We are at a critical point in human history where there is a pressing need for a new development paradigm. Regenerative design and development is a practice, philosophy and process. Successful regeneration means to evolve and continually develop new potential. The dictionary definition addresses both the action and the source of this new potential: 1) to create anew and 2) to be born of a new spirit.
In practical terms, regeneration means to contribute to the value-generating processes of the living systems of which we are apart. Not understanding the deep interconnectedness, impacts and dependencies between built and natural environments leads us to design our world in a manner that is degenerating to these systems. Given the challenges we face today, the imperative of any design process should be a focus on improving the resiliency of living relationships – such as ecosystems, human social systems, businesses andfamilies. Without a process of continually adding value to these living systems and relationships, real sustainability is not possible.
The trajectory of ecological design
The image above depicts the trajectory of ecological design and represents a spectrum of sustainable performance thresholds for our built environments. For property industry professionals, it can be used as a guide to gauge our success in delivering ever more progressive buildings and communities. The red portion of the graph represents negative impacts, or negative externalities, from our built environments, while the green represents positive ones.
At the far-left side of the diagram is the conventional development model – this “business-as-usual” approach has little to no consideration of the project’s impact on the land, community or planet. This type of development pursues only the minimum outcomes required by the local code system, where anything less would simply be against the law.
Moving to the right we find “green” development, which has reduced or “less bad” impact on society and the environment.
In the middle of the diagram we arrive at the “sustainable” development approach. If we achieve true sustainable development, we achieve a neutral impact on society and the environment – a net zero condition.
Reaching beyond the vertical axis of “sustainable” we arrive at “restorative” development. This approach produces outcomes where a project is contributing positively to society and the environment. These positive externalities may include the repopulation of a threatened species, restoration of a native landscape, or a community that improves the health and wellbeing of its residents, among others.
Farthest to the right is “regenerative” development; this is the point on the spectrum where the ongoing engagement of those involved in creating the project, and its environment, creates the conditions conducive for all life to thrive.
Over the last 20 years, the modern sustainability movement has increased capabilities of design and building professionals to conceive projects that reduce greenhouse gases, increase resource efficiency and utilise more sustainable materials. This effort has enabled the global property and construction sector to move from “conventional” to “green” development, which is current considered industry best practice.
However, even our greenest buildings and communities today still produce significant negative externalities, putting continuing pressure on the planetary ecosystem. As acknowledged by the Paris Accord, we need to make significant improvements to “business-as-usual” behaviour if we are to have any chance and of combatting climate change and limiting the planet’s temperature increase to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The built environment is anticipated to be a significant contributor in the fight against climate change, however, even achieving a net zero “sustainable” outcome is not enough to address the challenge of human impact on our planet.
In 1972, the Club of Rome commissioned a seminal report from prominent MIT researchers entitled “The Limits to Growth”. Led by pioneering environmentalist Donella Meadows, the research team concluded that humanity’s growth-centric economic activities were putting us on a course that would breach the ecological limits of our planet, a condition known as “ecological overshoot”. The industrial age had reached a point at which humans were consuming the Earth’s resources faster than the Earth could replenish them. More simply stated, we were overconsuming the planet – and have been ever since. Since the publication of this report 46 years ago, humanity has accumulated more and more “ecological debt”. Each year since the early 1970s we have hit ecological overshoot earlier than the year prior. In 2017, we reached ecological overshoot on 2 August– meaning that every day past this date we were “borrowing” Earth’s resources from future generations.
All this accrued “ecological debt” has created a situation whereby we must start to generate “ecological dividends” by moving beyond sustainable development towards restorative and regenerative cities and communities. Only then will we have the capacity to reverse climate change and other adverse impacts of our built environments and set a new course toward planetary stability.
So, how do we apply this idea to the design and development of our cities? An event with Bill Reed on Designing the Regenerative City will discuss just that from 5-7pm Thursday 17 May in Sydney, hosted by the UTS Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building.
Bill Reed is principal of Regenesis. Jason Twill is innovation fellow at the UTS School of Architecture. Dr Pernille Christensen is senior lecturer at the UTS School of the Built Environment.