Biophilia design is a new but steadily growing phenomenon around the world. In Hong Kong, the concept is also gaining momentum, but many challenges persist in incorporating nature more fully into existing urban spaces. What lessons can Hong Kong take from other biophilic cities around the world such as Singapore to achieve its development goals such as improving public wellbeing and sustainable growth?

What is Biophilia Design?

The term “biophilia” was first used by German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. He defined biophilia as “the passionate love of life”. The term was later popularised by American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who expanded on the concept in his book Biophilia (published eleven years later). He suggested that biophilia was not simply an energised feeling toward “all that is alive” but also an “innate tendency [for humans] to focus on life and lifelike processes”. Wilson’s hypothesis is well evidenced today: regardless of cultural differences, humans around the world appear to all share a common affinity toward and affiliation with nature. We are connected to and dependent on nature, partly because we co-evolved with nature.

As the idea gained more traction with the increase in research showing how our bonds with nature have not disappeared despite our increasing dependence on technology, different sectors and industries have developed an interest in understanding its implications on society, particularly in the fields of urban planning, architecture and construction. What makes it so difficult (or in fact, impossible) for humans to divorce themselves from nature?

The Benefits of Biophilia Design on Urban Life

Incorporating biophilia into urban areas, or to put it simply, integrating natural elements into our built environments, can have massive health, environmental, economic and long-term developmental benefits for cities everywhere.

How does embedding nature into our everyday architecture enhance social wellbeing? According to numerous studies, exposure to biophilic urban spaces is extremely conducive to achieving good mental health. It promotes positive emotions and reduces negative emotions and enhances cognitive functioning. As a report by the World Health Organisation shows, they allow citizens to engage in a diverse range of physical activities without being exposed to air pollutants as well as promote social cohesion and opportunities for relaxation in highly stressful environments. Biophilia design can also be practised indoors. For example, having wood and plants in indoor spaces can improve air quality and ventilation, which are found to be key determinants of productivity in offices. They can improve attention, stress recovery and work performance and promote clarity in thought. 

There are also benefits to making our indoor lighting systems biophilic. Exposure to blue light, which is found in most white-coloured LED lights, has been shown to affect our natural sleep-and-wake cycles because it can suppress the body’s release of melatonin (a hormone that makes us sleepy) at the wrong times. Moreover, most man-made light sources flicker (change in intensity of light source), which is known to cause headaches and eye strains. By maximising the use of natural light (which does not flicker) during the day and reducing our exposure to blue light in the evenings, biophilic lighting systems follow humans’ natural circadian rhythms (our sleep-wake patterns over the course of a 24-hour day), minimising disruptions to our internal body clocks and allowing us to have good rest at night and high productivity during the day.

Biophilic environments also help save energy. For example, “green” or “living” walls on buildings (vertical structures that are intentionally covered by greenery) can be effective thermal and acoustic regulators. As a study has shown, living wall systems significantly reduce heat loss, meaning that less energy for heating is required to keep inhabitants warm during cold winters; yet at the same time, they are power shades against strong direct sunlight during hot summers and can undergo evapotranspiration, where evaporated water from the leaves help cool down the surrounding air, thereby lowering the overall temperature of buildings and reducing the need for air-conditioning. Plants are also better absorbants and reflectors of sound than most common building materials, meaning less distractions and disturbances and greater sound privacy can be experienced.

From an ecological standpoint, biophilic designs and urban environments have also been found to be crucial preservants of biodiversity. In many cities where biodiversity is in rapid decline, biophilic urban environments are an excellent way to promote human and animal wellbeing simultaneously. Biophilic urban environments such as biophilic streets (streets that foster our connection to the natural environment) not only improve the wellbeing of human inhabitants as we have seen earlier, but also “offer refuge to native biota by providing food, shelter, breeding sites, and ease of movement for wildlife” to help support “the development of a balanced ecosystem”.

Preserving urban diversity also reduces urban sprawl, the rapid expansion of urban developments away from urban centres to areas of the countryside because they allow for more spacious and aesthetic residential or commercial developments. As a study conducted by the European Environment Agency (EEA) suggests, if we are able to bring nature back into our urban areas, citizens’ are able to experience nature without having to spread out at the continued expense of the natural habitats of our precious wildlife.

