Regenerative design is an approach in which human and natural systems are designed to co-exist and co-evolve over time. The value of a regenerative design approach is in its potential to regenerate planetary health and deliver positive outcomes for both people and planet. 

After millennia of human development, exploitation of natural resources and nature loss, regenerative design explores how we can restore and regenerate planetary health through the way we design our buildings, neighbourhoods, cities, and spaces. The fundamental principle is that we can both drive sustainable human development and simultaneously replenish planetary ecosystems by working in harmony with nature instead of against it. 

This approach does not seek to recreate previous ecological states, but rather to understand how the built environment can perform roles within those ecosystems. For example: 

  • Optimising a façade’s design to provide habitats for local species as seen in Habitat Royale, a proposed residential building in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  
  • Reconnecting water cycles that urban hardscapes have disrupted by understanding baseline absorbency, using Arup’s Global Sponge Cities Snapshot, to create new blue and green spaces that better absorb extreme rainfall.  
  • Designing a passive ventilation system at the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe – emulating the way African termites regulate temperature in their mounds. 

In many cases, regenerative approaches are not new concepts but draw on long-understood Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge.  

Why do we need regenerative design?

In our relatively brief time on the planet, humans have become one of the most impactful species in its history with power to irreversibly alter the Earth’s systems. Extractive human activities have pushed us beyond planetary limits; the limits which underpin Earth’s capacity to support all life. Consequently, we now have an urgent ethical and ecological responsibility to design the human world to support the health of the natural systems which sustain us. 

Regenerative design begins with a mindset shift that reconnects humans to the wider living system, which we are part of and rely on to survive. It promotes ecological resilience and creates space for nature to continuously renew and replenish itself, nurturing a just space for human and natural life.  

Applying regenerative design in practice

Turning a regenerative mindset into practice requires a fundamental shift in the values that guide our decisions and, ultimately, a reframing of economic objectives that drive growth and exploitation.  

Regulations, finance and policy will be the key mechanisms that drive adoption of regenerative design to achieve planetary health. It will require ambitious objectives that have the power to reshape market incentives away from narrow, short-term commercial goals to deliver enduring benefits across the whole planetary ecosystem. 

Regenerative design doesn’t seek to somehow recreate the pre-human world. Rather, it’s about exploring how today and tomorrow’s infrastructure, buildings and spaces can perform the vital functions those earlier ecosystems provided.

Josef Hargrove

Global Foresight Leader, Arup