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Regenerative Design, the Next Conversation of Green Built Environment

A reality check indeed. Recently I gave a talk in the World Diabetes Day (14/11/14) awareness exhibition which was held at KLCC Esplanade, in partnership with Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company which manufactures one fifth of the world’s insulin supply. So you may be thinking, what does a green building consultant have to do with World Diabetes Day? Winston Churchill once quoted “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”. The evidence of us unveiling the pandora’s box of urban planning is irrefutably obvious, from the increasing occurrence of flash flood around the greater Klang Valley, to being a nation rated as the highest among Asian countries for obesity. It nonsensical to place an escalator serving a gym, neither designing a wide spread horizontal city that requires ever stationary human beings sitting in their carbon releasing machines crawling across the miles when they could just walk actively in a multi usage medium density vertical city.

Regenerative Schematic

Cities are the physical testimonies of any civilization success, be it the famous historical landmarks, ever increasing modern skyscraper, efficient public transportation system or the public squares and parks. Nevertheless, it is a fact that our built environment revolves closely with the driving force of economics today, which has subsequently caused many externalities which are not accounted for. One of it is public health impact and community well-being which I had elaborated during the talk then. It is exciting to see the progressive growth of green building wave which is participated by various authorities and property markets ever since Green Building Index was introduced in 2009. To date, GBI has charted 100 million square feet of green buildings certified and many related built environment stakeholders are proposing various alternative green building rating tools.

Redefining Sustainability through Sufficiency Themed Design Process

However, one needs to be cautiously optimistic because even with the entire city and all buildings certified as ‘green’, that is merely solving the tip of the iceberg of our built environment complexity issues. Sustainability is a noble ambition, but one I believe is short sighted and increasingly meaningless in today’s developing world. Even, the word “Sustainable Development” is probably the most oxymoron term ever existed. Simply due to the fact that it is not possible for an infinite growth on a finite planet, this is also even if you have a very low carbon or ecological footprint per capita, but with a projection of 10 billion population by 2030.

3 Fundamentals

If one is to evaluate the true sustainability of our built environment, one has to look at regenerative design, the process oriented systems theory based approach to design, or, to design the way of our city. Communities should restore natural capital and produce positive externalities, in contrast to the current, much economic development centric building industry progress which means little for mankind progress. Regenerative design develops a mutually enhancing relationship with the earth. It augments the capacity of existing resources and systems, rather than depleting or simply maintaining them. If we measure our built environment performance against the following 6 aspects and 3 fundamental principles, it is clear that our current state of green building wave progress is incommensurate to the rate of deterioration of our built environment in respect to the holistic principles of regenerative design.

FOOD AND SOIL

Soil is Gold. Soil is a non-renewable resource that is often taken for granted. While the green revolution in agriculture is credited with allowing relatively few farmers to feed over 7 billion people across the world, it has been extremely damaging to the natural health and productivity of the soil as well as the social fabric of rural communities. There is a finite amount of arable land in Malaysia alone which is only 8% of total area space, and we need to use land judiciously and according to its capabilities and assets. The factuality of nature cannot be our total morality, but by being ignorant of nature we are ignorant of our limits as well as our possibilities.  Most of us simply do not know the origins of the food on our plates and also where does the 930 tonnes of Malaysia food waste go to daily.

Shao Lyn (Right), founder of Eats Shoots and Roots, raising the awareness on the need of urban farming and permaculture.
Shao Lyn (Right), founder of Eats Shoots and Roots, raising the awareness on the need of urban farming and permaculture.

There is an urgent need to decentralize and relocalize growth, variety, distribution and waste handling of food, to replenish and rejuvenate the soil by closing the nutrient loop, to encourage urban permaculture trend to be commercially recognized. The crucial fact is that by decentralizing and encouraging community sufficient food system, there will be food security through localized food sovereignty. Both tangible, and intangible benefits result from local food system support, these includes health, the local economy, the environment, and the well-being of the community, including the social networks that are vital in nation building.

