Regenerating our urban environment

Regenerating our urban environment
Photo by Sergio Sala / Unsplash

Over the past years the topic of regeneration has gained increasing interest across the wider public. As we are becoming more aware of the limits of our industrial growth society, we are looking for ways to harmonize our relationship with the planet. That is what regeneration is, putting life at the center of our activities. It goes beyond sustainability as it aims to revitalize life through our actions instead of merely limiting our negative impact. Today, regenerative action is mostly undertaken through ecosystem intervention. In this piece I make an argument for a different type of intervention, on a social level, to regenerate society and ourselves first.


It is inspiring to see how many organizations across the world are focusing on restoring our degraded ecosystems. There are countless projects that give a glimpse of what a regenerative future could look like, from recovering mangrove forests in West Africa to planting back trees in Spain. Also in agriculture, the regenerative framework is increasingly embraced by farmers, consumers, and politicians. It shows that we start to understand the need for action, to rebalance our relationship with nature.

Healing nature is the most tangible way to reverse the damage that we do to our planet. But if regeneration is about undoing the damage that we have done, how do we avoid the damage in the first place? The answer to that question illustrates that regeneration isn't only about restoring nature. It starts with restoring our own connection with nature. Our connection with life itself.

This realization underlines the true challenge that we face when speaking of regeneration. The move towards regeneration is at its core a paradigm shift. It requires us to let go of our illusory separation from nature and asks us to recognize our interwovenness with all of life.

Karl Schwarzschild, one of the first pioneers in the field of quantum physics, once said: “Only a vision of the whole, like that of a saint, a madman or a mystic, will permit us to decipher the true organizing principles of the universe.”

Profound wisdom but unfortunately also a tough story to get across. Recognizing our “interbeing” with life doesn’t seem to be about intellectual understanding, but more about a shift in consciousness. It is about expanding our sense of being. Going beyond our ego and experiencing our interconnectedness with the whole.

Now, I don’t intend to make this piece about spirituality or philosophy. Quite the opposite, I would like to approach above observation of wholeness and interbeing in a more practical way. Ultimately, my question is, can we regenerate our society and its people in the same way as we regenerate nature?

Society as a living system

After all, humanity is organized like nature, through complex living systems. Many biologists consider us to be a superorganism on its own. Some scientists, like Geoffrey West in his book Scale, describe how the design of cities, infrastructure and social organizations show remarkable similarities to organisms and ecosystems.

From Scale (Geoffrey West). Left: A standard map of the interstate highway system of the United States; Right: a map of the flow of transport in Texas, revealing the hidden fractal structure concealed in the physical road system. The thickness of the road represents the relative flow of traffic. Many of the thinner segments, the "capillaries," represent non-interstate roads whereas the thicker segments, the main "arteries," are larger roads. Compare this with a cardiovascular blood transport system of humans or other mammals.

Healthy ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of diversity and interconnectedness. The rainforest is an image that quickly comes to mind, bustling with activity with countless reciprocal relationships that together form a stable whole. It is the quality and the quantity of relationships that determine its health.

Once the relationships fall away the vitality of a system starts to degrade. It is sometimes called a spiral of erosion. In some ways death is the ultimate result of that process, when all the underlying relationship have ceased to exist. The opposite dynamic can be called a spiral of abundance and is characterized by the integration of relationships.

Fritjof Capra, Systems view of Life, Chapter 7

For society, it doesn’t work so much different, it functions like a complex living system. A thriving community is built on a foundation of reciprocity. It has a strong sense of belonging and of underlying cohesion. When that falls away, a society disintegrates. When speaking about social regeneration, we speak of regenerating the relationships within society and amongst its people.

As a basis for healthy community, writer Charles Eisenstein speaks of the importance of co-creation and giving. It takes interdependence to build meaningful relationships. He also describes how in our society these relationships are increasingly being commoditized in the form of services. The relationship of giving is being replaced by cold transactions. In other words, many of our relationships have become merely functional, devoid of meaning and hollow.

A brief glance at the average city confirms his observation. Where in a city can one reside, or “just be” without paying for it? Many functions within society have been commercialized. We have become mere consumers (and producers to pay for it) and it seems to have become the sole source of meaning in contemporary culture. Western culture largely revolves around "enjoying ourselves" in which the individual is the measure of things.

