ECOHABITAT – healing cities – healthy living


Recent studies are documenting that urban environments have higher levels of psychiatric disorders raising questions about our built environment.


“Are our cities making us sick?”


Looking back at indigenous and ancient cultural paradigms it is believed that the physical environment is linked with the spiritual world and well being of people. Symbolism played an important role in the construction of shelter and other structures (cultural and habitat). Those Ancestral archetypes are shaped by their surrounding and consider the primeval forces – earth, air, fire and water – always seeking harmony with them. (eg: Tipi, Yurt, North American Hogan etc)

In city planning, recent development in our booming capitals are going a different route. The “Age of Reason” of Descartes – with its rational, scientific disciplines, established religions, and industrial transformation, radically shaped our urban landscape.1 Prof Colin Ellard a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada who studies the impact of places on the brain and body states “When people are in these very dense environments that produce oppressiveness and increase negative emotion, it seems logical that those things will spin off into the ways we understand other people and the way we treat them,” he says. “Those are the variables that are most likely to show relationships with [increased incidence of] psychiatric illness.” His recent study on urban environments should give us enough reason to re-think and consider our current practice.2

In contrary, movements towards a “healthy house” are considering a modern lifestyle that is “non-toxic, natural and earth-wise”. A shift is taking place by a desire to combat chemical pollution and toxic environments. This trend can be traced back as early as to the 19th century. Let’s have a look at Frank Llloyd Wright’s (1869-1959) organic design. It was not just decoration or style it became the underlying inspiration. His buildings are a dynamic balance forms and spaces and create a sense of delight and surprise (eg most famous “Falling Water House”). Also his community plan for Parkwyn Village, a neighborhood of Kalamazoo, Michigan that was founded in the 1940s by a group of young scientists, employed at the Upjohn Company, who had a vision for a “congenial housing community”, shows a sensitive approach towards the environment. 3

PIC 01: Wright’s original plans called for 40 circular or semi-circular lots 3

“To feel, not only a sense of wellbeing, but a new creativity and individuality coming into their lives and work.“

Like Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), the founder of anthroposophy: His writings and teachings are based on the philosophy of Goethe, who believed that it was primarily through our bodily movements that we experience architecture. Moving through a building can be a pleasurable experience, similar to dancing. This philosophy is shown in the buildings for his community and schools.1

“Living at one storey is probably the most healthy thing for the human animal. But it is so much worse for the environment as a whole. That’s why we talk about the sweet spot,” says architect Jason McLennan, founder of the US-based Living Future Institute.

The main critic in Prof Ellard’s study is directed towards high rise buildings and the negative feelings human beings experience walking within these dense city landscapes. The success of high rise buildings is partly economic, partly prestige – but living at one storey developments is proven to be very unsustainable for the environment, which brought  Jason McLennan to the conclusion of the “density “sweet spot” (pdf)” that gives the benefits of sustainable city living without the mental health costs. Proponents of mid-rise development such as that found in European cities like Vienna and Barcelona, for example, argue for buildings constructed to heights of up to eight storeys within mixed use neighbourhoods where residential buildings sit alongside shops, offices and other work spaces.2

Future tendency to develop “mid-rise” approach – and going further to have “ECOHABITAT”

But shouldn’t we take it even further and not only consider the height and density of the cityscape but also the materials and sensitivity of the individual buildings. The “Gaia Group” is an international experimenting team developing local low-tech approaches to buildings and cities. In their developed “Eco-Cycle House” – a house which is designed to be in a harmonious integration where the outputs from one part of the house become the inputs for another part elsewhere it shows possibilities to live in harmony with nature again. (eg: hygroscopic – moisture absorbing and realising – materials, such as timber, clay products plaster, and natural fibres, help regulate moisture and humidity, as well as heating and cooling rely on self-regulating thermodynamic forces)4

PIC: Project 5th Element Management – Eco-Cycle-Community Building

“On a global scale, harmony with the land will ultimately depend on transforming our entire human habitat into “ecohabitats”. An ecohabitat, on whatever scale, whether an individual building or an entire city, will replicate the natural balance of eco-cyclical resource-generating and –degrading processes. It will use rain water and surface water rather than use new supplies; re-use old buildings rather than always building new; harness energy from sun, wind, and water rather than fossil fuels; return all nutrients to the soil rather than add artificial fertilizers; and will integrate human needs for food and shelter in harmony with the indigenous ecosystem rather than creating alien and adverse environments. An ecohabitat will also have a sense of place, not only in its orientation to sun and shelter, but in its placement in its surroundings, and in relation to the subtle energies of the ground beneath. Proximity of home, work, schooling, and food production will also encourage local employment and reduce travel”.1

Many fantastic individual examples can be found worldwide implementing this approach on different levels: Amsterdam’s car free center, Solar City in Austria, further examples can be found in Scandinavia and “eco-villages” in Germany or North America.

PIC: Solar City Linz Pichling, Austria 5

We’re living in exciting times – new technology helping us to improve our life quality and we can use those tools with our ancient knowledge and create beautiful places for our well being. Let’s start creating a healthy, healing environment for us and future generations.


1 – “In search of natural architecture” David Pearson, Abbeville Press ISBN 0-7892-0855-5

2 –“City Dwellers are prone to depression – are high-rises to blame?”-

3 – Parkwyn Village

4 – The Gaia Group

5 – Solar City Linz Pichling, Austria by Treberspurg & Partner Architects

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