Challenging our conceptions of where nature is located and our traditional dichotomies of nature versus urban, people no longer need to “go out to the countryside” to experience nature. Biophilia alerts us to the ways in which our urban lifestyles and our innate intimacies with nature can go hand-in-hand. Urban and nature are not opposed categories but can coalesce to generate a plethora of benefits to the wellbeing of both humans and animals.

A common myth about biophilic designs is that they are economically unwise investments reserved only for “elite technologists living in green bubbles”. However, backed by growing evidence, biophilic environments actually deliver huge returns on investment. In their report, The Economics of Biophilia: Why Designing with Nature in Mind Makes Financial Sense, sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green shows that biophilic designs have saved businesses around the world a lot of money (e.g., saved energy costs, greater employee satisfaction leading to greater retention and thus reduced turnover costs) and increased profits (e.g., because of enhanced worker productivity). While biophilic environments may be slightly costlier to build, upfront costs are no harder to recover compared to usual ordinary environments. So biophilic designs are not just good for the environment; they also enhance the functionalities of everyday urban spaces and the wellbeing of their occupants.

green building, K11 ATELIER King’s Road, new world developmentThe Challenges of Biophilic Cities: The Case in Hong Kong

Many cities and companies around the world are actively embracing and pursuing biophilic design in public spaces and workplaces. Likewise, Hong Kong is witnessing its own nascent biophilic movement today: development projects such as residential buildings, shopping malls and rooftops are incorporating biophilic elements into their designs or renovations. These changes are partly due to the pandemic (and its work-from-home trend) spurring renewed appreciation for nature. As Director of architect firm Sustainable Design at Ronald Lu & Partners M. K. Leung argues, “Cities are socio-ecological systems. The sustainability of the urban system depends on its resilience in the face of changes – including climate change. Building biodiversity and ecological connectivity into the fabric of cities helps reinforce this resilience.”

While it is good to know that Hong Kong is seeing its own growth of green architecture in its densely populated urban areas, Hong Kong still lags behind other major cities around the world in terms of its commitment to greener land developments.

The first reason is overpopulation. As one of the most densely populated cities, Hong Kong has a massive public space problem. As a report conducted by local environmental policy think tank Civic Exchange finds, although almost 75% of Hong Kong’s territory is green, the majority of day-to-day activities of citizens take place in the remaining 25%. Unless more land is reclaimed, because of Hong Kong’s hilly geography, it is suggested that the city unfortunately only has this 25% to develop on. As urban densification continues, the difficulties of creating more public spaces in Hong Kong.

While Hong Kong has subsequently seen the fascinating development of unique public spaces such as “microparks” in the most bizarre of places, whether they will become a trend remains to be seen. This is because there is limited incentive to create public open spaces in the city. Connected with the fact that Hong Kong’s population is projected to increase to 8.2 million in 2043, development agendas have little choice but to concern themselves almost exclusively with housing expansion projects and less on their quality. Compared with other urban land uses, public open space also has a significantly (and somewhat understandable) lower priority in land allocation. As a possible consequence, Hong Kong’s public space developments have also been quite half-hearted. Many public open spaces have been under fire for their poor architectural designs and lack of user-friendliness leading to their continued underutilisation.

It is good to know that Hong Kong is showing greater awareness for ESG and real estate has played a huge role in vitalising the city’s green finance in recent months. However, just because sustainability is increasingly embraced in urban planning in Hong Kong, it does not necessarily mean the same can be said for biophilia design. Biophilic design is not just about being environmentally or resource conscious when designing our urban spaces, but about realising our fundamental connections to nature and therefore bringing them into our indoor and personal spaces. This is partly due to biophilia design still being a relatively nascent phenomenon in Hong Kong, given that most Hongkongers have not been close with the local wildlife and other ecosystems.

