Beware of Covid fatigue and complacency in the workplace

South Africans were all relieved when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced recently that the first two batches of Covid-19 vaccines had safely arrived in the country, followed by Health Minister Zwheli Mkhize’s announced that the vaccination programme is rapidly gaining momentum.

“After months of suffering through lockdowns, social distancing, isolation and sanitising, it is easy to suffer from Covid-fatigue. The temptation exists to become lax when it comes to implementing health and safety protocols in the workplace. However, it is vital to remain vigilant. Until the majority of South Africans have been vaccinated, we cannot afford to think that life and business can resume to the way it was before the virus,” warns Robert Palmer, Head of the Occupational Health Department at Afroteq Advisory – a multi-disciplinary integrated company providing advisory and training services to the built environment sector since 2000.

According to Palmer, typical short-cuts taken in the corporate environment include only sanitising or disinfecting obvious “high traffic” areas such as boardroom tables and chairs, but neglecting door handles, lift buttons, staircase bannisters, telephones etc. The improper wearing of masks, forgetting to sanitise hands, the absence of visible sanitisers and failure to enforce adequate social distancing are also frequently encountered when the company conducts their workplace audits.

Even though we have moved through the second wave, South Africa still records on average 1500 new cases more than 200 deaths per day, with almost fifty thousand people who have already succumbed to the virus.

Health experts have warned that we could see the third wave at the end of April and predict that a fourth wave could hit the country when Winter arrives.

“Finally seeing a light at the end of the tunnel makes companies believe that we are out of danger. Decision-makers think they can save money by appointing unaccredited, uncertified service providers to deep-clean and sanitise the building or by purchasing inferior quality cleaning materials and other PPE. There should be zero-tolerance for this kind of behaviour that puts profit over the well-being of people. The reality is that Covid-19 is still with us and that it will take several months for the vaccine programme to be rolled out and until the majority of our workforce can be considered safe,” he says.

A specific area concern to facility managers working in the built environment is the health and safety of construction workers. OHS officers agree that labourers not wearing their masks on-site, working in too close proximity to each other or being transported in large numbers are cause for grave concern. 

“Construction companies face harsh penalties and high fines when their projects run late. They put pressure on their teams and workers fear that they might lose their jobs should they call in ill.  By failing to disclose their symptoms to their supervisors and adhering to safety protocols, everybody on-site is put at risk,” Palmer says.

Confirming this warning, the World Health Organisation (WHO) listed occupations where workers performing mostly routine tasks, such as construction workers and cleaners that have to contend with low wages, job insecurity and a rushed return to work, as medium risk.

“As health and safety experts, we urge employers to ensure that they continue implementing the correct protocols and pay attention to potential problem areas.

Paradoxically, it tends to be the companies that have until now been largely unaffected by Covid-19 that are at the greatest risk of succumbing to complacency.

We all want to rebuild our economy, but we cannot ignore the fact that many employees are dealing with emotional battles after having lost family, friends or loved ones due to the pandemic. The world has paid a high price already, and we owe it to each other to be responsible and make the right decisions to the end. That is what true leadership is all about,” Palmer concludes.

For more information, visit www.afroteqadvisory.co.za

View more

We are bad at thinking about tomorrow

THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | Llewellyn van Wyk, B.Arch; MSc. (Applied), Urban Analyst

“Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.  The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients of delays, is coming to its close.  In its place, we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now…” 

Winston Churchill, November 12, 1936

The irony of the coronavirus pandemic is that it is both a devastating global disaster and a defining moment for our species. No-one knows how it will end, even as we shudder at the unimaginable, and growing, the scale of the suffering, especially among poor communities.

At the same time, however,  the pandemic has given us a unique opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of a global and personal transformation as a giant leap towards creating new social mores and values which are focused more on the planet and our place in it.