SHELTER AND PLACE

Regenerative design is not merely on the built and natural environment, but the software of it, people, which is equivalent essential in justifying the fairshare of our planet resources without the monopolization by certain interest groups. The human spirit needs inspiration and nurturing. Communities are created when people feel attached to a place and attached to people. The urgent social security we face today is the inequality within society that has caused us insecurity in our social living environment. We need to cultivate places with a diversity of people, species, incomes, functions, and a varied built environment that leads to more tolerance and allow these elements to support each other.

EPIC Home, a social enterprise which aims to build relationship between the urban and rural divide through the activity of building homes for underprivileged indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia.
EPIC Home, a social enterprise which aims to build relationship between the urban and rural divide through the activity of building homes for underprivileged indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia.

It is utterly gibberish to have a neighbourhood design that promotes environmental sustainability but socially discriminate the rich from the poor. This includes the many elite gated and guarded communities we see today, which I highly doubt its community’s social cohesiveness can be any better than that of the low cost flats population instead. Cities must be designed to enhance social connections and the serendipitous culture of the street, which also respects and emulates the spirit of the place. Our built environment shall build dignified homes for all members of society, granting equivalent rights for all to assess to green space and wild space, and even, inviting other species to share the land together as part of the good practice of biophilic city design. Aldo Leopold summarized it well “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

WATER

Another hard truth we face in this 21st century is the global water crisis. Only 0.3% of the freshwater in the world is readily accessible surface water. By 2025, 52 countries, with two thirds of the world’s population, will likely to face fresh water shortage. Water is the blood of the Earth. It is a vital to all the organisms who live on Earth as our blood is to us. An unhealthy aquatic system can lead to algal blooms, swimming closures, weed infestations, fish kills, waterborne illnesses and contaminated ground water. A river will be clean only if nothing fouls it up in the first place. With the 300,000 tonnes of garbage, enough to fill 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools being dumped into our Malaysian rivers yearly and many other source of contaminants, what makes us think that we deserve clean water after all?

Good Design: Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park features water playground which offers a different outdoor learning experience for its surrounding residential community.
Good Design: Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park features water playground which offers a different outdoor learning experience for its surrounding residential community.

The rules towards a justifiable usage of water are simple and widely known but only few or none of us practice them due to our dirt cheap subsidized potable water, that does not reflect the true ecological externality cost. The fact is the built environment we live in today sees water as a cheap commodity so much (or even free!), that we isolate ourselves from the very much perceived “contaminated” rainwater for simple hand washing for example. Yet, we hear citizens complaining on the water shortage while free and clean water is pouring down on their roofs then. We need to regenerate our cities and peoples’ mind sets to celebrate the availability of water by harvesting precipitation while allowing ground water replenishment, by treating greywater and blackwater as a resource, by enhancing aquatic health, instead of glorifying our magical water taps at home. The health of waterways is important in the health of the entire ecosystem, including human’s.

ENERGY AND TRANSPORTATION

It is known from Malaysia National Energy Balance 2012 sheet that the transportation and building sector accounts for 37% and 15% of the total energy usage. The scattered forms of development that both urban and rural areas have adopted over the last 60 years require significant transportation infrastructure dependent on a cheap and accessible supply of energy. Today, we live in an increasingly mobile world where we expect to be able to fly or drive outstation over the weekend. The modes of transport and the high energy demand environment we live in require large amounts of fossil fuel, produce air pollution and contribute to climate destabilization. On the contrary on design thought, how would society and our sense of place be impacted by reduced mobility and recreational activities that occurred closer to home?

Jeffery Lim (Left), the founder of Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle map, leading a group of cyclist over a one day tour to rediscover the lost spaces of Petaling Jaya.
Jeffery Lim (Left), the founder of Cycling Kuala Lumpur Bicycle map, leading a group of cyclist over a one day tour to rediscover the lost spaces of Petaling Jaya.