Consequently, our understanding of “green” urban development remains more or less related to using more environmentally-friendly materials or adopting more efficient sources of energy to power our activities (e.g., promoting electric vehicles, retrofitting, encouraging prefabrication of building materials). For example, many tall commercial and residential buildings today are eager to find innovative ways to establish greenery on the premises in Hong Kong. However, as Oren Tatcher, Principal of OTC Planning & Design points out, these developments often miss the biophilic lesson: their purposes go far beyond decoration. Often, these green spaces are then quite inadequate for social or public use. 

Can Hong Kong Still Become a Biophilic City?

There are plenty of opportunities for biophilia design. It is not that biophilia is inherently incompatible with the priorities of Hong Kong’s urban developments, but that its benefits are underappreciated and not taken advantage of.

While it is true that Hong Kong’s urban and rural geographical constraints significantly impede planners and developers’ ability to create biophilic environments, biophilic design does not necessarily entail creating biophilic environments “from scratch” or demand a complete renovation of all existing spaces. Instead, it encourages us to see where natural elements can be reincorporated back into our extremely (or even excessively) artificially-designed urban architecture. This need not always involve large-scale funding or investments to take place, but something as simple as injecting a bit more greenery into existing spaces.

Biophilia design is not just compatible with other development agendas in Hong Kong, but also conducive towards their achievement. If physical space is something that we cannot magically expand, our goal cannot be to forcefully squeeze more spaces into our already burdened infrastructure, but instead to open them up. As Dr. Heesun Choi at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University believes, many of our existing public spaces are filled with “active or passive deterrents” that discourage citizens from using them.

It is not that Hong Kong does not have enough public spaces, but that they are often not inclusive enough to accommodate a diversity of activities, which can range from “casual contact, socialising, community activities, entertainment, political expression, and commercial exchanges”. By emphasising biophilia design, urban spaces adopt an emergent character: because of our instinctive affinities with nature, our inborn abilities to blend into the natural environment, we are capable of discovering and engaging in interactions never imagined before. For example, outdoor environments can be better places for work-related meetings than the traditional conference room. Biophilic design is therefore not about determining from construction the purposes of a space, but about promoting our natural and vibrant imaginations of “doing things differently”.

Hong Kong has all the financial tools it needs to realise biophilic design in urban planning. What it can do today is to learn from other biophilic cities which have been successful in their efforts of directing investment towards biophilic urban development projects. A notable example is regional “rival” Singapore, already recognised as one of the world’s greenest cities.

Introduced by their National Parks Board, Singapore’s Skyrise Greenery Incentive Scheme offers funding of “up to 50% of installation costs of rooftop greenery and vertical greenery” in both residential and non-residential buildings, as part of the city’s overall attempt to improve air quality and mitigate its urban island heat effect (warming up of urban areas because of dense concentration of surfaces that absorb and retain heat, e.g., pavements and buildings). In addition, within Singapore’s Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises (LUSH) programme which encourages injection of greenery into property developments, property developers are required to replace greenery lost from a site in the form of greenery such as rooftop gardens, urban farms or communal areas.

It is also worth noting that Hong Kong’s “green oases” are mostly found only in the private sector. If Hong Kong wants to promote more equitable biophilic environments, the private and the public sectors need to collaborate. This way, we can harness the expertise and financial capacities within the private sector to promote more equitable outcomes in public wellbeing (e.g., higher quality greenery development in public housing estates) while ensuring that these developments are also commercially viable for them.

There is always a danger of romanticising biophilic urbanism. Just because it can work in harmony with many of our other social objectives, does not mean it can be implemented the same way everywhere. While Hong Kong would certainly benefit from a transition to biophilic urbanism, this transformation cannot be brought about overzealously. Singapore’s example, while certainly impressive, cannot be seen as a “template” to be imported directly into our unique city. Consequently, for Hongkongers to pursue biophilic urbanism, design processes need to be democratic. A more democratic approach would allow citizens to share their hopes and also provide more refreshing perspectives to keep discussions about the use of these spaces open. While all citizens have the technical expertise, urban planners should engage the public early and frequently to help them realise their visions. Even after they have been fully built, biophilic spaces can still be modified or improved to support a richer form of public life in Hong Kong.