Designing and Creating Regenerative Space (and why we must!)
Updated: Feb 11, 2020
Whether developer, designer, urban planner or not, we are all users of space, and the space we inhabit has huge impact on our collective wellbeing.
At its best regenerative space has the capacity to bring out the brilliance, generosity and creativity of everyone that uses it. At its worst space can, intentionally or inadvertently, become a polarising and detrimental force upon us.
The definition and design of regenerative space is a multifaceted task, but I conclude in advance here that its core must hold the highest level of inclusion and equality.
But before we can move on to equality and some of the fractals that inhabit regenerative space.
Let's look at the bottom line:
Nature - Wild
Space (life) cannot be regenerative, sustainable, healthy, inspiring or even pleasant if natural elements are not preserved or recreated and now, since we realised we need biodiversity and wild areas to survive as a species, we learned that large parts of all new space (public or private) must be left for trees, (and not in the solitary confinement of isolated buckets but with with interconnecting root systems!)
- We know that biodiversity depends upon a network of linked green areas that can provide a habitat for the ecosystem, this network provides eco-stepping stones within both urban and rural areas allowing species to connect, hunt, breed and migrate.
- We know that harmful practices, from the use of pesticides to the paving of all available land is rapidly ruining our potential for survival as a species.
- We know that nature isn't a commodity or a resource, it is an integral part of us and we are an integral part of it, we are one and the way forward in life upon this planet depends upon our unity with the nature. And that means designating parts of our cities, our gardens and our spirits to being wild.
Read this about creating a nature ark or this to learn about urban rewilding and this.
Nature - Food and Circularity
On a practical level we gotta eat. Yet our sustenance is served up and disposed of in linear fashion, same goes for everything else that we consume and service that is provided from clothes and technology to health and education.
A simple yet radical starting point is to introduce urban food gardens and composting as a core component to regenerative spatial design. For the urban dweller seeing and being actively involved in the food source, production and waste circle can be critical in both embodiment and cognitive dot joining.
Having spent centuries seeing nature as the provider that can be bent at our will we need now to take into account the wider impact of our meddling. When we create any scale project we must consider the wider context, meaning such aspects as the upstream and downstream effects of our projects in the locality and the larger bioregion. Each project will have its own dynamic but a firm grasp on the concept of circularity is important, so for example, at the domestic scale composting, grey water reuse, and rainwater collection are beneficial, and, for a city you'd need to upscale to a municipality compost collection system and a deep delve into the intricacies of and impact upon the watershed.
Nature - Wellbeing
Natural areas, parks, urban woodlands, roof top gardens and even wide verges are all key components to the physical and mental wellbeing of the town inhabitants. There is much research proving the positive impact upon our wellbeing through contact with nature (here is one article about it) (and another). There is a huge difference though between manicured nature in landscaped gardens and the effect of a wilder experience that can be lived in a less manhandled space. In many Indigenous cultures, time spent alone in nature provides rite of passage, a ritual that the youth today could experience if they were afforded the magic and intimacy of a connection with nature. The First Nation people have their version of Vision Quest and the Australian Aboriginals have Walkabout. Those of us without that time in the wilderness are finding it harder and harder to root ourselves in time and place, live meaningfully and to manage life's pressures.
Yet solutions in isolation are not enough:
It will not suffice to simply incorporate nature into our schemes if we hope to create the kind of space that we and the planet needs now. If we are to become present and future fit then acknowledging the participatory relationship* between place and people is core. Creating the best-possible 'place' from which we can emerge as our best-possible manifestation requires that we step away from reductionism and isolated design solutions. Even the best intended design and implementation can be compared to a doctor treating a broken leg while ignoring the cancer if a whole systems approach isn't adopted.
In practical design how can we integrate all the core components? What does holistic design look like on a drawing board or around a meeting table? As designers we know how to integrate whole systems thinking into our work, but this is beyond function, footfall and ergonomics, we are addressing the deeper psychological needs of a regenerative culture that, as yet, does not exist.
Biomimicry is one place to look to restore or create balance and harmony into our lives and the places that we live them.
“When we look at what is truly sustainable, the only real model that has worked over long periods of time is the natural world.”
Janine Benyus / Co-founder, The Biomimicry Institute "We can create conditions conducive to life, just like nature does." But where do we start? How do we solve all the design conundrums and how do we interpret the philosophy of rewilding and nature into dense urban space? As the leader of a design team in some capacity or another how do we proceed?
I'd like to suggest that there is a simple place to start:
Don't scroll away, it may seem overly simplistic to state that the axis of regenerative design is gender equality. Yet this is the point where pencil must first meet paper in this process.
Here are some of the reasons:
- Gender equality means Justice for everyone. Justice cannot be the right of some and kept from others.
- Gender Equality means collaboration and partnership (instead of power struggle) and it is the backbone of equity for all.
- The repression of free creative feminine** energy in the public space and every arena of human life is the most elementary cause of social discord and the strife of our species. (This is my opinion, disprove if you can)
- When a place holds space for everyone, when everyone can walk free, safe and positive the space itself provides a positive feedback into the fabric of society.
- Nature (the nature in us and around us) is balanced when the female energy is brought into space in both the practical design way but also in the way that we live that space. Nature requires of us that we design and live through a process of sensing and creating from the heart; the feminine energy facilitates that.
- If our mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and the vulnerable are not free and safe in a space then the best architects and developers and planners have failed again, even the best gardens and woodland in that space can't balance the problem.
If this continues to seem overtly simplistic let's look at what went wrong so far:
Hitherto we have lived in a 'masculine' world,** yet "Patriarchy in city planning is not just a failure of society – it is a failure of the imagination." (read here for quote source and more examples of what that means)
How do we know masculine design has failed?
We have so many ways of answering that. Everything from inner city violence, abuse, addiction, depression, suicides, poverty, inequality, pollution and the deluge of ecological problems that we find ourselves under or shortly to be submerged in. All this was designed and implemented with men at the drawing board. Men did the feasibility studies and the finance reports, they do the engineering and the maintenance. In the nature of my paragraph below regarding 'gratitude' and in the nature of the active feminine as a woman who is the daughter of a father, mother of a son and the lover of a man; I don't blame or hold a grudge, as a society we must hold up a mirror to our collective strife and as woman I can also see how this masculine design stance has been enabled at times by women and neither served the men that were behind it or those that live it. The strife was not a result that was intended. Asides, there are countless masculine designs which pay more than just homage to the needs of a thriving society and also many innovations and engineering feats that have improved lives and benefited us in ways impossible to measure.
However this doesn't change the overwhelming sense that for centuries cities have been designed by men, the arteries of human life and natural connection have been severed by the egos of men with rulers and pencils.
With this sometimes arbitrary or 'non-sensed' design ethic, systematic discrimination became endemic.
For our planet to recover and for our species to survive every existing space must be touched with the sensing of women.
(Again, please don't get impatient with my binary approach... men, trans, intersex and non binary or gender queer*** too have this capability, but equality and the voice of all of us is the key to activating it, see here -link to follow-).
Can women do it?
It is not effective to simply replace the design teams with women. Women in charge have traditionally acted like men, they have used their own masculine traits to be able to achieve and they continue having never had the chance to express or experience the power and potency of the feminine. Therefore women are not necessarily any more capable than men of designing space with the feminine active within them, their studies and careers so far have already knocked the feminine down and replaced it with the macho-ism and reductionism of masculine design traditions and social function norms.
Ideally we need nature immersion breaks to truly activate the feminine (in us all). Which takes us back to the need for accessibility to nature and the wild. We must look to the wisdom in children and Indigenous people to find the everyday portals to deeper and feminine wisdom, and we must look into ourselves, to feel rather than just think about what is going on and what we are doing. We have the tools within us, when we use our own minds with curiosity rather than just assumption and logic, when we use our curious minds to listen to our own hearts and sense what we are feeling, when we embody connection with nature by putting our backs to the old oak, or laying with fingers entwined in the clover, or when we submerge ourselves in the sea world, or simply follow the flight of a bird overhead, when we sense ourselves in empathy with the others that share this space-time with us, then we are activating the feminine capabilities.
Inclusion and 'Radical Equality'
Overcoming gender discrimination and the oppression of women and girls also liberates men and boys from the (mostly) unintentional role that they carry as oppressor. Equality, respect and security for all is essential for men to live full and rewarding lives.
Gender equality is the first step towards equality, respect and inclusivity for all race, ethnicity, for LGBTQ+, for refugees, migrants, for differently-abled and special needs people.
For example, women-centric design effects mobility for families, accessibility to facilities for women who prefer to walk or who have prams, but it also brings into consideration that men can be the child carer and so creates space for men such as changing and feeding rooms designed for fathers. Thinking of women means including our elders as women live longer and become the biggest gender of the elderly who have special design requirements from the space and utilities. Female-centric design means creating space for men and boys to become educated and connected to their own balanced masculine and feminine potential in a way that empowers them and improves their quality of life too.
Space that is designed to be free for all entitles the disadvantaged members of society to the same rights as the advantaged. Though inclusive space alone cannot rectify the abuses of power and the exclusion that violate the rights of many worldwide, addressing the needs of everyone in a unifying space is a step in solving this centuries old problem and a sign of intention.
If a space is designed around a table with members of every element of local society at that table the space will belong to all; queer, black, blind, parent, single, child, bird, tree.... so all of those individuals must be present at that table. A chair must be allocated at every such meeting to a delegate that speaks for the trees, birds, rivers, sky and any other entities that do not have a voice.
So? The design process and harvesting wisdom:
Activating the feminine and harvesting the collective wisdom through inclusivity.
The input of women in design process (and this extends to every aspect of community, not just spatial design) can come from housewives, mothers, shop keepers, translators, doctors, farmers, bee keepers, executives, investors, librarians and... anyone. Specifically diversity of the women in terms of education, wealth, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc must be integrated. Special attention must be given to ensure the Indigenous and the Elders of a locality are represented in full during all design process.
And men! Though this design reform must be radically feminine, if I were to coin a phrase to name it I'd prefer Radically Equal, or Radically Inclusive... Meaning men too!
This co-creation is in itself already the foundation of a thriving regenerative culture.
It makes pure design sense to use an ancient, tried and tested method to stream line the harvesting of collective wisdom into the design and implementation process; valid around the world today, as it was for millennium, is the Circle or Council Way.
Way of Council
This Circle or Council Way is undoubtedly the keystone to any structure, whether it be a hard edged building or a societal concept. Facilitation of such gatherings and the harvesting and interpretation of the collective wisdom is the very foundation of every good design. Until now the top down and academic or economically driven approach to our urban planning has defined and often crippled space and the users for centuries. We have huge amassed data as to which space works, why and where and which space prompts trouble, strife and depression, we can and must use that data, but whatever we will create whether it be urban regeneration projects or new developments and on whatever scale, it is essential that we design together with local communities and the voiceless. The subject of ownership exceeds the intention of this post, (see The Commons below) however, a sense of ownership and wellbeing is embedded in space that has enrolled and empowered local community since the inception of the project. Engaged community involvement also ensures protection and maintenance of the space and utilities by the users.
Circle or Council Way meetings are facilitated by skilled hosts who ask open-ended questions that activate and gather the conscious and subconscious needs, desires and contributions of the crowds, then, together with the designers, they can find ways to implement that wisdom into the space. Circle is specifically designed to be inclusive and without hierarchy so that every voice (including the minority voice) can be heard and can count. (Methods of inclusion must be adapted to suit situations where minorities or the vulnerable are unable to attend or are afraid to raise their voices.) The communication skills and the tools used during a good Circle (such as Active Listening, Use of the Talking Piece, Non Violent Communication, Appreciative Inquiry and Collective Presencing) are ones that enrich and connect the participants, they may take these skills away with them to improve their relationships and wellbeing within the community.