Energy and transportation demand can be reduced by creating beautiful whole communities. Do people feel less of a need to escape to the countryside when they have a strong sense of place and attachment to their community? Perhaps there need to be more places to escape to within the city, this includes having access to recreation in natural spaces, quiet sheltered repose, vibrant street lie and shopping opportunities among other things. By designing for integrated communities with multipurpose infrastructure and encouraging active mobility such as walking or cycling, there is huge earning in the aspect of energy conservation before we even start talking about energy efficiency or renewable energy.

MATTER AND WASTE

It is a matter of fact that industrialized nations have become throw-away societies. We label ourselves as ‘consumers’ as if this is what our purpose in life is. Media and marketing do not just advertise products, they redefine your “wants” as “needs”. Obsolescence is built in to product design so that a replacement product will have to be purchased in a few years. This not only consumes large amounts of material and resources but rapidly exhausts landfill capacity. How can attitudes toward purchases be changed from choices based on immediate cost to choices that consider the quality, durability and carbon footprint of the product? Take for instance, a plastic pop bottle cannot become another pop bottle upon recycling. It will be turned into a product or material of lower quality with fewer possible uses. Eventually, a product that has been downcycled like this loses its ability to be recycled hence becomes a waste.

Biji Biji initiative, a social enterprise which focuses in product design of upcycled material, has been constantly finding creative ways to reuse trash through various prototype development and production.
Biji Biji initiative, a social enterprise which focuses in product design of upcycled material, has been constantly finding creative ways to reuse trash through various prototype development and production.

The idea of ‘waste’ needs to be discarded. From the aspect of regenerative, the output of the system of human consumption must become input for another process. This is popularized by the term “Cradle to Cradle” concept by William McDonough. In order to be able to achieve zero waste, all material needs to be categorized as either biological or technical. Technical materials, or nutrients, consist of non-toxic synthetic materials that can be continuously recycled without losing their integrity or quality. Biological nutrients are organic materials that can be returned to the natural environment to decompose once they are no longer useful to humans. These two categories needs to be kept separated from source so that objects and their components stay circulating continuously within their stream.

ECONOMIES AND GOVERNANCE

Our current economic paradigm is based on flawed theories. It fundamentally ignores the ecological foundations upon which all systems on earth are based. Its sole focus is financial capital – ignoring natural capital, human capital, social capital, and built capital. Can a system that simply measures one output – Goss Domestic Product GDP accurately measure the well-being or progressive growth of a society? For example, the disparity between rich and poor within a nation has a strong correlation to the health of the entire population. The less of a gap there is between those on top and those on the bottom, the healthier all citizens are.

WWW.MESYM.COM Malaysia Environmental Sustainability Youth Movements, an integrated virtual platform crowdsourcing on environmental movements within Malaysia, organizes monthly documentary screening which tries to bridge various stakeholder to a casual discussion
WWW.MESYM.COM Malaysia Environmental Sustainability Youth Movements, an integrated virtual platform crowdsourcing on environmental movements within Malaysia, organizes monthly documentary screening which tries to bridge various stakeholder to a casual discussion

The regenerative aspect seeks a holistic alternative instead of the traditional economics. The true “Genuine Wealth” as proposed by Mark Anielski, an ecological economist, measures five capital assets: human, social, natural, built and financial. The findings conclude that the localization of the economy is an effective way of circulating resources within the community, thus impacting several of different types of capital simultaneously. Governments should facilitate policy to be flexible enough to encourage continual adjustments as we learn from the implementation of new strategies as described above to address the environmental, social and economic issues facing society.

Driving all these to happen

While the amplification of regenerative design written into six different aspects spanning across three major themes, the conversation on regenerative design is still relatively novice and its academic definition is still on the argument board. However, each of the regenerative principles themselves are quite broad and there are many ways of being true to them through design. These may be discovered as our worldviews evolve to see problems in a new light, or as the application of certain design ideas fails – perfection should not get in the way of greatness – let’s start by doing something, which we have already, by riding on the green building wave, and improve it as we go. One thing is certain, that our current economic model and built environment progress does little or none progress to the overall well-being of society.