Biophilia, Happiness and Place Making

The Asian garden at the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Gardens.
The Asian garden at the Lewis-Ginter Botanical Gardens.

by James A. Bacon

Biologist and philosopher E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe humans’ deeply rooted love of life and nature — a sentiment that may be a product of man’s biological evolution. It is human nature to take delight in the presence of wildlife (at least the kind that doesn’t eat you), trees, flowers and bodies of water. Even as mankind moves toward an increasingly urban environment largely for economic reasons, people don’t lose their love of greenery. A manifestation of biophilia in affluent societies is the mania for creating parks, nature preserves and green corridors.

Now a study published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology shows that moving from a less-green urban environment to a more-green one can lead to lasting positive changes in mental well-being.

Using data from over 1,000 participants, the research team at the University of Exeter Medical School focused on two groups of people: those who moved to greener urban areas, and those who relocated to less green urban areas.

They found that, on average, movers to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least 3 years after they moved. The study also showed that people relocating to a more built up area suffered a drop in mental health. Interestingly this fall occurred before they moved; returning to normal once the move was complete.

Some will be tempted to conclude that the results reflect little more than greenie-weenie wishful thinking. I might have the same reaction were it not for that fact that the findings are entirely consistent with studies showing that proximity to parks and green space lends a boost to property values. There can be no clearer demonstration of peoples’ biophilia than the near-universal willingness to pay a premium for views of trees, woods, gardens, rivers, streams, ponds, oceans and mountains.

In the knowledge economy, economic development blends into community development. Creating places where people enjoy living and spending time is a key not only to bolstering property values and, by extension, the tax base, but to recruiting and retaining educated, skilled and creative people who power economic growth. What once was dismissed as the fussing over parks and trees and flowers — the preserve of little-old ladies in the Garden Club — has been transformed into the art of “place making.”

Here in Richmond, a group has emerged that takes green place making seriously. Beautiful RVA is a regional coalition of public, private and not-for-profit groups “invested in improving the quality of life in greater Richmond through public horticulture, urban greening and beautiful place-making initiatives.” Organized by the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Beautiful RVA meets every other month, typically showcasing place-making initiatives around the region, supporting networking, propelling dialogue and sharing best practices. Randee Humphrey, director of education, sends out periodic emails recapping place-making news with links to local media.

Beautiful RVA is little known outside of the narrow circle to whose interests it caters. But pulling together people passionate about parks, trees, beautification, clean water and urban wildlife, and getting them to work together to create a more livable region, represents a huge step forward.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


9 responses to “Biophilia, Happiness and Place Making”

  1. enjoy your writing!

    I’m a live-in-the-woods guy… who has, over several decades, come to the conclusion …that …living in the woods is not the same as living in a wonderfully landscaped place!

    All kinds of wonderful greenery, indoors and out is something most everyone finds better than pure man-made environments.

    but I conclude that most people would not really “like” – living-in-the-woods…. even with the full complement of electricity, water, sewer, etc because .. mother nature and habitat for critters is not quite the same as “landscaping” …..

    squirrels and deer cease to be fun when they are eating your garden and “greenery”… all kinds of biting critters live in the woods.. and you (humans) are a delectable menu….. ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers…. etc…

    sitting on the deck in your “ah wilderness’ skivvies can be enlightening.

    I’m not that amazed when I visit Lowes and Home Depots and see dozens and dozens of various “treatments” for backyard fleas, ants, and other critters…

    my advice? don’t sell landscaping short! Much joy can accrue with much fewer noxious critters and similar!

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    I live in the woods. I bought a large wooded lot because I like the woods. About every other year I find a snake in my house. So do my neighbors. Nobody is too sure how they get into the houses but they do get in. You get a tall plastic garbage can, a broom and some gloves. Put the garbage can on its side, use the broom to chase the snake into the garbage can and then pick up the garbage can. The snake will get caught in the bottom of the can. Take the can outside, far from the house, and dump the snake out.

    Important health hint: There are poisonous snakes in Virginia – especially copperheads in suburban settings. Be careful. However, any snake will bite whether it is poisonous or not. Most snakes have serious fangs that feel like two sewing needles going through your hand when they bite. So, even if you are absolutely, positively sure that the snake is question is a non-venomous rat snake you would still be well advised not to try to grab it.

    1. spoken with “experience”! done my share of snakes though I do kill copperheads but spare the big blacks even though they give me the willies.

      but have also learned that racoons know how to use dog doors .. but so far not skunks!

      I LIKE the woods but most folks are happier with landscaping!

  3. Yes, we are happier in nature, the data’s clear. The scary thing is that today we have to have the data to illustrate the age-old knowledge that people take walks in nature to think; that Thoreau “went into the woods
    because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts;” that outdoorsy types always accomplish more; that Roosevelt left the East to challenge his physical weakness in nature and came back a world leader; that the Hudson River School is the basis of American art; that the great architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, took all their insight from nature…

    Now, we have a great academic program (

    When, however, did we become so needy for “data” that we stopped seeng that proverbial forest for the trees?

    AFTERALL: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature… And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”
    ― Anne Frank

    “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”
    ― John Keats

    “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
    ― John Muir

    “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want.”
    ― Andy Warhol

    “I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.”
    ― E.B. White

    “I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fuckin’ heroic.”
    ― George Carlin

    “A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”
    ― Edward Abbey,

    “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”
    ― Jane Austen,

  4. I’ve spent many a night on a river bank or on a sandbar.. with the snakes, the crocks and a wide variety of other critters afoot.. spent many a day and night with thousands of black flies inches from my DEET-drenched hair and clothes.. and some skin…

    waking up in the morning on a sandbar to find a snake sharing your warmth is an experience all should share!

    taking a bath in a river with alligators is invigorating!

    Watching a magpies grabbing what ever you’re not holding is funny but frustrating! Ground squirrels…bears.. draw by campfire bacon (dumb), etc, etc…

    but there comes a time when you don’t want any more black fly bites or chiggers in your private parts.. etc…

  5. Tysons Engineer Avatar
    Tysons Engineer

    In the timeless words of Eva Gabor, “darling I love you but give me Park Avenue”

    The idea that happiness is prescript is a bit of hokum really. And with all things that contain a bit of truth (ie public spaces are a good thing is true) politicians will extrapolate and extend infinitely to the point of causing more harm than good (ie mega rec and nature parks that divide communities and end up being another form of sprawl)

  6. punkies… no-see-ums.. worst invention since crap that stinks…


  7. Larry: You spent “many a night…” If all the things you mention are so terrible, why did you spend “many a night?”

    Yes, there are downsides to nature (and, yes there are downsides to everything) but the “ups” must have drawn you back…and back…and back or why “many a night?”

    We do need the connection to nature. There is more and more realization about this from shrinks but the old sheep and goat ranchers of Texas — which has worse chiggers than anything you’ve ever seen around here — taught me a very valuable lesson maybe 40 years ago.

    They, or rather one of them, shot my dog. And the why, I learned, was that coyotes (which they also worried about) would kill a single sheep or goat for food and then quit. But domesticated dogs killed for the sport of it and would get into a herd and in a very short time destroy every single animal. Hence, if ranchers saw a dog running loose, they immediately shot it. I let my dog run loose, hence his death was MY fault. Not the shooter’s.

    Of course, the most domesticated animal there is is the human animal.

  8. @saltz – must be me but I’m a tad the two themes in your response or perhaps I’m think and don’t see the connection!


    I love the outdoors – and I accept it on it’s terms but I know plenty of folks who “think” they like the outdoors – but only for 1 or 2 hours not days/weeks.

    days/weeks – you deal with mother nature on her terms.. and her terms include all manner of things that most of us would not like in our “residential” worlds.

    that’s why I made the “landscape” comment.. as an easier way to get “greenery” in your life rather than living with the critters… !!!


    I’m sympathetic for the loss of your dog.. I’ve had dogs all my life and actually had one caught in a beaver trap and I had spent some time looking for him but he did not cry.. I was pissed at the guy who set the trap because by law he needed permission and a nametag on the trap and he had neither and I had a vet bill as well as a dog that spent hours in pain.

    not sure that has anything to do with the original subject but more of a response to your dog story…


Leave a Reply