The description of what it means to decolonise is summed up by The Decolonising Design Platform. It is"the project of challenging and critiquing the current status quo in mainstream contemporary academic and professional discourse and bringing greater depth to the conversations happening around issues of gender, race, culture, and class." and secondly it is "defining and developing alternatives to, on the one hand, the modern neoliberal, colonial world-system that we currently live in ...... That is to say, to practice decolonial design means thinking beyond design as it exists today ." (Full article here.)
Decolonisation isn't just something for the Indigenous to worry about, or for places with a strong Indigenous presence, the colonial mindset continues in both the "structures brought about by the historical process of colonial exploitation, as well as the ongoing and ubiquitous reproduction of forms of domination and inequality .... Coloniality does not only chase our present as a ghost from the past. It constantly produces new social realities" (Quote source and short article here) and we can see why when we realise it is the continuing patriarchal and colonial paradigm that allows exploitation of our fellow beings and our fellow planet through the mindset that planet and people are 'others' and to be seen and treated as resources and commodities at our disposal.
Besides, designs won't work unless they address the local context (language, visual grammar, traditions, narrative etc) which is impossible to do through (even an inadvertent) colonial lens. I love this short article about how "the gravest cost of a culture of design that isn't grounded in India is not aesthetic identity, but grassroots impact."
It is not easy to shed the habit of generations of abuse, some useful tools in the process can be Theory U (for a process of acknowledging where we are and co-sensing a way forward), Critical Thinking and even the 3 Horizons Model (explained in the link by Kate Raworth - for mutually looking to goals and activating necessary disruption to effect change). Further more the involved parties can endeavour to deepen their knowledge around local and/or Indigenous theory, history and narratives so that they may view and challenge their own narrative through a wider lens.
The huge task of decolonising the mindset of the Western world (or should we call it the global North, the developed or privileged world?) can be seen as a process of decentralisation, we invite women, the potential of the feminine, the Indigenous and locals and all the minorities into the Circle to enrich the design process with their wisdom and collaboration, but we do this from a decentralised position. Not I or similar, the privileged person here to design our conceit into your space, but you, the user, the local, the displaced, the old, the deaf, the disadvantaged child, the single parent, the exploited, the hitherto voiceless.
"The commons is a concept that emerged within the frame of political economy that refers to cultural and natural resources that are / were accessible to all members of a society. These include natural materials such as air, water, forests, and more recently, a habitable earth for current and future generations..... these resources are held in common, and should not be appropriated for private interest as this expands already extensive historical exclusions that arose via colonialism, imperialism and the rise of modern economies..... the point made in the 2015 UNESCO document about “our collective quest for well-being”, is the insight that the ongoing extraction and privatization of land, natural resources, air, forests, water, biodiversity and other traditionally ‘common’ resources has been a key feature of the extractions, appropriations and marginalization that occurred during the long era of the colonial (and, in South Africa, apartheid) periods, a process which has continued and been amplified via various forms of ongoing neocolonial and neo-liberal extractivism and exploitation" (Quote source pdf)
This is not the place to discuss land ownership reform and inheritance laws, however I've included the sub heading of The Commons as this is an area close to my heart, I grew up in a house on a "Common" land that was used for seasonal grazing, the rights of this land and all the flora and fauna upon it have been preserved through the shared status, anyone can go there and picnic and no once can annex it. There is a dire need for space like this, free from the whim of land owners, developers or zealous politicians. However whether private or public, all spatial design must carry the verdant characteristics of decolonised and Radically Inclusive design for it to be in balance to the prerequisite of sustainability and regeneration and to be successful, whether you count success as high economical returns and footfall or truly content community and burgeoning biodiversity.
