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The regenerative paradigm has made its way into everything from economics, agriculture, leadership, and urban development. But what does it mean? And what does it look like in the context of cities and the built environment?

The overall theme for BLOXHUB Debates and Science Talks during 2022 is Regenerate. This is a concept or paradigm that is beginning to trend in many different areas such as the economy, agriculture, leadership, design, and urban development. Our Regenerate series are developed in collaboration with Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies.

To regenerate means to reestablish or regrow. Originally the notion of regeneration stems from biology, and the ability to restore or renew cells and tissue. Think of a starfish, who can regrow arms, if one is lost. Regeneration doesn’t always look the same, but every species is capable of it in some way, and this ensures resilience towards changes in the environment or damages to the organism.

In a broader scope, regeneration is about the resilience and renewal of larger ecosystems, such as farmlands, cities, and so on. It’s about making environments that give back instead of just taking, and thus ensuring that we do not exhaust natural recourses or upset the balances of the Earth. But what does this entail exactly, and how does it differ from other concepts like circularity and sustainability?

We have asked one of the industrial Ph.D.’s from our Circular Built Environment Network, Lotte Nystrup Lund, who researches on Bio-cities of the Future, to explain what the regenerative paradigm means, and how it relates to urbanization.

We Need to Give Back

”In the regenerative paradigm, it is essential that you contribute positively. It’s not about minimizing the damage or repairing damages, you have to create added value through your approach,” says industrial Ph.D. Lotte Nystrup Lund.

This might sound simple, but it’s a deviation from other related terms such as sustainability and circularity. To take a few steps back, Lotte Nystrup Lund explains the evolution of ideas regarding the terms:

”First, there was a shift from the industrial single focus on productivity, effectiveness and economic growth to a realization that we also have to take care of our surrounding environment. Early on, the concept of sustainability wasn’t a huge concern, but ideas evolved slowly towards actively protecting the environment. In the beginning of the 21st century, the idea of having a minimal or even neutral influence on our surroundings then developed, but seeing the impact of our actions, like the climate crisis and biodiversity crisis, people are beginning to realize that maybe the idea of neutrality or minimal influence isn’t enough. We must raise the bar and contribute positively to counteract the development we’re seeing. That’s why the regenerative paradigm now emerges, pointing towards the acute need of making positive footprints,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund.

Circularity and sustainability both belong to the paradigm of neutrality or minimal influence on surroundings. Sustainability aims to sustain and not do further harm, and circularity introduces the idea of creating ideally unending loops where a minimum of resources or energy goes to waste. While this can be part of a regenerative approach, none of the two has the same clear aspect of contributing positively as regeneration has. And another aspect, where the regenerative paradigm differs, is in scope:

“A regenerative approach sees people, or a city, or a building in a much larger perspective: everything is part of interconnected ecosystems, which are very complex. Where circularity has life cycle analyses and a belief that we can create these neutral loops, the regenerative approach is more complex and larger in both scale- and time perspectives. The regenerative paradigm isn’t about isolated materials, products, or buildings but about the whole picture and how different ecosystems affect one another,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund.

How to Create Regenerative Cities   

This larger scope is also important when it comes to regenerative urban development because traditional boundary settings don’t apply in the same way. A city isn’t just a city, but part of something bigger, and the surroundings need to be taken into account as well; whether they be forests marked by the infrastructure, pollution, or noise from the city or farmlands that provide food for the city’s inhabitants.

“We need to think about how we set boundaries. Today, we have a lot of administrative or bureaucratic boundary settings that are quite fictive: plants, animals, the weather, etc., don’t care that we say this area is a municipality, a city zone, or a private property. And this traditional way of setting boundaries is hindering a regenerative approach, so we need to think beyond that,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund.

Another way to incorporate the regenerative paradigm into the built environment is by designing not just for humans, but for plants and animals as well. Using different kinds of materials, integrating habitats e.g., bats or birds in the building mass, or making sure that plants are native to the area, so local multispecies life can benefit from them, are just some ways to ensure richer biodiversity and closer relation between people and nature.

“Integrating more green and blue biodiverse nature into cities is beneficial to both people and other living organisms. When you think about people as part of the ecosystems, on which we all depend, it makes perfect sense that relating to nature is good for our physical and mental health as well,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund and adds:

“If you grow up without relating to nature and with no knowledge about biodiversity it becomes much harder to take care of it. And seeing that we are probably facing population growth in the cities, it is of increasing urgency to incorporate more green and blue nature into the cities.”

Words to learn: 

  • Biomimicry: Design that takes inspiration from living organisms or ecosystems, mimicking the processes and functions of nature.
  • Biophilic Design: Integrating nature into the built environment and our communities to connect people with nature.
  • Multispecies Cities: Designing cities in a way that considers other species and organisms – not just human beings.
  • Biourbanism: Expanding the understanding of what makes a city, encompassing the surrounding area, the air, the soil, and all inhabitants and organisms of the area. “Biourbanism is offering a new approach to urban development, as it is transforming our understanding of what a city is, by widening up the urban landscape and its inhabitants to a much larger scale,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund.

Are We There Yet?

One of the challenges facing the regenerative approach to urban development and the built environment is that there aren’t a lot of examples of it on a larger scale just yet.

“A full regenerative approach calls for a redefinition of boundary setting, and that is a challenge right now because we have these ideas about property boundaries and zones, where the larger perspective is lost. But there a lot of initiatives from companies, organizations, and people who want to work towards a regenerative paradigm, so I think it’s coming,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund, and mentions initiatives such as National Park City London and Danmarks Vildeste Kommune as examples.

“It’s hard to say how ideas develop and take hold in a society, but I think it’s safe to say that the youth of today have different perspectives on the world than older generations. So we can hope they will approach urban development and the built environment in a different way than we’ve done so far. But seeing the extent of the crises we’re facing today, we haven’t got the time to wait for them to grow up,” says Lotte Nystrup Lund.

Check out our event calender to stay up to date with our Debates and Science Talks.

Get inspired – further reading and watching for a regenerative approach: