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Regenerative design: challenges and solutions of progressing practices

Published on October 03, 2022

In part one of our conversation hosted by Andrew Tempany, Technical Director at Stephenson Halliday, an RSK company, we explored what regenerative design is and how it relates to the wider built environment industry. Here, our panel delves deeper into the challenges of and solutions to progressing regenerative design practices.

What are the challenges with embedding regenerative design into the development process?

Jerry: I think that’s a really good question. We have two projects in our office that are genuinely regenerative design: the Esholt Positive Living project and a large new-build house in Suffolk. Both of these projects have enough land and scope for us to really understand, create and manage the resources on the site as a complex regenerative system.

In city centre projects, like York St John University Creative Centre, it can be more challenging to fully incorporate the complexity of a regenerative system. At the York site, we achieved an excellent balance between embodied and operational energy with a biodiverse landscaped master plan for the Lord Mayor’s Walk campus. So, the building acts as a catalyst for a campus transformation, which benefits the student community and the city of York; therefore, overall, the project is sitting within a regenerative design framework, but the scope of the project alone was not a regenerative system. Do you see what I mean? I think sometimes it’s tough to widen the scope enough within an individual project for it to be genuinely regenerative.

Laurence: I agree. I think that one of the challenges we come up against is that you are often stitching into an existing series of ecological networks and to some extent, community networks. But in essence, if we can create a closed regenerative loop within that site, that’s really positive. But that’s obviously much harder to achieve on a tight city centre development.

I think that the difficulty with doing something like that in a city is that it’s already part of a very complicated series of networks that you are less able to influence. The challenge is actually how do we retrofit our existing cities in order to make them regenerative. When you’re trying to influence existing complex infrastructure, it’s harder to change. Particularly on very small-scale projects, the idea of knitting them into the systems that exist within the city is key. We need to think about how we can adapt existing systems through small changes. And that’s something we find quite difficult when doing work in a city centre – there’s a limit to how much we feel that we can influence things.

Louise: That is such an important point Laurence and much more of a challenge than a textbook example of regenerative design on a greenfield site in a rural location. To be successful, people need to be able to understand how they make steps towards regenerative design, even in a non-perfect setting. I think it also raises some interesting questions that will force us to re-examine how we view property, ownership, rights and public goods.

As a society, we have imposed these boundaries – physical, social, economic, political and legal – that are barriers to nature and natural systems and inhibit the adaptation of this complex infrastructure to a more regenerative future. For example, I’ve just done some work for a local authority on its green infrastructure, but public green spaces make up a tiny amount of the city’s green infrastructure compared to private gardens. So actually, in terms of having a big impact on nature recovery and wildlife in that city, influencing what happens in the network of private gardens is the key to unlocking meaningful progress. But how far do you go in terms of legislating what you can do on private land and changing individuals’ behaviour? How much are the public willing to accept in order to prevent climate breakdown and promote nature recovery?

Josie: The question of scale is important here. Can something scale and if so, how? In terms of the circular economy and dealing with social challenges too, this is always the first question. We’re used, therefore, to thinking about this primarily in terms of scaling up interventions by growing that approach. But actually, that’s really different to the way you see nature solving things. What if we asked instead: what is right for that place and what is right for thinking about the multiple measures of success for a place?

Louise: I think there is always that assumption, and it’s always described as scaling up but actually it’s more about scaling out. You don’t want to go up, it is much more about wanting to spread and become commonplace. The reason the place is how it is, is because of its communities and industries. It always has to be very local – it’s just about remaining rooted in people and places.

Regenerative design being a different way of thinking is key to this: it starts from a different place. There is a danger that people think these examples have already been done under a different name, that it doesn’t feel that fundamentally different. But that’s what I quite like about Jerry’s examples, where you’re talking about that whole cycle in terms of building systems, that feels like it’s not something that’s being done under a different name. Regenerative design really needs to carve out this strong identity with good, clear examples for it to really take hold in people’s consciousness and be adopted more widely.

Cross Section 21-10-14_A-A_Penn_Park

Andrew: Indeed. And I guess there’s a question there about planning too and where designers sit in this process – whether the designer briefing and commissioning processes need a shake-up in terms of influence. Perhaps it’s that designers need to be involved in some of that strategic decision-making before design even happens, and maybe that’s an oversight.

Louise: I think that’s another important point: it isn’t just about those doing this work, it is about the understanding that the whole sector and beyond has about who is doing this work. That’s one of the interesting things about initiatives like biodiversity net gain: I think often people are surprised at the role ecologists might currently have in a design process. I think until now, they’ve often been quite peripheral – their focus is often on data collection, not design. Ecologists should be involved in making those fundamental decisions about the site itself, including the decisions that are happening at early stages when people don’t even realise they’re designing anything! I think that’s quite a big shift for both ecologists and the design process as a whole and it will be interesting to see what effect mandatory biodiversity net gain has.

It’s an interesting question for regenerative design: if you really want to get this embedded in people’s thinking, then who are the key players for getting that process to happen? Architects and landscape architects might have the most ownership of regenerative design currently but are they the ones that can drive it into the mainstream and encourage widespread adoption?

Andrew: Absolutely. That’s an interesting point you raise, Louise, it’s important to consider who has a seat at that table much earlier. I think there’s almost a fundamental rewrite needed in terms of engagement and the work plan stages for landscape architects and architects, because it doesn’t really take into account that it’s a reactive process and by the time these conversations are held, lots of other fundamental decisions have already been made.

To answer your question, I think designers – architects, landscape architects, urban designers – are the people to drive this into the mainstream, as they have the big picture view of where the connections and interrelationships are.

Jerry: There’s an additional point here, that if we’re expecting regenerative design, we need to have somebody in charge of something bigger than the scale of a building.

In terms of the structure, or kind of development, we find that when a landowner has a long-term stake in the land, they also have an interest in the long-term value of their land. There’s a pattern here about how everyone we’ve successfully worked with on regenerative design has that kind of investment mindset. National housebuilders are often not structured to promote this long-term interest in the land value and the creation of communities, whereas those long-term stakeholders are.

What is your key action to progress regenerative design towards building the cities we need now and to plan today for the cities we need tomorrow?

Louise: I think one of the big challenges is that the concept isn’t out there and known enough to communicate how it works and have examples that really capture the imagination.

 Josie: As we’ve been saying, raising this conversation and asking these questions, I think that feels really important. You can’t guarantee that the developer you’re working with is going to want to go down this route, but you can ask a question that might provoke them to think differently, even if it doesn’t change their direction straight away.

Louise: I think it’s always good to question why things have been done and why they have been done the way they have, because I think so much is just because that’s the way it’s always been. We should also question why we need those things in the first place and take a fresh look.

Andrew: For me, it’s recognising the mistakes that were made in the past and seeking to not replicate them and taking a different path to get away from business as usual. If we’re going to realise regenerative and resilient features, we need design champions and good design in its broadest sense that solves people’s problems and fulfils their needs, as well as planetary problems and needs.

These ideas also lead me to think about community and stakeholder engagement and the most effective ways of bringing people along with you in the regenerative design journey.

Jerry: I think it’s really that we have dual problems. We find we’re working and engaging with communities that can be resistant to change; and then an equally difficult problem, which is essentially that you are creating a community that doesn’t exist yet.

We have been involved with survey work asking people: Do you like where you live and what do you like about it? In terms of feedback, people consistently say green space, meeting neighbours, an allotment nearby: lots of things that absolutely you’d think are good for quality of life, but also cost money.

Josie: It does require spending a lot of time at the beginning with the stakeholders and really building relationships – getting them to really interrogate what they’re wanting.

Louise: There’s a funny tension in the process of asking people what they want and what positive impacts they’d like to see – in my experience with the public, it’s very hard for people to even comment on these things because they are so strategic that they don’t feel relevant to their lives. You also can’t assume that they have full knowledge about the possibilities out there, as they are constrained by their experiences and current structure and barriers. So, it’s actually really hard to get anyone to have any meaningful input into these things, because it often feels very distant to them.

So, there’s another problem with how we effectively engage people at a scale that is meaningful. It’s very easy to get people to comment on potholes or the state of park railings, but it’s much harder to get communities to engage with more strategic planning. Another element of this, and I think what regenerative design needs, is the promise that it connects people better within that locality.

 Josie: It comes back again to that sense of design as not just designing the infrastructure but also designing the bits in between – designing to support those relationships to grow and build over time. We can’t assume those things happen without support and without resource, especially in the early stages.

Jerry: For me, from a global and local community perspective, one of the potential advantages of regenerative design is it goes beyond sustainable. Regenerative design is about creating something better – better housing, better connection to nature and a better community experience. If you take a holistic view in which everything is going to be better, then that’s suddenly much more of a positive story than simply saying to communities you’re going to have a little bit less.

Laurence: There’s also something very uplifting and positive about engaging with the local community, like at Esholt. We went to many consultation meetings, and they were so pleased to hear that we really wanted to do something that was genuinely positive. They were so used to people not thinking about how that site could be improved. We took the approach of: How can we actually do something that improves not just the site, but also the areas around it as well?



Andrew: I completely agree. I think regenerative design really is a good news story in terms of the outcomes that it can achieve for communities. It’s all about the way people in communities live and their modes of living. And there’s something that you all say there around engagement. I think there’s a thing about openness and asking the right sort of questions and doing it at the right time. I guess that regenerative design strikes me as being an awful lot more user-friendly as an idea or a design approach and being about confronting limitations and setting the bar higher to aim for something so much more positive.

Part one of Andrew’s conversation with Louise, Josie, Jerry and Laurence is available to read here.


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