(here is a previous post about responsible social approach in mall development)
Designing space was never easy, having others involved in the design process is daunting for us solitary pencil pushers, but the design process has always been collaborative, we are just taking it further and wider. The space on the planet is finite, spaces and the way in which they can be developed are limited by the pressures of changing landscapes and demographics caused by factors such as climate change and increased migration. There are many unknown unknowables and no experts anymore (there never were of course), so now we can simply embrace the complex messiness of inclusive, innovative, adaptive, emergent design.
More practical reasons to start with a female-centric design approach:
Scale and Connection
All space whether a small village square or a mega city benefits from the increased comfort, mobility and access that is needed for women, families and for the elderly. Women and the elderly seek out benches and seating so that they can sit and relax or watch their kids play. Asides from being a decent and aesthetic thing for any city to provide, introducing more seating and gathering spaces has huge impact on the mood of the city, the social implications are of increased satisfaction and happiness for all of the city users and inhabitants. Space that feels safe and comfortable are actively contributing to the users social cohesion. These spaces become hubs for dialogue and reduce rates of depression and all the related social and economic factors that result from a society that is isolated form each other because of the social and design structure. Providing space for connection is a radical move against the system that isolates and activates consumer and other forms of addiction. Read here about how loneliness causes our culture to be one overwhelmed with addiction and ill health.
Gratitude and Wellbeing
Designing space that the inhabitants can feel grateful for has the potential to deeply change attitudes and perception. Gratitude as a daily practice increases wellbeing in the individual but on a larger social scale gratitude inducing space can have huge impact on the population mindset and the trajectory of our cultures.
When features and the functioning ergonomics of a space are perceived as a gifted experience, an added comfort, a sense of happiness or a treat then those who experiences this will find themselves of a mind to perpetuate that sense. Space that is designed with fun, humour and dialogue in mind are places that spark conversation and collaboration.
In my experience, though, it is foolhardy to expect gratitude for the gift of an allocated space unless a sense of co-ownership, pride and responsibility has emerged through the inclusion of the stakeholders voices in the allocation, design process, construction, the maintenance and the ongoing evolution of a space. I have seen space vandalised and destroyed when the design process had not been inclusive with an end result of reticence and objection.
Women-centric urban design impacts transport drastically to the benefit of everyone. Women statistically prefer to walk or use bicycles. They need close and safe home - work - school - shopping - recreation proximity which is a major contributor to better wellbeing for men too. Avoiding the silo effect of offices and commerce in areas of empty-at-night blocks where homes are in far off suburbs has huge impact on the workforce productivity and psychology but also improves the structure of the city dynamic.
Where the work, home, and leisure triangle cannot be kept tight then public transport routes can be designed with bicycle use and access considered throughout. To ensure the safety of women (even if they travel alone at night) creates a safer and more positive environment for everyone.
It goes without saying that we need to radically minimise the use of cars in cities (Paris banned a third of the vehicles from the city in 2019) and it seems that had the decision been left to women, by now the infrastructure would have been in place.
‘Mobility’ also refers to the right to move around socially, in careers and in terms of where we are located. And from this the deeper subject of immigration arises and we loop around to Radical Equality, Inclusion and Decolonisation again…
In short, a city can be designed and built, but when it lacks the female input it lacks the ability to be regenerative.
And every non regenerative city is doomed to fail and collapse.
Are you an architect, engineer, developer, contractor, investor, planner, councillor, town mayor or politician or in any way involved in legislation or design today? Are you in the process of deciding how a space will be used and developed? Then before you go any further please take a look around you.
- Do you see any women on your team?
- Is everybody including minorities represented?
- Do you have Indigenous and local people involved in the process?
- Have you hosted open Circle gatherings to discuss the project? How often?
- Have you learnt fully what the space already means to locals?
- Have you comprehended what your project will bring or take from the area and the people?
