This past year has been one of deep transformation, as we continue to live through one of the most influential events in human history. Amid the global pandemic, the social and racial inequality gap continues to widen. And the world’s urban population is playing a game of chicken with our environment and global economy; by 2050, more than 6.6 billion people, or 68% of the population, will live in cities.
Whether threat of pandemic, sea level rise or a myriad of other challenges, cities face major disruptions. How do we build back more sustainably, more equitably and more inclusively so that all of humanity can thrive while in balance with nature?
Enter regenerative placemaking: the concept of a co-designed framework to innovate the built environment and redefine urban living and development, which can be open-sourced and shared with the world to provide best practices and demonstrative projects. City planners, developers and communities need tools to create places that support the future of cities – places designed for living, working, creating and contributing, combined with strategies that incorporate nature integration and the non-human aspects of life critical to all local ecosystems.
A New Paradigm
Defined as a strategic process of reigniting people’s relationship to socio-ecological systems through place-specific activations, regenerative placemaking harnesses the key strengths of regenerative development and placemaking practices.
The merging of these two practices delivers places designed for both humans and non-humans, shifting city-making from a largely anthropocentric practice to one aligned with living systems, by which people are empowered as cultural and environmental stewards.
The result is the creation of a way to interact with a geographical location that enables continual adaptation, health and wellbeing. The aim is not to create utopia, but a realistic way to engage with the problems and potentials of a place and all its complexities.
The city of Auckland has been a leading example of how the embrace of these ideals can be leveraged and put into practice. Over the past twenty years, the city has transformed itself from declining to thriving, earning recognition as the world’s most liveable city. Auckland achieved this in part by reconnecting to its natural systems – rebuilding a plaza over the water, for example, designed to better withstand earthquakes and foster the local mussel habitat to help clean the water, and redeveloping the waterfront as an “anchor playground” to serve community and youth rather than solely commerce. The city also engaged with stakeholders at every level of the community and adopted a transdisciplinary governance structure, including and prioritizing Indigenous perspectives and leaders in planning. Auckland’s transformation has demonstrated what can come from a citywide commitment to the principles of regenerative placemaking.
Components of Regenerative Placemaking
While its effects on populations and economies has been severe, what the pandemic has also showed, particularly during lockdowns, is how changes in urban living can drastically influence our environment. From better air quality to cleaner waterways to decreased greenhouse gas emissions, the global population can slow negative climate impacts – this action just needs to be sustained.
To start creating regenerative placemaking demonstrative projects, what is needed is a process to guide design and development, and to enable planners to learn, understand and grow. Key components in moving regenerative placemaking forward include:
- Living systems thinking, employed as a way of understanding the socio-ecological aspects of place and what can be learned from nature to support abundant life.
- Rigorous and inclusive community engagement to gather the essence of place, identify values and needs, and deliver an ongoing strategy for engagement at self, group and system actualization levels.
- Transdisciplinary research and education, acting as a vehicle for knowledge exchange.
- Ecological aesthetic (i.e., biophilia, the physical and mental wellbeing that comes with being connected to nature) and sustainability practices, assisting people to visualize a healthier living environment.
- Community interventions like pop-up parks or festivals, as a way of trialing programming and design ideas for long-term projects and planning initiatives.
Measuring and Refining Success
Measuring the success of a regenerative placemaking project should be a developmental process, not an aim to “score” an effort. Planners should be evolving and adapting system measures that can change over time in negotiation with stakeholders.
Measurement also needs to focus on what brings life and uniqueness to place. To compare this to human health, we can do a standard assessment of heart rate and blood pressure to understand a person’s physical health, but that isn’t necessarily an indication they are thriving. Similarly, measurements of a thriving city must also consider elements unique to that city, and these change over time.
However, while the measures and benchmarks may shift, the objective does not. Regenerative placemaking is about contributing to improved social, ecological and economic outcomes. This means looking at the richness of the relationships – individual, community, built and natural environment – contributing to these outcomes. For example, water flowing through a community is not a benefit unless it is contributing positively to the wellbeing of the place, its vitality and viability. Similarly, money flowing through a place is only beneficial if it is serving the area and everyone in it.
To implement regenerative placemaking principles, a sea change is required in how developers and city planners approach projects and their regulation. From the scaling of environmental, social and governance standards and creating incentives for sustainable development, to further enhancing opportunity zone frameworks and shifting investor mindsets to focus on triple bottom-line returns, these adaptations are vital and achievable.
It is the responsibility of those with the ability to influence change to make it happen, and for stakeholders and communities to help co-create better, self-sustaining cities.
Dominique Hes is the Chair of Greenfleet, Zero Carbon Buildings Lead for the City of Melbourne, an award-winning author, and holds a PhD in Architecture from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Botany and Cleaner Production degrees from Melbourne University.
Tony Cho is a real estate pioneer, impact entrepreneur and founder of the Future of Cities.