We need a regenerative and sustained evolution of "this larger place"

Sustainable buildings? There is no such thing, Raymond Cole from the University of British Columbia contended at a recent Utzon Lecture, Changing the Storyline: From Green to Regenerative, at the University of NSW.

Which seemed a bit strange in a lecture that was all about how to make the transition to sustainability more effective. But it was not meant negatively, rather as a prompt to get us thinking again about just why we build “green” buildings and expand our horizons about just what we mean by these descriptors we tend now to throw about without much thinking. And a prompt also to introduce a new way of approaching the task – a regenerative sustainability that will replace the zero-sum game we now all-too-often seem to be locked into.

It was a useful counterpoint to two other but much more disappointing encounters around the same time. One was a book by Haydn Washington, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW, and the subject also of a talk on ABC Radio’s Ockham’s Razor program: “Demystifying Sustainability. Towards Real Solutions.” It claims to lift our engagement with the whole imperative of sustainable development that Washington says gets particularly muddled and misled, hijacked even, by the lingering attachment to the word “development”, in this term, of old notions of endless growth, and that is invariably also exploitative.

His contention here was actually given some evidence by Raymond Cole who displayed the results of a survey he undertook of the primary drivers of development companies in constructing “green” buildings.

Conservation of our natural systems? Well, no. That actually scored only about eight per cent of responses. The top driver, nominated 35 per cent of times, was the financial bottom line of the company. Legal compliance (we do it because we have to) scored 15 per cent of nominations. Any deeper moral or ethical reason? That scored down with the natural environment, only a little lower.

But, ultimately, Washington’s book disappoints. It reminded of stuff written 10, even 15 years ago, endlessly debating the concept of sustainable development and what it meant and whether it was different to the concept of sustainability; when in fact the lessons from the practice part of sustainability are always the most instructive.

The book presents a clear read of the history of the debate, and where we have come from and currently stand. But Washington’s solutions, comprising just eight-and-a-bit pages of discussion in a book of 200, sadly comprise nine points of what are basically “high-level” matters and that again we have heard before (ethics and values, developing personal attributes that accept change, limiting population, limiting consumerism, solving climate change, technologies that target renewables, reduce poverty and inequality, education and communication, and politics).

How readily we still seem to want to grasp the “do very little” option on climate change…
and the faux idea of a choice between climate change and various other global imperatives
promoted by Bjorn Lomborg.

The second encounter was even sadder of course. How readily we still seem to want to grasp the “do very little” option on climate change that is the result of the reductive statistical appraisals (yes, as in “there are lies, dammed lies, and statistics”) and the faux idea of a choice between climate change and various other global imperatives promoted by the carpet bagger-like Copenhagen Consensus Centre headed by Bjorn Lomborg.

Statistical models, with their aggregating averages and all their inherent difficulties in getting necessary assumptions right, masquerading as a reality that somehow suggests we do not actually have that much to worry about with climate change, at least in the immediate future; and without any fall-back risk management action as a precaution should those models not prove correct. A bit like trusting in luck really, rather than observed data and actual experience; but we still fall for it.

We will of course only demystify sustainability by acting on it. And yes, that acting will generate its own issues needing continual discussion and resolution: action as process. That has always been the case, whether it is about sustainability or anything else major to deal with. What that process does need though is a direction and an understanding to keep us focused.

And here Raymond Cole provided a nice quote: “To change the conversation, change who is in it.”

So, taking that cue and leaving Lomborg and Washington behind, it was good to get an uplift from Cole’s advocacy for a move away from what he calls the reductive thinking and phraseology of those notions of sustainability embedded in terms like “net zero energy impact”, “carbon neutral”, “minimisation of impact” and “mitigation”, and which he says just limit the story and do not stimulate the motivation – and the degree of change – required.

Instead he wants us to talk – and think, and action – in terms like “create benefits” (not “reduce damage”), “contribute” (not “sacrifice”), “net positive” (not “net zero”), and “renewed abundance” (rather than “scarcity”).

The shift is already happening, he says. What he is doing in his university work is to establish key ways to achieve these aspirations on-the-ground and to measure inputs and outcomes. And here there are two key messages. One is the need for bottom-up action. Learning from what happens on the ground by those working at the face so to speak, and not waiting for governments to act (he is from Canada after all, where the current government is much like our own).

The other is associated – the need to work at the local neighbourhood and regional level, which is where actions and outcomes become more visible and measurable and immediately effective. Somehow more “real”. And in this regard the need to re-position our current emphasis, in the building industry, on the performance and effectiveness, the sustainability, of the individual building alone.

We are already going down this track, as in the adaptation of green building rating schemes for instance to now cover neighbourhood urban development more generally (Raymond Cole is a past director of the Canadian Green Building Council).

But, he says, there is an inherent limitation in that these newer neighbourhood rating schemes invariably just adopt, with some extension, the reductive, topic-by-topic approach inherent in the rating schemes designed for individual buildings.

Both also tend to muddle measures to do with performance (and which need to be specific and rigorous) and measures to do with broader governance and management processes (which need to accommodate more complex and diverse responses). These latter process-orientated measures also become comparatively more important when dealing with broader neighbourhood (community) development than when dealing with individual buildings.

Cole nominated things like social cohesion, cultural practices, ecological integrity,
urban metabolism and morphology, and mobility and services 

Here he nominated a need to address things like social cohesion, cultural practices, ecological integrity, urban metabolism and morphology, and mobility and services – all of which add up to an extended and ultimately more robust view of sustainability and what he called regenerative outcomes.

The green terminology and outlook has served us well, he says. But we now need something more, and the regenerative terminology may well stimulate the larger conversation, the larger story we must now have.

And so, he concluded, when we design we should not be asking ourselves whether we are designing a “green” building, or even a “regenerative” building. The building we are designing is merely an instrument in something larger we must recognise and bring into play. Rather, what we should be asking is: “am I designing a building that will be an agent in the regenerative and sustained evolution of this larger place?” Sounds like a great test.

Greg Paine is a Sydney-based urban planner.

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