You are on page 1of 22

­­­Module P32073

Urban Design Theory I

‘Integrating Nature within the

Urban Fabric’
‘Quality of life depends largely on how we build our cities’

(Register, 2002, p.11)

Fig 1: Flowers provided sensory stimuli (Bownd, 2008)

David Mackay 08095803

This essay will look at integrating nature within the urban fabric in

combination with the Studio II masterplanning project. In recent

decades the perception that humans are dislocated from the rest

of nature has been growing, and this is reflected in the way we

live our lives; away from all other natural processes. With rising

demands on our cities to perform more efficiently and be more

sustainable, designers are looking towards the reintegration of na-

ture. With this is coming a change in the understanding of how we

live in the city; as a component of nature and its processes instead

of a separate identity.

The topic of nature within the city is a very large subject that inter-

weaves itself with virtually all other processes of urban design. As

such, this report will focus its attention upon why it is desirable to

integrate urban design with nature, the effects that it has on the

people living there and the strategies that can be used to incorpo-

rate it into design. This essay will not look at the design tools or

policies that are available to make this happen; but focus on how

it has been used in the Studio II design (see Fig 5).

This essay is structured to first look at the benefits that integrated

natural networks afford us, which has been lost from recent urban

developments. It will concentrate on how it affects people lives

directly, as Ian Bentley has often quoted in his articles; we have

‘the ecologically impaired need to be persuaded that ecology can

be sexy, and not self-denying’ (Ross, 1995) cited in Bentley (2009,

p.17). The topics to be looked at are Biophilia, the effect it has

on the microclimate and how this affects human psychology and

physiology. This theory will then be analysed with reference to

how it has been used in the design work for Studio II and con-

cluded with advice that can be given to others interested in the


Fig 2: Proposal by Barratt Homes Bristol, typical of the setting Berman found to reduce stress (RUDI (ed), 2009)

Fig 3: Busy urban landscape where the excess of sensory stimuli causes reduces brain function and increases stress
(UNFPA, 2007)

Natural diversity is a positive thing no matter where we live, but

just how important is an area that is still being researched and un-

derstood. Initial findings have found that ‘Just being in an urban

environment…impairs our basic mental processes…the brain is

less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-

control’ (Lehrer, 2009) and that ‘one of the main forces at work is

a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain’

(Lehrer, 2009).

Scientific tests have been carried out by Marc Berman, a psycholo-

gist at the University of Michigan where pictures of various set-

tings were shown to people, such as those shown in Fig 2 & 3.

The urban images caused dramatic reductions in ‘mood and scores

significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory’ (Le-

hrer, 2009), due to the minds inability to process the excess of in-

formation. Human attention is a finite resource, of which the city

takes up the majority of it, leaving less processing power to carry

out other tasks, and as such stress increases.

Areas with integrated natural elements on the other hand require

less cognitive effort, and as we know, the less pressure to work we

are under, the less stressed we are. Stephen Kaplan, also from the

University of Michigan has promoted the idea of Attention Res-

toration Theory (ART) (Lehrer, 2009), which basically states that

being in the presence of natural elements can restore the finite re-

source of human attention, allowing us to be more concentrated,

less stressed and actually happier people. This research is backed

up by studies which show that patients recovering from identical

operations will need fewer painkillers if they have a view of nature

(Ulrich, R, S, 1984). The research carried out by Frances Kuo, di-

rector at University of Illinois tells us that not only does the pres-

ence of nature effect how we feel but also our aggression towards

other people, and as such rates of crime in an area (University of

Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009)). Even glimpses of nature can

improve our brains performance, because it allows us to break our

concentration from the urban hustle and provide a moment of re-


Having looked at the psychological aspect of integrated nature,

the physiological impact shall be examined. Biophilia is inherent

in all humans, we have evolved with it so we can survive in its

Fig 4: West 8 Expo 08 development using different planting types to create varying kinaesthetic and sensory experiences
(Mostaedi, A. 2004)

habitat, only relatively recently has this been suppressed, but we

can tap into it to create places that provide a higher quality of life.

With the invention of the car and our naivety of its effects on the

environment, it was inevitable that urban centres would develop

and sprawl would occur, but as R. Register says in Ecocities, ‘we

have overshot the optimum for cars, suburbs and sprawl ‘ (2002,

p.12). With the move towards sustainable and walkabout neigh-

bourhoods, we are in a position to create highly rich nature envi-

ronments so that people can experience a hugely varied sensory


Cities also create environments that pollute the atmosphere. Poor

quality air is linked with a number of health conditions, but inte-

grated nature systems can reduce the pollutants in the air (see

App3). One urban tree can remove as much as ‘15 metric tons

of carbon monoxide, 84 metric tons of sulphur dioxide, 89 metric

tons of nitrogen dioxide, 191 metric tons of ozone and 212 metric

tons of particulates’ (Scheer, 2001) each year.

