Man & Nature

The relation of man and nature has been in the spotlight of science, art and philosophy for centuries. Observing trends like increasing urbanization, environmental destruction and technological progress can inspire new possibilities for the interaction of nature, design and technology. The focus of the explorations in the following sections therefore is on the growing separation of urban habitats and nature, and the implications this has on the wellbeing of both man and nature.

JUMP TO:  Nature vs. Anthroposphere  |  Technosphere, Biosphere & Anthropocene  |  From Pest to Precious

The Separation of Nature and the Anthroposphere

While the ongoing process of urbanization, leading to an expected 66% of humanity to live in cities by 2050 [1], has improved many people's life styles, it has also led to a massive decrease of human engagement with the natural world [2]. In cities, parks often are the last traces of nature individuals have access to in their everyday life, unless they can afford to care for private gardens, houseplants or pets.

This separation of nature and the anthroposphere, the human habitat, can be problematic for nature and our own wellbeing. While nature struggles with the rapid growth of cities and agriculture, increasing pollution and the loss of native habitats and species, our minds and bodies struggle to get used to the lack of nature in urban enviroments. As Edward O. Wilson pointed out in the context of his biophilia hypothesis in 1993, the human “brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated” [3, p. 32] one, which is why nature has had a much bigger impact on the biological and cultural development of humanity than the modern world has. Amongst others, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, psychologists at the University of Michigan, were able to directly observe the beneficial health effects being in contact with nature has, and note that individuals, who can access natural settings nearby, were found to be of better health than those who cannot [4, p. 173].

With the yearn to connect with nature being inherent, the increasing lack thereof in our everyday lives has led to different counter movements: “People plant flowers and shrubs and nurture house plants; cities invest heavily in trees; citizens band together to preserve natural settings they have never seen” [4, p. 1]. The growing popularity of pets may be another coping strategy to reinvolve with nature in the city. But are pets, especially domesticated animals like dogs and housecats, truly natural? Can a walk in a park trigger the same health effects as a short walk in a forest has proven to do [5]? Stephen and Rachel Kaplan believe it is the visual elements of nature that cause the beneficial reactions in our brains [6]. Liisa Tyrväinen and her team at the Natural Resources Institute Finland compared the influence of spending time in urban parks and in woodland on participants after their regular working day, and found almost the same amount of positive effects – but the participants reported to feel more restored after they had been to the woodland [7]. Likewise, a similar study by psychology professor Kalevi Korpela and his team confirmed that restorative experiences in natural areas like forests seem to be stronger than those experienced in built-up green spaces like urban parks [8].

Maybe it is not just the plain visible, but the unexpected, the surprise and the own dynamics of nature that make something be felt as truly natural. A park with its groomed meadows and paths grows old, a domesticated animal acts much more expected than a wild one, a wild animal in a cage is taken its freedom to act as it would in its natural habitat. Or, in the words of the Dutch philosopher Bas Haring:

“Is spontaneity not the essence of nature? Put differently, the absence of conscious planning is the essence of nature. A rainforest is nature, a park is not. Foxes are nature, dogs are not. And the ocean is nature, but an oceanarium is not. Parks, dogs and oceanariums have been thought up – we intentionally created and designed them. Nature, by contrast, is not a result of intention. Nature just is. At most it’s a consequence of a ‘natural process’. The very phrase ‘natural process’ illustrates the essence of nature: ‘that’s just the way it is’ or ‘of itself’. The absence of this deliberation or intention is also the source of nature’s charm. Nature is surprising. It can be surprising, because no one has thought about it in advance. Nature humbles us in all her beauty. Beauty that we had no part in. Ferns, ibises and dragonflies are magnificent, but we didn’t create them or think them up.” [9]

Technosphere, Biosphere and the Anthropocene

Living beings relate and interact with their environment, and most interact with other organisms to nourish or reproduce [10, p. 2]. Many organisms, such as birds, ants, bees, beavers and many more, modify the world around them for shelter, to use as tools or even to create new habitats. However, humans undoubtedly are the world’s species with the greatest active influence on the Earth, “using technology (…) to consciously or unwittingly alter the surrounding environment to extract minerals, generate energy, make food and shelter, provide global communication, and so on” [10, p. 2]. In fact, the impact humans have already had on Earth is so immense that it caused some scientists to give this time period a new name: the Anthropocene, “the age of humans” [11], a declaration that is not entirely official yet [12].

What is special about the Anthropocene is that it is the first time a single species is altering “atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes” [13] and, most importantly, that this species is aware of it [11]. Nobel prize winner Paul Crutzen, who promoted the term in 2000, believes that the name ‘Anthropocene’ “stresses the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth” [12]. That is, we are liable for the impact the technosphere has on the biosphere and on the future of this planet.

‘Technosphere’ is a term invented by Peter Haff, environmental engineer at Duke University, that describes everything manmade. The technosphere both overlaps and interacts with other spheres, like the biosphere. Examples for this are domestic animals and cultivated plants [10, p. 3], the transportation of organisms around the planet, the creation of new habitats for organisms and the predomination of the global biomass by certain selected plants and animals [14, p. 196].