As George Swingler, an Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Cape Town in South Africa puts it, this is a wake-up call like no other – one that has caught our attention in a way that the climate crisis has never succeeded in doing. It should also starkly expose the malignant roots Covid-19 shares with the climate crisis namely our unsustainable and unjust economic system based on unrestrained industrialisation and a singular obsession with GDP growth in the face of finite planetary resources.[i]

As he notes, “We face a systemic crisis that will remain after the virus risks have passed. We live as part of a system and it’s high time we start speaking about how to go forward as civil, reasonable people choosing ‘less bad’ options in the near term while considering inspired choices for the future post-crisis. In answering, “What to do?” there are two timelines: 1) What do we need to do right now to navigate this crisis, and 2) Longer-term policy/behaviour/cultural changes to work towards and adopt after the crisis is passed.”

LET US NOT WASTE THIS CRISIS

How did two of the most advanced countries in the world, the United States and Great Britain, both rich in technology and expertise, fail to recognise the crisis as it unfolded? A final answer will only come with hindsight and numerous public inquiries, but there are many known psychological processes that cause individuals and organisations to miss the signs of a coming emergency – even when it is staring them in the face.

In 1980, psychologist Neil Weinstein published the first study of what has come to be known as ‘optimism bias’ in which he found that people are unrealistically optimistic about their own prospects. [ii] Short-sightedness is another reason: according to Elke Weber, a behavioural scientist at Princeton University[iii], “We are evolutionarily wired for taking care of the here and now: we are bad at these decisions that require planning for the future.” Therefore, he argues, climate science, which deals in future probabilities, is “hard to process and hard for us to be afraid of.” As with climate change, our collective ability to confront the pandemic is shaped by our brains, and we have seen the lack of attention paid to Covid-19 in the early stages of the outbreak.

As Davis Spratt and Alia Armistead from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration put it in a recent discussion piece “modern society has been quite good at dealing with frequent, low-impact disruptions, but bad at managing infrequent, high-impact threats.”[iv]

In short, we are bad at thinking about tomorrow.

Charles Mann, in an essay submitted for a 2013 National Magazine Award, relates a story of how Lynn Margulis, a researcher who specialised in cells and microorganisms and one of the most important biologists in the last half century, used to teasingly say that the problem with environmentalists is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality.[v] Questioning her placing of humans as just part of another part of a larger ecology, he enquired whether humans were not, in some way, special. Her response is critical to how we view a post-Covid world:

Homo sapiens, she said, might be interesting for one thing, they are unusually successful. But, she added, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

It was Goergii Gause, author of a book recognised as a scientific landmark, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934, whose experiment of the relationship between food resource and the growth of an organism, generated a graphic depiction of the fate Margulis alluded to. In the graph, time is on the horizontal axis, and the number of protozoa on the vertical axis. In the beginning the growth in the number of protozoans is slow, and the graph line ascends to the right. Then the line hits an inflection point, after which it suddenly rockets upward in a frenzy of exponential growth. The frenzied rise continues until all the food is consumed, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. It is natural selection, as Darwin argued, that interferes in achieving this goal. It snips back almost all species, restricting their numbers and limiting their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

Sometimes, either by luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits – for a while at least. These are Nature’s success stories: their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they exterminate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food. In his essay Mann writes that this is the reason why, to someone like Margulis Homo sapiens is one of those briefly fortunate species.

With unhindered access to planetary resources and with almost no surviving biological competition, humankind has grown its population from around 1 billion to 7,803,873,131 in the past two hundred years, with a few billion more projected in coming decades.

Escalating up the growth curve, human beings so dominate the earth that in 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen, christened our time the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. Mann points out that if we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time, we will have consumed or degraded, or both, the resources of the planet.

THANK THE GODS FOR BEHAVIOURAL PLASTICITY

I could conclude this think-piece right here, were it not for a concept called behavioural plasticity, one of humankind’s greatest attributes. The term, coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, is defined as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioural plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits, almost as a matter of course. It is this plasticity, Mann writes, that is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviourally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we might be able to survive.

Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing or curse. Which of those two it will be, depends on how we answer the following question:

How can we provide for ourselves without ruining the natural systems on which we all depend?

Students of sustainable development will recognise the sustainability mantra in those words.

So here is the thing: changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, which human psychology tells us is we are not wired to do. Ironically, in the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something strange, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways).

