Regenerative Development



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Despite having greater scientific understanding of human-induced stresses on natural systems and unprecedented individual and collective access to that information, political leaders and the public have been slow to embrace the seriousness of climate change and environmental degradation. Such issues remain compromised in the political realm by a host of other seemingly more pressing concerns—geostrategic competition, mass human migration, terrorism, and the immediate outfall from increasingly common severe weather events. The public’s priorities, one assumes, will inevitably change as it becomes aware of how the latter are affecting their personal property, food prices, water supply, and so on, and that their individual and collective choices are complicit in global warming and associated climate instability.

Legislation, if possible to enforce, has historically been viewed as one of the most appropriate means of combating localized environmental transgressions, particularly if sufficient information is available to formulate workable regulations, set targets and measure their effectiveness. Although legislation and regulation will likely remain important in reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions, a greater level of cooperation and voluntary agreements between stakeholders and regulating bodies would seem necessary to more fundamentally address climate change mitigation.


The energy and resource use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the construction and operation of buildings are acknowledged as a major cause of both global warming and environmental degradation. Importantly, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report recognized that buildings offer the largest low-cost potential carbon reductions in all world regions and will play a critical part of any global low carbon future. How we—individually and collectively—understand and respond to climate change and, in particular, what we build, how we build and where we build as well as how we use buildings, will prove central to any meaningful transition to a sustainable future.

Maintaining a measure of criticality toward the nature of an impending set of environmental difficulties that must be navigated, and simultaneously offering a positive, hopeful message and perspective is not an easy task. To encourage people to engage and respond to climate change and other environmental issues with a greater sense of urgency, persuasive appeals have consistently stressed the negative consequences of failing to ameliorate them. The IPCC’s findings have, for example, been variously cast in terms of alarm, pessimism and a depressing possible future—notions that, although characterizing and conveying clear warning and risk, have failed to garner public attention and engagement. While scholars in the field of environmental psychology have offered evidence that providing information alone rarely leads to the expected or desired behavioral change, trying to convince the public by presenting a “bad news” storyline seems even more ineffectual. By contrast, a positive transformative vision that inspires hope, offers promise and creates the necessary cognitive space to explore new possibilities, is considered far more potent in encouraging collective action than the presentation of alarming facts and negative messages. Similar arguments apply to approaches to improve the environmental performance of buildings. What is commonly referred to as “green building” design, for example, has been almost exclusively directed at reducing the degenerative consequences of the built environment on the health and integrity of ecological systems rather than emphasizing positive outcomes.

A primary emphasis of current green building performance relates to that of individual buildings; this is the scale at which building codes focus and energy services are metered. The “endgame” of a “doing-less-harm” approach—doing no harm—has logically led to setting net-zero impact as an appropriate goal for environmental performance of individual buildings. Indeed, such an ambition is increasingly embedded in national energy policies with many countries declaring that all new buildings must conform to performance targets of net-zero energy and/or carbon neutral emission standards by a certain date.

Until recently, very little reference has been made to the considerable catalytic role that buildings can play in nurturing and supporting positive environmental outcomes. The notion of “net-positive” propositions and approaches to building design practice has now emerged wherein some buildings may offer the potential of collecting more energy and water than they need to support their requirements. In doing so, it is not surprising that the primacy of the individual building as the focus of energy strategies is also being seriously challenged with an emerging tendency to view buildings as potential resource nodes within a networked infrastructure, such as a district energy system or smart grid network.

If we accept that a building, in and of itself, cannot be sustainable but can be designed to support sustainable patterns of living, then the role the building plays is potentially of greater consequence than the building itself. Such a viewpoint is central to the emerging notion of regenerative development wherein buildings, in addition to meeting their functional requirements, add other forms of “value” to the community such as improved social welfare, employment creation, new business opportunities and strengthening human connections with natural systems. Importantly, rather than reducing destructive impacts, the regenerative approaches see buildings as enabling the full potential of the social and ecological systems in which they sit. It would seem, therefore, that if buildings are to act as a catalyst for broader environmental change they must reestablish a meaningful connection to the places where they are situated.

The notion of regeneration—“rebirth” or “renewal”—has been variously applied in relation to the built environment and communities following major acts of devastation or when a prior condition has declined to an extent considered ripe for renewal—and, of course, where the commitment has been found to initiate rebuilding. The resulting transformed condition, while embodying traces from its past, is infused with new aspirations and possibilities. Over the past years, however, regeneration has been garnering increasing interest as a means of reframing green building practices and, carrying with it qualitatively different and broader connotations than used previously. John Lyle’s 1994 book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development illustrated key differences between linear, single throughput processes and closed-loop processes with the attendant reduction in entropy. By contrast, current notions of regenerative development emphasize a coevolutionary, partnered relationship between humans and nature rather than a managerial one. Regenerative development represents the first approach to bridge human development with the physical and functional, emotional and spiritual attributes of nature. Within regenerative development it is not the building that is regenerated, in the sense of the self-healing and self-organizing attributes of a living system. Rather, it is the act of building which can become a catalyst for positive change within and add value to the unique place in which it is situated.

While regenerative approaches and practices are still evolving, books such as Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis’s Designing for Hope: Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability (2014) and Pamela Mang and Ben Haggard’s Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability (2016) have provided both powerful justifications and understanding of the principles. Within regenerative development, stakeholder processes, buildings and their inhabitation are collectively focused on enhancing life in all its manifestations—human, other species, ecological systems—through an enduring responsibility of stewardship. Importantly, regenerative development effectively permits cross-scale, socio-ecological relationships and complex adaptive systems to frame approaches to building and infrastructure design.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report recognized that buildings offer the largest low-cost potential carbon reductions in all world regions

Reducing the rate and scale of environmental degradation and engaging regenerative approaches are essential and complementary requirements in charting a sustainable future. The intention, language and more comprehensive framing of regenerative development offers considerable potential to accelerate the development of systems thinking, shared vision, shared ownership and shared responsibility. While the practice of “participatory design” expands the range of stakeholder input, authority and knowledge still reside largely with the professional design team. By contrast, regenerative approaches emphasize the coproduction of the built environment, greater equality between all stakeholders and demand more upfront time to discover what is valued. Consistent with Margaret Wheatley’s notion that people care about what they create, forging partnerships and changing the power relationships inherent in the production of buildings provides greater assurance that the initial ambitions of a project are maintained through time.

So why is regenerative design gaining prominence? Certainly in North America there has been the search for complementary or alternative performance aspirations and approaches to those both evident in, and as a result of, the US Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) green building rating system. While having proven to be an enormously valuable vehicle for mainstreaming green building practice, LEED’s checklist format is incapable of guiding design in a systems-approach manner and establishing positive links between buildings and their context. Moreover, while not diminishing the importance and necessity of reducing the degenerative impacts of buildings on natural systems, green design alone is insufficient responsibility and motivation compared to the aspirations of regenerative development.

The reaction against reductive, checklist-based assessment methods represents only a relatively minor reason for the increasing appeal of regenerative approaches. A much more fundamental basis for its appeal is born out of the convergence of a number of historical threads that have either been latent or running parallel to conventional green-building discourse and practice over the past 30 years or so. While, many of its core tenets—systems thinking, community engagement, respect for place—have long individual histories in architectural discourse and practice, the regenerative approaches ties them together in a cogent manner.

In reframing building performance within regenerative development, there is the need to understand and reconcile a number of issues, including: the relationship between systems thinking and reductive approaches; the relationship between the performance of individual buildings and the larger context in which they are located; and the relationship between place- or region-specific approaches and globalized systems. What is perhaps the most significant and necessary shift does not reside in the strategic level, but in the mindset among design teams and clients. Here it becomes necessary to accept that the root causes of our current environmental predicament primarily result from differences between the workings of natural systems and human systems. Indeed, a major challenge we face this century resides in transforming what human beings value, instilling environmental stewardship as a societal priority and, in particular, aligning the global economy with the dictates of ecological sustainability.

A key tenet of regenerative development is reconnecting people with the unique places where they live and thereby developing the necessary sense of shared meaning, care and stewardship. Given the proliferation and pervasive use of information technology that permits immediate digital access from anywhere to anywhere, perhaps there is an even greater need to situate ourselves in identifiable and meaningful physical places designed for social interaction and engagement with nature. If, indeed, the experience of place provides the counter to the more abstract enveloping world of global information systems, then it will also be logically coupled with strategies that offer “slowness” in an ever-accelerating pace of life. The reemergence of the importance of place is clearly not confined to where and how we build and may also be a reaction and manifestation of people wanting to reclaim more control over their lives. Localism, for example, supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and promotion of local history, local culture and local identity. Which societal needs can be reestablished and maintained at a local level and which remain within the domain of national and global production, trade and exchange, will clearly evolve according to the constraints and opportunities afforded by place.

All human endeavor, including building-design priorities, are shaped by the prevailing worldview and value system of the societal and cultural context within which they emerge. Worldviews shape the underlying assumptions that drive what people believe about the world—the questions they ask, the solutions they seek and the methods they deploy to do so. Fundamental change will likely only occur through the replacement of the prevailing anthropocentric, mechanistic worldview by an ecological worldview that sees humans as integral to a larger community of life. This will not be easy or quick given that the prevailing worldview was some five hundred years in the making and is ingrained in all aspects of Western society and culture. However, Hess and du Plessis provide evidence that an alternative ecological worldview has been gaining ground and, given the increasing rate of dissemination of ideas afforded by information and communication technologies, one can anticipate a more rapid transition.

Although mitigation efforts to limit the extent of global warming will remain critical, there will be an increasing need to adapt to an uncertain and changing climate and environmental context triggered by past human activity. Indeed, adapting to a changing climate will likely emerge as a primary human preoccupation for decades to come. While continual change, uncertainty and unpredictability are characteristic of complex adaptive systems such as the built environment, human perceptual systems are, by contrast, oriented toward order, maintenance, optimization, and predictable outcomes. Rather than accepting and embracing uncertainty, Mang and Haggard argue that we have largely strived to make our lives more predictable and controllable through the deployment of increasingly energy-intensive technologies. Proponents of regenerative approaches see the self-healing abilities of living systems, the shift in rethinking building design in relation to natural systems and the innate human creative and entrepreneurial spirit as collectively offering a positive path through the uncertain future created by a changing climate. How these and other human endeavors coevolve with changing natural systems to the mutual benefit of each will likely distinguish future patterns of human settlement development from those in the past. Eventually perhaps, we will come to view the act of building not as destructive of natural systems and depleting the earth’s resources but as contributing to and supporting the creation of a thriving, resilient and abundant world.




Professor at the University of British Columbia (Canada), he has taught environmental aspects of building design for the past 40 years and holds the designation of University Distinguished Scholar. He is former director of UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and immediate past-director of the university’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. He is an honorary member of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia and a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He has won considerable recognition and numerous academic and professional distinctions for his teaching and research activities, including awards from the North American Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, US Green Building Council, Canada Green Building Council and World Green Building Council.

Download Paths to sustainability S.M.A.R.T. (PDF)

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