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Regenerative design: A framework for inclusive and equitable futures

Published on September 26, 2022

RSK’s Cities of Tomorrow series explores the regenerative and sustainable solutions available to us to create resilient and future proof urban centres and the ways in which our family of businesses is responding to these needs. City infrastructure and urban environments are the cornerstone of our global society and sit at the forefront of efforts to mitigate and adapt to the climate emergency.

In February this year, we brought together experts from across the architecture, masterplanning and development space to discuss the concept of regenerative design and why it will prove pivotal in building a resilient future. In this first article of the series, our panel has reconvened to explore what role regenerative design plays in forming a framework for our cities of tomorrow. The conversation was hosted by Andrew Tempany, Technical Director at Stephenson Halliday, an RSK company.

Let’s start with an introduction from our speakers.

Andrew Tempany: I’m Andrew Tempany and I’m a technical director at Stephenson Halliday, an RSK company. I’ve been a landscape architect for about 20 years now and my background is in green infrastructure and climate change strategies. I’ve recently branched out into nature recovery, nature-based solutions and systems-based design approaches, which is where my interest in regenerative design came from.

Louise Tricklebank: My name’s Louise Tricklebank and I’m an independent environmental planning consultant with over 20 years’ experience of working across the UK and internationally in the environment and development aid sectors. I specialise in environmental policy, strategy and evaluation, with a particular focus on ecosystem services and nature-based solutions and embedding these concepts into the planning and development process.

Josie Warden: I’m Josie Warden. I work at the RSA, which is a social change charity interested in how we shape the world for the better. My background is in design originally, but I’ve been working in sustainability and the circular economy for the last decade. At the RSA, we’re really interested in exploring the interplay of social, environmental and economic challenges, and that’s how our interest in regenerative design has developed – as a way to work with these connections.

Jerry Tate: I’m Jerry Tate from Tate + Co architects. I’m one of three directors here, along with Laurence, who’s also with us today. We started off as quite a specialist company in terms of a sustainability focus, with a client base of organisations such as the Eden Project and the National Trust. Our work is in education, hotels and the residential sector, and over time, we have started doing quite large commercial residential master plans and larger developments for bodies such as Yorkshire Water and the Church Commissioners.

Laurence Pinn: I’m Laurence Pinn and I’m one of the directors at Tate + Co architects. I’ve been with Tate + Co for about ten years. My first project here was building the high level walkways through the rainforest at the Eden Project – so an initial baptism of fire! We work on projects to transform sites into positive community settings and improve them in an ecological sense.

What do we mean when we talk about regenerative design?

Louise: What strikes me is that, outside the built environment sector, not much is known about regenerative design. The concept of regenerative agriculture has broken through to become fairly mainstream, but actually, regenerative design doesn’t feel like it’s crept onto people’s radars yet. It’s interesting, because actually, people are talking about a lot of the components, but it hasn’t yet moved out of the realm of architects and landscape architects and into the wider environment sector.

Josie: I’m seeing regenerative design as an approach that has the ambition of ensuring that life can thrive for the long term. I think there are some quite different central principles to it that stem from recognising that the world is made up of interconnections and relationships that are always changing and evolving. In current notions of sustainable or ‘eco’ design, there is a focus on “how do we do less harm?”, whereas regenerative design starts from a different question: “How do we, as humans and part of life, contribute to doing better, to replenishing and regenerating the potential for life to continue and evolve on our planet”.

 

Louise: I completely agree Josie, I think that is such an important point about regenerative design starting in a different place. I think even a lot of the newer concepts and emerging policy surrounding sustainability and the environment are still focused on trying to solve one problem, for example, using sustainable materials or reducing energy use, instead of looking holistically and coming at things from a different direction. Even things such as biodiversity net gain may just result in people trying to increase biodiversity while carrying on business as usual. There is an important spatial aspect here related to environmental and social justice: is it that laudable to increase biodiversity on your site while using building materials that destroy habitats in another part of the world?

Laurence: That’s an interesting idea. One of the things that I was thinking about when you asked us to come and talk to you was: in what way is regenerative design maybe different to sustainable design? I think of sustainable design as creating the built environment in a way that doesn’t do additional harm to the environment, or that doesn’t compromise it for future generations. But the difference with regenerative design is that you are actually trying to restore or create a better future for generations and not just for humans, but also for the rest of the planet.

regen-design-graph

 

Andrew: It is much more about going beyond sustainable design, which is often just about mitigation and trying to maintain the status quo – you’re right Laurence that going one step further or several steps further is really important here.

Josie: Exactly. In some ways, it feels very obvious. But actually, when it comes down to the practicalities of day-to-day design, the questions you ask, the way you work with communities or other designers, it is actually very different.

Jerry: It’s one step further and then of course the question is, as Josie says, how the hell do you do that kind of thing? I mean, I think that our experience so far of practising regenerative design is that this stuff is hard and you’re slightly going against the grain. In our experience of trying to do regenerative design at Tate + Co, we find it’s multifaceted, because what you’re really talking about is creating a systems-based approach to the building and site, then trying to look at the resources you’ve got available and looking to, in basic terms, create the most closed loop you can that in turn increases everything on the site. What you’re trying to do is make everything better in the long term on the site now: I think that’s super tough.

