How High Is Too High?

In Our Race to the Sky, We Can’t Neglect Humans’ Inherent Need for Nature

October 22, 2014

Principal / Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ


I’ve had opportunities recently to participate in several conversations about the impact of biophilic design on our health and well-being. For instance, I facilitated a dialogue for the new Seattle chapter of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) with Bill Browning. Bill works a lot on these issues, and he focused his lecture on moves that are most desirable to high-rise occupants. It turns out that the most significant factors are daylight, views and air quality.

Air quality is an especially interesting finding. I know from personal experience that when the windows are open in my office I feel differently. There’s a sense of expansiveness, freshness and alertness that comes from breathing air from outdoors, even before the sounds, scents and breezes are factored in. These are all factors that can be considered in high-rise buildings too, but more direct incorporation of “Nature in the Space,” as Bill calls it, can be quite challenging as buildings get taller. It’s hard to step outside for a few minutes in the garden when you’re on the 78th floor. Even operable windows (for natural access to fresh air without a mechanical interface) are, if not impossible, challenging in tall buildings. And what about water?

At these heights, access to “real nature” is a challenge. Yet science indicates that we are biologically — if not consciously — able to tell the difference between the real thing and a fake [PDF]. We know that nature’s effects are positive, increasing immune system support, sharpening cognitive function, reducing the detrimental effects of stress.

So this leaves me wondering. Given that our bodies clearly know the real thing when we experience it, and that human-fabricated facsimiles (while better than nothing) are not as good as real nature, and that the link between nature and the 78th floor is tenuous at best, how tall is too tall?

To take tall-building living to an extreme, here’s a scenario: If we accept research that says five minutes a day of immersion in nature is enough to affect self-esteem and improve mood, imagine creating botanical chambers in our cities in the sky. We could make five-minute appointments, reserving space in the greenhouse like we might plan for an exercise class. When we go to work in the morning, we could rise via elevator to a transfer floor where there would probably be a coffee shop or café, then go to our desks and spend the day in the sky without needing to ever descend to the actual street (or park, or neighborhood) until the day ends. Good thing, because the elevator system in a super-tall building can’t move the entire population of a building fast enough to take lunch outdoors. Even more efficient, maybe we actually live in a condo in the same building, or one skybridge away. We could spend years in the same building without leaving it.


Singapore National Library, designed by Ken Yeang (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Technically speaking, we already can do this; Ken Yeang has made a life’s work in blending nature and high-rise construction as inextricably as possible. I fully support such an aim, given that our need for density will require plenty of high-rises. But it won’t be cheap (either in dollars or in resources). And it will be only a partial solution.

As a blanket solution to urban existence, does this really serve our humanity? In my opinion, no. I wonder what metric will tell us we’re too far separated from real nature. Five minutes a day might solve the particular need measured in a particular research project, but people are more complex than that, and the science we lean on is young yet.

Equally importantly, when we lose connection with the real beauty and life of the natural world around us, will we care enough to fight for its survival? Will we survive if we don’t? When we say that “variety is the spice of life,” we’re not kidding. We know that biologically we are hardwired to react to variable sensory experiences and to tune our awareness to the natural elements surrounding us. We can recreate that as best as possible indoors, with intermittent puffs of air, scent or other mechanical tricks. But honestly, why not just invite nature in? And why not construct our cities so that we are never so far from it that we can’t take a short break and go outside?

I fully believe that our cities of the future must be as inextricably woven with nature as the buildings Yeang aspires to, and, yes, high-rise zones will be inevitable. But the vast majority of neighborhoods in most cities could be densified significantly and still maintain our connection with the earth — with less cost, fewer resources and less carbon burden. By doing this, we’d be creating a deeper opportunity to heal ecosystems, restore water cycles, breathe cleaner air, harmonize communities, live within our planetary means and experience deeper joy in our daily lives.

Image courtesy of Sarath Kuchi/Flickr.

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