Regenerative Settlement - A New Way of Thinking About Development

A perspective from the UK...

The Concept

Planning Perspective

The planning system has a basic orthodoxy - that development, in round terms, is less desirable than leaving land undeveloped. Development, then, is intrinsically harmful but required to meet human needs. It Is therefore tightly contained both so that it impacts on the undeveloped realm are minimised and so that economies and efficiencies of scale can be achieved within its footprint.

In planning terms the ‘open countryside’ is all land not designated for development. Here development is only considered on an exceptional basis, and the countryside is protected for its environmental qualities and its use for agriculture and forestry.

The Challenge

The British countryside, though, is no longer a natural phenomenon. Either through agriculture and forestry practices, management for hunting, or neglect, the vast majority of the countryside is in effect a man-made. Biodiversity and biocapacity have fallen, soils and water quality are diminished, and landscape protection is in danger of missing opportunities to promote the importance of future landscapes rather than just those from the past.

The connections between the functions of the countryside and its forms have become polarised. Conservation policy seeks to protect traditional landscape features such as hedges and meadows which are of little use to modern intensive large-scale agriculture, whilst the same agriculture seeks ever bigger fields and favours monocultures which sweep aside landscape character. Similarly planning policy promotes a settlement pattern of villages and hamlets which has a long since ceased to reflect the function and pattern of the lives of those living and working there, who are highly mobile and unattached.

Policy has lost an interest in what the countryside is for and focuses instead on preserving aspects of it which are superficially familiar. The communities and economies of rural areas no longer reproduce the wider countryside as they once did. People and land are increasingly divorced despite the irony that the countryside remains man-made. Policy therefore lacks the positive feedback loops by which to achieve its desired outcomes, and there are numerous unintended consequences and the missed opportunities, so narrow is the perspective of what should and should not happen in the countryside.

The challenge is to come up with something better to do with the countryside as this deadlock is wasteful and ineffective, and will in any case be made increasingly irrelevant by environmental change precipitated by climate change. The countryside and everything which happens there is going to change anyhow, so why not strive to make sure that change is the most beneficial possible?

Regenerative, land based settlement, is a way in which to directly counter this alongside necessary changes to wider agricultural and conservation practice.

Regenerative Settlement

Regenerative Settlement is a notion that instead of settlement / development being intrinsically harmful, it can make things better. Therefore the orthodoxy that the ‘open countryside’ should be protected from development no longer applies, especially as the countryside is not thriving under current policy, and is going to change anyway. Regenerative Settlement requires, though, forms of development which are different to those which have become the norm. The imperative to contain development has, unsurprisingly, meant that new development has become relatively intensive and very focused on meeting narrow human needs rather than serving a wider range of purposes. Regenerative Settlement would necessarily broaden its focus to being a wholly positive development. This means placing human settlement and meeting human needs, especially for food, within ecosystems rather than sitting alongside or on top of them. Thus humans, and all their trappings, become part of the system, to be managed for greatest sustainability of the whole.

This means using a systems approach, particularly such as those of the permaculture family, whereby alternative yet familiar patterns of human settlement can be planned for and built which are in total and in components positive, and so is truly intrinsically sustainable and making wider sustainability contributions also. Such positives include:

  • food positive

  • energy positive

  • water positive

  • carbon positive

  • landscape positive

  • biodiversity positive

  • biocapacity positive

  • soil positive

  • knowledge positive

  • positive for people

  • positive in connection with existing settlements.

So what could this look like?

  • food positive – able to feed itself with surplus good, local food available to neighbouring communities and visitors

  • energy positive – producing enough renewable energy for its own needs via solar, wind, bio-digestion and biomass, with surplus electricity exported to the grid

  • water positive – meeting its own needs for water from the site (watercourses and rainwater) and via on-site water recycling, and ensuring that water leaving the site is as clean or cleaner than that entering it

  • carbon positive – locking up more carbon than is emitted by minimising emissions via energy efficiency and use of low carbon sources, and sequestering carbon in vegetation and soil, including via biochar

  • landscape positive – many agricultural and woodland landscapes are now relatively unmanaged, denuded and / or relics of former management approaches. Re-establishing the link between landscape form and function via more productive and diverse settlement and farm systems brings the opportunity for a wave of positive landscape change locked into its reimagined use

  • biodiversity positive – properly designed and managed, farm systems and human settlement can greatly increase biodiversity – we just don’t ‘normally’ design and manage them this way, yet there is no reason that people should not live in a ‘nature reserve’

  • biocapacity positive – biocapacity is the ability of the environment to support life, including humans – farm systems and human settlement can be designed and managed to increase biocapacity alongside productivity and homes

  • soil positive – soil quality and quantity is being lost at alarming rates, but farm systems and built development can build soil quality and quantity if this is planned for from the start

  • knowledge positive – innovative forms of development and farming such as those proposed have vital roles in disseminating and adding to knowledge about regenerative agriculture and regenerative human settlement

  • positive for people – settlement is more than a place for people to live, and farming more than how they get their food. Both can directly positively contribute to individual and community health and happiness, and to economic security

  • positive in connection – regenerative settlement is not intended to stand alone – neighbouring hamlets, villages, towns and cities, and the wider countryside could greatly benefit from the many sustainability ‘boosts’ which can be planned for and provided, including to local economies.

It is perfectly feasible that areas of new development, be they new towns, villages, hamlets or settlement extensions, can be planned and executed in this way – to essentially be self-sustaining and of wider benefit. The detailed Welsh policy and guidance One Planet Development (1) shows, in microcosm, that this is possible and achievable (2). What is different from the norm is that there has to be far more detailed and purposeful design and also management of activities and behaviour in order to achieve the positive outcomes.

Regenerative Settlement has to be land-based, and therefore closely knit with regenerative agriculture / agroecology. Not only must a Regenerative Settlement be able to feed itself, it should also be able to offer local food to surrounding communities. The countryside around towns and villages used to feed them, and reconnecting the land to people in this way is one of the most direct ways to enhance environmental and community sustainability. Regenerative Settlement can provide the missing platform for this – a place which grows its own food by design, providing a stable market for producers from which to venture further afield.

Further, at its heart Regenerative Settlement is also about re-establishing place at the centre of human life. Society has become increasingly virtual rather than physical, yet Regenerative Settlement is all about (re)creating places which are in themselves sustainable and have sustainability benefits for their surroundings too. The community and economy of these places are key animators, both requiring stronger patterns of localisation in order to make the place as a whole work. For the system to work best households and businesses will be more locally rooted, though the virtual world could support this rather than undermine it if used skilfully.

It is also important to appreciate that the concept of Regenerative Settlement is a spatial unification of many existing ideas and work, but which have not been brought together to form new sorts of places where their sum can be made real. Regenerative Capitalism (3), Regenerative Agriculture (4) and Regenerative Community (4) are all being worked on, but have not been realised in once place. Herbert Girardet has worked on how to make existing cities more regenerative (6) - this is a close companion of my focus on making new development fully regenerative.

There is therefore a substantial platform of support for Regenerative Settlement, which offers a way to realise all of these things, together, all over the place.

(1) - James Shorten was the main author of this work

(2) around 25 OPDs have now been consented in Wales




(6) Creating Regenerative Cities (2015)

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