The On-Demand Economy Brings Us Something Useful: Nature
Last year, Adam Banzhoff was living in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, working an IT job at a bank and feeling morose. “I was in a downswing, a little bit of a depression,” he tells me. Then one day, on a whim, he signed up for Horti, a new subscription service that ships members a plant every month. Soon a crispy wave fern arrived, a frisky-looking thing with rippling tendrils.
When the first new leaf appeared, it gave Banzhoff an electric thrill. He was hooked. A year later, between Horti’s regular shipments and pots he bought on his own, Banzhoff had transformed his house into a riot of green, with more than 120 plants. Crucially, it lifted his mood. “It really taps into a different part of your personality. That sounds kind of hippie-dippie,” he admits. “But it pulls you out of yourself.” Banzhoff had discovered the existential power of biophilia—and stumbled into an emerging industry that uses technology to increase our exposure to the natural world.
The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm first proposed the idea of biophilia in the early 1970s, but the biologist Edward O. Wilson expanded on it, suggesting it was a genetically based, “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Research since has found that exposure to nature reduces symptoms of ADHD in kids, speeds the recovery of hospital patients, enhances creativity, and—bosses, take note—boosts white-collar productivity.
Why? It’s not totally clear, but scientists suspect that, among other things, the fractal patterns of plants stimulate our neural activity in ways that built environments don’t, while natural light regulates our daily rhythms. Basically, nature just has a lot of stuff going on that stimulates “multisensory perception,” notes Catie Ryan, the director of projects at Terrapin Bright Green, a biophilia consultancy. But we’ve built an increasingly urbanized world where we spend 90 percent of our time indoors.
Ironically, that urbanization is good, even crucial, for the survival of a human-populated planet. Denser cities beat suburban sprawl insofar as they reduce individual carbon footprints. We humans may need exposure to nature, but nature sure as hell doesn’t need exposure to us. The better way forward is to keep living in densely packed places, but use tech and design to weave nature into our indoor world.
One promising trend is the nature-on-demand market, where several startups have emerged. Subscriptions have worked neatly for products like wine or jewelry, and they’re also suited for plants, because you can help customers develop their green thumbs. Horti’s first shipment is always a rugged, hard-to-kill plant—mine was a peperomia, with thick, almost rubbery leaves. Maybe soon I’ll be tending a hoya tricolor. And the surprise—what am I getting next month?—is part of the joy.
Millennials are fans: Cool-looking plants are Instagram gold and give a generation living in precarity something to nourish. “Someone said if pets are the new kids, plants are the new pets,” jokes Justin Mast, founder of Bloomscape, a startup that has mastered tricks to keep delicate life-forms thriving while being shipped across the country. (#Planthack: In winter, the company puts hand-warmers near the base of the greenery.) But he’s learned not to overtechnologize the experience. Bloomscape’s customers don’t want internet-of-things remote plant monitoring to tell them when to water. “They want to stick their finger in the soil,” he says.
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To really tap into biophilia, though, scattering some plants around your living room—or putting a “living wall” in the coworking space—is only a first step. More powerful is designing buildings to integrate with nature, says Vivian Loftness, a professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. That includes bigger windows for more light, or rooms with walls that open—“transparency between insides and outsides,” she says. Biophilia engineers are even exploring using old-school building materials like “rammed earth,” made from highly pressurized soil. Walls made from rammed earth absorb moisture and heat better than brick and concrete, making buildings cooler while requiring less energy.
This can sound airy and impractical. But serious examples already exist. Singapore architects recently finished a hospital where each patient has a tall window with a green view, and 70 percent of the building is passively ventilated. In Seattle, Amazon opened the Spheres, three glass buildings containing more than 40,000 plants, where employees can meet in an elevated bird’s nest hovering near a 55-foot fig tree.