The biophilic city

WSP Australia Pty Limited
Tuesday, 26 October, 2010

With increased threats from climate change, pollution and diminishing natural resources and biodiversity, it’s important to reconsider the way we live and the way we utilise our environments. Parson Brinckerhoff’s Director of Sustainability Darren Bilsborough* proposes the idea of a ‘biophilic city’ as one potential solution to these increasing pressures. He has developed a paper on an economic rationale supporting Biophilic Cities which is summarised in this article.

Biophilia literally means ‘love of our living systems’. A biophilic city is a city that works with natural ecosystems to incorporate biodiversity, landscape, food production and water management in every area of the built environment. Bilsborough’s paper considers six key areas: biodiversity, climate change, urban farming, cooler cities, bio-sequestration and health and productivity.


Our physical, physiological and psychological health depends on the health of other species, and on the integrity and vitality of natural ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity poses many potential costs to human health.

The value of our natural ecosystems can be considered through a cost-benefit analysis based on all their attributes. For example the value of a forest, is that it provides food, building materials, a carbon sink, a water purifier and a tourist attraction. This broader analysis of cumulative benefits has influenced the property development industry to build commercial green buildings. Similarly, we can extend the same rationale to biophilic cities.

Climate change

We need to consider how our current urban settlement patterns might change or adapt to future environmental changes. There is evidence that ‘urban greening’ provides a means for cities to adapt to future climate change. Analysing the economic effects of climate change on urban spaces, allows us to construct a sound base for investing in planning and design of alternative urban settlement models.

Urban farming

Urban farming is about seeing community groups turn spare lots, balconies and roof tops into inner-city farms. The potential of urban farming has gained prominence after a series of global food scares which highlighted the need to secure safe food sources. It has long been an accepted practice in European countries, and is being embraced by many developing countries, Cuba for example.

Cooler cities

Greening helps cool cities by cutting the amount of heat-absorbing surfaces and providing cool shade, offsetting the ‘urban heat island’ effect. A US ‘cool community’ program has projected heat reductions of up to 3°C as a result of physical greening of cities. For an estimated cost of US$1 billion, the program would provide estimated annual savings of US$170 million from reduced energy and air-conditioning costs.


One of the key benefits of combining biodiversity and climate change strategies in biophilic cities is the potential for bio-sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Biological carbon capture and storage (BioCCS) may be the only way for global CO 2 levels to be reduced and maintained to levels recommended by leading climate scientists.

Health and productivity

Governments are grappling with the rising costs of healthcare and the demands being placed on health services and health workers. Just as the health agenda drove the green building revolution - with increases in staff productivity and a reduction in sick-building syndrome – so, too, the opportunity exists for significant health benefits through better planning of our cities.

Australian government perspective

With now over 50% of the world’s population and 90% of Australia’s population living in urban areas, our cities are becoming increasingly more vulnerable. The risks to our cities and to our cities’ residents has never been greater, with multiple threats from climate change, the multiple peaks of peak food, peak water, peak oil, the pollution of our air, waterways and soils, our ever-diminishing natural resources and biodiversity.

These risks can be averted, but only through strategically planning for the mitigation of these risks into the future. The federal government has recognised this urgent need through mandating that states and territories will have capital city strategic plans that meet national criteria for transport, housing, urban development and sustainability by 2012. The government’s intention is for the plans to contribute to lifting economic productivity, responding to climate change and ensuring the nation is geared up for 35 million people by 2049.

Biophilic cities offer an opportunity to tackle climate change, actively engage the participation of community, raise economic productivity, reduce pressures on health services by ensuring a healthier population, and sustain a more efficient use of natural resources. The goal now is to pursue these economic rationales to achieve the policy levers that will deliver this biophilic city vision.

*By Darren Bilsborough, Adjunct Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute, Humanities Faculty. He was appointed to the National Council of Directors of Environment Business Australia and was recently appointed to the Green Building Council of Australia board. He also serves on the Development Assessment Commission in South Australia as a specialist member with expertise in the environment and sustainability.




Australian Biophilic integration examples

Urban farming:

In the heart of subtropical Brisbane, a community group has transformed one hectare of city park into a diverse and educational food forest. In the process of growing food, this group has also successfully cultivated community and sustainability awareness.

Northey Street City Farm is an open and accessible garden where edible plants from Australia and around the world are grown. It has become an edible botanic garden and a vibrant community centre for those seeking sustainable solutions for their city and neighbourhood. The city farm is firmly embedded within the local community. It was designed and is managed by the community to meet local needs.

Green roofs:

Melbourne’s skyline is now a little greener with the completion of a competition-designed, retrofitted green roof which was officially opened in July. The roof was previously a blank expanse of concrete, it is now an inviting recreational space. It is set to reduce the building’s energy needs for summer cooling by more than 50%, researchers at the University of Melbourne and the CSIRO say.

Related Articles

Better data is the key to meeting ESG standards

As we strive for a future marked by accountability, the selection of data partners will...

Can I see your (product) passport please!

Digital Product Passports that allow consumers to read up on the product's sustainability...

How the Melbourne Cup joined the circular economy

The 2023 Melbourne Cup Carnival has provided the opportunity for two organisations to partner to...

  • All content Copyright © 2024 Westwick-Farrow Pty Ltd