Planning for Regenerative Communities Requires New Premises

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teachingteachersWhile we are hearing more and more about regenerative design, less attention has been paid to how community planning must shift.  Traditionally, community planning efforts have been organized around managing different societal functions—job creation, transportation, housing, habitat protection, etc. as a way of creating economic development, environmental protection or community revitalization. They have largely been conducted as if these facets of life were unrelated to each other.  Where more than one facet has been considered, the goals that were not the primary driver have normally been treated as background constraints, e.g., to advance economic development with minimum harm to the environment. The push to create “sustainable cities” has added goals around carbon emissions and energy efficiency without changing this pattern–a pattern that presents serious barriers to community sustainability, let alone regeneration.

There is growing evidence that this fragmented approach to planning is failing. Urban centers are feeling overwhelmed by the mounting economic, environmental and social costs resulting from their inability to manage growth in a way that benefits the community and its natural environment. Purely regulatory approaches run into buzz saws of opposition, creating divisiveness and ultimately a failure of political will. Community visioning processes bring different interests together but, by themselves, fail to translate the resultant lists of desired values and qualities into sustainable, coherent policies and actions. Even more daunting is the task of developing sufficient understanding of the intricately interleaved relationships of the natural and man-made systems of a place. Lack of this understanding, which is needed to be able to accurately track and anticipate the potential ecological impacts of constantly changing human activities, has generated many well-intentioned policies that produced the opposite of their desired effect.

As the pace and scale of change increases and our communities grow in scale and complexity, the ramifications of the issues planners are dealing with are growing accordingly, and the need to find a better approach is becoming increasingly urgent. Simply tinkering with the old approach has proven inadequate, primarily because it is being done, to paraphrase Alfred Einstein, by the same mind that created the problems in the first place. A new approach will require a new mind—i.e., a new way of thinking about the question based on a profoundly different set of premises than those that engendered and shaped traditional approaches.  Core to this new mind is seeing the world as alive, where life works through networks of nested living systems.

Working from a living systems perspective shifts attention from simply solving today’s problems to working to realize the upper limits of creative potential a healthy system is capable of manifesting—i.e. toward the creation of regenerative communities. This focus builds from an understanding of the unique nature of a community and of the inter-reliance of human and natural systems that create that uniqueness. It awakens a deep and caring sense of place and thus becomes the source of a new community spirit that reconciles longstanding deep divisions as people work together toward increasing vitality, viability and capacity for evolution of the whole.

Such planning is organized from fundamentally different premises, among them:

  1. The purpose of regenerative planning is ultimately to guide the evolution of the whole of a system toward its highest creative and productive potential based on its unique nature and capacities. Planning solutions are thus measured by their impact on the health of the whole, which is defined by its improving vitality, viability and capacity for evolution, not just by their problem solving effectiveness.
  2. Understanding of the uniqueness of a place and its value, and what created and continues to create that uniqueness, is the fundamental basis for all regenerative planning. The urban and cultural environment we call a community is a living system that is a composite of many complex, dynamic cultural and natural systems that form a web of mutual support. This web of systems defines a place and gives it its unique identity. In order to address issues of long term quality of life in any community or place, it is necessary to gain an understanding of the influences that have shaped and continue to shape that place through these systems. The recognition that cultural systems and natural systems are interdependent is fundamental to this understanding.  Further, the health of cultural systems is ultimately dependent on the health of natural systems. To plan successfully for sustained livability and an overall improvement of our quality of life, it is necessary to understand and address the interrelationship between these systems at a local level.
  3. Regenerative planning, in order to sustain itself through time and realize its full potential, must include as one of its primary goals the use of the planning process as a vehicle for building the capacity for systems thinking among all members of the community.
  4. Regenerative planning must be organized around all four of the levels of potential described below, with the upper levels providing the guidance for work at the lower levels:
  • Awakening across the community a deep sense of caring about the evolution of the unique place it inhabits. This creates the basis for regenerating the spirit and creative potential of the system as a whole and of all its members,  evoking the public and private will that is necessary to sustain any evolution.
  • Identifying the system leverage points that are critical to that evolution, and developing appropriate interventions that stimulate the system’s innate capacity for improving the health of the whole.
  • Using the knowledge of how the web of relationships affect the operations of the different elements of the system to amplify the effectiveness of each planning intervention.
  • Developing a process for mapping systemic interactions that builds a knowledge base that can used to model intervention scenarios as well as track how the system operates and responds to actual interventions. (When an attempt is made to adjust one element in any one constituent system all other systems are potentially affected, as is the health of the whole.)

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