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ACD Conversation Lab15: Codesign with Nature for Well-being

By Sarah Jones- Morris

Image: Clearing House H2020, Co-Design Workshop in Kraków: Drwinka River Park

For our 15th Conversation Lab, ACD members and network, Dr Gemma Jerome of Building with Nature, joined us.

How, what and why do we, as humans, codesign with nature - a non-human nature - for well-being? What is good for nature is good for human well-being and planetary health.

Gemma introduced; nature is messy (like engagement) with complex systems, patterns and order, and yet the more time you spend in it, you get to understand ways and patterns better, learning how to read nature either from a technician's point of view or more experiential knowledge of working with nature.

Image: Damien Newman's " squiggle " representing the design process (CC-BYND:

We are moving more towards nature design that might look a bit 'messy', and people feel they don’t want it near their homes but is that a pre-loaded aesthetic? Where have these templates come from? Perhaps a more cognitive response, somebody's reaction to a space, considering neurodivergence, hypersensitivity (over-sensitivity) or hyposensitivity (under-sensitivity) to sensory experiences such as hearing, tasting, smelling, touching and feeling.

How do we “read” and “listen” to nature? We must understand that the ecological and landscape setting, site context, and character all have a story to tell. Also, people need to be part of the conversation; there is a solid evidence base that this is linked to well-being, also considering the effect of gender on positive engagement.

In designing with nature (biophilic design), we must look for trends, listen and observe, and reveal nature (flora and fauna, soil, microclimate etc.) in its response. However, there are challenges and barriers, such as:

  • Lack of long-term investment, research, monitoring and an effective feedback loop.

  • Deep-seated aesthetics linked to fashions and culture with interpretations and dilution over time

  • The fast pace of design projects and working practices with economical pressure, quantity and competition

  • Limited engagement methods solely focused on people need to develop methods to ‘engage’ with nature.

What successes have you had designing with nature? Process, outcomes, examples, etc

Attendees came from various backgrounds with various experiences and personal knowledge.

For most of the community at this event, their success was personal; self-seeding a local garden, observing other projects such as the nature takeover approach in Berlin, and a community orchard, which has become a local hub for education, resting and recovery space. Also, on a work-related level, selecting plant species for the project required relearning and assessing projects and how they impact nature. Other case studies were put forward, such as Living Infrastructure Model and Framework for a design code for development in Cambridge - ensuring and considering nature and living infrastructure for all design aspects.

There are also aspects at play in considering and ensuring that biophilic and sensory connections for children and adults alike; create an intergenerational understanding of place—a holistic approach crisscrossing between buildings, landscape and nature. For example, the use of green roofs; however, the reality is that these are frequently designed out of projects. There is sometimes a disconnect between a stronger push of technology to provide a ‘nature’ input for health, e.g. apps and visualisations. However, increasing apps are helping to engage with people via citizen science, e.g. Hush City Project, Urban Mind Project and Gene Pond Project. Input is needed from experts - more technical methodologies like ecological monitoring to help measure trends/impacts over time.

What methods could be used to codesign with nature and for health?

The first vital point was that the pace of design needed to slow down; this enables us to learn, listen and look around us, encourage play, and pause. The more that is done front end (which tends to be messy) to challenge the concept of people vs nature to ‘people nature’. Cocreate with people to explore their ideas and observations on nature, layer and support from indigenous thinkers and be reciprocal with their time. Understand that to get to know a site and neighbourhood takes time, seek lessons learnt and invite people to be part of craft and nature - recognise what is around them. For example, how children think about nature and the separation between humans and nature, plants and nature have stronger links in childhood. It was suggested in the session to explore the language you use and how it works for the project, site, and community. For example, biophilia / bio-urbanism / nature-based solutions/ecosystem services / green infrastructure/ landscape.

It is vital to bring everyone along the journey whilst making people aware of what is possible and what is around us.

Useful links shared at the event:


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