Essential Nature: Biophilia and the Greening of American Cities

Authors: Terence Young*, California State Polytechnic University-Pomona
Topics: Urban and Regional Planning, Cultural Geography, Environmental Perception
Keywords: urban greenspace, biophilia, essentialism, US
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


According to Biophilic Cities (BC), urban areas should be places where nature is abundant, protected and restored; where authorities strive to foster personal contacts and deep connections between residents and nature. Why? Because “nature is not something optional, but absolutely essential to living a happy, healthy and meaningful life.” Founded in Virginia in 2012, the BC organization has partnered with more than a dozen cities to develop new greenspaces and to initiate policies and practices that foreground nature in urban life. Without question, it has had multiple successes, but these accomplishments result partly from its embrace of a questionable assumption about the transforming power of nature.
As the name suggests, BC’s work is informed by 1984’s Biophilia. In his book, E.O. Wilson claimed that people need nature because they possess “an innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” His assertion was embraced and extended by Stephen Kellert, Timothy Beatley and Florence Williams to explain how nature has a powerful and positive impact on individuals and society and thus why it should suffuse American cities. In this presentation, I will argue that the work of biophilic advocates rests on a disputably universal and clearly essentialist argument: first, humans have an unmediated affinity for “nature;” and, second, this version of nature is characteristic of mid-latitude, mesic environments. Consequently, biophilic justifications for greenspace should be rejected for ones more local, more problematized and less suppressing of difference.

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