Remembering Stephen Kellert, Who Explored Links Between People and Nature
Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology who helped pioneer the theory of “biophilia” — and who mentored generations of Yale students — died on Nov. 27.
By Kevin Dennehy
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Stephen R. Kellert ’71 Ph.D., a revered professor of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) whose research and writing advanced the understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world, died on Nov. 27 after a long illness.
Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology who continued to teach following his retirement in 2010, also mentored generations of doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students at Yale.
In recent years he helped pioneer the concept of biophilic design, an emerging field that promotes improved health and wellbeing by creating connections between people and nature in the built environment.
On the Yale campus Kellert would help introduce those very principles with the opening, in 2009, of Kroon Hall, the F&ES headquarters that boasts, among other features, wide access to natural light and wood harvested by Yale foresters.
“Steve just continued to grow and grow, taking on bigger and deeper issues,” said James “Gus” Speth, former F&ES dean. “He was a marvelous scholar, a marvelous teacher, and a marvelous person.”
News of Kellert’s passing drew remembrances from many F&ES alumni, some of whom said they chose the School in part because it would enable them to work closely with him. For generations of students Kellert would become a cherished friend and advisor, a gifted intellectual who also happened to be generous with his time, compassionate, and supportive.
It was Kellert’s “magnetic brilliance” and passion for nature — as well as his understanding that humanity is “integral to, and not separate from, the natural world” — that attracted Eric Siy ’88 M.E.Sc. to Yale in the first place. But it was Kellert’s humanity that kept him here.
“I nearly left the master’s program in my first year for financial reasons and Steve convinced me to stay, offering me a research assistantship that helped pay the bills and finish my studies,” recalled Siy, who is now executive director of The Fund for Lake George, a nonprofit based in the Adirondack Mountains.
“Equipped with his insights, my career in the field has been a generational journey, learning and growing every step of the way, starting at F&ES under Dr. Steve Kellert.”
After completing a Ph.D. in sociology at Yale, Kellert joined F&ES in 1977 as a senior research associate and lecturer. Three years later he became an associate professor, and in 1988 he was promoted to professor. During his tenure at the School he also served as director of admissions, chairman of the budget committee, and associate dean.
During the 1980s he helped develop an emerging theory known as “biophilia,” a term coined by biologist and environmental theorist Edward O. Wilson, which describes humanity’s innate connection with the natural world. Together they elucidated the ideas and concepts of biophilia in a series of articles and books, including the seminal “The Biophilia Hypothesis.”
As Kellert described it, the theory of biophilia asserts that human dependence on nature goes far beyond our reliance upon material and physical sustenance. This dependence, he wrote in 1993, includes “a human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.” This intrinsic connection, forged during our evolutionary development, plays a central role in our capacities to think, feel, communicate, create, and find meaning in life.
Kellert’s work on understanding these connections led to his pioneering work on biophilic design, an innovative approach to building places in a manner that bridges the growing divide between people and nature, an “architecture of life” that promotes healthy and productive habits.
“These notions have become such a part of the zeitgeist and bigger conversation,” said Nicole Ardoin ’09 Ph.D., a former student who is now an Associate Professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the Environment. “The movement around biophilic design and notions of connecting people and nature through the built environment have become ubiquitous. When people talk about those ideas, many don’t realize Steve’s pioneering role.”
“Initially as a student, I was exposed to these ideas — biophilic design, environmental values, the human/nature connection — through Steve’s unique framing and examples. Now, when I hear people using a certain kind of language, I find myself saying, ‘That’s Steve’s idea!’ But he never really emphasized the need for fanfare or recognition — he was just excited that people were talking about these ideas.”
Green design principles were integrated, at Kellert’s urging, in the design of Kroon Hall, the LEED platinum-certified home of F&ES. With its long, narrow shape and massive windows, the building allows ample natural light. Fresh air ventilation and free cooling cycles on its air-handling units reduce the demand for electric air conditioning. And its 100-kilowatt rooftop photovoltaic solar array produces roughly one-fifth of the building’s electricity needs.