Is this even possible? As Mann notes, to biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny. Seen from this perspective, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.

Should be—but Mann suggests it is perhaps not.

In his essay Mann uses slavery to suggest why the answer is not necessarily yes. He notes that slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Forced labour was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi. Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change, Mann suggests, is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days. Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the new social order. Slave owners saw no wrong in this, considering it instead “a positive good.” Astonishingly, just a few years later, a part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

What is more, the tide against slavery was not restricted to the United States, but to slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, abolished its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. As Mann puts it, like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. While slavery is, regrettably, by no means over, in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Many reasons have been provided by historians for this unnatural transition. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

This extension of human rights, to which historians assign multiple causes in this shift in the human condition, is both rapid in time, and staggering in scope. But one of the most important, Mann suggests, was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of activists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case.

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself as in the Gause experiment would, Mann writes, require a still greater transformation—behavioural plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself.

Mann concludes his essay by noting that even though past successes are no guarantee of the future, it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the test tube. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.[vi]

CONCLUSION

Society’s response to the Covid-19 shutdown is an example of behavioural elasticity.

Kingsley Davis refers to the increased individualisation and specialisation caused by urbanisation and questions whether it is possible to construct new social mores and standards under those conditions. Seems like Covid-19 has provided the answer – yes, it is.

Here, too, are lessons for our ability to confront the virus. Precisely because we are bad as individuals at thinking about tomorrow, economists and psychologists say it is more important to have leaders enact policies that enable us to protect ourselves against future risk.

As Leo Murray points out, there is one type of intervention that jumps out of the behaviour-change research as unusually effective: targeting “moments of change” like moving house or job where our patterns of behaviour are disrupted and we cannot simply rely on habit. In such moments, individuals are required to make new, active choices and subsequently may establish new patterns of consumption in the future. Intervening strategically at these moments can help steer people into a lower carbon consumption pattern more seamlessly than trying to prise them out of their existing habits and bring about more lasting reductions in lifestyle emissions.

The coronavirus pandemic represents an utterly unprecedented global “moment of change”, in which the regular patterns of hundreds of millions of people’s lives have been forcefully interrupted, not just as individuals, but as part of local and global communities. This mass instance of “habit discontinuity” is most pronounced in personal mobility, precisely the area of consumption behaviour that has so far proven most difficult to shift.[vii]

This is the collaborative opportunity of our time. Let us not let this crisis go to waste.


[i] Swingler, G. 2020. “Amid the devastation wrought by COVID-19 lies a glimmer of hope for the planet.” Available from: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-04-14-amid-the-devastation-wrought-by-covid-19-lies-a-glimmer-of-hope-for-the-planet/. Downloaded: Thursday, 16 April 2020

[ii] Marshall, M. 2020. “Why we find it difficult to recognise a crisis.” Available from: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200409-why-we-find-it-difficult-to-recognise-a-crisis. Downloaded: Friday, 17 April 2020

[iii]Sengupta, S. 2020. “Climate change has lessons for fighting the Coronavirus.” Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/12/climate/climate-change-coronavirus-lessons.html. Downloaded: Tuesday, 07 April 2020

[iv] Spratt, D. and Armistead, A., 2020. “COVID-19 climate lessons: unprepared for a pandemic, can the world learn how to manage the bigger threat of climate disruption?” Breakthrough – National Centre for Climate Restoration, Australia.

[v] Mann, C. 2012. “State of the species.” Available from: https://orionmagazine.org/article/state-of-the-species/. Downloaded: Saturday, 04 April 2020

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Carbon Brief Staff, 2020. “Coronavirus: What could lifestyle changes mean for tackling climate change?” Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/coronavirus-what-could-lifestyle-changes-mean-for-tackling-climate-change. Downloaded: Friday, 10 April 2020

View more

Pathways to transformation: The Covid-19 pandemic crisis and emerging lessons for repurposing our cities

Covid-19 has impacted on contemporary society in ways that would not have been contemplated even six months ago. No-one would have considered locking down half the world’s population as remotely feasible in January of this year. Unsurprisingly, much has, and continues to be, written about the current Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts on our lives.

