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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 centers 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 the outside helps hospital patients 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, creating urban spaces and environments that blend perfectly with nature. It goes beyond sustainability. The focus is on renewal, restoration, and growth — to maximize positive ecological and community outcomes, rather than do less harm.

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 coexist with thriving communities. Effectively calculating and monetizing the positive outcomes from regenerative projects, and demonstrating that they deliver value for money will ensure that 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 outside 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 more to nature 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 gray 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 evolve over time 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. By adopting systems thinking and seamless collaboration between all stakeholders, we 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 maximize the positive outcomes — in terms of health, jobs, nature, etc. — from the start. 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. 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. 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.

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

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