To make society thrive, we need to approach it from a living system perspective. Societal regeneration begins with nurturing and restoring the relationships that hold it together. In some way this work can be called healing, to make something whole again. That work needs to be done on an individual, collective and environmental level.

Regenerating society

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” said Sir Winston Churchill once in a speech to the House of Lords.

Churchill's quote is an elegant reminder of the two-way relationship we have with the environment that we create for ourselves. In nature we are aware of this mutual dynamic, within society we tend to forget. Our environment shapes us. It also shapes the nature and the quality of our relationships. For regeneration to take place, it requires an environment that supports it.

Earlier I referred to the need for humanity to experience our interbeing with the larger reality we are part of.  Once we do, our willingness to put ourselves in service of the whole doesn't stem from idealism anymore, it will flow naturally from 'self' interest.

To create places that inspire such (social) regeneration, we ought to take into account a set of design principles. Carol Sanford, one of the pioneers of the regenerative paradigm, has defined 7 regenerative design principles that can support us in shaping places that invite towards meaningful connection.

Wholes - The first principle to apply is to work from the perspective of understanding a whole, rather than parts. The systems that we are part of function organically, not mechanically. In anything alive, the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.  It's the difference between a cat and a car, the latter one we can disassemble and assemble again, the former one would lose its aliveness. This isn't so different for communities or any other social system. When we cut a community in parts and pieces, it loses its vital aliveness.

Potential - Embedded in that whole system lies a potential that is based on the unique beingness of the system. Every place, person or community is different and has its own unique potential. Within children we recognize this clearly, it would be cruel to make your second child a copy of the first one. Raising our children in such a way wouldn't respect their unique talents and characteristics. Doesn't the same apply to anything else alive as well? Potential can only be fulfilled from within, it cannot be imposed.

Essence - That unique beingness of every place, person or community seeks authentic expression. The moment we start standardizing things, we deny their uniqueness and turn them into a commodity and fail to fulfill their potential. I have come to believe that beauty is the authentic expression of essence. Why is it that a glimpse at the duomo in Florence brings us in a state of awe, while a concrete office building leaves us feeling alienated? One is built as a form of expression, the other as a means to an end. We ought to bring essence to its full expression to fulfill potential.

Development - The effort to cultivate that potential can be called development. Carol Sanford describes development as the means by which essence becomes increasingly able to reveal and express itself as potential. As mentioned earlier, this potential can only be nurtured from within. Development is about nurturing intrinsic qualities and let them emerge into their full expression.

Nestedness - On an abstract level we understand that everything is the universe is connected with each other. In everyday life this notion can become overwhelming. Yet, it is important to always consider the wider context of a person, place or community. Every living system is nested within a wider context. People are good examples of that, we grow up in a particular family which in turn is nested in a larger socioeconomic environment. Only from that larger context can we truly understand someone.

Nodal intervention - Perceiving in terms of wholes and nestedness means perceiving complexity. Complex systems don't function in a linear way; in a complex system second- and third-order effects cannot really be foreseen. This is where nodal intervention comes in. Nodes are like pressure points to a system. When one pushes on a nodal button the whole system will respond. In medicine an example of nodal intervention is acupuncture. Here a tiny needle is able to impact the whole system of the body.

Fields - At its core, a field is about the energetic atmosphere within a (social system). Sanford describes fields as organized patterns of energy that influence and respond to the quality of activity occurring within a system. An example is the energy you sense when you walk into a room where a heated debate is taking place. To create the conditions for change, it is important that the field of a system supports that change.


There is a beingness to every place, person or community which seeks its authentic expression. Embedded in that beingness, or essence, lies a potential that is waiting to emerge, always in relation to the larger whole that it is part of. Like a garden coming to full bloom. Vibrant, buzzing with activity and displaying its abundance of life.

Bringing our ecosystems back to life, starts with bringing ourselves back to life. To overcome our false sense of separateness from the rest of the living world we need to create an environment that inspires interconnectedness. We need places that weave people, community and planet together, into a thriving whole.

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