“He really was the originator of the concept that became Kroon Hall,” said Speth, who was F&ES dean when Kroon became Yale’s “greenest building.” “Before I arrived on the scene, Steve had already written memos about what the building should try to achieve and what it should mean to the school.”
Kellert was closely involved in all stages of the process, including the selection of the architects and design discussions. He fought for the inclusion of many of these design elements even as university officials were sometimes skeptical of their long-term value.
Some details, including a large underground concrete labyrinth that would have improved temperature and humidity control in the building, didn’t make the cut. But in the end the School introduced a structure that not only achieved energy efficiency but broke down barriers between nature and the building’s human occupants, which Kellert called it a “restorative environmental design.”
“From the beginning Steve was one of the strongest advocates for that building,” said Alan Brewster, a former F&ES deputy dean who worked with Kellert on the Kroon process and who is now a research scholar at the School. “And he was integral to the whole process, from conceptualization to design to construction. He was such a terrific partner in making Kroon what it is today.”
Throughout his career Kellert’s work examined a broad range of topics, often bridging the realms of theory and practice.
He authored more than 150 publications (including his forthcoming book, “Nature by Design: The Practice of Biophilic Design,” to be published in 2018), and received numerous awards and honors.
Some of his most noted early research examined the important role of nature and the outdoors in the health and development of young children. Children’s need for contact with the outdoors, he once said, reflects our species’ inherent need to be part of the natural world. It provides a necessary foundation for our fitness and productivity.
Nicole Ardoin, the Stanford professor, says she first discovered this research while she was a master’s student in Wisconsin and admired his ability to synthesize complex ideas and the social science perspective he brought to conservation. A few years later Judy Braus, a colleague at World Wildlife Fund, made a personal introduction to Kellert.
“It was an incredible opportunity to meet someone whom I’d admired from afar for so many years. And when I met him in person, he was so kind and warm and welcoming,” she remembered recently. “I knew I wanted to return to graduate school for a Ph.D., but after meeting Steve, there was no doubt in my mind that Yale was the right fit for me.”
As an advisee and teaching assistant to Kellert she came to observe firsthand a style she says she tries to emulate in her teaching: he provided support when needed but also allowed autonomy among his students. He always treated her like an equal, she says, but was available when she needed him.
She also admired his insatiable curiosity about the human condition and his desire to keep exploring new ideas.
“What I learned from Steve is that you can take questions or areas of curiosity and put them together in many different ways. He didn’t confine himself by saying, ‘I study human dimensions of resource management,’ or, ‘I study wildlife and values.’ Instead, he said, ‘I’m curious about values’ or ‘I’m curious about the natural world.’ Then he might look at those areas through a certain lens for a while, which might send him on a new trajectory. And then that trajectory might send him in a whole different direction.”
“His curiosity was truly an inspiration. I try to carry that with me in my work and encourage it in my students.”
One of his most recent projects marked a return to one of his early passions. Working with Disney on their focus on connecting children and nature, Kellert has been leading a large-scale, national research survey examining the connections between Americans and nature across different U.S. regions and socioeconomic groups. The results will likely be released over the next year.
“Steve’s impact will continue through the students he coached and inspired, the research findings he uncovered, and the big ideas he shepherded — and our memories of him will be of his genuine kindness and smiling heart,” said Beth Stevens, senior vice president of environmental affairs at Disney Worldwide Services, a long-time colleague and collaborator.
In his 2012 memoir, “Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World,” Kellert articulated his vision for why humans should be connected with nature — and what they stand to lose if they are not.
“We may construct and create our world through learning and the exercise of free will, but to be successful, we must remain true to our biology, which is rooted in nature,” he wrote. “If we stray too far from our inherited dependence on the natural world, we do so at our own peril.”