Making space for nature in offices

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The UK’s natural spaces are in decline. Since 1970, the UK — which is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries — has lost 70% of its native animal, fish and bird populations. When considering how to restore natural systems, it is easy to assume that all the work needs to take place in wild spaces; however, cities too have a dependency on nature and natural, functioning systems. For example, a recent study by the World Economic Forum found that 44% of GDP in cities worldwide was at risk of disruption from the loss of nature.

From the point of view of human health, numerous studies also show that nature is equally critical for our wellbeing. A study published in Scientific Reports in December 2021, for instance, found that feelings of overcrowding (such as that experienced in cities) increased loneliness by an average of 39%. But when people could see nature or hear birds sing, feelings of loneliness fell by 28%. Loneliness can raise the risk of a person’s death, but so too can poor air quality, lack of space to exercise, and stress — all of which green spaces can improve. Indeed, a review of evidence by the World Health Organization found that urban green spaces could improve mental health, and reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents.

Even within our immediate environment, greenery has been shown to be beneficial. A University of Exeter study found that by incorporating plants into office design improved productivity by 15%. And a study of students in the Netherlands found that looking at pictures of greenery in urban spaces had a restorative effect after a stressful experience when compared to looking at pictures of a built environment without any natural flora.

Escape to the countryside

It is perhaps no wonder then, that when lockdowns were imposed, a large number of people decided to move out of cities to the countryside. In cities, gardens became essential spaces and Internet searches for terms such as “local walks” and “things to do outside” also rose. When lockdown lifted, record numbers of people visited the UK’s national parks — many had never visited a national park before.

So, should this enthusiasm to bring more nature into our lives extend to re-wilding?

Rewilding in cities

Rewilding is most often associated with large wildernesses, such as the Highlands of Scotland. Here, rewilding efforts focus on restoring natural processes, letting nature take the lead, while creating economies that can thrive within these ecosystems. Urban rewilding looks substantially different, but can still adopt many of the key principles to create functioning ecosystems. For example, the restoration of natural spaces to restore processes such as the capture of rainwater to reduce flooding, or the creation of green corridors and islands to help boost biodiversity. Increasingly, these changes that replicate nature are seen as critical to creating functioning and resilient cities, especially in the face of threats such as climate change.

Importantly, rewilding involves a compromise between the needs of nature and humans. This can be at a large scale — such as transforming a former shopping centre into a wetland park in Nottingham — or on a smaller scale, such Dublin council’s reduction of mowing and use of pesticides to make its open spaces pollinator friendly.

Certainly, at the local level, rewilding cities is not new. Guerrilla gardening and “seedbombing” stretches back over a decade, showing that although the focus can often be on the big projects, creating affiliations with nature can be effective at any scale.

Recreating nature in urban spaces

One way to create connections with our environment is to use the concepts of biophilic design to mimic natural elements; although this is not strictly rewilding, it undoubtedly taps into our innate association with nature, and has been shown to improve employee wellness.

There are a number of different elements of biophilic design meaning that building owners and users have a myriad of options to adopt. One pathway is by looking at green building standards such as the WELL Building Standard. WELL is a particularly useful tool as the standard can be viewed online and also includes biophilic elements such as plants and water features. Other ideas could come from the case studies listed by the International Future Living Institute or research conducted by BRE as part of its Biophilic Office demonstration project.

According to Terrapin Bright Green’s 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, there are three key areas for biophilic design.

  1. Incorporating nature into buildings; this is perhaps the most easily adopted and can be achieved by making the most of any natural light, incorporating plants, using water features, and creating variation.
  2. Using natural analogues such as artwork, ornaments or furniture that mimic the natural shapes, patterns, colours or textures found in nature.
  3. Creating a space that replicates the range of experiences found in a natural environment, including:
    i.   views so that we can see beyond our immediate location
    ii.  places of refuge, intrigue
    iii. areas of perceived risk.

Using these principles, simple measures that can be adopted include:

  • creating space for potted plants
  • making the most of windows for light and views
  • creating areas where people can get away from it all — for example, by creating “pods”
  • incorporating artwork and furniture that mimics or replicates shapes and views seen in nature and by using natural materials and colour schemes.

Biophilic design can also include increasing access to open spaces, for example by making it easier to get into the organisation’s grounds, or by encouraging people away from their desks. Some examples of how to do the latter include hosting walking groups, putting in place structures to normalise “walk and talk” meetings or by creating a culture of taking a full lunch hour.

If the organisation has unused grounds around its buildings, it can also instigate some simple improvements to encourage their use, such as creating walkways and installing benches.

Where the organisation has grounds, there are also options to incorporate elements of rewilding. For example:

  • creating wildlife corridors to build a network of safe havens for wildlife to move freely without threat from dangers such as traffic
  • incorporating elements such as bird boxes or insect houses to encourage wildlife into the area
  • leaving areas un-mowed and planted with wild flowers to attract pollinators
  • tailoring planting schemes to use native species that are suitable for the local area
  • incorporating the concepts of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuSDs) — such as permeable surfaces to reduce water run-off — to help manage water more sustainably
  • reducing the use of chemicals, water and peat in grounds maintenance.

Although rewilding will result in variation — grass will not be cut to the same height, for example — this does not mean that the area needs to look uncared for. Aspects of management such as litter picking will be important to keep the areas tidy. An element of education can also be useful, so that employees and the public know what is being done and why.

Summary

  • Nature has a positive impact on people.
  • Natural elements within urban spaces and buildings have been shown to improve wellness.
  • Showcase projects such as green walls or impressive designs can often take the spotlight.
  • Rewilding at a small scale and biophilic design can both be incorporated relatively easily into office spaces and buildings.

Mark Allison is a Sustainability Consultant at Mark Allison Consulting

Feature Image Source: Pascal Wiemers on Pixabay

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