A side-effect of this is that the air will smell different, more natural.

Also the plants will provide a variety of new sensory stimuli, such

New canal system Pollution absorptive Planted channel system Wide wildlife rich
trees along main road edge condition

Back garden ecoswales link- Green roofs

ing the green patches providing small
Fig 5: My masterplan area indicating some of the measure taken to integrate nature into the design

as, colours, new smells, different textures under foot, shade and

noises from leaves rustling and birds chirping. These combine to

create sensory explicit environments, engaging the user’s senses

when they walk around. It is through our senses that we inter-

act with the environment; this physical communication affects our

psychological communications.

Waterways and existing green corridors

New ecological corridors linking to the waterways

Create varying sizes of patches along the corridors

Fit the block and street structure around the new natural network
Fig 6: Integration of the human and non-human movement network form-
ing a tartan effect

Now the theoretical research has been looked at, the next step

is to look at how it can be applied to a design to ‘achieve an eco-

centric view of world, not anthropocentric one’ (Low et al., 2002,

p.76); we shall use the example of the Studio II masterplan. Reg-

ister suggests using the concept of ‘the builder’s sequence’ (Regis-

ter, 2002, p.173) to apply these principles, i.e. we must start at the

foundations and build upon these to create legible and efficient


The key challenge with this site is that is situated on a flood plain.

This in fact provides an opportunity to create a new sustainable

urban drainage system that will introduce nature throughout the

site and provide a habitat for it to flourish. As the Fig 6 illustrates,

the desired ‘high connected tartan network of public space, green

connections’ (Bentley, 2009, p.17) and human connections have

been achieved by keeping the existing mature habitats and con-

necting them to each other through new habitats. Overlaid with

this is an offset matrix for the human movement, resulting in the

tartan language. Although we want to create an integrated human

and non-human environment, it is desirable to allow each to have

their own movement corridors and use the resulting overlapping

areas to create the interface between the two.

The new water system creates a hierarchy, so that there is limited

need for an underground overflow system, which would affect the

natural systems ability to sustain itself (Farr, 2008). Water falls

onto the site, where it is either absorbed into the ground through

permeable surfaces or flows into bioswales. Then it flows into the

larger canal and or stream systems, keeping the water exposed

as much as possible. Not only do these features create interest-

ing and enjoyable landscapes they also mean that the water table

can be maintained without having to remove the water from the

site. As a result the ground is able to naturally regulate a ‘stable

groundwater hydrology…promoting the protection and enhance-

ment of area wide aquatic systems’ (Farr, 2008, p.175). By working

with the water, rather than against it and reintroducing historic

methods of stormwater control, native plants will be able to grow,

allowing insects and small animals to be introduced into the area,

thus creating this natural network within an urban system and a

better quality of life for the residents.

Number of patches and species diversity Proximity and species diversity Connectivity of corridor. Weight
of line indicates number of

Edge form, species diversity and species move- Patches as stepping stones (after Dramstag,
ment (after Dramsted et al, 1996) Olson and Forman 1996)

Fig 7: Ability for linked patches and large corridor edges to improve specie growth and diversity (Golf
Environment Organisation)

Fig 8: Applying the theory from fig 7 to my masterplan, showing the patches, corridors, edges and specie diversity

Once the need for water and land has been created it is relatively

easy to design an environment for nature to flourish. As long as it

has a resilient habitat, nature will use it to its best advantage. So,

the key here is to design the integrated network in the most ap-

propriate locations with the most appropriate planting, avoiding

fragmentation of habitats and their overall loss, which ‘are by far

the most significant threats to the conservation of native wildlife’

(Farr, 2008, p.120).

An appropriate language for the design of these habitats comes

from ecologists, who define successful habitats as being a collec-

tion of varied sizes of patches, which have lots of edges and are

linked by well connected ecological corridors, see Fig 7. Linking

each of the patches together allows creatures to move to new ar-

Fig 9: Sketch of main street highlighted the row of trees and water channel alongside the garden strip

eas and thus having a higher rate of survival. Instead of building

roads and buildings, we can start to use the language of ‘building

soils’ (Register, 2002, p.12) and biodiversity. Fig 8 shows these ele-

ments overlaid with my masterplan.

At a closer scale there are many elements within the masterplan

where nature has been integrated into the design, and for the pur-

poses of this essay, we shall focus on the main street which runs

along the top of the site. Since it is perhaps the most built up area,

it provides the most interesting elements of integration.

