Green wall

This porch railing has turned into a small “living wall.” (Lex McKee, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Have you ever wondered why so many people have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by turning to the great outdoors — hiking, biking, gardening, fishing, etc.? To be sure, it’s partly a matter of common sense: Being out in the open air, away from other people, is safer during a pandemic. But could it also be a matter of innate human behavior? Could it be that we are instinctively drawn to nature, or are at least somehow instinctively more at ease when surrounded by it?

I think so, and I think that fits neatly into what is known as the “biophilia hypothesis.” To start at the beginning, the word biophilia was coined in the 1960s by German social psychologist Erich Fromm to describe “the passionate love of life and all that is alive.” A decade or so later, renowned American biologist E.O. Wilson borrowed the word for his proposition — which ultimately led to a book, The Biophilia Hypothesis, by Wilson and team of like-minded scientists — that our love of nature is not merely a state of mind experienced by some or many humans. Rather, it is a product of human evolution, engrained in us by natural selection. It’s the source of our “innately emotional affiliation” to other living things, and it is why we subconsciously seek connections to other forms of life.

Although the hypothesis is not, and perhaps never can be, scientifically proven, it resonates for me — and there is evidence to support the idea that being in nature makes us happier and healthier. If we can understand why that is, we can begin to see why humans may be subconsciously seeking it out for our own health and happiness.

In terms of physical health, we know that breathing in clean outdoor air is good for our lungs. We know the sun provides vitamin D, an essential vitamin that aids in bodily functions like nutrient absorption. Additionally, there have been studies showing that simply being in nature and seeing it around us can reduce our heart rate and blood pressure.

Connecting with the natural world may also improve our mental health. A number of studies have shown that humans experience reduced levels of cortisol (the so-called stress hormone) when they are in green spaces. Other natural cues, like the sound of running water or ideal temperatures, have been shown to improve attentiveness, concentration and overall happiness and comfort.

Once we notice the different ways nature can benefit us without our even knowing, it’s easier to understand why the subconscious may be drawn to it. If feeling connected to nature can reduce stress and increase happiness, then how can we expand on that to benefit our everyday lives? It reminds me of a professor at the University of Virginia, Tim Beatley, who introduced me to the concept of biophilia. He encourages students to look for ways to “bring the outdoors in.”

I interpreted that as bringing it indoors — houseplants, wood furniture stone countertops. But the biophilia hypothesis suggests that we are also inclined to bring the outdoors inside our minds — or, perhaps more accurately, our minds are programmed to embrace nature and seek comfort from it.

The growing body of evidence that natural or nature-like surroundings can make us happier and healthier, whether or not it’s an evolutionary adaptation, has given rise to the concept of biophilic design — creating living spaces, workspaces and even public spaces that incorporate or mimic nature. This can range from things as simple as skylights or an abundance of houseplants to more elaborate upgrades like living plant walls or interior water features. In public spaces, it could be adding roof gardens or planting more trees or replacing plain expanses of lawn with diverse pollinator gardens.

On a large scale, biophilic design can take the form of restored wetlands, forest buffers along streams and green infrastructure. The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, where I work, knows something about this and has successfully led planting and restoration efforts across the watershed.

Green infrastructure work, particularly in urban areas, has ramped up, too. The RiverSmart team in Washington, DC, has seen interest in green infrastructure grow during the pandemic — likely because people are more in touch with outdoor spaces and therefore more likely to intuit the environmental benefits of stormwater management, tree plantings to reduce urban “heat islands” and increased pollinator habitat.

The Alliance enjoys bringing people closer to native plants and the watershed’s natural systems, giving them the opportunity to contribute to the environment while reaping the benefits of close contact with nature.

The overarching idea behind biophilic design is that it “nurtures a love of place.” The more we connect with a place, innately or not, the more likely we will fall in love with it. What do we do when we love something? We take care of it.

The biophilia hypothesis and stewardship of our lands and waters play off each other harmoniously. Stewardship is our connection with nature in physical form. We all need to take time to reflect on our affinity with nature and the ways we connect to and take care of it. And, the way it takes care of us.

Carly Starobin is the DC project associate for the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay.

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.

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