Biophilia and the power of plants

Biophilic design and architecture is booming, and the philosophy of bringing the outdoors in can have an overwhelmingly positive impact when it comes to our homes and offices

Aside from adding a pop of colour to a room, plants can have a positive effect on our health and mental wellbeing. Given recent tumultuous times and increased periods of time spent indoors, it’s no surprise that the popularity of houseplants has soared over the past year.

According to the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society, surrounding ourselves with nature, specifically indoor plants, is one of the purest ways to improve our mental and physical wellbeing. From reducing carbon dioxide levels, dust and pollutants to increasing humidity, plants have the power to lift our mood and improve our attention span; positively impacting our productivity.


“Surrounding ourselves with nature, specifically indoor plants, is one of the purest ways to improve our mental and physical wellbeing”

Royal Horticultural Society


Singapore’s Changi Airport


Introducing plants to a working or living space may not seem like rocket science (although Nasa do have some fascinating studies on the benefits of indoor plants), but biophilia is a relatively new concept when it comes to designing homes and offices. Biophilia is a philosophy that connects everyday environments with nature. In recent years, biophilic architecture has sprung up around the world. Not only does biophilia mean physically incorporating nature into a building – such as Singapore’s Changi Airport, which features an astonishing 500,000 plants – but also means integrating optimum natural lighting and ventilation for a more holistic approach to design.

In 2019, a research project conducted by EcoWorld Ballymore and biophilic design consultancy Biofilico saw experts from the University of Essex investigate the effect one’s environment could have on mood. One hundred and eight professionals in the Canary Wharf area spent an average of 60 minutes in a room resplendent with tropical plants, birdsong, humidifiers and aromatherapy. The results were overwhelmingly positive, with 87% of participants reporting feeling more creative, 83% feeling more productive and 87% reporting a reduction in anxiety levels.


“Biophilia is a philosophy that connects everyday environments with nature”


The green surrounds of London City Island

Modern designers and office managers are far more tuned into the concept of biophilia and how it can help boost mood and productivity while making the office a more pleasant environment. So whether you are still working from home or have slowly migrated back to the office, plants continue to play an important role in productivity.

There are no ‘rules’ when it comes to choosing plants for a home or office, with many experts suggesting the more the merrier. Matt Morley, founder of Biofilico, states that between ‘six to eight plants are needed per person per 25 square metre room to have any meaningful impact on air quality’, so there’s no need to hold back. Types of plants will depend on your living space, whether you have pets, and your personal preferences. In a clean air study conducted by (the aforementioned) Nasa, more than 30 indoor plants were tested for their air purifying qualities. Parlour palms, chrysanthemums and snake plants were found to be the best performing. These plants were also found to have energy-boosting properties and can aid sleep and concentration.

Sabine Antonia, founder of The Wild London, a plant shop and consultancy based on London City Island, runs workshops on plant styling and maintenance. Many people resign themselves to being ‘bad’ with plants, but there are plenty of low maintenance varieties – and the simple act of taking time out to water and care for a plant, Sabine says, can help ease stress.

Biophilia in a design context refers to architecture, but in a broader sense the term alludes to humans’ desire to have a connection to nature. Nature is our sanctuary, and it is vital to have access to green spaces, especially in apartments or homes without gardens.


Sabine Antonia, founder of The Wild London


Botanic Square, London City Island

At London City Island, open space is integral to the overall scheme. The 12-acre development is largely pedestrianised, making it family-friendly and free from noisy traffic and pollution. The lawns are well maintained but the foliage takes inspiration from the unique ecology of the riverside location and from island ecosystems around the world. Vibrant colours and dazzling foliage change with the seasons, with a more ‘wild’ and rustic aesthetic as opposed to being overly maintained. This reflects the rugged wilderness of the rivers and public spaces in the surrounding area, such as Bow Creek Ecology Park and Cody Dock.


The London City Island swimming pool

‘One just needs to walk round every season to appreciate the beauty,’ says Head Gardener at London City Island Wayne McKop. ‘Residents and visitors always say they feel relaxed and at home, and are inspired by the open space here.’ The island is surrounded by the River Lea, and features a 1km green waterside footpath around its circumference. McKop highlights the island’s vibrant Acer trees (also known as the Japanese Maple) and the Ginkgo trees with their unique fan-shaped leaves, as well as the seasonally evolving wildflowers and natural grasses. Even the design of the tree containers echo its heritage, inspired by the tea-chest cargo boxes of the East India Dock Company.

‘I love the whole island but my favourite spot is down the bottom where the swimming pool is,’ McKop says. ‘This is where one can relax; it’s quiet and has the River flowing with the different sounds of nature.’

Surrounding yourself with nature and going for regular walks can help with long-term mental and physical wellbeing. But if you want something even more low maintenance, studies have shown that mere depictions of nature can also have positive effects. This is often referred to as ‘indirect biophilia’, whereby representations of nature inside the home or office, such as preserved moss panels on walls, botanical wallpapers and natural landscape photography can have a positive mental impact. Incorporating natural light into a room, setting ourselves up for the day in front of a scenic view and even investing in natural materials such as coconut fibre mattresses and organic linen sheets can also help when it comes to getting the most out of Mother Nature.


Words by Gemma Billington