#3, November 2019


Regenerating Life

Five questions to Bill Reed, a world-renowned practitioner in the field of regenerative development and a principal of Regenesis Group.

People, businesses, and government agencies that aim to change their ways for the planet’s sake often face a common hurdle: the lack of a shared global understanding of the complex living systems they deal with. That all life is continually evolving and interacting is the core premise upon which regenerative development is founded. Bill Reed tells us more about an approach that is slowly but surely establishing itself as the next step beyond sustainability.

Régénérer le vivant - L'entretien de Raccords #03

Raccords: Why turn to regenerative development, and how is it different from sustainable development?

Bill Reed:People are drawn to regenerative development because it presents a different perspective on the world. Conventional or technical system design basically means that we are building our projects one step better than breaking the law. Improving on conventional design, we come along with green design (LEED or Living Building Challenge or any other such rating system). If green design allows for better saving or reduces damages, then the next step must be zero damage, and that is how most people interpret sustainability. However, that level of perfection doesn’t exist: even a zero-energy building is still using embodied energy and is still destroying a piece of the forest’s floor. We’re never doing something that is zero damage. So if that’s the case, we are still degenerating the planet, and sustainability is just a slower way to die—as has been said.
What are we sustaining, exactly? Our way of life, and to do so we need to sustain what makes our way of life possible. Therefore we need to sustain life itself. But life isn’t static: it is the process of becoming. Life evolves. There’s continual ecological succession going on, there’s continual development of human beings. And unless we’re working with these evolutionary systems on their own terms—somewhat similar to what ecologists call adaptive management—we will never achieve a sustainable condition. So we’re faced with two choices: either go home and party until the basis for human life is destroyed, or try to engage in a reversing process, that of restoring and regenerating complex living systems and regenerating our role in evolutionary processes. Saving the planet is an undertaking no person or organization(s) can accomplish; it is too large and abstract. But what we can work with are the places we live. And we know by now that it is absolutely possible to restore large regions of the world.

A major part of your work consists of better understanding a place or a habitat. How do you go about getting to know what a place is?

We like to say understanding “who” it is, and not “what” it is, because the premise that we hold is that every place is a unique living organism. Montréal is different than Boston, or New Orleans, or São Paulo, or any other city, but why? That’s what we need to understand if we don’t want to treat these places generically and misunderstand appropriate interventions.
All life—and places—can be seen as a negotiation between opposite forces: activating and restraining forces. So, for instance, if I want to build a building, what gets in the way? Budget, the laws of physics, Nimbyism—or the refusal of mutual responsibility for what happens in a given neighbourhood or in the world in general—and so on. The way people get around that is usually through compromise: a lose-lose situation where one party gives up a little, and agrees to do so because the other party gives up a little too. The result is a lesser solution for everyone. That sounds great politically, but that is how we’re destroying the planet. We’re accommodating bad compromises over bad compromises. But nature does not compromise: it harmonizes, or it reconciles. The oak tree does not argue with the willow tree about exchanging nutrients. They interact following complex relationships, deriving a riot of reciprocal benefits. A continual process of giving and receiving takes place. Nature doesn’t try to solve problems; it looks forward to potential, to future states. If a hurricane comes through, species simply work their way up the banks and begin to create a diversity of relationships to support ever larger and complex living systems. Working as nature does is similar to raising a child. If we’re good parents, we’re working with the unique potential of that child and all of his or her problems.

Can you tell us about a specific regenerative development project: how you researched the place, how you got in touch with the locals, how long the work lasted, and what came out of it?

During the last five years, we’ve worked with a client, Las Salinas, a developer located in Viña del Mar, Chile, who owned a 19-hectare [47-acre] site hosting an oil tank farm. The community was up in arms about it: there were 25 activist groups who were all calling this developer “the enemy.” They felt the developers had destroyed their city. It was one of the great garden cities of the world—the English garden-city tradition was established there in the late 1800s—but for the last 30 years it has been dying. Now, when you drive through it, you can see it is on a downward trajectory. What used to be the estuary, the seedbed of Valparaíso Bay, which is now a dead zone, has been made into a parking lot. The great old architecture was replaced by ticky-tacky design.
The city had become dispirited. The activist groups and municipal authorities had been trying to recover it without success because they kept working in silos, some of them focusing on mobility, others on beach erosion, or habitat connectivity, or social justice or gender equity or business investment, and so on. But those focus areas weren’t integrated because there was no common purpose. So we urged them to take a step back from this one developer’s project—our client—and work instead on the health of the whole city, together. We looked back to a time when the city was still thriving and wondered what made it so. We found out—through research conducted with local experts and in museums and archives—that for the last 1,200 years, any time humans interacted with that land, from the Aconcagua Indians to the industrialists and the garden city movement, the place actually got better, the ecology improved, and the humans lived happier. This was a very unusual pattern, a form of compounding resilience which turned out to be the core value, or essence, of that particular place. Thirty years ago, however, most development indicators started going downhill.
We worked directly with a local anthropologist and a couple of her staff. We also initially met with 18 of the 25 activist groups. We pointed out to them that all these areas that were suffering—habitat, food, street life, beach erosion, and the quality of life in general, for people and fish—could be brought back if we worked together in service of this larger system. Within two weeks of sharing this potential, the majority of the groups became enthusiastic about the possibility of being in a co-creative relationship with the developer and each other.
In the end, the process led to the locally coordinated development of multiple areas of the city in harmony with the history of its people and the habitat. It includes, for instance, a trail system running through individual high-rises that provided new access points to the beach, as well as the introduction of a grey water and rainwater harvesting system to support multi-canopy landscaping that would restore critical ecological connectivity and diversity and was unprecedented in the city. It also plans for affordable commercial space on the ground floor and for the creation of a central market where the community could gather and exchange. These developments are ongoing, some of them still awaiting implementation. When considered together, they form a whole able to regenerate itself because each one of them was planned coherently with the global purpose of restoring health to the city and revitalizing what makes it a unique place governed by its own dynamics.

Régénérer le vivant - L'entretien de Raccords #03

What were the main obstacles you came across during this project? And the main outcomes?

The hardest part was convincing our own client that they were no more important than any of their neighbours, that they were an equal stakeholder in the community and ecological system. It took them about a year to get on board. Once they did, we organized meetings bringing together 30 to 40 people representing groups of stakeholders, including the client, at various locations in the city every six weeks for a year. Within a year, the chamber of commerce decided to join in after all, and so did the mayor a year afterwards. What we did was build a field of energy and mutual focus where people would get to know each other and, eventually, develop respect and care for each other. We usually tell our clients they’re going to be working with us for three years for the process to be effective. At the pace of community development, we need a year for people to change minds, and about two more for change to be permanent. The neural associations in the brain take that long to be reframed. The biggest barrier is getting people to realize that regenerative development is about their own development as individuals first, before it is about community change. We can’t come in as a consultant for a client and change the local community without bringing the client in changing his or her own perspective.

Human development is often held responsible for the degradation of the natural environment. Would you say it is a misconception to think that human development must cease for nature to thrive?

Yes, it is a misconception. Bad human development needs to stop, of course, but we have an integrative role to play in positively sustaining life. By the way, this doesn’t mean death doesn’t happen; it is an integral aspect of life. But we have never seen harmonization fail. In any project we need to take into account the restraining force that is nature, and what nature uniquely needs in that place. We have a right to live there, and to have shelter, but we also need to understand limits and pay attention to the response that life shares with us if we take the time to observe. The healthiest ecosystems on the planet have existed when humans (Indigenous peoples) were engaged in a co-evolutionary relationship with nature.

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