So far, most of the technosphere, especially technologies, was designed for human benefit. Our tools helped us spread all over the planet, enhanced and extended our lives and improved the transmission of information and matter. Exploring the history of humanity in its relation to the use of tools, Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis suggest that technologies, like living beings, coevolve with their environment and might eventually become a beneficial addition to the natural world the more humanity, as a species, matures [15, p. 77]. Referring to the ecologist and philosopher David Abram, Sagan and Margulis argue that “our evolutionary destiny is to use them [the technologies] not for our pioneering selves alone but for the prodigious expansion of all Earth’s life” [15, p. 88]. Christian Schwägerl, journalist and author of the book The Anthropocene (2014) [16], shares this optimistic view. Yet, he emphasizes humanity’s responsibility and argues:

“The Anthropocene does not mean that we should optimize the world for current human needs with the help of the current methods of rampant capitalism or that we should strive for “conscious decoupling” from nature. Rather, the Anthropocene is our chance for “conscious recoupling”, for making our technologies and cities vibrant parts of the world’s biosphere and for expanding the richness of nature (not only) for future humans.” [17]

From Pest to Precious

Besides the previously mentioned negative physical and psychological effects of distancing ourselves from nature, the growing separation of nature and the anthroposphere created another strange conflict: Most of us seem to like the idea of integrating nature into our cities in theory, but are intimidated by its real implications. Acknowledging the critical state of many of the natural environments around us, and growing tired of grey buildings and polluted highways, we try to ward off the harmful ecological and psychological consequences of urbanization by establishing wildlife corridors [18], planting trees and planning urban farms, even whole vertical ecosystems like Vincent Callebaut’s green skyscrapers [19]. Yet, architect Joyce Hwang emphasizes the challenge that emerges whenever we try to actually integrate undomesticated nature into our urban habitat:

“What happens, for instance, when urban wildlife encroaches on more densely populated areas of cities? What happens, when they develop habitats outside officially zoned territories, and in residential or commercial neighborhoods? In the realm of legal regulations, urban municipalities categorize the presence of undomesticated animals and insects pejoratively as ‘infestations’ or ‘nuisances’. Urban dwellers too tend to see urban wildlife as a nuisance.” [18]

How can this perception be changed? It seems foreseeable that if the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats continues the way it did since 1800, wildlife will become so rare and special that we no longer regard it as a nuisance, but as a valuable resource [18]. However, that might be too late. Instead, Hwang suggests several steps to “enable urban citizens to envision the possibilities of living among ‘pests’” [18] and carefully incorporate wildlife in cities without causing too much stress on either side. Tackling the challenge from an architect’s point of view, she sees architecture as the vehicle for this paradigm change. Building facades could transform to support the presence of wild animals, for example by replacing bird-deterrent spikes with especially large cornices to provide extra space for bird nests [18].

“At first, we won’t want to hear the noise transmitted by rustling animals, so noise mediation will be incorporated into construction strategies. But as perceptions shift we might begin to regard their presence as a kind of insulation material. We might become so fascinated by our animal cohabitants that we incorporate sensing and visualization techniques to monitor them. Walls and roofs will be re-conceptualized to incorporate several ‘layers’ of windows, not only offering views from inside to outside, but enabling us to see the in-between animal territory.” [18]

A major challenge Hwang points out is the need to “revisit the question of how we are defining the limits between ‘our’ world and that of the ‘other’” [18]. As the director of the architecture office Ants of the Prairie, Hwang develops interventions that are supposed to confront urban citizens with “the pleasures and horrors of our contemporary ecologies” [20]. Projects like these can function as Biophilic Urban Acupuncture, small interventions of nature in the city with the aim “to relieve stress in the built environment” [21].


[1] UN. World's population increasingly urban with more than a half living in urban areas, 2014. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 06 December 2016.

[2] MALLER, C. et al. Healthy nature healthy people: 'contact with nature' as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promotion International, 21(1), p. 45-54, 2005.

[3] WILSON, E. O. Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic. In: KELLERT, S. R.; WILSON, E. O. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993. p. 31-41.

[4] KAPLAN, R.; KAPLAN, S. The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[5] BALLANTINE, T. Six Scientifically Proven Ways a 30-Minute Walk In The Forest Will Improve Your Health. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 27 January 2017.

[6] WILLIAMS, F. This Is Your Brain on Nature, January 2016. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 27 January 2017.

[7] TYRVÄINEN, L. et al. The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 38, p. 1-9, 2014.

[8] KORPELA, K. M. et al. Favorite green, waterside and urban environments, restorative experiences and perceived health in Finland. Health Promotion International, 25(2), p. 200-209, 22 February 2010.

[9] HARING, B. Next Nature Services, 04 September 2011. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 26 January 2017.

[10] ZALASIEWICZ, J. et al. Scale and diversity of the pysical technosphere: A geological perspective. The Anthropocene Review, p. 1-14, 28 November 2016.

[11] STROMBERG, J. The Age of Humans: What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?, January 2013. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 30 January 2017.

[12] CARRINGTON, D. The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age, 29 August 2016. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 30 January 2017.

[13] THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF EARTH. Anthropocene, 3 September 2013. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 30 January 2017.

[14] WILLIAMS, M. et al. The Anthropocene biosphere. The Anthropocene Review, 2(3), p. 196-219, 2015.

[15] SAGEN, D.; MARGULIS, L. Welcome to the Machine. In: MARGULIS, L.; SAGAN, D. Dazzle Gradually. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007. p. 76-88.

[16] SCHWÄGERL, C. The Anthropocene. The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet. Santa Fe, London: Synergetic Press, 2014.

[17] NEXTNATURE. Anthropo-scene #10: From Thoughts to Geology, 27 June 2015. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 31 January 2017.

[18] HWANG, J. Living Among Pests - Designing the Biosynthetic City, 24 September 2013. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 30 January 2017.

[19] VINCENT CALLEBAUT ARCHITECTURES. Projects. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 30 January 2017.

[20] ANTS OF THE PRAIRIE. About. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 31 January 2017.

[21] WALKER, J. Biophilic Urban Acupuncture: The Importance of Biophilia in Urban Places, 21 October 2015. Retrieved from: Accessed on: 10 March 2017.