The primary challenge is measuring the resources on the site and certainly in our experience, when we did the master plan for Esholt, the majority of the time was taken up understanding what resources were available, because actually understanding precisely what we had and how to make it better was hard. But we also found small actions make a massive impact. So, for example, we opened up some of the public footpaths and all of a sudden, we had a kind of network through the town.

Laurence: One of the drivers for the Esholt scheme was integrating a new rail link and train station that went in just over five years ago. However, it was very difficult to get from the railway station to the site. So, just by changing a fence, putting a gate in that fence and one small connecting bit of footpath, it meant that actually everyone who lived in the village next door could now walk to that train station in ten minutes, rather than having to drive a huge loop to get to the car park. That small change made a big difference, not just to our project, but also the project next door and it made a big difference to the community.

Andrew: I guess it’s recognising that everything’s connected or where things are interconnected, joining those gaps. Where a seemingly small intervention can make a big difference or be strategic.

Riomaggiore Cinque Terre Andrew Tempany
Riomaggiore Cinque Terre

Traditional design approaches are often very siloed. With regenerative design, it’s about trying to take a step away from that narrow lens and see how everything’s interconnected and taking this bigger picture view, which is very different and needs a whole different mindset. Building on Josie’s ideas, a lot of the stuff that is done today around so-called sustainable design is about no-net-loss or it’s about mitigating adverse effects. But this is really about trying to get a true connection with natural and planetary systems, and I guess connections between people and places.

Louise: I think if you look at things like environmental net gain, which is in the 25 Year Environment Plan, it still feels like it’s tacking things on – it’s not the starting point. If you’re starting from a regenerative design point of view, principles like environmental net gain should be embedded from the start – that’s the difference, it’s inherent in everything you do.

Josie: How things relate to one another feels really important here because you’re saying, at the moment, that things are quite siloed, and we try to tackle these challenges individually, but actually it’s those interconnections between them that are really important. Learning from nature is really central to that regenerative approach.

Andrew: I absolutely agree. It comes back to the concept of place. The whole reason why we selected where our cities and towns are located was always to do with natural resources, Cinque Terre in Italy is a good example. But historically, city developments have often ignored those natural systems and regenerative design comes back to this idea of how you restructure cities so that they’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Louise: I agree Andrew, the idea of place needs updating to tie into our current socio-economic and political systems. Too much thinking about the impact of development is confined to the site, rather than the impact that is being felt where the materials come from, where waste goes to and how it changes the way people (and wildlife) live, work and interact, often far beyond the site boundaries.

Andrew: Exactly – it comes back to siloed thinking again, and the business-as-usual approach, which is often based on half-informed decisions and keeping things in their boxes. Regenerative design is the perfect challenge to that kind of entrenched thinking.

How does regenerative design link to key policy drivers and practices within the built environment context?

Andrew: This is such a huge area: regenerative design can perhaps be a spatial vehicle by which we could achieve things like biodiversity net gain or it could be about contributing to equity, particularly so with all the challenges that COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus. But the very thing of equality, of access to green space and the natural environment – all those things are critical to our wellbeing in cities – means regenerative design can link really well to the mental and physical health and wellbeing agenda too.

Louise: I guess the trouble at the moment is there’s just a lot going on. There’s a lot of change and new policy that we’re waiting for, which is creating uncertainty about what the new policy landscape will look like and what this means for some of the concepts that have been embedded over the last 10 to 15 years. For example, how do multifunctional ecosystem services sit alongside biodiversity net gain and how broad a definition of nature will become the norm? This new focus on nature is such a positive step and so needed, but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of other ecosystem services. It will be interesting to see whether more holistic thinking falls out of fashion a bit or whether a focus on nature leads to interest and pressure for change related to the environment and even society more broadly. This may have significant implications for how much regenerative design takes off as an idea.

Andrew: Following on from that, there’s a strong idea of regenerative design being a very socially useful thing and a question as to whether it could play a role in the wider levelling up agenda and around delivering on the UN Sustainable Development Goals as part of the wider global picture.

Jerry: I think that the sustainability targets in this country are going to be inevitably overridden by carbon. Regenerative design and creating low operational- and embodied-carbon buildings go hand in hand. But actually, I think the low-carbon agenda sits within regenerative design as opposed to the other way around, it’s a subset of it.

Laurence: It’s very important to set up a sophisticated approach to delivering across a whole series of different sustainability criteria and making sure that you’re producing a building or a master plan that meets a lot of those. But I think that it’s equally key that really good urban design, and really good design generally, is knitted in from the outset, so that you don’t end up with a situation where you’ve got a master plan that technically meets all of these criteria, but actually no one wants to live there. I think that the successful schemes you see are actually ones where they consider design from the outset alongside other objectives.

Andrew: Definitely. And it’s much more about these context-led approaches that are also people- and place-led, considering how people will eventually benefit from and enjoy your projects, think about them and feel about them.

Andrew, Louise, Josie, Jerry and Laurence will be further discussing regenerative design processes, the challenges of integrating these ideas and key actions to bring about change in part two of our conversation.

 

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ARTICLE AUTHOR

Andrew Tempany

Technical Director, Stephenson Halliday

More from this author

Andrew is a Chartered Landscape Architect and technical director at Stephenson Halliday, with over 21 years of experience in providing planning, design and management services across a wide array of landscape projects at all scales. He has worked across the UK and in Ireland on a wide variety of landscape projects.

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