As our population increases and the impacts of climate change become more evident and frequent, change is our only constant.

The human footprint of cities is currently contributing to over 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and land use changes, unsustainable consumption patterns, and associated biodiversity loss.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently traced the world’s collective urban footprint, estimating that there are now over 10,000 cities worldwide. How many of these can you name? At a stretch, I think I could name around 200.

As we reach for net zero emissions by 2030, to balance our actions with planet’s needs, we must reflect and ask ourselves, will this be enough? Will transitioning to net zero recover biodiversity and habitats lost and provide the resources and food we will need to survive and thrive in the future?

While we cannot predict the future, we can shape it through the decisions we make today. To truly rebalance the needs of people and the planet, we must recover and repair what has been damaged or lost and reset our expectations of how we interact with the natural world.

In a world full of complexity, technological advancements, solutions, and ideas, how do we rebalance and restore our relationship with nature? The path forward is a long-term transformation towards regenerative design that will combine the needs of humans with those of the planet. This aspired state of harmony is not just about nature and ecosystems, but also social and economic benefits for all.

What is regenerative design?

Regenerative design is a process of restoring nature so humans and natural systems can co-exist and co-evolve in harmony. It aims to restore social and planetary health, revitalise biodiverse ecosystems and renew natural capital.

It is also important to understand what it is not. Regenerative design is often misconceived as ‘urban regeneration’, which focuses more on regenerating buildings and spaces within a specific urban environment. It can also be confused with sustainable design, which aims to reduce or remove environmental impacts. In contrast, regenerative design seeks to build nature-led systems that are resilient, dynamic, adaptable, and restorative, providing enrichment and opportunity for humans and other species to thrive continuously over time. Most importantly, regenerative design is about achieving net-positive outcomes. 

It is our pathway to a net-positive future, going beyond sustaining natural environments, and regenerating our planet. It is a long-term shift to how humans interact with the natural environment in the future. Although we have not arrived at this future yet, we are on a pathway to uncover what we need to get there.

Why isn’t sustainable design enough?

Reaching net-zero emissions is an essential goal we all need to achieve for our survival. Sustainable design and approaches are our pathway to net zero and eliminating negative human impacts on the earth. They focus on using less energy and producing less waste to get us back into balance. However, we have a planet in need of repair. Sustainable outcomes will only help balance our actions and stop us from creating further damage. 

To restore and rebalance our relationship with nature, we need to design a future where buildings consume more carbon than they generate, where infrastructure increases biodiversity, where urban planning restores natural ecosystems, and so forth.

We need to consider the pathway through net zero, where we co-evolve in harmony across all species without compromising the needs of future generations.

A powerful decarbonisation mechanism

Regenerative design is also an important mechanism for decarbonisation. Healthy, thriving ecosystems can store carbon in their biomass and soils providing resilience to the effects of climate change through increased food security, regulation of water flows and storm surges, reduced soil erosion, and urban cooling.

One example, from our Reduce, Restore, Remove: a call to action publication, is the regeneration of terrestrial ecosystems, which include forests, grasslands, tundra, peatlands, and wetlands. Through a process of ‘eco-sequestration’ we can restore the planet’s ecological systems to maximise their removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Forests alone could store up to 23% of global annual carbon, while three times more carbon is stored in the top metre of soils than in all global vegetation combined. This could be achieved through reforestation, ecosystem protection and regenerative agriculture. 

While regenerative design is a powerful mechanism for restoring our planetary health, it is more than a tool to get us back into balance. It provides ecological gains, improves social and economic value, and offers a new equilibrium where humans and nature can co-exist. 

Preparing all cities for climate action

With 10,000 cities worldwide, how can we achieve a transformation and regeneration of this scale? While larger more developed cities have a role to play in leading the way for this transition, we must empower smaller cities that do not have the skills and resources to move forward. The battle to reach and go beyond net zero, stay within 1.5 degrees, and create a more regenerative future will not be won in London, Melbourne or Singapore alone. It will also need to be won in Ikire, Teresina and Cirebon. 

We can achieve through capacity building, knowledge sharing, developing best practices at scale and working together. At the same time, we must recognise the unique context of each place to maintain the needs and identity of their citizens.

This week at the World Cities Summit in Singapore, I will be sharing more on regenerative design and significant examples of progress we are making across the world on a country, city and neighbourhood scale. Read more about my session on the World Cities Summit website.