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Great powers of regeneration

Regenerative and biophilic design can help us reconnect with nature and benefit from its powers, says Amanda Sturgeon.

Nature is all around us is a common saying. But sometimes, you must look hard to find it. More and more of us live in towns and cities and our streets and urban centres are often devoid of nature, and short on biodiversity. Lots of us spend most of our time indoors. Yet, we know that exposure to nature is good for our health – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Studies show that spending time in nature boosts employee productivity and is good for students’ learning, while a view of outside helps patients in hospital to recover more quickly and require less medication. Studies also show that humans have an innate attraction to nature and will spend time there – and return repeatedly – if it is accessible and safe. That’s good for local businesses and for jobs.

Rethinking our towns and cities

Rethinking our towns and cities

So, what if we made our towns and cities greener and brought the outside world inside?

Regenerative and biophilic design seeks to do just that and create urban spaces and environments that blend perfectly with nature. It goes beyond sustainability. The focus is on renewal, restoration and growth – to maximise positive ecological and community outcomes, rather than do less bad.

It requires a different mindset, with investors, designers, developers, engineers and contractors collaborating to deliver buildings and infrastructure that create thriving, biodiverse and vital ecosystems that co-exist with thriving communities. Effectively calculating and monetising the positive outcomes from regenerative projects, and demonstrating they deliver value-for-money will ensure local planning authorities and communities support their development.

To really reconnect people and nature we need to do more than add a few plants and the odd green wall. Deliberately rewilding urban areas, even the smallest, leftover spaces and on and inside buildings, will create habitats that will increase biodiversity, regenerate native species, and provide thriving places for communities. Vegetation – diverse and selected for its ability to sequester carbon, provide natural cooling and purify the air – will add greatly to tackling climate change and improving health.

We should look to nature more for solutions. Nature knows how to manage flooding, for example, and nature-based solutions are often cheaper, easier to maintain and more adaptable than many of our conventionally engineered systems. Green, blue and living infrastructure can complement or replace grey infrastructure to increase resilience.

Systems thinking

Systems thinking

Regenerative practices require a systems orientation, so we create places and communities that maintain a balance between different environments, and which over time evolve to improve their health and vitality.

Like natural ecosystems, buildings should be able to adapt through their life to changing social needs and circumstances.

This requires local knowledge and local decision-making, and multidisciplinary teams to develop a thorough understanding of the human aspirations for a project and the unique ecosystems, character, culture and conditions of its location. And, by adopting systems thinking and seamless collaboration between all stakeholders, they can create symbiotic benefits between biodiversity, climate resilience, social inclusion and economic strength – and deliver value-for-money.

Systems thinking will ensure that multiple long-term benefits are factored into the design and development process to maximise the positive outcomes – in terms of health, jobs, nature etc – from the start and investment decisions are not based solely on capital cost or short-term payback.

Shared benefits

Shared benefits

Adopting regenerative design standards could not come too soon. Globally, we overuse our natural resources.

Soil is degrading and, by 2050, 75% of productive land per person could be lost. Air quality is worsening in many places and our cities are getting hotter. Wildlife populations have declined by 60% since 1970, and fragile ecosystems are collapsing.

COVID-19 is a stark reminder that society is vulnerable to infectious diseases and as we further encroach on nature similar zoonotic diseases are more likely to emerge.

We need to understand that if we damage nature, we harm ourselves. Likewise, if we pursue regenerative development and restore and replenish our natural systems, people, communities and society will share in the benefits – and thrive too.

      Amanda Sturgeon is regenerative design and climate change practice lead at Mott MacDonald

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