Keeping with the idea of maximising the amount of water above

ground, a 4m wide channel runs along the whole length, which

acts as a way of capturing the stormwater so it can used by the

non-human residents, see Fig 9. This rich habitat will be home to

an array of animals, creating a diverse biosphere. Trying to max-

imise the opportunity this element affords, it has been placed on

the northern/non-overshadowed side of the road and with 4m

widened gardens alongside it, creating an 8m ecological corridor.

During times of less water, the channel will hold the water, releas-

ing it slowly into the ground so the plants have a continuous sup-

Spring Summer

Autumn Winter
Fig 10: Diagrams showing careful placement of each plant type to create a continually changing landscape as well as using colour to define neighbourhoods

ply of water.

People will naturally interact with it on a daily basis; as the priority

on the site is given over to the pedestrian and cyclist; they walk

along side it or cross over it to get to their homes. This also helps

to create an identity for the area, which in turn will feed into the

imagined community identity of the people that live there. By cre-

ating a shared community identity, people will feel connected to

the location, and as such to the nature, thus reducing stress and

taking advantage of the health benefits discovered in Kuos and Ka-

plans work.

Large native trees are used to line the streets providing a constant
view of natural elements within the scheme, allowing native ani-

mals to make their homes there. Their presence breaks up the

street, which without it would appear very artificial and built-up.

Alders and Birches have been chosen as they have substantial air

pollutant removal qualities from the passing cars and so will im-

prove the air quality. As well as this they absorb a large amount of

water, helping with the flood control and also provide a constantly

changing vista and beautiful array for colours throughout the year,

Fig 10. Within the channel are planted pockets of lavender plants,

reeds and pulses, whose combination give the channel a different

look each season, as well as providing pockets of intense smells

along the street, like has been used in Fig 11.

What this essay has illustrated for me is the overall importance

of connecting with nature in our everyday lives, how our subcon-

scious mind needs this connection to reduce stress and perform

Fig 11: Le Grand Mail du Parc des Lilas in France, uses reeds and lavender to give the impression of water flowing and
creating different smells along the path (Mostaedi, A. 2004)

well. Studies have not only shown the affinity to improving an

individual’s well-being, but also that of a neighbourhood by reduc-

ing aggression and consequently crime. Although research into

the subject is still in its infancy in terms of fully understanding its

implications, what is certain is that with the demand for more sus-

tainable and efficient developments it plays a key role in the way

we will live in the future.

When putting the theory into practice, it is vital to take on board

these philosophies from the earliest stages, primarily when de-

signing land uses, as it will be this that will inform later how the

natural systems will integrate themselves into our everyday lives.

Then to carry it through right into the detailed design of what kind

of tree will be placed where, so as to fine tune the environment

to take advantage of each of the elements strengths and to use

their assets to offset the developments liabilities, such as pollut-

ant absorbing trees near busy streets thus creating an urban envi-

ronment which embraces nature and promotes wellbeing within

a community.

Bentley, I et al. (2008). Responsive Environments. 14th Ed. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Benton-Short, L and Short, J. (2008). Cities and Nature. Abingdon: Routledge.

Farr, D. (2008). Sustainable Urbanism: Urban Design with nature. New Jersey: John Wiley
& Sons Inc.

Feld, B., The Restorative Effects of Nature. [Online]. Retrieved on 26 Nov 2009 from:

Lehrer, J., How the city hurts your brain...And what you can do about it. [Online]. Retrieved
on 26 Nov 2009:

Low, N et al. (2005). The Green City: Sustainable Home, Sustainable Suburbs. Abindon:

Mostaedi, A. (2004). Landscape: Design Today. Barcelona: Carles Broto & Josep Maria

Register, R. (2002). Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature. California: Berkeley
Hills Books.

RUDI (ed). (2009). Place Making 2009: Celebrating quality and innovation in urban life.
London: RUDI Ltd.

Scheer, R., Parks as Lungs – urban forests and pollution control. [Online]. Retrieved on 26
Nov 2009:

Ulrich, R., View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. [On-
line]. Retrieved on 26 Nov 2009:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Science Suggests Access To Nature Is Essential

To Human Health. [Online]. Retrieved on 26 Nov 2009:

Waldheim, C. (ed). (2006). The Landscape Urbanism Reader. New York: Princeton Archi-
tectural Press.

Walking For Health, Biophilia – nature and health. [Online]. Retrieved on 26 Nov 09:

Watson, G and Bentley, (2007). Identity By Design. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd.

Image References:
Bownd, D., 2008, Deric Bownds’ Mindblog. [Online]. Retrieved on 03 Dec 2009: http://

Golf Environment Organisation. Landscape Ecology. [Online]. Retrieved on 26 Nov 2009:

UNFPA. (2007). The intensity of urbanization can clash with age-old customs and tradition.
[Online]. Retrieved on 03 Dec 2009:

Appendix APP1:
O-zone and pollutant absorption tables: