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Abstract and Figures

The emerging field of regenerative development and design marks a significant evolution in the concept and application of sustainability. This chapter provides a chronology tracing the roots of regenerative development and design, and its emergence from the ecological sustainability stream. Several frameworks are offered depicting key elements and principles behind regenerative development and its relationship to regenerative design. This has been updated from the original chapter published in 2012.
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Regenerative Development and Design
Pamela Mang, Bill Reed,
Regenesis Group
Chapter 303, Encyclopedia Sustainability Science & Technology, 2nd Edition
Article Outline:
Definition of Subject and its Importance
Full Text
Future Directions
Biomimicry: Sometimes called biomimetic design; an emerging design discipline that looks to
nature for sustainable design solutions [1].
Cradle-to-cradle: Framework for designing manufacturing processes “powered by renewable
energy, in which materials flow in safe, regenerative, closed-loop cycles”, and which “identifies
three key design principles in the intelligence of natural systems, which can inform human
design: Waste Equals Food; Use Current Solar Income; Celebrate Diversity[2, 3]
Ecoliteracy: The ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible,
including understanding the principles of organization of ecological communities (i.e.
ecosystems) and using those principles for creating sustainable human communities [4, 5].
Ecological sustainability: A biocentric school of sustainability thinking that, based on ecology
and living systems principles, focuses on “the capacity of ecosystems to maintain their essential
functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-term”;
contrasts with technological sustainability based on technical and engineering approaches to
sustainability. [4]
Ecology: The interdisciplinary scientific study of the living conditions of organisms in
interaction with each other and with the surroundings, organic as well as inorganic.
Ecosystem: “The interactive system of living things and their non-living habitat” [6].
Ecosystem concept: “A coherent framework for redesigning our landscapes, buildings, cities, and
systems of energy, water, food, manufacturing and waste” through “the effective adaptation to
and integration with nature’s processes.” It has been used more to shape an approach than as a
scientific theory [6, 7].
Living systems thinking: A thinking technology, using systemic frameworks and developmental
processes, for consciously improving the capacity to apply systems thinking to the evolution of
human or social living systems [8].
Locational patterns: The patterns that depict the distinctive character and potential of a place and
provide a dynamic mapping for designing human structures and systems that align with the
living systems of a place.
Pattern literacy: Being able to read, understand, and generate (“write”) appropriate patterns.
Permaculture: a contraction of permanent agriculture or permanent culture, permaculture was
developed as a system for designing ecological human habitats and food production systems
based on the relationships and processes found in natural ecological communities, and the
relationships and adaptations of indigenous peoples to their ecosystems [9].
Place: The unique, multilayered network of ecosystems within a geographic region that results
from the complex interactions through time of the natural ecology (climate, mineral, and other
deposits, soil, vegetation, water, and wildlife, etc.) and culture (distinctive customs, expressions
of values, economic activities, forms of association, ideas for education, traditions, etc.) [10, 11]
Regenerate: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam Webster
To give new life or energy; to revitalize; to bring or come into renewed existence; to
impart new and more vigorous life
To form, construct, or create anew, especially in an improved state; to restore to a better,
higher or more worthy state; refreshed or renewed
To reform spiritually or morally; to improve moral condition; to invest with a new and
higher spiritual nature
To improve a place or system, especially by making it more active or successful
Regenerative Design: A system of technologies and strategies, based on an understanding of the
inner working of ecosystems that generates designs that regenerate socio-ecological wholes (i.e.,
generate anew their inherent capacity for vitality, viability and evolution) rather than deplete
their underlying life support systems and resources.
Regenerative Development: A system of developmental technologies and strategies that works to
enhance the ability of living beings to co-evolve, so that the planet continues to express its
potential for diversity, complexity, and creativity [10] through harmonizing human activities
with the continuing evolution of life on our planet, even as we continue to develop our potential
as humans. Regenerative development provides the framework, and builds the local capability
required to ensure regenerative design processes achieve maximum systemic leverage and
support through time.
Regenesis Collaborative Development Group:
Restorative Design: Sometimes called restorative environmental design; a design system that
combines returning “polluted, degraded or damaged sites back to a state of acceptable health
through human intervention” [12] with biophiliac designs that reconnect people to nature.
Source to sink: Simple linear flows from resource sources (farms, mines, forests, watershed,
oilfields, etc.) to sinks (air, water, land) that deplete global sources and overload/pollute global
sinks [13].
Systems thinking: A framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, and for seeing
patterns of change rather than static "snapshots." It addresses phenomena in terms of wholeness
rather than in terms of parts [5].
Definition Of Regenerative Design And Its Importance
The emerging field of regenerative development and design marks a significant evolution in
the concept and application of sustainability. Practices in sustainable or green design have
focused primarily on minimizing damage to the environment and human health, and using
resources more efficiently, in effect, slowing down the degradation of earth’s natural systems.
Advocates of a regenerative approach to the built environment believe a much more deeply
integrated, whole systems approach to the design and construction of buildings and human
settlements (and nearly all other human activities) is needed.
Regenerative approaches seek not only to reverse the degeneration of the earth's natural
systems, but also to design human systems that can co-evolve with natural systems—evolve in
a way that generates mutual benefits and greater overall expression of life and resilience [10,
11]. The field of regenerative development and design, which draws inspiration from the self-
healing and self-organizing capacities of natural living systems, is increasingly seen as a
source for achieving this end.
This field is redefining the way that proponents of sustainability are thinking about and
designing for the built environment, and even the role of architecture as a field. As an
indication of this growing recognition, in May 2017 the Secretary-General of the
Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Commonwealth), Patricia Scotland,
announced the launch of a Commonwealth initiative to reverse climate change through
regenerative development, noting that “Regenerative development offers ways of tackling
climate change on a scale and by means that can be adopted by the most vulnerable countries,
and are appropriate to the day-to-day lives and livelihoods of their inhabitants” [14].
Early Roots of Regenerative Design
In the 1880s Ebenezer Howard wrote To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Social Reform. Re-issued
in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow, with an introductory essay by Lewis Mumford, the
book was an early and influential expression of ecological thinking applied to human settlement.
It sought to reconnect humans to nature, and featured use of natural rather than engineered
processes to ensure the health of the system. His description of a utopian city in which man lives
harmoniously with the rest of nature stimulated the founding of the garden city movement and
the establishment of several Garden Cities in Great Britain in the early 20th century [13, 15].
In 1915, Patrick Geddes published his study of the urban growth patterns stimulated by the mass
movement of people into cities [16]. Geddes, a biologist, saw cities as living organisms. He
believed that addressing the problems of unsustainable growth required understanding a city’s
context—the surrounding landscape’s natural features, processes and resources—and called for a
solid analytic method for developing that understanding. His conclusion would influence
regional planning movements across Europe and the United States. Geddes applied the terms
Paleotechnic and Neotechnic to distinguish the industrial era producing this destructive growth
of human settlements from the era he predicted would follow its demise. These terms would be
picked up by John Tillman Lyle some 80 years later to differentiate industrial era and
regenerative technologies. Some trace the origins of ecological design to the work of Patrick
Geddes [7, 13].
Development of the Ecosystem Concept and Ecological Perspective
In 1935, Arthur Tansley introduced an entirely new concept to ecology in his work, “The Use
and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” [6]. He proposed the term ecosystem as a name
for the interactive system of living things and their non-living habitat, and the application of
systems science as a way to bring more scientific rigor to the study of nature’s complexity and
the effect of human activities on that complexity. Tansley and other organismic biologists of the
period were the first to formulate a systems view of life. Seeking a more accurate depiction of
how life ordered and organized itself within a particular landscape or geographic location, he
posited that neither a living organism nor its physical environment could be thought of as
separate entities: “we cannot separate them from their special environment, with which they form
one physical system.” Two of the most significant implications of this depiction of how life
structures itself was the deconstruction of the human/nature dichotomy that had shaped Western
design thinking, and the establishment of the premise that all species are ecologically integrated
with each other, as well as with the abiotic constituents of their biotope or habitat. For Tansley
and other ecologists concerned about the increasing impact of humans on natural systems, the
ecosystem offered a valuable framework for analyzing the effect of human activities on natural
systems and resources. In later years the concept was further defined or clarified to explicitly
include a social complex (human institutions and actions) and a built complex (structures and
infrastructures), and became a framework for sustainable urban planning and development [17,
In the 1950s and 1960s, Eugene and Howard Odum laid the foundation for the development of
ecology into a modern science, based on the core concept of the ecosystem as the fundamental
ordering structure of nature. They published the first textbook on ecology, The Fundamentals of
Ecology, in 1953. Their work brought attention to the importance of understanding how the
earth's ecological systems interact with one another. Howard Odum further developed a number
of key theoretical concepts and methodologies including his “energy systems language”, a set of
symbols used to compose energy flow diagrams for any scale of system. His study of wetlands
pioneered the now widespread approach of using wetlands as water quality improvement
ecosystems, and served as an important contribution to the beginnings of the field of ecological
engineering [20].
New foundations for systems theory and systems thinking
In 1968, biologist and systems theoretician Ludwig von Bertalanffy published his General
System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. General Systems Theory (GST)
introduced the concept of open systems, emphasized the difference between physical and
biological systems, and introduced evolutionary thinking—thinking focused on change, growth
and development [21]. GST opened the door to a new science of complexity. The recognition
that complex systems cannot be understood through simple analysis led to the emergence of
systems thinking as a major scientific field, a profound change from the analytic, reductionist
mode that had dominated Western scientific thinking since the time of Descartes, Newton,
Galisteo and Bacon. GST also laid the basis for the development of living systems science..
In the 1960s and70s, Charles Krone, systems theorist and architect of organizational processes
and structures, developed living systems thinking as a developmental technology for consciously
improving systems thinking capacity. His work greatly extended GST and Systematics, a
discipline developed by mathematician John Bennett that uses systemic frameworks to
understand complex wholes within which people are participants rather than observers. The
systemic frameworks and developmental processes Krone generated were applied and evolved
within businesses. Their purpose was to create an understanding of businesses, communities and
nature as living systems, and to build the consciousness required to create reciprocally beneficial
relationships through better integration of industrial, community and natural processes. Krone’s
work served as a core foundation for the emerging Regenesis Collaborative Development Group
as they developed and evolved regenerative development processes and technologies, starting in
the 1990s [10, 22, 23]. Of particular importance in the evolution of regenerative development
was Krone’s framework depicting four natures of work that are essential to any living system’s
continuing capacity for evolution. The underlying premise is that all four “are necessary in order
for an entity to sustain itself in a world that is nested, dynamic, complex, interdependent, and
evolving.” [10] The framework defines these different levels of work within a hierarchy (Figure
1) in which work at the lower levels focuses on existence (what is already manifested),
increasing performance and efficiency. Work at the higher levels is concerned with potential
(what could be but is not yet manifested), introducing potential for new life and creativity and
advancing the whole. The understanding, aims and goals developed at the regenerative level
work guide work at the other levels. The framework was utilized as an instrument for enabling
“practitioners to design for the integrated evolution of all work” and as “a lens for seeing how
and where different sustainability strategies fit and how they can be leveraged when aligned
around a regenerative goal.” [10]
Figure 1 Levels of Work. Reprinted with permission
Ecological sustainability—Foundations of regenerative development and design
In 1969, landscape architect Ian McHarg published Design with Nature, pioneering a technology
for ecological land-use planning based on understanding natural systems [24]. His book became
a foundational textbook for the ecological view of urban landscape design, and its basic concepts
were later developed into today’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—a critical tool for
ecological development.
In 1978, Bill Mollison, an Australian ecologist, and one of his students, David Holmgren coined
the word permaculture from a contraction of permanent agriculture or permanent culture. They
developed the field of permaculture as an ecological design system to promote design of human
habitats and food production systems based on the relationships and processes found in natural
ecological communities. Much of the inspiration was drawn from the relationships and
adaptations of indigenous peoples to their ecosystems. Beyond the integration of human and
natural environments, Mollison and Holmgren developed design technologies and practices for
increasingly self-sufficient communities and food production systems. By creating “man-made
ecosystems,” permaculture demonstrated how to provide for a host of human needs while
reducing dependence on environmentally destructive industrial practices. While earlier iterations
of ecological design promoted integration of human and natural systems for more sustainable
development, permaculture was the first ecological design system to introduce the concept of a
regenerative effect as a new standard of ecological performance for the built environment.
Peramaculture was based upon the generation of a surplus or overabundance of energy and
resources that could be reinvested to evolve natural and human living systems as an integrated
whole. In support of that goal, Mollison’s Permaculture: a designers’ manual, published in
1988, introduced a hierarchy of investments (regenerative, generative and degenerative) as a
framework for assessing the value of potential actions for building regenerative capacity in a
system. [9]
Also in the 1980s, Robert Rodale, son of organic agriculture pioneer J. I. Rodale, advanced the
use of the word regenerative in relation to the use of land, calling for going beyond sustainability
to “where what we are really doing with the American Land is not only producing our food but
regenerating, improving, reforming to a higher level the American landscape and the American
Spirit"[25]. Rodale used the term to describe the continuing organic renewal of the complex
living system that he saw as the basis for healthy soil and, in turn, for healthy food and healthy
people. He later applied the same principle of ongoing self-renewal to regenerative economic
development. [26] While his work did not extend to the built environment, his principles
influenced John Tillman Lyle’s work, and are foundational for the conceptualization and
application of regenerative methodologies to all of the systems that support life.
In 1984, John Tillman Lyle published Design of Human Ecosystems [27] in which he argued that
“designers must understand ecological order operating at a variety of scales and link this
understanding to human values if we are to create durable, responsible, beneficial designs.” He
defined human ecosystems as “places in which human beings and nature might be brought
together again” for mutual benefit, and posited conscious eco-systemic design as essential to a
sustainable future. The book introduced several key concepts that laid the basis for his
subsequent work on regenerative design. “Shaping ecosystems, just like shaping buildings”,
requires (1) a set of organizing principles drawn from “strong concepts of an underlying order
that holds the diverse pieces and all their hidden relations together;” (2) “these underlying
concepts of order are drawn from ecology”, and principles for ecosystem design “need to
comprehend and envision the ecosystem the designer is seeking to shape as a dynamic (living)
whole”; and (3) ecological concepts are “more or less analogous to the laws of mechanics in
architecture in that they provide us with organizing principles for shaping ecosystems much as
architects shape buildings”
Ecological design systems proliferate
The 1990s was a period of intense creative ferment for ecological design thinking. A number of
foundational books were published laying out both the practical and theoretical bases of design
for ecological sustainability, including Ecological literacy: education and the transition to a
post-modern world by David Orr (1992), From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of
Ecological Design, by Nancy Jack Todd & John Todd (1993), The web of life: A new scientific
understanding of living systems by Fritjoff Capra (1995), Ecological Design by Sim van der Ryn
and Stuart Cowan (1996), and The ecology of place: Planning for environment, economy, and
community by Timothy Beatley (1997).
In 1992, Educator David Orr and physicist Fritjof Capra coined the term ecological literacy (also
referred to as ecoliteracy) to describe the ability to understand the natural systems that make life
on earth possible, including understanding the principles of organization of ecological
communities (i.e. ecosystems) and using those principles for creating sustainable human
communities. [4]
Also in the 1990s, new ecological and living system based metrics were introduced, including
architect Malcolm Wells’ Wilderness-Based Check-list for Design and Construction, revised by
the Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) [28]. Their work furthers John Tillman Lyles
idea that sustainable design might be merely breaking even, while regenerative design renews the
earth resources. On a larger scale, Pliny Fisk’s EcoBalance land use planning and design
methods employ the principle of life cycles as a framework for sustaining basic life supporting
systems, balancing human needs with their ability to enhance the environment, using appropriate
technologies for augmenting natural processes [29].
Emergence of regenerative development and design as distinct disciplines
In 1994, John Tillman Lyle established the Center for Regenerative Design at California State
Polytechnic University, Pomona to test, demonstrate and further evolve the theory and practice
of regenerative design. His book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development, is the first
comprehensive articulation of and handbook for regenerative design [13]. Written as a practical
guide to the theory and design of regenerative systems, it laid out the framework, principles and
strategies for design aimed at reversing the environmental damage caused by what Lyle called
industrial land use practices. The book reflected the continuing evolution of the thinking he had
been pursuing as a landscape architect, architect and educator.
Deeply concerned about resource depletion and environmental degradation in “the design of our
20th Century landscape”, Lyle believed that at the core of the growing environmental crises lay
the simplification of living systems caused by “paleo” design and technologies (a term he
adopted from Patrick Geddes to depict their relative crudity). “Where nature evolved an ever-
varying, endlessly complex network of unique places adapted to local conditions,” he wrote,
“…humans have designed readily manageable uniformity.” This creates relatively simple
patterns and forms designed to be easily replicable anywhere. Most important, in his view, was
the replacement of nature’s continual cycling and recycling of materials and energy—processes
“core to the earth’s operating system”—with one-way linear flows from source to sink.
“Eventually a one-way system destroys the landscapes on which it depends,” Lyle observed.
“The clock is always running and the flows always approaching the time when they can flow no
more. In its very essence, this is a degenerative system, devouring its own sources of
sustenance.” The degenerative patterns caused by these linear, one-way flows, he believed,
demanded a fundamentally different approach that he named regenerative design. Accordingly,
Lyle defined regenerative design as the replacement of linear systems of throughput flows with
“cyclical flows at sources, consumption centers, and sinks.” The resulting systems provide for
“continuous replacement, through (their) own functional processes, of the energy and materials
used in their operation” [13].
Lyle died just 4 years after publication of Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development.
While he called redesign of the degenerative systems created by industrial linear flows as the
“first order of work,” it is clear from the larger body of his work and other writings [30] that he
saw regenerative design as encompassing far more than this basic operational goal, as
fundamental as it was. While much attention has been given his models and techniques for
designing self-renewing resource and energy flows, Lyle always saw the heart of his work, and
the work of regenerative design, as the conscious design of whole ecosystems. The importance of
developing a different nature of thinking as the basis for regenerative design, which was
addressed in introductory chapters of the book, was left without further development. The
narrow definition of the term regenerative as simply “self-renewing” came to define the focus of
regenerative design for many architects and landscape architects for decades thereafter.
In1995, the Regenesis Group was founded and began developing the theoretical and
technological foundation for regenerative development—enabling human communities to co-
evolve with the natural living systems they inhabit, while continuously regenerating
environments and cultures. Regenesis founders had practiced bio-centric design, inspired by
natural processes, in a variety of arenas for a number of years, and knew the power of this
approach. They maintain that development projects needed to be sources of ecological health,
even “engines of positive or evolutionary change for the systems into which they are built” [31],
and that the primary drivers of unsustainable patterns was not being addressed by ecological
design systems. They saw environmental problems as symptoms of a fractured relationship
between people and the living web of nature, and argued that the core issue was cultural and
psychological, rather than technological. Like Lyle, they believed that addressing this issue
required a fundamental transformation in how humans saw their relationship and role with regard
to the planet—moving from the current view of standing apart from and using (or protecting)
nature to seeing a “co-evolutionary whole, where humans exist in symbiotic relationship with the
living lands they inhabit” [31].
For regenerative design to take hold and be successfully applied, the Regenesis team reasoned, a
radical shift in thinking and understanding would be required among design professionals,
stakeholders, and all the human inhabitants of a place. They proposed the term regenerative
development for the more comprehensive work of creating the conditions and building the
capacities required for achieving this shift, with the aim of making development a source of
harmonious integration with nature [10, 32, 33].
Regenerative development and design emerge as significant for the sustainability
While awareness and appreciation of regenerative approaches to sustainability grew through
the early 2000’s, regenerative development and design continued to be largely an edge
phenomenon for much of the decade. In the following decade, however, a series of initiatives
in multiple disciplines began to transform practice towards regenerative goals: :
Regenerative Built Environment and City design studies: In 2010, the World Futures
Council published the first of a series of reports introducing the concept of Regenerative
Cities, the result of an International Expert Commission on Cities and Climate Change.
These reports, followed up by the book “Creating Regenerative Cities” by Herbert
Girardet, launched a multi-pronged effort to promote the creation of regenerative cities—
cities that work to actively improve and regenerate the productive capacity of
the ecosystems on which they depend [34].
Regenerative approaches to Economy and Business: JPMorgan Managing Director John
Fullerton founded The Capital Institute in 2010, a non-partisan think-tank dedicated to
developing and promoting regenerative economy models. This led to the launch of the
Field Guide to a Regenerative Economy and the subsequent white paper, “Regenerative
Capitalism: How Universal Principles and Patterns Will Shape the New Economy” as a
framework for regenerative economies [35]. In 2016, the Regenerative Business Summit
was launched to “elevate and enrich the conversation about regeneration and focus it on
innovative enlightened disruption in business and industries” [36]. The following spring,
London based Lush Cosmetics launched the Lush Spring Prize to support the
“regeneration movement through an annual 200,000 pound prize fund” and “a high-
profile annual conference, bringing people together to share their skills and experiences
in raising awareness of regeneration and its potential[37].
Regenerative Education Initiatives: In 2013, Regenesis launched “The Regenerative
Practitioner”, a blended distance learning series for practitioners interested in integrating
regenerative development into their practice. While most course participants were
initially professionals within the built environment, the geographic diversity was soon
matched by a growing diversity of professions, a reflection of the widening interest in
regenerative development. New Zealand hosted the 8th series “for business leaders,
cultural leaders, design, development, and planning professionals, researchers, artists,
healers, facilitators, community activists, creative entrepreneurs, sustainability
managers, permaculturists and community organisers[38].
Jason McLennan, founder of Living Building Challenge and Living Futures Institute,
announced the opening of the School of Regenerative Design in 2017 as “a small,
specialized, interdisciplinary design school that focuses on personal transformation,
practical knowledge-based internships, grounded in world-class design and ecological
Regenerative Development to Address Climate Change: The annual meeting of High
Commissioners representing Commonwealth countries adopted regenerative
development as the Commonwealth of Nations strategy for reversing climate change. Of
the strategy, Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, notes: “Firstly,
it is saying that it is possible to reverse the human impact of climate change by 2050 and
secondly it is framing climate change as one of our greatest opportunities for innovation
and advancement[40].
Regenerative Development Publications and Conferences: By the mid-2010s, a growing number of
journals, books, and conferences, along with dozens of videos on regenerative design and
development, reflect the increasing interest in regeneration as a means of reframing sustainable
and green practices. Both Building Research and Information Journal and the Journal of Clean
Production published special issues on the theory and practice of regenerative development and
design and the regenerative sustainability paradigm [41, 42]. Book titles from this period
2010 Urban Regeneration and Social Sustainability: Best Practice from European Cities [75]
2013 Regenerative Sustainable Development of Universities and Cities: The Role of Living
Laboratories [74]
2014 Creating Regenerative Cities [34]
2015 The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience
2015 Designing For Hope: Pathways To Regenerative Sustainability [11]
2016 Designing for Regenerative Cultures [72]
2016 Regenerative Development And Design: A Framework For Evolving Sustainability [10]
2017 The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve
Extraordinary Outcomes [71]
Regenerative Development and DesignRedefining Sustainability
Sustainable development and design has been described as falling broadly into two streams—one
primarily technical and engineering based (technological sustainability), and the other based in
ecology and living systems principles (ecological sustainability) [4, 7]. Green or high-
performance building, sometimes called eco-efficient design, emerged out of the first stream, and
regenerative development and design out of the second. Green building, like the conventional
building field before it, defined the built environment as “all the structures people have built
when considered as separate from the natural environment” (MacMillan Dictionary). Green
movements defined a sustainable built environment as one that is resource efficient and has
minimal or neutral environmental impact. While that definition is evolving, the primary aim of
green building continues to be increasing the efficiency of energy, water, and material use while
reducing local and global impacts on the natural environment.
In the past decade, however the definition of a sustainable built environment is changing rapidly.
Sarah Jenkin and Maibritt Pedersen Zari proposed in “Rethinking the Built Environment,” that
While aiming for neutral or reduced environmental impacts in terms of energy, carbon, waste or
water are worthwhile targets, it is becoming clear that the built environment must go beyond this.
It must have net positive environmental benefits for the living world” [12].
The rising field of regenerative development and design, which emerged from the ecological
stream, is not only leading the charge to redefine sustainability, but also to redefine what the
built environment encompasses and what its role must be. Advocates of a regenerative approach
to the built environment believe that a much more comprehensive, deeply integrated, and whole-
systems approach is needed. They propose that eco-efficient design technologies and strategies
must be integrated within an ecologically based approach that reverses the degeneration of both
the earth's natural systems and the human systems that inhabit them. The regenerative
methodology focuses on the development of human settlements that partner with natural systems
and processes to actively regenerate the health of their place as a whole, and the spirit of the
people who inhabit it. (Fig. 2)
The philosophical and technical foundations for regenerative development and design as a
distinctive field within ecological sustainability were laid in the 1990s, though they draw from
scientific and technological advances reaching back into the early part of the last century
previously outlined. Held together by a common philosophical core, regenerative practices
extend beyond the traditional aspects of design to address a different nature of thinking and
interactivity that is required to design and engage in a regenerative process.
While regenerative approaches are attracting growing interest among sustainability design
practitioners, transitioning from green building to a regenerative practice has presented a number
of challenges. The holistic and deeply integrated nature of the regenerative approach does not
lend itself to a “menu approach”—selecting several regenerative technologies without
understanding the underlying principles that assure a regenerative outcome. Another challenge is
reconciling the two radically different worldviews shaping technological and ecological
sustainability within the way one’s practice is carried out. Few architects and engineers are
familiar with, let alone trained in an ecological paradigm. Yet as David Orr notes:
Ecological problems are in many ways design problems: our cities, cars, houses, and
technologies often do not fit in the biosphere. Ecological design requires the ability to
comprehend patterns that connect, which means looking beyond the boxes we call
Figure 2: Trajectory of Ecological Design. © Regenesis Group. Reprinted with Permission
disciplines to see things in their larger context. Ecological design is the careful meshing
of human purposes with the larger patterns and flows of the natural world; it is the
careful study of those patterns and flows to inform human purposes. Competence in
ecological design requires spreading ecological intelligence—knowledge about how
nature works.” [43]
Overview: Ecological Sustainability and Regenerative Development and
Ecological Sustainability
Ecological sustainability has been defined as the “capacity of ecosystems to maintain their
essential functions and processes, and retain their biodiversity in full measure over the long-
term” ( While accurate and straightforward, the seeming
simplicity of this definition is deceptive. To understand, and then deliver what is required to
“maintain” and “retain” requires first understanding the nature of ecosystems and the nature of
the ecological world in which they exist. That, in turn, requires understanding the ecological
perspective—the use of ecological concepts from biology as a metaphor for understanding and
designing environments.
All development of the built environment involves changing the landscape and, perforce, the
natural systems embedded within it—modifying and adapting them for human purposes. The
design of that change is ultimately based on the designer’s understanding of the “nature of
nature”—how nature works and, concomitantly, humans’ relationship to it. That understanding,
in turn, is shaped by the fundamental model or paradigm held by the larger culture and how it
understands nature [7, 13, 27, 41, 42].
Divergent ecological versus technological approaches to sustainability can be attributed in large
part to their being grounded in very different worldviews. Ecological sustainability, and the
design systems within it, emerged from the profound shift in worldview that occurred over the
last century as a result of advances in both the physical and biological sciences. Fritjof Capra has
described this as a shift from the mechanistic worldview of Descartes and Newton. In the
mechanistic paradigm, the dominant metaphor for understanding the world (and all organisms
within it) was that of a machine composed of separate parts. In contrast, the ecological
worldview sees the world as a self-organizing, continuously evolving, interdependent web of
living systems, and the concept of ecosystem is the dominant metaphor for understanding the
world. The ecosystem concept, as it has been evolved by living systems science, has been
particularly influential in shaping an ecological and regenerative understanding of the world and
the role of humans within it, with profound implications for sustainability and development [5,
17, 18].
The industrial-era metaphor of machine was particularly influential in shaping much of the built
environment in the developed world, and continues to play a significant role even today. By the
first decade of the 21st century, however, Le Corbusier’s image of the modern house as a
“machine for living” was being challenged by the image of living buildings and communities as
As the ecosystem emerged as a new “governing concept of relationship between humanity and
nature” [17], it confronted some of the most basic premises of the technologies, processes and
goals of the design field at the time, including the role of buildings, the definition of the built
environment, the role of designers and even the role of humans on the planet. As designers
concerned about sustainability began to explore the implications of this new paradigm, it became
clear that new ways of thinking and working, along with new forms of design and development
and new standards of ecological performance were required. Some of the most comprehensive
articulations of the key premises that shape the distinctive character of the field of ecological
sustainability can be found in the writings of Sim Van der Ryn, Stuart Cowan, David Orr and
Fritjoff Capra [4, 5, 7]
Regenerative Development and Design
Ecological strategies for sustainability developed during the 1980s and 1990s were organized
around the core set of philosophical, theoretical and scientific concepts. All were aligned around
a commitment to net positive goals for the built environment, and to that end were committed to
integrating human structures, processes and infrastructures with natural living systems. To some
extent, they differed in the systemic scope they encompassed, falling into four broad categories
along a spectrum of comprehensiveness. (Fig. 3)
Fig. 23 Levels of Ecological Design
Levels of Ecological Strategies for
1. Biophilic – As a design philosophy addressing the “urge to affiliate with other forms of life”
[45], biophilia is relational in its approach – it is somewhat passive in its engagement with
life and is anthropocentric in its purpose. It acknowledges that humans will, if given a
choice between nature and a human-made context, choose an environment or situation that
utilizes, or is in contact with, living systems and their processes. Human health is positively
influenced by connectivity and diminished if separated from living system connectivity.
The design fields that employ biophilic approaches consciously use: Physical Engagement
and Connections to natural features and elements; Facsimile Connections in terms of the use
of nature imagery and materials; and Evocative Connections that use the qualities and
attributes of nature in design such as sensory variability, prospect and refuge, serendipity,
discovered complexity [46].
2. Biomemetic – Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry are design philosophies that look to nature
as inspiration. They are a functional approach that uses nature - its forms and its processes -
as a model for humans to follow – an anthropocentric perspective. Technical product design,
buildings, manufacturing processes, agriculture, and human activity will function best and be
more in harmony with ecological processes if nature is used as a model and guide. Nature’s
services and techniques are generally much more effective and certainly more sustainable
than technical engineering approximations [44]. The principles guiding biomemetic thinking
are essentially derived from an ecological understanding of how life works, and provide a
conceptual starting point to move into more comprehensive and regenerative systems.
3. Restorative – Restorative approaches seek to improve current systemic performance,
returning living systems to a state of health, and re-establishing the self-organizing capability
required to maintain that health. This is an approach that acknowledges that humans have a
role to play. It is more highly integrated than biomemetic approaches and more active than
biophilic approaches – yet it generally is an episodic and finite engagement. This approach
typically intervenes on an initial basis to reestablish the health of a sub-system of an
ecosystem and community – such as wetlands, woods, riparian corridors, beach dune systems,
social systems, and so on. It is a biocentric approach. When the intervening human role is
finished however—once the capacity of the system to self-organize is set in motion – the
humans leave the engagement [47].
4. Regenerative – Regenerative approaches embed the capacity to continue to improve
performance through time and through varying environmental conditions. Regenerative
development and design, as articulated by Regenesis Group and Lyle, recognizes that
“humans, human developments, social structures and cultural concerns are an inherent part of
ecosystems”, making humans integral, and particularly influential participants in the health
and destiny of the earth’s web of living systems. According to this view, the sustainability of
the real estate development industry, which works directly on these webs, is largely
determined by whether humans participate in them as partners or as exploiters [10]. This
might be termed a process of biobecoming – the development of a whole system of inter-
related living consciousness – a new mind. “Design inevitably instructs us about our
relationships to nature and people, that makes us more or less mindful and more or less
ecologically competent. The ultimate object of design is not artifacts, buildings, or landscapes,
but human minds” [4].
M. Kat Anderson supports this way of being in “Tending the Wild”: Wilderness is a negative
label for land that has not been taken care of by humans for a long time . . .California Indians believe
that when humans are gone from an area long enough, they lose the practical knowledge about correct
interaction, and the plants and animals retreat spiritually from the earth or hide from humans. When
intimate interaction ceases, the continuity of knowledge passed down through generations is broken,
and the land becomes ‘wilderness’ [48].
Together, regenerative development and design provide a framework for creating, applying,
adapting and integrating a blend of modern and ancient technologies to the design, management
and continuing evolution of sustainable built environments, accomplishing positive ecological
and social results that include:
Improving the health and vitality of human and natural communities—physical,
psychological, economic and ecological;
Producing and reinvesting surplus resources and energy to build the capacity of the
underlying relationships and support systems of a place needed for resilience and
continuing evolution of those communities;
Creating a field of caring, commitment and deep connection to place that enables the
changes required for the above to take place and to endure and evolve through time [10,
The first comprehensive articulation of the theoretical and practical basis of regenerative
approaches to the built environment emerged separately for regenerative development and
regenerative design in the mid-1990’s, from two separate sources—the work of Regenesis Group
and John Tillman Lyle. Their respective bodies of work each reflected a convergence of
disciplines in addition to architecture, including: landscape ecology, geohydrology, landscape
architecture, permaculture, regenerative agriculture, general systems theory and cybernetics,
living systems theory and thinking, and developmental psychology.
In his paper, “New Context, New Responsibilities: Building Capability” [52], Ray Cole
articulated some of the key implications of a regenerative approach, including:
Seeing the responsibility of design as “designing the ‘capability’ of the constructed world
to support the positive co-evolution of human and natural systems” vs. designing “things”
(buildings, infrastructure, etc.), and defining sustainable buildings as “buildings that can
support sustainable patterns of living.”
Emphasizing the “role of building in positively supporting human and natural processes”
vs. “building as product”.
Positioning “building as central in creating higher levels of order and, as such, creating
increased variety and complexity.”
Seeing the building as within and connected to a larger system—place, shifts “the current
emphasis of greater energy self-reliance at the individual building level” to “opportunities
for positive connections and creative synergies with adjacent buildings and surrounding
natural systems”
A Distinction Between Regenerative Development And Regenerative Design
For ecological sustainability to succeed, it requires a far broader and deeper scope of engagement
than an individual building or even community design. [53]. Yet the structure of the development
and construction industry, for the most part, works to narrow the designers’ role and scope, often
as a result of decisions made before the design process even begins. Regenerative development
was developed as a discipline in part to address this concern. Regenerative approaches view
development and design as two distinct yet synergistic processes, both of which play an essential
role in ensuring that greater scope, neither of which is sufficient without the other.
The following dictionary definitions provide insight into the different roles of development and
Development: O.Fr. desveloper, “an unfolding, bringing out the latent possibilities,"
from des- "undo" + veloper "wrap up" a state in which things are improving; the act of
improving by expanding or enlarging or refining; progression from a simpler or lower to
a more advanced, mature, or complex form or stage; an unfolding; the discovering of
something secret or withheld from the knowledge of others; disclosure.
Design: L. designare "mark out, devise," from de- "out" + signare "to mark,"an act of
working out the form of something; to create or contrive for a particular purpose or
“Regenerative development provides an integrated conceptual framework through which human
communities can grow their shared understanding of the unique places in which they live and
work. This understanding provides the armature for creating a system of sustainable design
strategies and processes tailored to the unique character of a place” [10]. Jenkin and Zari, in their
study, “Rethinking the Built Environment, write that “Regenerative development…investigates
how humans can participate in ecosystems through development, to create optimum health for
both human communities (physically, psychologically, socially, culturally and economically) and
other living organisms and systems” [12]. They describe regenerative development as defining
the desired outcome in terms of new systemic capabilities, and regenerative design as the means
of achieving it. In contrast, John Tillman Lyle [27] defined design within the context of the built
environment as giving form to physical processes, and regenerative design as the replacement of
linear systems of throughput flows with “cyclical flows at sources, consumption centers, and
sinks.” The resulting systems provide for “continuous replacement, through (their) own
functional processes, of the energy and materials used in their operation.”
Regenerative development works at the intersection of understanding and intention, generating
the patterned, whole-system understanding of a place, and developing the strategic, systemic
thinking capacities and the stakeholder engagement that are required to ensure designs and
design processes achieve maximum systemic regenerative leverage and support. To that end, it
integrates building, human and natural development processes within the context of place.
Regenerative development also creates an environment that greatly enhances the effect and
effectiveness of restorative and biomimetic designs.
The roles of regenerative development, more specifically, are to:
1. Develop the whole-systems understanding of the inner working of ecosystems in a
specific place required to determine the right phenomena to work on or to give form to,
in order to inform and provide direction for regenerative design solutions that can realize
the greatest systemic potential; and
2. Build a field of commitment and caring in which stakeholders step forward as co-creators
and ongoing stewards of those solutions.
Regenerative design solutions that are grown from the uniqueness of a place rather than from a
set of universal best practices regenerate rather than deplete underlying life support systems and
resources, and work to integrate the flows and structures of the built and natural world “across
multiple levels of scale, reflecting the influence of larger scales on smaller scales and smaller on
larger” [50, 54].
Regenerative Approaches to Sustainable Development and DesignKey
Framework Premises and Methods Overview
Key Premises
The following four premises are drawn from the work of Regenesis and Lyle. They offer key
elements for framing regenerative approaches [10, 13, 22, 27, 32, 33, 51]. The four premises
work as a system to integrate and align motivation and means, providing the framework within
which methodologies and approaches from other ecological design systems can be integrated
into a regenerative practice (Fig. 4). The first two define and shape motive and motivation in a
regenerative project. The last two relate to how a project is carried out to ensure that ends and
means stay congruent, that the process stays on course toward a regenerative result.
1. Place and Potential Regenerative projects are based on the richest possible understanding
of the evolutionary dynamics of a place in order to identify the potential for realizing greater
health and viability as a result of human presence in that place [55].
2. Goals focus on regenerative capacity — Regenerative projects are defined by the capacity that
must be developed and locally embedded to support ongoing co-evolution of the built, cultural
and natural environments, and the humans who utilize and tend to them -- toward higher
(more complex, diverse and generative) levels of order for all their constituent members, as
well as for the larger systems they are a part of and dependent on. [10, 51]
3. Partnering with place —Regenerative projects require taking on a new role, moving from a
“builder of systems we control” to a gardener, working in partnership with a place and its
processes. [10, 22].
4. Progressive harmonization — Regenerative projects seek to catalyze a process of continually
increasing the pattern harmony between human and natural systems across scales, and require
indicators and metrics that can track dynamic, holistic and evolving processes. [58]
Place and Potential
Potential: “the inherent capacity for growth, development or coming into being.”
(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
William McDonough often describes design as an expression of human intention. Both that
intention and the resultant design however are shaped by the potential the designer sees and
seeks to realize for a particular project. Regenerative potential is defined as the ability to
leverage human interventions to achieve greater systemic health through time -- for the place
they occupy and depend on [32].
Many projects fail to achieve a regenerative effect because the potential they target is too
limited—focused on an element or a problem without seeing its systemic connections. Others
fail because they seek to realize a potential defined by human ideals but fail to align with the
essence of a place and the larger patterns of life that make that place work. When a project is
grounded in a rich patterned understanding of its place, and a vision of its role and potential
within that place guides its design, even small interventions can ripple out into large systemic
transformations—what Curitiba’s long-time mayor Jaime Lerner called “urban acupuncture”
[57], with ecological as well as social and economic ramifications.
“Place” in regenerative development is alive, a living system or entity that is “…a unique
constellation of patterns nested within patterns, interwoven with other patterns in families and
guilds and social relationships, all endlessly changing, cycling, evolving and building to greater
levels of complexity over time…an incredibly dynamic and complex being” [58]. A unique,
multi-layered dynamic network of natural and human ecosystems within a geographic region,
this network forms a socio-ecological whole that is the result of complex interactions through
time between and within its constituent ecosystems. The natural ecosystems include wildlife and
vegetation, local climate, mineral and other deposits, soil, water, geologic structures, etc.; human
ecosystems include distinctive customs, expressions of values, economic activities, forms of
association, ideas for education, traditions, physical artifacts such as buildings and constructed
infrastructure, etc. [10, 13, 31, 49, 51, 60]
Direction: Progressive Harmonization
Goal: Regenerative
Partnering Place
Ground: Place and
Figure 4
Regenerative Capacity: Defining Goals For Realizing Regenerative Potential
The central element for regenerative development and design is the performance not of a single
building, but rather of its living context—the unique socio-ecological system or “place” in which
the building is just one of many interdependent and interactive elements and dynamics. Within
that context, regenerative goals are set and performance measured in terms of the intended
contribution of the built environment to the regenerative capacity of that larger living context—
(i.e., its capacity to realize and express more of its full potential as a source of increasingly
healthy life for all its constituent members as well as for the larger systems it is a part of and
depends on).
Characteristics of a regenerative goal include:
Place sourced and place specific.
Evolutionary, going beyond improving current systemic performance (what is often
called restorative) to embedding into the system the capacity to continue to improve
performance through time and through varying environmental conditions.
Beyond functional performance goals. Recognizing “human aspiration and will as the
ultimate sustaining source of our activities”[28],, regenerative goals address qualitative
and spirit dimensions that shape the quality and degree of caring humans bring to their
place and its capacity to continue to thrive.
Focusing on the processes physical structures enable as central.
Growing Capacity vs. Producing Things
Regenerative projects set place and project specific goals that address all three aspects of
regenerative built environments:
Operational capacity
Organizational capacity
Aspirational capacity
Operational capacity goals: Operational goals focus on systemic functional effectiveness in
growing the potential of the underlying resource base—energy, materials and support systems,
that enable the evolution of life in a place. Regenerative projects set goals for ensuring that the
energies and nutrients flowing through it are used and invested optimally to grow the health of
the system and all the life it supports.
Organizational capacity goals: Organizational capacity focuses on “who” a place is, and
addresses two dimensions—what is core to how this place works as a living system (what we can
“mess” with and what we can’t), and what is the core qualitative character (its essence or
distinctiveness) or nature that humans can connect to at a heart level. Goals for this aspect deal
with how to utilize the built environment and the design process to both illuminate and enhance
the distinctive character of a place as something to be cherished. Historic codes and zones are
often used to this end, but they tend to focus on surface appearance rather than essence, and over
time the code and its restrictions come to take center stage, overshadowing the living core of the
place they intended to protect [22, 61].
Aspirational goals: Growing the systemic regenerative capacity of a place requires an
integration of human aspirations with the distinctive ecosystems of that place and their drive to
evolve their own health and generativity. This means harnessing inherent human creativity and
aligning it with the creativity of nature, and creating opportunities for people to experience
themselves as able to make significant and meaningful contributions to their place [13].
Partnering with Place — A New Role for Humans and Buildings
In an ecological paradigm, sustainability requires a fundamental shift in how humans conceive of
and carry out their role on the planet. In the words of Joshua Ramo, people must "change the
role we imagine for ourselves from architects of a system we can control and manage to
gardeners in a living, shifting ecosystem. For hundreds of years now we have lived in our minds
as builders: constructing everything from nations to bridges…In a revolutionary age, with rapid
change all around us, our architects’ tools are deadly. It is time for us to put them down and
follow (Nobel Laureate Friedrich von) Hayek’s injunction to live and to think as gardeners.”—
gardeners who see themselves as partners in co-evolution with the living system in which they
work, cultivating “growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner a gardener
does for his plants.” [56, 62]
Successful regenerative development ultimately requires all the stakeholders in a place, not just
the development/design team to move from the role of “builder” to “partner-gardener.To this
end, a premise of regenerative development is that “Projects should be vehicles for catalyzing the
cooperative enterprises required to enable evolution.” These cooperative enterprises work to
bring together stakeholders—people and groups with a stake in growing the
potential of their places, around what Stuart Kauffman called “co-evolving mutualism”,
a progressive and mutually beneficial harmonization of human and natural systems [10, 54].
Partnering with place also requires understanding place as a living whole. Regenerative
development starts with a whole systems assessment that looks at a wide range of patterns
covering multiple scales of systems and a number of different facets. The place intelligence it
develops is a resource that can be mined to inform each stage of design to help ensure that the
patterns generated by the project harmonize with the larger patterns of place. To generate the
experience of connection and caring that creates a partnership, an understanding of “who” a
place is as a living being — its distinct spirit and ways of working— is needed in addition to
how it functions. Every living system—whether a person, a tree or a place, has an ongoing and
distinctive core from which it organizes the complex arrays of relationships that produce its
activities, its growth, its evolution. Being able to grasp and share the distinctive core or essence
of a place among and between the design team and local stakeholders provides an enduring basis
for strong partnering relationships, in the same way it builds strong human partnerships.
! Regeneration is A New Way Of Thinking:
“Learning how to apply a regenerative approach begins not with a change of techniques but
rather with a change of mind—a new way of thinking about how we plan, design, construct,
and operate our built environment.” [32]
Growing stakeholders and designing and constructing projects that can work as “place
gardeners” requires bringing and developing whole systems thinking that is capable of
comprehending, ordering and organizing the systemic complexity and dynamism of a living
place and its multiple scales of nested systems, interactions of multidisciplinary teams over
extended periods, and extensive local stakeholder participation [17, 18, 22]. This nature of
systems thinking is characterized by:
Being grounded in ecoliteracy and pattern literacy. Ecoliteracy applies an understanding
the fundamental principles that govern how living systems work to specific situations and
conditions. Pattern literacy involves being able to read, understand and generate
appropriate patterns that harmonize with and enable a place and its inhabitants to more
fully realize what they can be [58].
Requiring the practitioner to see what they are working on as a system of energies or life
processes, rather than as things— to illuminate the reach toward being more whole and
alive, a state inherent in living systems that is the fuel for regeneration [33, 64].
Enabling a diversity of participants to grow their own systems thinking capacity in order
to take on more challenging, value-adding roles [10, 23, 64].
! Regeneration is A new way of working:
Regenerative development and design does not end with the delivery of the final
drawings and approvals, or even with build out of a project. The responsibility of a
regenerative designer includes putting in place during the development and design
process, what is required to ensure the ongoing regenerative capacity of the project, and
the people who inhabit and manage it. Regenerative development employs
Developmental Design Processes that encompass integrative design (integrative and
interdisciplinary beyond traditional building disciplines, open and participatory), and go
beyond to embed self-managed learning processes into the work of conceptualizing,
designing, constructing, managing and evolving regenerative projects [10]. These design
processes integrate the traditional organizing for task accomplishment with the
development of new thinking capacities required to design processes not things, make
ecologically-sound place-appropriate decisions. They create the connection to and
emotional resonance with place that generates the will to follow through on regenerative
development and design decisions.
Progressive Harmonization
The “pole star” or overarching source of direction for regenerative projects derives from the
ultimate effect every regenerative project seeks to achieve: an enduring and mutually beneficial
relationship between the human and natural systems in a particular place. Pattern is the language
of relationship, and regenerative development and design in a living system is a process of
patterning human communities to align with the energetic patterns of a place in a way that both
humans and the place co-evolve. Christopher Alexander was speaking of pattern harmony when
he wrote “When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also
repair the world around it, and within it, so that the large world at that one place becomes more
coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as
you make it.’ [66]. While his initial work focused primarily on the pattern relationship between
a building and the human community and life surrounding, his later work has increasingly
encompassed all living systems. Wendell Berry, in his essay Solving for Pattern, speaks to
creating pattern harmony between human communities and activities and the biosphere they take
place in [67]. “A bad (design) solution is bad”, Wendell Berry notes, “because it acts
destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained… most likely, because it is formed
in ignorance or disregard of them. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those
larger patterns…A bad solution acts within the larger pattern the way a disease or addiction acts
within the body. A good solution acts within the larger pattern the way a healthy organ acts
within the body.” [67]
Pattern harmony however is not a stable state; a good solution today may become a bad one in a
few years, so solving for pattern requires a progressive rather than one-time harmonization, a
continuous re-patterning. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman called this mutually beneficial
relationship “co-evolving mutualism”—co-evolving because it ecosystems are always in the
process of self-organization and reorganization, increasing in complexity, definition and
information content.” [27, 68, 69]
Regenerative Practice Methodologies
Regenesis,collaborative members explored, practiced and evolved a regenerative development
methodology over 20 years of fieldwork. The diagram in Figure 5 was developed as a depiction
of the essential phases and developmental processes that are considered key to a regenerative
practice that creates and sustains an evolutionary spiral, growing systemic capacity as it
actualizes a project [22].
© Regenesis Group
Figure 5
The Three KeyPhases of Regenerative Practice:
Understand the Relationship to Place: Integral Assessment—a whole systems (cultural,
economic, geographic, climatic, and ecological) assessment of site and place as living systems
lays the foundational understanding and thinking required to see how humans can enable the
health and continuing evolution of the place and themselves as a part of it. A Story of Place®!is!
co-developed!with!the!client!and/or!community.!!It!uses the power of story telling to articulate the
essence of a place, how it fits in the world, and what the role of those who inhabit it can be as
collaborators in its evolution (reference).
Design for Harmony with Place: Translate this understanding into design principles and
systemic, integrated plans, designs and construction processes that optimize the presence of
people in a landscape by harmonizing human activities with the larger pattern of place. Buildings
and infrastructure improve land and ecosystems, and the unique attributes of the land improve
the built environment and those who inhabit it. Synergy with the land and ecosystems leverages
the effectiveness of green design features and technologies, and lowers costs while improving
ecosystem health and productivity.
Design for Co-Evolution: In the words of the Urban Sustainability Learning Group
“…sustainability means maintaining the dynamic potential for further evolution. Living systems
survive by maintaining a condition of dynamic equilibrium with the environment through
constant change and adaptation. In the game of evolution, equilibrium is death.” [70] This phase
unfolds during and from the work of the previous two phases. If they have succeeded in creating
a culture of co-evolution in and around the project, and not just a physical product, its effect can
be seen even before final build out. The role of designer becomes one of resource, providing
processes and methods for sustaining the connection to place as a context that enables owners,
managers, contractors, and community stakeholders to recognize and incorporate new social,
economic and ecological opportunities as their place evolves.
The Three Key Development Processes in Regenerative Practices:
Success in the above three steps is determined by how we think, how we identify harmonies and
harmonize the human role, and how we engage stakeholders throughout the planning and
development process. Specifically, through:
Applying whole-systems thinking to the design, planning and decision making processes;
Managing Integration and Harmonization across disciplines, between phases and team
members and local stakeholders;
Growing Stakeholders understanding and appreciation of the place and the new potential
offered, and their capacity to be increasingly effective partners with the system of
evolving life.
Illustrations of Regenerative Practices
The three key phases of Regenerative Practice – understanding the relationship to place,
designing for harmony with place, and designing for co-evolution – capture the richness of the
precedents in regenerative thinking described in this article. The following paragraphs illustrate
regenerative thinking and practice frameworks and methodologies applied within the three
phases, some developed by Regenesis, some drawn from other ecological design systems.
In understanding the relationship to place, the principles from Permaculture and Biomimicry are
helpful in developing specific land use, building and infrastructure design strategies. As a design
system rooted in the ability to discern the patterns that are structuring both natural and human
systems, and to generate new patterns that weave the human and natural together into a dynamic
whole, Permaculture assessment methodologies provide a source for developing holistic site
assessments. Pattern as Process, an article by Regenesis principal Tim Murphy and Vickie
Marvick, provides a detailed description of their method for understanding and interpreting the
patterning of a site and its place [58]. The challenge is to ensure that the scope being assessed is
whole enough to encompass the interweaving of human and natural systems, dynamics and flows
that shape the distinct character of a place (Fig. 6).
Regenesis developed the following framework as a means of illuminating the core patterns
structuring a place as the basis for “mapping” their dynamic and evolving interrelationships.
These patterns include:
The ecological, social and cultural systems creating and managing the conditions that
shape how life expresses itself in a place;
The value adding processes that life engages in within the context of those conditions and
how they influence and are influenced by them; and
The developmental implications and opportunities for how individuals (people and
buildings) can enable the health and continuing evolution of place and themselves -
through how they function, the qualitative state of being they seek and enable, and what
they value and express will toward. (adapted from a framework developed by Charles
Krone as part of his thinking technology [8]).
Capturing the essence understanding that conveys “who” a place is as a living being emerges
from the whole systems assessment. Questions used to reveal the essence include: What is at the
core of a system, around which it is organized? What is the web or larger context of reciprocal
relationships within which it is embedded, since all systems are comprised of smaller systems
and part of larger systems? And what is the potential inherent in a living system, since this is the
fuel for regeneration - the constant reaching toward being more whole, being more alive?
! A simple example of patterns and the essence of a system is offered through a case study
of Mahogany Ridge, Idaho, USA. [65]
A reductionist approach or an approach that abstracts life into a checklist might state that
nothing should be built on existing farmland. This might be a good principle if the agriculture
system was truly symbiotic with nature. In this case, water-intensive monoculture farming had
nearly destroyed three distinct ecological systems, each of which had played an essential role in
shaping the landscape and its potential for life. An integral assessment looked for patterns of life
that had enabled high levels of reciprocal relationship between species and ecological niches,
patterns that had been obscured and disrupted by farming practices but could be regenerated:
The aerial photo in Figure 6 depicts approximately 3,500 acres of current farmland along the
eastern edge of the Big Hole Mountains, just west of the Grand Tetons, that was being considered
for development. Originally, these mountain watercourses and alluvial fan supported beaver,
otter, native cutthroat trout, salmon, turkeys, grouse, and mega-fauna, such as deer, elk, moose,
© Regenesis. Reprinted with permission
Figure 6
and bears. These animals were all responsible for carrying nutrients back upstream into the
mountains to feed the forest and diversify the terrestrial and riparian ecosystem. Pioneers of
European descent arrived in this place 100 years ago and used row-crop agriculture techniques
to farm on this alluvial fan. As a result, ninety percent of the water from the Big Hole Mountains
(in picture) was being used for agricultural purposes (spray irrigation), the salmon were no
longer breeding in the river, the Yellow Tail cutthroat trout were in species decline, the river was
polluted from overloads of nitrogen, and the upstream forests were in decline.
The area farmers were going out of business or bankrupt due to the short growing season. The
farms, in the past, had been used to support local needs. Twenty to forty acre-per-home zoning is
planned as the alternative to large farms.
Looked at closely, this photo in Figure 7 reveals that farming was superimposed on top of this
alluvial fan between the stream in the mountain valley (top center of the photograph) and the
river. The soils mapping indicated in Figure 8 reveals the pattern more clearly.
Before farming took place here, these radiating streams and drainage ways served as additional
corridors of cover for wildlife moving back and forth between the mountains and the river. When
farmers settled the land, they diverted this perennial stream along the highest possible course (in
elevation) to irrigate fields that were gridded over a highly productive and robust prairie
ecosystem. This action severely simplified and destabilized the ecosystem that once was there.
The farming pattern did not preserve the integrity of the ecosystem that contained it; rather, this
larger healthy pattern was obliterated. The ecological function of this alluvial fan, and one of the
core patterns of the ecosystem in this place, is that of a "living bridge" between the mountains to
the west and the Teton River.
The pattern of a living nutrient bridge between the mountains and the valley that had been
revealed in the assessment indicated that a higher level of ecological health could be re-
established in this mountain, alluvial fan, and River system. The development of homes in tight
clusters could be used to pay for the restoration of the stream and habitat corridors that
originally connected the Teton River and the mountains and provide wildlife corridors as well as
many ecosystem services for community residents. To support the reestablishment of wildlife
corridors, native grasses would be planted (minimal turf grass), no fences would be allowed, , as
well as no off-leash dogs to disrupt nesting and the establishment of territory by new wildlife.
Figure 8
Figure 7
By integrating the community into the development and management of these systems, they could
produce food (through diversified agriculture and wild harvesting), timber, and other products,
as well as the development of a diversified economy while insuring the provision of ecosystem
services for their community. The human involvement in these patterns and processes is key to the
ongoing regeneration and development of the potential of the site.
Once the essence understanding of a place is developed as a shared context, designing for
Harmony with Place, engages the principles of biomimicry, permaculture, and an essential living
process framework. The Biomimicry Guild’s Life’s Principles and their Genius of Place program
provide guidance and models for establishing locally attuned strategies for design elements
through studying the adaptation and survival of local species within the conditions of a particular
site and its surroundings ( ). Permaculture principles, which draw
both on an understanding of ecology and of how indigenous people engaged with their place,
also provides a lens for developing design strategies that respond to site conditions and
opportunities in a way that is mutually beneficial.( ; ) Malcolm Wells created an environmental checklist for the evaluation of
design and development solutions that merges sets of outcomes into a unified whole in A
Regeneration-Based Checklist for Design and Construction
The Essential Living Processes framework was developed by Regenesis for setting overarching
project aims, goals and indicators to guide the design and construction process. It is based on the
six critical processes that enable living systems to support the evolution of life. They include the
ability to support the basis for life processes— nourishment, shelter (habitat), and the generation
and exchange of resources for growing and evolving more life. Because humans cannot be
separated from today’s living systems, the factors go beyond material factors that form the outer
landscape of a place. They also include the “inner landscape” that sources our spirit and will and
drives us to cherish and protect the places we inhabit. They include the ability of a living system
to create a sense of identity and foster belonging through its culture, to support meaningful and
contributory lives, and to invoke the spirit and inspiration that sustains caring. The framework
enables setting aims and goals (and later developing indicators and measuring systems) for how
the processes generated by the project support ecological, economic and social health in each of
the six areas. Figure 9 represents the interrelationship of these processes and the need to
integrate and align how they work across ecological, societal, and economic arenas in order to
realize whole-system regenerative effects.
Future Directions
While regenerative development and design still occupy a relatively small niche in the larger
world of sustainability efforts, interest in regenerative approaches to the built environment is on
the rise. Beyond the U.S., growing interest has been particularly marked in Australia and New
Zealand, including a government commissioned research report that recommended the adoption
of regenerative development as a national policy [12].
A number of interrelated factors, working as a system, are creating a favorable climate that is
likely to continue to feed interest in regenerative development and design, including: more
practitioners encountering the limits of green building approaches to address the global crises;
shifting market dynamics and public awareness; the growing influence of the ecological
perspective and the ecosystem concept; the movement toward integrative design with its reliance
on interdisciplinary teams; and the growing recognition of the need for community engagement
and participation to support the behavior changes required for enduring sustainability.
Figure 9
© Regenesis Group Reprinted with Permission
In the 1990s, the most discussed issue for aspiring green designers was how to convince clients
to incorporate sustainability features. By 2010, the discussions increasingly were about how to
meet clients’ demands for making their project “the greenest” of their kind. Over the same
period, appreciation and understanding of ecological sustainability and the ecosystem
perspective as it applies to human settlements and institutions has been significantly reshaping
thinking in such fields as public health, education, economic and community development, and
urban planning, as well as design of the built environment. The core concepts of ecological
sustainability, especially the concept of seeing communities as ecosystems in which nature and
culture, human and natural designed features are interwoven and interdependent, are driving a
move toward increasingly systemic and comprehensive goals. These comprehensive goals are in
turn defining new standards of sustainability. Projects seeking to be “the greenest” now include
social, economic, educational and aesthetic goals as well as goals around energy efficiency and
pollution. More comprehensive goals affecting multiple fields are necessarily stimulating more
integrative and interdisciplinary approaches. They are also adding the need to build community
support and stewardship to the list of essential design issues. The ecological and ecosystem
perspectives are providing a common “language” or set of frameworks across those fields that is
facilitating integrative and participatory approaches across disciplines and between design teams
and the public, and in the process further reinforcing an ecological worldview.
One effect of this system of factors has been the application of explicitly regenerative approaches
across a wider spectrum of fields, and the integration of these fields in regenerative design and
community development. Regenerative development has already begun to shift the old, building-
centric definition of the built environment to include the relationships between and among
buildings, infrastructure, and natural systems, as well as the culture, economy and politics of
communities. The concept of place-sourced design that is core to regenerative development is
providing a means for engaging the will of a community to align human and natural communities
around shared purposes. These shifts are opening up new roles and new challenges for designers.
They are being invited to move “from working on things and structures in isolation from their
context to the design of living systems with built-in evolutionary capacity,to use their design
skills to foster “the inherent creativity of the systems in which they are working” [10] instead of
viewing those systems as a palette for expressing their own creativity.
Regenerative Development makes possible a new and critically needed role for developers and
developments, the full potential of which is still unfolding. In the future, all developments could
be called to serve as instruments for reversing ecological damage, enabling ecological evolution,
and ensuring economic futures for sustainable livelihoods. We are just beginning to see glimpses
of how, through weaving the many stories of place into a mutually appreciative whole, a
Regenerative Development becomes a harmonizing force within communities and among
stakeholders, inspiring new relationships to Place, and offering new patterns for shaping the
fields of development and design.
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Full-text available
Tracks evolution of the sustainable design field and relationship of regenerative design.
Designing for Hope presents a theoretical argument, backed by case studies, for an approach to sustainability in the built environment that is rooted in an ecological worldview and which focuses on regenerating dysfunctional social-ecological systems. It ties together a number of theoretical threads into a coherent framework which places it at the forefront of the emerging discourse of regenerative design and development.
What if environmentally damaged landscapes could not only be remediated from an ecological standpoint, but also designed to replenish an entire community as well as the nature surrounding it? The Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design incorporates ecology, engineering, sociology, and design elements into a new paradigm for environmental restoration and the renewal of urban and cultural sites. This is the first resource in the field to examine the collaborative roles of scientists, landscape architects, and urban planners in transforming degraded landscapes into sustainable communities for both people and wildlife. Top practitioners and theorists from different fields and perspectives contribute innovative case studies that converge in their emphasis on new uses for reclaimed land, rather than a return to its original state. In addition, this book is one in only a handful to address the system conditions necessary for the repair of severely degraded landscapes, especially in an urban context. It elucidates the most suitable remediation strategies for treating degraded environments such as industrial landfills, mining sites, buried urban rivers, heavily polluted or effectively destroyed wetlands, Superfund sites, and abandoned factories. Bringing the perspectives of landscape architects, scientists, and urban planners to a wider audience, the Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design demonstrates how ecological landscape restoration processes can facilitate sociological and urban renewal initiatives.
Now that the Earth has reached the limits of its biophysical carrying capacity, we have to change technologies, social practices and social norms relating to material production and consumption to ensure that we do not further jeopardize the functioning of our planet's life support systems. Through research, education and civic engagement, universities have a pivotal role to play in this transition. This timely book explores how universities are establishing living laboratories for sustainable development, and examines the communication networks and knowledge infrastructures that underpin impact both on and beyond the campus.