to long views of surroundings) and refuge (with the safety and security without being seen)
  • Aim to arrange your home setting in a thematic or functional way (e.g. a dining area within a larger space) that has clear boundaries between spaces while maintaining a cohesive wholeness
  • Make the most of your transitional spaces such as hallways, doorways or thresholds by leaving them uncluttered, especially those that link indoors to outdoors
  • Avoid clutter that inhibits free movement throughout your home spaces. Foster mobility and avoid confusion or anxiety caused by physical barriers
  • Learn about the history of your neighbourhood, especially culturally significant areas, and find ways to connect your own story to the culture and ecology of your place

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.