Column | Applying evolutionary psychology to biophilic spatial design

Idukki Hill
Families enjoy a day outdoors in Idukki, Kerala. Photo: Ann Rochyne Thomas.

For millions of years, people have always sought a safe and resource-rich environment in order to satisfy our requirements for access to daylight, fresh air, vegetation, and other natural resources, as well as an unobstructed view of the immediate surroundings. Nature's diverse textures, patterns, and colours have not only stimulated the human senses, but have also provided valuable insights to guide us in our perpetual quest for resources. We evolved to become 'ecocentric', with an inherent desire to connect with nature, because it was vital to our survival.

Modern, hyper-consumptive societies have erected both psychological and physical barriers between humans and the natural world. However, the rapid advancement of technology has outpaced our capacity for adaptation to modern synthetic environments. As a result, we continue to have an innate love of nature or biophilia.

Perceptions of the ‘place’

Over the history of evolution, interactions with our environment have developed our cognitive capacities, defined our sense of purpose, and shaped our perceptions of power, freedom, peace and security. The intrinsic quality of biophilia has persisted through natural selection. Due to the co-evolution of culture and genetics, individuals who could emotionally connect with their surroundings used to have an advantage and were more likely to be evolutionarily ‘fit’. Yet, biophilia cannot be considered instinctive because it does not generate deterministic behaviour. People's responses to nature can range from awe to aversion to apathy depending on their prior individual and collective, lived, and historical experiences. Biophobia, or the avoidance of particular natural stimuli, is considered to have acted as warning signals during evolution. While designing spaces to make them more inviting and less intimidating for people, such stimuli must be mitigated to the greatest extent possible.

Curated landscapes often disappoint because they are primarily designed to be visually appealing; ignoring other sensory requirements. Furthermore, different means of interaction with diverse natural elements are frequently an afterthought in the design process. The 'right to roam', on foot and with our eyes, is restricted when a landscape is excessively curated and mobility is controlled rather than guided.

People are drawn to a landscape because of its beauty. What captivates people, however, is the extent to which the landscape empowers them to access that beauty and enjoy its distinct facets through multi-sensory experiences.

A promise of peace, purpose and power

Due to the abundance of information, communication, and external stimuli, ‘directed attention fatigue’ is a common phenomenon in contemporary society. A person's ability to resist distractions is compromised when focused or directed attention is used intensely or for an extended period of time. In contrast, involuntary attention is maintained when a person is effortlessly invested in a subject. Natural environments aid in restorative processes, such as fatigue recovery and regaining the ability to reflect on and contemplate life's most profound questions.

To be truly restorative, an outdoor setting must feel distanced from the chaos of contemporary life. Natural vegetation can be utilised to absorb anthropogenic noises or to provide habitats for birds that will also enhance the soundscape. As liberating as an expansive view can be, a cosy alcove in a natural setting can satiate the human desire for territoriality.

Natural landscapes provide people with an opportunity to escape the clock and experience the diurnal and seasonal rhythms. The spectacle of celestial lights, and the drama of changing weather provide novel experiences for city dwellers. The visual spectacle is the core feature of the nature experience. However, petrichor, floral and animal scents, auditory stimuli such as crashing waves and rustling leaves, bird songs, and animal calls, as well as tactile sensations such as the sunlight on our skin and the wind in our hair, all contribute to the transformative experience. The quality of the experience depends on how much time is spent in nature and how intense the interactions are. Stress can be momentarily reduced by brief interactions, but longer-lasting interactions can help people recover physically and psychologically.

Leisure pursuits, such as watching spectator sports, provide hard fascination – it can hold attention effortlessly but does not encourage reflection. The involuntary multi-sensory responses of the human mind to environmental stimuli provides soft fascination. The uncertainty and authenticity of raw nature fascinate the human mind, capturing it long enough for attention recovery and personal reflection.

Biophilia vs conspicuous consumption

Many people are drawn to pristine ecosystems solely for the perceived social benefit via social media, gained through symbolic conspicuous consumption. Ecologically sensitive tourism seeks not only to boost regional economic growth, but also to reduce the negative externalities of tourism on the region's natural resources and cultural heritage. When a landscape is designed to provide emotionally positive experiences that facilitate the broadening of people's mindsets, it helps to foster empathy and a greater recognition of the intrinsic value of natural resources, reducing the risk of environmentally destructive behaviours significantly.

To preserve both tangible and intangible natural linkages in an ecosystem and to facilitate dialogue between landscape elements, it must be designed with empathy. In contrast to a consumptive experience, a transformative experience can soothe, fascinate, inspire, and educate visitors while also encouraging pro-environmental behaviour. Empowering people to explore and discover nature safely can encourage them to embrace environmental stewardship.

The battle for autonomy

While humans have spent a significant amount of time manipulating their environment in order to make it more accessible and appealing, it has almost always resulted in the crushing of nature's autonomy. The key to good spatial design is to consider all stakeholders and recognize how vital freedom is to their existence - freedom to roam, freedom to flow, and freedom to simply be. The challenge is determining whose autonomy must take precedence, when, and for how long. Natural resources are central to humanity's pursuit of peace, power and purpose. This realization alone should suffice to decide whose autonomy must take precedence.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of the Centre for Climate Resilience - a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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