By Llewellyn van Wyk, Infrastructure Policy and Development Analyst, New Zealand

Many of these contributors and writers have also argued that Covid-19 provides a critical moment for societal transformation – an opportunity, as it were, to replace the dysfunctional economic, social, and environmental systems that have accumulated over decades. This collective writing is contributing to the building of a new body of knowledge on how pandemic crisis impacts on our lives, and how governments and people did and can respond to its challenges. The value of these lessons should not be underestimated: never have we had a single pandemic crisis impact on so many people almost simultaneously at this scale. As Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand keeps on reminding us, “there is no playbook for this.”

It just may be that after Covid-19, if there is an after (more on this anon), it may well be possible to construct such a playbook.

BACKGROUND

The opportunity to contribute to such a playbook dawned on me as my mailbox began filling with contributions from writers and thinkers from around the globe. Perhaps among the collective contributions, some lessons could be gleaned that would offer pathways to transformation. It may be argued that trying to create potential lessons from an event that has yet to run its course is premature at best, foolish at worst. After all, a post-Covid-19 could look quite different from what is being currently widely speculated.

Notwithstanding this risk, there seems to me to be a unique opportunity to distill lessons from the many commentaries on the subject especially while passions are still so high. No doubt the learned studies will follow, and these two views – a before and after, spontaneous and considered if you like – will, in and of itself, be enlightening.

Thus, I began a process of curation hoping that these curated insights could help leaders in the public, private, and social sectors overcome the crisis—and remake the future. This has allowed me to draw on some of the wealth of material produced since the outbreak of Covid-19, utilising some of the 300+ articles that came into my inbox. This curated collection represents some of the best I have read; no doubt, there are other excellent contributions that I have probably missed.

What follows is a collection of think-pieces – missives written in the heat of battle from the frontlines – from a wide array of contributors over a period of four months. As to be expected, there is a personal bias in the recording since what enters my email inbox is predominantly invited and firmly grounded in progressive thinking and delimited to placemaking. Given the delimitations of the data collection method (both source and topic bias), I have systematically collected and collated all contributions as they appear daily. From these puzzle pieces, a general picture has emerged as one would expect from the adoption of a grounded theory approach in research. Not surprisingly, many overlaps emerged as well, and they are most likely attributable perhaps to a growing collective awareness and shared philosophies.

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS

What struck me, in the beginning, was the uncertainty surrounding the nature and by implication, the solutions needed to manage the crisis. This reminded me of a scene in the 2011 movie Margin Call. There is a scene in the movie where, at a senior partners meeting called at 4 AM to discuss the potential financial collapse of the company, the CEO, John Tuld (played by Jeremy Irons), following a briefing by a young risk analyst to Tuld on the nature of the problem, replies: “So, what you are telling me is that the music is about to stop, and we are going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of…..capitalism.” The movie is of course fictitious, although based on the events of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and indirectly referencing the actions of Goldman Sachs at the time. But it is the subsequent dialogue which is of relevance where Tuld sums up the situation as follows, “I’m here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. I’m standing here tonight I’m afraid that I don’t… hear… a thing. Just…. silence. So, now that we know the music has stopped, what do we do about it?” 

We do not know whether Covid-19 has stopped the music or is just slowing it down. It is too early to say. However, the music has elicited a huge amount of commentary on all social media platforms with responses varying from “hoax” to “overreaction” to “mythical moment for humankind” and everything in-between.

What we do know is that the Covid-19 crisis is a human tragedy and, in that sense, a clear lesson for humanity to not overestimate the resilience of our global society to external shocks.

In the beginning of the pandemic’s spread out of China, the commentary focused almost exclusively on the nature of the virus itself, and potential threats it posed. Very soon, however, as case numbers increased and nation-wide shutdowns started, the topics covered in the commentaries broadened.

Commentators were quick to seize on the opportunity to use the pandemic as a moment to change our consumption and production patterns. Many argue that the underlying systemic weaknesses in our socio-economic structure create the enabling environment for Covid-19-type crisis to flourish. Similarly, questions are asked about our seeming inability as a specie to think about tomorrow. Despite much finger-pointing at the tardiness with which some countries responded to putting containment measures in place, the overall sentiment is one of hopeful optimism that some good can come out of it.

