Imagine a city full of blank grey-walled buildings, devoid of trees or greenery. The smell of exhaust and smoggy skies prevail.  Conversely, imagine a city where the buildings are open to the street and are made of natural materials; timber and stone.

Ask yourself, which of these two scenarios is the place that you would most like to live, work or play?

The answer undoubtedly will be the second scenario and there is some science behind why we all consistently choose this vision. The concept is called biophilic design and it acknowledges the fact that we humans are hard-wired to need and even thrive on a connection to nature and the natural world.

One might ask – if biophilia is so beneficial to our well-being and makes such intrinsic common sense, why then aren’t all our cities and new developments being delivered with these principles at the heart of the brief?

For a while now, the development industry has struggled to consider design features that don’t directly translate into improved market value or bottom line uplift.  As a result, many of the best elements of biophilic design or “softer” design features are the aspects that are usually the first to be cut during the value-engineering process.

In the past five years or so, it has been pleasing to see a growing body of research supporting an awareness and bottom line arguments about the value of embracing nature in our urban and built environments.

Across the fields of urban design, planning, architecture, landscape architecture and social planning, we are starting to better understand the role that biophilic design plays at a city scale and through built form outcomes in addressing costly issues such as public mental health and overall well-being, urban heat island effect and air quality control.

When research comes to light like that found in a recent study by Interface, the potential positive bottom line impacts of biophilic design start to hold economic clout. Interface looked at 7,600 workers from across 16 countries worldwide and found that workers in spaces that included natural elements reported a 15 percent higher level of wellbeing, were 15 percent more creative and 6 percent more productive. 

These figures provide a clear correlation to improved financial return. This type of hard evidence suggests that including nature in the delivery of all projects across a city is much more of a ‘must-have’ rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ feature.

City shapers are finding creative ways, whether it be through economic justification, planning policy shifts or simply visionary leadership and clever design, to embed biophilic design. 

Brisbane City Council’s (BCC) New World Design Guide - Buildings that Breathe is a great example of a council encouraging biophilic outcomes and promoting the agenda across a key part of the city. 

The guide, prepared by Urbis and Arkhefield on behalf of BCC, articulates a shared vision for achieving subtropical building design that responds to Brisbane’s climate, character and lifestyle, and improves sustainability through integration of a range of biophilic principles.

The guide is a first major step for Brisbane to driving a more biophilic approach to the delivery of built form. It illustrates how residential and commercial buildings within Brisbane’s inner city, transport corridors and principal regional activity centres, should be designed. Beyond advocating for green walls, roof tops and shady streets, the guide promotes walls and windows that open to natural light and air, captures breezes and transmits ambient light.

Council have further incentivised adoption of these principles through the development application process, guaranteeing an assessment timeframe of 20 business days if all the requirements of the New World City Design Guide: Buildings that Breathe checklist are met.

One of the best examples of biophilic design in practise and demonstration of the ‘buildings that breathe’ principles is the soon-to-be developed 443 Queen Street.

Designed by Architectus, the development is touted as Brisbane’s first inner-city subtropical high-rise residential tower.

Modelled on the concept of a traditional Queenslander house that ‘breathes’, the building is designed to effectively be a tower on stilts. Sky parks and gardens throughout the tower open to views of neighbouring heritage buildings and the Brisbane river.

It feels like we are at a very exciting time where the case for adopting biophilic design principles at all scales of development is increasingly considered critical. 

Recognising that embedding natural elements in our urban environments is essential to our ability to function and develop. Getting this right is a fundamental factor in the long-term sustainability, health and ultimately bottom line success of our cities.