Wellness is a timely topic in the midst of a global health crisis. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, human and planetary health have been prominent in popular and scholarly publications. Faculty in several disciplines at the University of Virginia School of Architecture focus on wellness and the School’s Center for Design + Health showcases our diverse efforts. My scholarship at UVA and built work with Crisman+Petrus Architects develops sustainable design strategies for buildings, landscapes, and cities confronting climate change and sea level rise. While coastal Virginia experiences significant sea level rise that threatens human well-being, the creative and technical expertise of Virginia’s architects is needed to holistically imagine and integrate buildings, public spaces, and infrastructure in unprecedented ways.

Unfortunately, sea level rise mitigation is commonly seen as merely an engineering and economic problem to be solved. Frequently, massive concrete walls or earthen levees disconnect residents from the water and damage coastal habitat benefits to human health and well-being. Outdoor enjoyment, environmental education, pollution reduction, and stewardship opportunities are often marginalized in the planning process. A wealth of research supports the proposition that the renewal and regenerative capacity of ecological systems should not be overlooked in the design of buildings, their surrounding sites, and urban wetland landscapes.

Environmental Psychology

Researchers have measured how parks and other natural spaces within cities can improve human health and well-being.[1] In her study, “Green Space, Urbanity, and Health: How Strong is the Relation?,” Jolanda Maas found that living near urban green space had a significant relation to perceived general health and especially for lower socioeconomic groups. The “elderly, youth, and secondary educated people in large cities seem to benefit more from the presence of green areas in their living environment than other groups in large cities.”[2] Research in medicine, psychology, and biology argue for green space as essential wellness elements of urban design and architecture, rather than merely a luxury. In The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective, environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed the “Attention Restoration Theory” that humans concentrate more effectively after spending time in nature.[3] Further research found “natural environments turn out to be particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences.”[4]

Evolutionary Biology

Biophilia is a related concept perhaps more familiar to architects. Biologist E.O. Wilson developed a Biophilia Hypothesis that instinctive or evolutionary biological bonds exist between humans and other living things. He defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”[5] and “innate pleasure from living abundance and diversity.”[6] Related theories of evolutionary psychology and biophilic design support the human need for trees, animals, and natural settings. While we have all experienced these benefits individually and intuitively, design professionals can more strategically incorporate evidence-based connections between health and the built environment into their design process and client discussions.

Aesthetics and Ethics

Equally important is ethics and aesthetics scholarship linking human well-being to green environments. For instance, authors in The Hand and the Soul: Essays on Aesthetics and Ethics in Architecture and Art connect beauty, form, and sensory pleasure with ethical obligations to the human community and the natural world.[7] Others theorize these vital aspects as life-fulfilling functions,[8] socio-cultural fulfillment,[9] or cultural and amenity services.[10] Perhaps cultural ecosystem services is the most relevant term for architects—defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as “the nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences.”[11] It is critical to acknowledge these aesthetic aspects often disregarded or undervalued in research relying purely on scientific or social science methods.

Wetland Learning Lab photo
Wetland Learning Lab, Crisman+Petrus Architects. Photos by Michael Petrus.

Taking a Holistic Design Approach

I have integrated this multi-disciplinary research into a series of coastal restoration, sea level rise mitigation, and green building projects in the Norfolk, Virginia region. Each has convinced public entities, environmental NGOs, and private businesses of the value of cultural ecosystem services for human wellness. For more details, read my article about the Paradise Creek Nature Park, a 40-acre constructed wetland park located amidst contaminated industrial sites in an economically disadvantaged and racially diverse urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia. We collaboratively designed park structures, including an open-air Wetland Learning Lab and River Academy building, to empower an urban community in need, while promoting health and well-being for all species. Architects should develop a holistic design approach that addresses both wellness and climate change challenges with integrated qualitative and quantitative research. This integration is essential as sea levels rise and mitigation efforts are designed and built.

Scenes from the Paradise Creek Nature Park
Scenes from the Paradise Creek Nature Park. Photos courtesy of the Elizabeth River Project.

About the Author

Phoebe Crisman, AIA is Professor of Architecture and Director of the pan-University Global Studies program at the University of Virginia.  She also practices with Crisman+Petrus Architects in Charlottesville, Va.

View of the Paradise Creek Nature Park’s constructed wetland under construction and current condition
View of the Paradise Creek Nature Park’s constructed wetland under construction and current condition. Images courtesy of Elizabeth River Project.


[1] See H. Frumkin and M. Eysenbach, “How Cities Use Parks to Improve Public Health,” City Parks Forum Briefing Paper #7 (Washington: American Planning Association, 2004); F. Kuo and W. Sullivan, “Aggression and Violence in the Inner City: Effects of Environment via Mental Fatigue,” Environment & Behavior 33, 4 (2001): 643-571; T. Takano, et al. “Urban Residential Environments and Senior Citizens’ Longevity in Megacity Areas: the Importance of Walkable Green Spaces,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 56 (2002): 913-918; H. Tinsley, et.al., “Park Usage, Social Milieu, and Psychosocial Benefits of Park Use Reported by Older Urban Park Users from Four Ethnic groups,” Leisure Sciences 24 (2002): 199-218.

[2] J. Maas, et.al., “Green Space, Urbanity, and Health: How Strong is the Relation?” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 60 (2006): 587.

[3] R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[4] S. Kaplan, “The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 15 (1995): 169; M.G. Berman et al. “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature,” Psychological Science 19, 12 (2008): 1207-1212; F. Kuo, “Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the Inner City,” Environment and Behavior 33, 1 (2001): 5-34.

[5] E.O. Wilson, Biophilia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 1.

[6] E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York:Knopf, 1998), 212.

[7] S. Iliescu, ed., The Hand and the Soul: Essays on Aesthetics in Architecture and Art (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009).

[8] G.C. Daily, “Developing a Scientific Basis for Managing Earth’s Life Support Systems,” Conservation Ecology 3, 2 (1999): 14.

[9] K.J. Wallace, “Classification of Ecosystem Services: Problems and Solutions,” Biological Conservation 39 (2007): 235-246.

[10] R.S. de Groot et.al., “Challenges in Integrating the Concept of Ecosystem Services and Values in Landscape Planning, Management and Decision Making,” Ecological Complexity 7 (2010): 260-272. Also, P. Kumar, ed. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Ecological and Economic Foundations (Geneva: United Nations Environment Programme, 2010).

[11] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-being (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005).