This notion that we are poor at thinking about tomorrow suggested that a short history of epidemics and pandemics was required to assess whether there has been a time or times in the past when we did better. The answer, regrettably, is no.

Changing our consumption and production patterns inevitably means revaluing our relationship with the natural environment and the impacts it causes. This argument is strengthened by early suggestions that the virus spread from a wet seafood market associated with the trade of wildlife. There is significant evidence that links past pandemics to the same source.

Commentators also took the opportunity to draw parallels between fighting climate change, and our response to Covid-19. On this subject, opinion is divided as to whether governments and the electorate for that matter, will connect the dots.

What also emerges very clearly is the implications of global socio-economic and political links. These links are not only founded on the movement of goods and people but also the dependencies that global outsourcing creates together with the lack of a globally coordinated response.

One of the earliest axioms to come out of the sustainable development movement in the 1980s was to “think globally, and to act locally”. This is a timely moment to unpack this notion again in light of the current crisis. The state of national preparedness – or absence thereof – features prominently in this narrative. The state of healthcare and its ability to respond quickly and effectively is perhaps the most poignant question asked, and extensive reviews will need to be done to recalibrate this critical service.

All the above takes us firmly into the study field of human ecology being the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans, and their natural, social, and built environments. Human ecology theory considers the interactions of humans with their environments as a system. This systemic scrutiny provides an appropriate platform from which evaluate Covid-19 and its broader socio-economic and environmental impacts.

While there is considerable commentary on the Covid-19 impacts and lessons for the social and natural environments, it is the third environment i.e., built environment, and its interaction with the natural and social environments that is my real field of study. While commentaries did emerge on possible lessons and impacts on placemaking, they tended to focus on a priori textbook urban design and planning interventions rather than on what the emerging Covid-19 data i.e., planning commentaries are based on theoretical deduction rather than empirical observation. The empirical observation uses a wide enough lens to encompass all the commentaries and observations made to explore and propose a raft of possible responses capable of enriching while repurposing and futureproofing our built environments.

Covid-19 is highlighting numerous structural shortcomings in the way we live as a species.

While they touch on almost all aspects of society some notables include human impact on the natural environment, consumption and production patterns, health care (or lack thereof), infrastructure fragility, and the quality (and absence thereof) of public places. All of these are and will increasingly continue to be severely tested by climate change too. Covid-19, therefore, grants us a unique moment to measure our resilience to forecasted climate change impacts and, if we choose, to recalibrate our adaptation and mitigation instruments.

Over the course of the ensuing months, I will unpack many of the above themes in greater detail and expand on the lessons learned. Without pre-empting the many lessons, there are three standout messages: first, how unprepared governments were (and continue to be) to deal with severe disruptions; second, how fragile many of our systems are; and third, many structural fault lines were already active – Covid-19 has just exposed them.

Now, more than ever, is the opportunity to fix our many broken systems.

View more

Biophilia: Nature immersion and the city

By Jason F McLennan

In part one of a series about biophilia and its relationship to the built environment, Canadian architect and founder of the Living Building Challenge, Jason F McLennan, shares some insights around the central concept and specifically how it to relates to city planning and urban environments.

Canadian architect and founder of Living Building Challenge
Jason F McLennan

E O Wilson described biophilia in his 1984 book by that name as “the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” 

I first wrote about the importance of biophilia in 2004 in my first book, The Philosophy of Sustainable Design. I included biophilia as a guiding principle in version 2.0 of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) that came out in 2009; making LBC the first green building programme in the world to focus on the subject. Since then, I have watched the field of biophilic design evolve, gaining shape, definition, and serious consideration on projects all over the globe. 

However, as easily happens, a checklist mentality around biophilic design has emerged within the design industry, while simultaneously nearly anything and everything is being described as ‘biophilic’ in order to satisfy this newfound interest. As has happened in other areas of green building, the essence and scientific basis of biophilia is being lost in point tallying – right now, a design need only include superficial applications and check the right boxes to call itself biophilic.

