Angela Loder
Jennifer Koskinen Angela Loder

As the vice president of research at New York’s International WELL Building Institute, Angela Loder focuses on studying the relationships between human health, well-being, and the natural and built environments. Here, the Denver-based pro—also the author of the 2020 book Small-Scale Urban Greening: Creating Places of Health, Creativity, and Ecological Sustainability—talks about rewilding and the restorative powers of nature.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define rewilding?
To understand current urban greening, which includes this idea of rewilding, we have to understand why it’s different than previous types of greening for cities. We had the City Beautiful movement [in the 1890s], which gave us places like Central Park in New York; we had ecological goals like wetland restoration in the 1980s. Current urban greening is different. For the first time, ecological goals are blending with human health, equity, and socialization goals. What’s also new is that, because they’re built up, cities have to be creative about where they put these projects; they have to put them on rooftops or in vacant corridors like with Philadelphia’s Rail Park. All of this is shifting what we think of as “this is the city, and that’s nature.” It’s challenging our ideas of what nature is and where it should be.

Aerial shot showing phase one of Philadelphia’s ongoing Rail Park project, which will convert a historical railway into a green space that spans 3 miles.
courtesy Friends of the Rail Park Aerial shot showing phase one of Philadelphia’s ongoing Rail Park project, which will convert a historical railway into a green space that spans 3 miles.

Aside from ecological benefits, what are some upsides to rewilding?
In collaboration with the nonprofit Nature Sacred, the International WELL Building Institute did an analysis of rewilding in the workplace. What we saw in the literature is that there are four outcomes that nature strongly supports. The first is task performance, which is a version of productivity. The second is stress reduction. We know that there’s a mental health crisis. Providing rewilding is one of the best ways to allow employees to take micro breaks at work so they can perform again. It also has benefits for socialization. There is evidence that nature helps people be more attached to place and have pride in their building’s neighborhood. These are important things for companies trying to get workers back to the office; offering more access to nature might help employees want to come back. The last outcome is creativity. A lot of us are knowledge workers. We are not working in factories; we need to sit at a computer, think of ideas, and have creative inspiration. The evidence is new and emerging, but it’s promising that access to nature can help. I’ve also heard from interview participants that rewilding even gives people a sense of hope. The climate’s on fire, politics are depressing for many people, and everybody’s burnt out; having hope that there’s something they can control can be worth an enormous amount. I know it sounds cheesy, but honestly, the research supports it.

How can architects incorporate rewilding into new and existing structures?
There are four typologies of rewilding happening in U.S. cities right now: green roofs, green infrastructure, post-industrial spaces like rail lines, and small pocket parks. What have captured people’s imaginations are projects where you’ve got plants embedded into the structure of the building. In Milan, the Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri has trees growing on each of the balconies. Projects like these require different structural supports and you need to take climate into account, but they are grabbing the most attention because they’re so innovative.

What do architects need to tackle rewilding projects?
A partner, like a horticulturalist, that has plant knowledge. The collapse in these projects happens when you add plants with no understanding of whether they’re appropriate. Also, if there’s no maintenance schedule, the project fails. Part of the mindset needs to be that you build in costs for maintaining plants and somebody who knows how to do that. Architects don’t always have in-depth knowledge around biodiversity and horticulture, so working with a professional that has that experience helps mitigate issues.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.