Building Forests in the Concrete Jungle – An Interview with Biophilic Designer Rebecca Bullene

6 min, 16 sec

Biophilia – the innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world, according to biologist E. O. Wilson. According to Greenery NYC founder Rebecca Bullene: In severe shortage in one of the busiest urban landscapes in the world. We talked with Rebecca about her passion, and how she’s bringing tailor-made forests into the big city.

‘Intuitively, we all know how good it feels to be outside. You take a walk out in the woods, you immediately feel more relaxed; you take a deep breath, and just feel calm.’

Say ‘New York City’, and images of lush greenery and endless forests don’t exactly spring to mind. Rebecca Bullene is convinced it is part of what’s missing from the happiness equation for New Yorkers. She grew up with both her parents working actively with gardening, and spent countless hours alongside them during her childhood. Discovering the hidden secrets of the different species; developing that relationship to nature that would eventually come back to remind her of her calling many years later. Her earliest memories are, in fact, plant-related. Rebecca remembers looking up at breath-taking lilies towering above her as a toddler; the sun radiating through the leaves, the endless colors and scents.

‘I spent a lot of time just being outside, being quiet, and observing nature (…) I think it’s part of the reason I have such an understanding for botany, for plants; the way they work, the environments they require.’

Listening to her speak, you get a sense that Rebecca understands a unique language; that she has a connection to a different, parallel, world to our own – a world that breathes at that same pulse you find yourself in tune with when in nature. And it’s hard not to feel a kind of yearning towards what is clearly so inherently programmed into our bones. That something Rebecca understands, and has turned into her life’s passion: A connection with nature we’ve somehow lost along the way to our modern life of technology, where everything runs at top-speed.  

‘Humans, for the vast majority of our existence have been outside (…) (We’ve been) interacting with nature in a very daily, very intimate way, and it’s really only been in the past 100 years or so that we’ve really started to completely seal ourselves off. We’ve started building huge skyscrapers of glass and steel, and now most people, at least in the US in urban areas, are spending 90% of their time indoors.’

Rebecca is a realist. Although she strongly believes people need nature, she doesn’t think a solution in which they are forced outside for three hours a day is viable. She is, however, convinced that we can use the technology available to us to integrate nature into architecture. Rather than bringing people to nature, she’s bringing nature past New Yorkers’ doorstep and into their work environments. Incorporating greenery into interior design in this way has huge benefits for employees, and, as a result, business growth.

‘One of the reasons I work (in New York City) is because it’s a space that needs it so badly. Nature is probably the last thing that city planners are really thinking about. And it’s really only in recent years that architects have even been aware of the concept of biophilia.’

With such a deep, underlying connection to nature, it should come as no surprise that Rebecca tells stories with her foliage work, through the visual medium of plants. Often times, it’s about how people experience space; transforming the perception of an office from something dull and corporate, to an environment in which both people and plants can thrive. Other times, the biophilic design is a visual extension of a brand’s identity – telling a company’s story by making use of plants.

For the Innisfree flagship store in Union Square, Rebecca and the Greenery team created the largest public green wall in New York City. It was an enormous undertaking, from horticulture to irrigation system to design, and the end result is quite simply breathtaking. The visual feeling is one of nature cascading down into the Innisfree products, and onto the people observing the wall from below; a perfect extension of this particular brand’s story, which is rooted in natural ingredients sourced from South Korea’s Jeju islands.

‘Natural elements are a huge part of (the Innisfree) brand and nature is at the core of all the branding elements, (so the question was) what are we going to do to visually communicate that in space (…) (The Union Square green wall) has thousands of plants in it, and you walk into that space – and simply because of the sheer number of plants, you can’t help but feel different.’

This two-story living wall is the largest public green wall in New York City. Spanning 70 feet long and 24 feet high, the wall displays close to 10,000 plants. It features 11 different varieties of tropical plants and is supported by a custom irrigation system.

This two-story living wall is the largest public green wall in New York City. Spanning 70 feet long and 24 feet high, the wall displays close to 10,000 plants. It features 11 different varieties of tropical plants and is supported by a custom irrigation system.

When speaking about her favorite plants, and why she loves them, it’s clear that for Rebecca, the marriage of modern architecture with nature is all about the long run. Traditionally, cut and blooming flowers have taken center stage in interior design, but Greenery NYC operates in a different way. Rebecca doesn’t like to watch plants die – which is what cut flowers are to her – and believes that biophilic benefits come from a relationship with plants; an interaction with them and their lifespan. That’s why her designs are always sustainable, and rooted in having the plants she installs flourish.

‘It’s all about the right plant in the right space – what plant is going to fit in the right area, and what plant is going to thrive, long-term? (…) It’s building lifelong relationships with plants – you know, having a plant for 20, 30, 40 years. And that to me is really the most rewarding; the cultivation and interaction we have with plants (…) It’s also where I think a lot of the biophilic benefits come in; in the interaction, not just the observation.’

Although she can boast incredible greenery installments in locations such as One Manhattan Square, Fifth Avenue and Union Square, Rebecca’s aspiration for the future is to go even bigger. She’s inspired by the recent Crown Jewel opening at Singapore’s Changi Airport, and thinks it would be incredible to do something similar in New York. Having people from all over the world be immediately reminded of their connection to nature, and introducing tranquility to a space that has such strong connotations of stress and discomfort for travelers.

‘If we as a human species could start mimicking (what they’ve done in Singapore) around the world, I think so many issues of climate change, and people’s general appreciation for nature, and understanding of it, could really benefit. I look to Singapore as the shining light on the hill of what’s possible when humans actually accept the power of nature, and the importance of that integration between cities and urban spaces and nature.’  


Photographs courtesy of Greenery NYC