- Were there previous uses that need to be incorporated into new design?
- How will the result cater to inclusivity and justice, will everyone have access and if this is a private development what kind of a legacy will it provide to the surrounding community?
- Have you considered the unspoken needs of nature? Who speaks for them?
- Have you considered the future impact on a bioregional scale?
- Does this design come with a sense of gratitude and generosity?
- Have you used all the tools mentioned here and others such as the Sustainable Development Goals to refine your design to fit within the Planetary Boundaries?
- How do you feel about it?
- How do you really feel about it?
If you haven't asked all these questions and more please do right now, otherwise your project will be worse than a waste of space.
If you've read this far, thank you! I apologise for not crediting all the quotes directly here as it all got rather crowded, instead I have provided links to them all.
This is a brief meandering into a highly complex subject, it is not in the least bit definitive and I reserve the right to edit and add to this as times goes on.... and around.
*David Abram's exceptional book 'The Spell of the Sensuous' is a great read for deeper understanding of the participatory relationship between space, time and us.
Here's a link to a review "Abram ends on a hopeful note, citing the emergence of a movement of people focused on “re-inhabitation”—a return to a place-centric way of life."
**If you find yourself triggered or offended by the use of the terminology feminine and masculine, then I am sorry, it is hard to find a definition that ticks all the boxes. This terminological simplification (feminine/masculine) is inherently problematic and I welcome ideas for a better terminology. I am writing an article about this (link to follow) but let me suffice to say that the patriarchal system that we have lived under as defined by the Oxford dictionary is "a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line" and by feminists thus "Some feminist theorists believe that patriarchy is an unjust social system that is harmful to both men and women." (Wikipedia)
It has been impossible to align ourselves with our own nature let alone the nature of the planet that we inhabit (and that inhabits us) especially since the dominant doctrines espouse the masculine dominance paradigm thus:
"According to Christianity..... humans are created in the image of God ..... Likewise, Christians believe God to be the measure of human actions, judging them against His own absolute knowledge of right and wrong, while at the same time acting as humanity’s mentor, an epistemological guide to turn to for truth, knowledge, and freedom from error" (Quote source here)
Most of the worlds cultures portray God as a 'he'. I rest my case. That is not to validate the binary approach to gender or to say that feminine skills and traits cannot be found in a man, and vice versa. All the nuances and fluidity of variations of sex and gender enrich the possibilities for regenerative design and are core to the collective design process.
*** I am aware that some use of non-binary gender terminology can be offensive. Please feel free to contact me if you think I can phrase in a better way. (I used this as a quick reference) If you'd like to add a perspective on the content of design through a non-binary view point I will be thrilled to read it.
Further and essential reading:
Designing Regenerative Cultures - Daniel Christian Wahl - Book - Blog on Medium.
https://weburbanist.com/2018/08/06/urban-rewilding-reverse-engineering-cities-to-save-nature-and-ourselves/ This article is a book review, explains need for dialogue and community input for rewilding. https://appliedecologistsblog.com/2019/02/07/getting-everyone-onboard-with-rewilding/
For a deeper dive into the way nature effects our psychology
Preview for a book Design & Feminism by Alethea Cheng
The Victoria University of Wellington makes an effort to imagine decolonised cities (pdf here) This next article explains the "why" re equality in design, includes SDGs and some good quotes. https://www.citiestobe.com/feminist-urbanism-equal-cities-latin-america/ https://behavioralscientist.org/how-better-urban-planning-can-improve-gender-equality/ https://www.google.com/amp/s/theconversation.com/amp/sexism-and-the-city-how-urban-planning-has-failed-women-93854 This article gives loads of examples of women led design especially regarding transport and urban well being - from India, Sweden, London, New York etc. https://apolitical.co/solution_article/how-to-build-a-feminist-city/ Barcelona example. (some vague ideas here) https://www.archdaily.com/927948/how-can-cities-imagined-by-women-look-like-the-case-of-barcelona