It is my hope that clearly naming what is essential to biophilia, will engender a more nuanced understanding and ultimately, a more successful application of biophilic patterns and attributes to design.

Frameworks and checklists will always benefit designers, but it’s time to dig in deeper to what we mean when we talk about biophilia and biophilic design. We need to focus on design strategies that actually have positive impacts and do more than merely justify a design through yet another trendy lens. 

Science is only recently corroborating the long-standing, instinctual wisdom we’ve carried as humans for millennia – that we thrive in close connection to nature. I believe nature immersion is the single most important element of biophilia; if we only allow ourselves adequate time in nature, we can reap bountiful biophilia-associated wellness benefits.

Inside out

Estimates place 70 percent of the world’s populations in urban environments by 2050. With this migration, our connection to nature has dwindled and our feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression have filled the vacancy. Harvard School of Public Health Professor John Spangler puts a number to Americans’ disconnection from nature, and it’s shocking: we now spend 95 percent of our time indoors.

At the same time, a growing body of evidence suggests that if we reconnect to nature, we will become whole again.

Therefore, a key principle to establish under the framework of nature immersion is that any design that can get people outside, for as long as possible – using porches, covered walkways, courtyards, balconies, etc. – will always greatly outdistance anything that can be done inside a building. These types of design features prolong our exposure to nature, drawing down that 95 percent. The task isn’t the architect’s alone, but also the landscape architect’s, the urban planner’s, and that of each individual that occupies a building.

Immersive experience

Given so much of us live in, or are moving to, urban environments, we must, at a city planning scale, do the work of the biophilic designer to draw people outside through design. What do our cities look like? City parks provide immense opportunities for immersive experiences to urban dwellers and we should urgently create more, even on a small, pocket park scale. How many parks do we have now and how equitably are they dispersed? One recent, powerful study showed significant decreases in self-reported feelings of depression in test groups tasked with restoring vacant lots in economically-depressed urban areas.

Green Point Park, Cape Town

This study illuminates the social justice aspect inherent in any discussion about urban planning and access to nature: “neighbourhood physical conditions, including vacant or dilapidated spaces, trash, and lack of quality infrastructures such as sidewalks and parks, are associated with depression and are factors that may explain the persistent prevalence of mental illness in resource-limited communities.”

As the populations of our cities grow, it is important that the number of public places for city-dwellers to be in nature, keep pace. It is my belief that everyone should have walking distance access to a beautiful public park.

Native ecology

Also, as the world’s population continues to move into towns and mid-size cities grow into large cities; cities should strategically plan for and conserve sizable tracts of land as highly accessible urban wildlands. Stanley Park in Vancouver, Forest Park in Portland, and Central Park in New York City provide crucial, substantive outlets for high-quality nature immersion for their urban areas and highlight what’s possible when the conditions for wildness are fostered rather than subdued by design within city limits. These conserved parks connect people with place in a powerful way, often providing them with an experience of what their place once looked like while simultaneously creating opportunities for the native ecology of that place to thrive. Living in close proximity to this kind of life has amazing potential to foster the stewardship mentality crucial to the conservation of our wild places.

Creating connections

What further opportunities can we identify to foster nature connections in cities? Do trails winding through untamed places connect us to the modern and convenient amenities that spurred our move, as a species, to cities? If not, can they? What is the state of our urban canopy and how can we revitalise it, and reap the associated biophilic benefits, alongside all the others, that make trees so essential to city landscapes? What is our relationship to water in our cities? Can we utilise design to daylight streams and stormwater, creating visual and auditory onnections with our life-source at every opportunity? Are our cities walkable and bikeable, with amenities spaced for pedestrian and biker access? 

I believe one of the reasons Americans flocked to the suburbs in the post-World War II era was for these kinds of natural connections that had been choked out of industrialised cities. As our urban populations rise, it is critical that we invite nature back into city centres, creating nature-pedestrian connections that get us walking and interacting with our surrounding natural and human communities, immersing us more often and more completely within biophilic settings.

View more