Walgreens Health System Pharmacy is taking drugstores into a new era with a location that features innovative biophilic design.
The concept of biophilia, coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm, stems from Greek roots meaning “love of life.” Popularized by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book, Biophilia, it holds that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.
“It’s about nature-inspired design,” says Susan Heinking, VP and sustainability leader at VOA Associates, Inc., which designed the Walgreen’s store at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Galter Pavilion in Chicago. “We live 90% of our time indoors, but there are many health benefits to being outside and part of nature. With biophilic design, we’re trying to marry the two. How can we bring nature into an interior space so people still benefit from a connection with nature even though they’re inside?”
Scientists are well aware that time spent outdoors has a calming effect. A 2010 study published in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine, compared the effects of walking through forests versus walking through urban areas. Pulse rate and salivary cortisol were reduced in individuals who walked through the forest rather than the city. Even more impressive is the fact that in forest walkers, parasympathetic nervous system activity—which occurs when we feel relaxed—increased by 56.1%, while sympathetic nervous system activity—which occurs when we feel stressed—decreased by 19.4%. But you don’t have to be in the forest for these effects to take hold: neuroscientists have found that views of natural scenes trigger more interactions of the opioid receptors in the large rear portion of the visual cortex.
That said, biophilic design isn’t only about creating outside views and bringing plants and animals inside; it’s about representing nature, and that can happen in one of three ways, Heinking says.
The first category of biophilic design, nature in space, refers to the representation of plants and animals in an interior space. It doesn’t have to be an actual tree, as you might find in, say, a Rainforest Café; it can be as simple as a pattern that represents a tree.
The second category, nature of space, pertains to how one experiences a space walking through it. Do you want to interact with the space, peeking around the corner to see what’s on the other side? Does the lighting change?
The third category, natural analogs, refers to fractal patterns. Movement in a natural setting, such as ocean waves crashing, fish swimming in an aquarium, and winds whispering through trees capture our attention. “You know how you tend to zone out when you stare at a fire?” Heinking says, “That’s a natural analog. Something that is constantly moving such that it almost hypnotizes us. It could even be a pattern on the floor that has a psychological and physiological benefit.”
The goal of biophilic design, Heinking says, is that when people experience these features, they’ll feel happier and even be healthier. In chaotic and unsettling environments, the body’s sympathetic nervous system is engaged in a “fight-or-flight” response, while its parasympathetic nervous system is suppressed, causing fatigue. The result is stress, and as quantified by Roger Ulrich, Ph.D., a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at Texas A&M University, poor health. According to Ulrich’s research, biophilic design helps to reduce patient pain and stress during recovery.
Although biophilic design didn’t take off until a year or two ago, it started to gain traction in the 2000s, when more and more research began showing its benefits—but it may have been around even longer. According to Heinking, what Frank Lloyd Wright called organic architecture was really biophilic design. “Wright truly pioneered the concept under another time, and is the greatest practitioner of it to date,” she says.
Walgreens always intended its Galter Pavilion location (at 251 E. Huron Street, downtown) to be flagship store but also wanted it to be a groundbreaking one. “They asked for a game-changer, something they’d never done before,” says Heinking, whose team also brought the city into the design. Chicagoans, she says, experience nature in lakefront parks, so those associations were pulled into the location. The first of two levels houses the retail store, which features tree representations under which terrazzo tile mimics a shadow beneath a tree canopy. When shoppers climb the stairs to the second level, which houses the pharmacy, it’s as if they’re moving beyond the treetops into the clouds.
It’s bright, dominated by a white and gray palette and bubble-shaped lights that look like illuminated clouds. “If I feel like I’m in a park, whether I’m an employee or a customer, I’m going to feel happy and be healthier,” Heinking says.