“When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”  

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac.

When we at CityCraft now think about ourselves and our work, we use the term “sustainability” less than we used to do.  I have been thinking about that recently, particularly since, for the more than two decades I have been involved in this work with CityCraft founder John Knott, that term has been the one that we used most to describe what we do and what we stand for.  

I remember sitting down to a breakfast in the early 1990s with John and a colleague and the word “sustainable” kept coming up.  I finally stopped the conversation and asked, “You keep using this term, sustainable.  Should I know what that means?” John and our friend went on to describe a three-legged stool of people, planet, and prosperity. A closed loop that does not require limitless extraction and exploitation of limited resources, but rather meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  

Sustainability remains a desirable and necessary goal, but by emphasizing “regeneration” in today’s thinking and language, we retain what we valued in sustainability and expand it to make it more powerful and encompassing.  Though definitions vary, “regenerative” development focuses on holistic and connected ways of looking at problems and solutions in a bioregional context, so that making a change that addresses one problem is less likely to cause or make worse another condition. 

Regenerative work requires us both to step back and look at a condition with a broader lens and also to consider the interconnectedness of that condition with many others through more complex systems thinking.  As the authors and editors of Regenerative Urban Development, Climate Change, and the Common Good (Routledge 2020) state in the first chapter of their groundbreaking work on this subject, 

“While many cities are systematically addressing climate risks, urbanization, affordable housing, transportation needs, etc., most are not providing integrated solutions that account for the feedback loops that intimately tie these challenges together.”  

Regenerative policy looks at the systems-scale and discovers how problems and solutions are connected to each other. It seeks to address those issues in an integrated and more complete way. This new way of approaching sustainability starts with concern for all human individuals, leaving no one behind, then leveraging the benefits of well-planned urbanization to help those individuals reach their potential, all the while protecting the earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity.  

Keith Murray, Sustainability.

To paraphrase Aldo Leopold who put it more poetically, what is key is to live in harmony with, and as an equal participant in, our biome. 

The CityCraft process is built on just such a holistic, systems-level approach to our human habitat.  When a CityCrafter begins work within and as part of a community, the first task is to decide the proper scale for the study, which is usually the bioregion.  We map capital embedded in the community, diving deep and unearthing the human, natural, institutional and financial assets which may reside below the surface of conventional inquiry. The greatest source of capital for community regeneration may already exist within that community.  We then begin to identify the connections that exist or could be made.  Finally, we develop implementation strategies that put to work underutilized talent, energy, and creativity across all sectors of the community to begin to achieve the goals of bettering the lives of our fellow human beings as well as the other animals, plants, and natural features of our world. 

In North Charleston, South Carolina, where the CityCraft team created a community master plan using this process, one such connection was made with regard to the criminal justice system.  The study of the area revealed that former residents of the community who had committed a crime, often drug-related, served their sentences in the state’s prison system, then returned back to this area without a job, housing, skills, or the ability to earn a living.  As a result, they often fell back into criminal activity and returned to prison.  Recognizing that problem was not unique or necessarily characteristic of a regenerative process, but devising the solution was.  

Starting first with the recognition that every individual has worth and valuable human potential to contribute to the whole, the project team identified resources within the prison system, the local solicitor’s office, the local police force, city government, local employers and housing authorities and connected the dots to put together a prisoner reentry program that began before the person’s release. The program mapped out a plan for housing, training, employment, and other physical and mental needs for that person before they stepped off a bus into their home community to begin the next step of their life.  The program then followed that person through their reentry period to make sure they had the best chance possible to succeed. 

This is just one of many examples of how a regenerative, holistic approach to social and ecological problems in our society can break down barriers and make connections resulting in effective and lasting change. In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I will explore with you how regenerative processes in the areas of governance, capital and leadership can lead to essential change for our society and our planet. 

So, this is what we mean by regenerative.  Thinking and planning with a wide lens.  Seeing the richness that lies below the surface. Recognizing the unseen or underappreciated potential in our fellow humans and the natural world. Making connections so that systems work more effectively for the benefit of all.  Leaving our world better than we found it. 

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