Buildings that make the world a better place: The Venny in Kensington, Victoria

Imagine a world where every single community and organisation aspired to become indigenous to place – a world where everyone can express their full humanity together with thriving living systems. This is the practice and promise of regenerative development.

In 2014, after 10 years working as a sustainable design consultant, I had a moment of insight. For most of my career I treated sustainability as a “technical” problem to be solved. And, as such, I would help my clients design energy efficient systems, reduce their water consumption and use responsibly sourced materials. I thought I was doing my bit. And then without searching for it, something suddenly dawned on me… everything we are doing is not enough.

For the next two years I set out to explore what could be enough. I thought, surely there are examples of people in the world who are actually creating a better future. This insight led me to many different places, including the psychology of wellbeing, and the importance of sustainability leadership. But perhaps one of the most exciting things I discovered was an amazing community of change makers, affectionately called The Regenerates, who are practicing a next generation approach to sustainability.

This year, together with a growing community of local and global practitioners, I’ve had the pleasure of studying regenerative development with some of its pioneers, including Regenesis and the Centre for Living Environments and Regeneration (CLEAR). I also had the opportunity to tutor a subject on regeneration with Australia’s Dominique Hes. In doing so, I’ve found great hope in the potential of regeneration.

I want to share my takeaways from this experience, and extend an open invitation – sharing how you can get involved. It’s an invitation to change makers who can see the potential for making a greater impact. It’s also an invitation to organisations and developers who aspire to do something deeply meaningful on their next project, big or small. Regenerative development is a truly transformational idea – and it’s gaining momentum.

What is regenerative development?

The story of regenerative development starts with the fact that most of today’s sustainability efforts focus on efficiency and doing less harm. As a result, we live in a world where our global ecosystems are degenerating faster than they can generate.

The promise of regenerative development (also called living or whole systems design) is to reverse this trend, and reinvent how we inhabit the earth. Regenerative practices focus on cultivating high-quality, mutually beneficial relationships between people and place. They recognise that our long-term ability to flourish is interwoven with the potential of local bioregions and global ecosystems.

This is illustrated in Bill Reed’s famous image that contrasts business as usual and doing less harm, with development that aspires to make the world a better place – a world where people see themselves as an integral part of nature, not as something separate to who we are.

The spectrum of sustainability practices: From less bad to more good. Image: Regenesis

What is particularly special about regenerative development is the acknowledgement of our role – as people – to be the change we seek. There is a critical personal development component. Much like the principle of union in yoga, regenerative development is an ongoing partnership, where human wellbeing is interconnected with the wellbeing of our place.

The Regenerative Practitioner Series by Regenesis

What Regenesis have done in this space is truly amazing. For 19 years, they have created a radically different design and developmental paradigm, a way to practically work with life and living systems.

Rather than using traditional problem solving processes, Regenesis seek to manifest potential. They develop a Story of Place, and use a sophisticated whole systems approach, working to make both people and nature healthier, more vibrant and more resilient.

An example of their work is the Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey. The project aspired to create a school that combined academic excellence, the joy of learning and the wonder of the natural world. They used regenerative development to integrate environmental stewardship as one of the school’s core teaching objectives, and to make its site a living classroom.

The Willow School in Gladstone, New Jersey. Image: Regenesis

Regenesis offer a nine-week program called the Regenerative Practitioner Series, where you learn how to put their principles into practice on a project. What I love about their program is the opportunity for distance learning that concludes with a three-day residential.

LENSES by Centre for Living Environments and Regeneration

CLEAR have taken a similar but uniquely different approach to regeneration. Their work focuses on the “relational flows” through a given place. They have developed a special LENSES tool, that communities and organisations can use to explore what regeneration means for them and their projects.

The LENSES Tool. Image used with permission.

Their goal is to “cultivate the capacity and capability in people, communities and other natural systems to renew, adapt and thrive.” And they do this by creating beautiful, living environments. Their work is stewarded by four grounding principles:

  1. From Separate to Aligned with Nature
  2. Being of Service
  3. Account for Uniqueness
  4. From Scarcity to Abundance

The LENSES tool is currently being used on a number of Australian projects, including the Secombe West Development that aspires to be Australia’s first regenerative community.

CLEAR offer facilitator training where you can learn how to apply regenerative principles to a live project. This year 10 people from Australia are taking part.

Regenerating Sustainability at the University of Melbourne

Finally, there is the work of Dominique Hes out of the University of Melbourne. Her book, Designing for Hope, (co-authored with Christna Du Plessis) and her masters subject Regenerating Sustainability have been making waves in Australia and around the world.

Designing for Hope and Regenerating Sustainability takes you on a journey – from today’s business as usual and “less bad” practises, right through to pathways for a regenerative future. It covers concepts such as Positive Development, Biomimicry, Biophilia, Positive Psychology and the Living Building Challenge. The book and subject focus on what’s happening in this space, right now, around the world.

Dominique is part of a bustling community of practitioners who are putting these principles into action. The Melbourne collaborative is exemplified by a number of emerging organisations, including Jane Toner’s Biomimicry Australia and Elena Pereyra’s Hive Architects amongst many other future making individuals. The community meets up monthly at either Design Inc and AIRAH – feel free to join us.

If you’re interested in studying Regenerating Sustainability, you can do it as part of the Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne. What I loved about the subject was the site visits – there is no substitute for seeing these next generation practices in action.

Falling in love with life

“We cannot protect something we do not love, we cannot love what we do not know, and we cannot know what we do not see. And touch. And hear.”
– Richard Louv.

What do you think? Did one or all of these regenerative practices speak to you? Are you using the right practices for the future you want to create? Imagine what could be possible in your community or organisation.

My personal take away is that regenerative development is about learning how to live on the planet together with all of the other species that cohabitate it with us. It’s the ongoing process of cultivating high-quality, generative relationships with the entire web of life – with ourselves, others and nature.

The experience of studying regenerative development has filled me with hope for the future. Rather than repeating the patterns of the past, I would love to see these emerging ways of living and working on more project agendas. Regenerative development is a shining light of hope in sustainability – a story worth sharing.

Hungry for more? Jason McLennan and Bill Reed recently wrote a more detailed summary of Regenerative Development in TrimTab based on Regenesis’ practice experience – Practicing the Whole.

 Ash Buchanan is director of adaptive development at Cohere.

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