“Sustainable Development, Rational Planning” – 2017 National Planning Conference, Dongguan

Regenerative Design

Ric Stephens, President
November 17, 2017, Dongguan, China

Thank you for inviting me to join this extraordinary gathering of Chinese and international planners at the Urban Planning Society of China National Planning Conference. It is an honor to represent the International Society of City and Regional Planners at this event.

Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.(International Institute for Sustainable Development)

This definition is now 30 years old and continues to evolve as our understanding and vision develop. There are three aspects of this concept that must be reevaluated.

  1. Sustainable development must be eco-centric; not anthropocentric. Sustainable development must not only consider people (inter-generational equity), but the entire ecosystem. We must view sustainability from the perspective of the relationships within living systems; not the perspective of individual things within mechanical systems.
  2. Sustainable development must be place-oriented; not spatially generic. The primacy of place is essential to giving sustainable development meaning and value. Sustainable development must include the critical element of place-making.
  3. Sustainable development must be aspirational; not static, based on arbitrary standards.

Environmental, social and economic standards should be seen as transitional, not end goals. Sustainable development must be more than “meeting needs;” it must be aspirational.

Regenerative Design, which is still creating itself, introduces into Ecological Design at least two additional streams—the Science or Art of Place, and the science of living systems. Regeneration is far more than simple renewal or restoration. Definitions of the word “regenerate” include three key ideas: a radical change for the better; creation of a new spirit; returning energy to the source. It calls for the integration of aspects of ourselves as designers and as human beings—those of spirit and meaning—that in this era are too often left outside the studio door. It demands that we reunite the art and science of design because we cannot succeed at sustainability if we fail to acknowledge human aspiration and will as the ultimate sustaining source of our activities. (Pamela Mang)

Disjointed incrementalism or muddling through, mixed scanning and rational planning are the three models for decision-making. “Muddling through” is when we make decisions that are only marginally different from previous decisions. This type of planning is easier and usually has less political/social risk. “Mixed scanning” decisions focus on specific problems that we wish to address. This type of planning is applicable to urgent needs. “Rational Planning” is a holistic approach that requires critical thinking not only for solutions, but also for deeper questions. Rational planning embraces systems thinking in which relationships are more important than individual things in mechanical systems. The Aristotle quote “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” illustrates this type of thinking.

Consider a congested commuter highway as an example:

A “muddling through” approach would define the problem as not enough highway capacity, and the solution would be to build more lanes

A “mixed scanning” approach would be to define the problem as how to move more people, and the solution would be to provide bus rapid transit or light rail.

A “rational planning” approach would be to define the problem as a jobs/housing imbalance, and the solution would be to provide more housing and jobs where needed to reduce the demand for this commute.

The “rational planning” model is a circular process starting with

  1. Define the issue
  2. Gather information
  3. Study information
  4. Develop alternatives
  5. Select or combine plans
  6. Take action
  7. Review and evaluation

The last step starts this process over again. The circular or spiral nature of this process generates improved planning.

What does regenerative design mean for urban planners?

  1. We must embrace a “systems thinking” approach to planning. This will enable us to better see and manage complex, interacting systems. Urbanization has become too complicated to take a mechanical view of addressing each aspect as an independent part.
  2. We must consider all development impacts on “place-making.” Every project either reinforces or detracts from “sense of place.” Every place needs a “story” that can easily be understood and shared.
  3. We must adopt the “rational planning” model for critical decision-making. Previous models of urbanization are no longer adequate for today’s challenges and opportunities. We cannot continue making the same kinds of plans we have made in the past.
  4. Our planning must be aspirational and inspirational. There will be little public support or political will for simplistic sustainable development goals if they are not linked to a vision of a more vibrant and meaningful quality of life.
  5. We must see urban planning as a multi-dimensional, dynamic system rather than a static master plan. Smart cities will need flexibility, adaptability, resiliency and innovation.
    Smart cities will thrive with change, and innovation may even require some degree of chaos. [Some people believe that is what we planners do best: create chaos.]

! Please consider “regenerative design” as an enhancement to “sustainable development.”

! Please consider “systemic rational planning” as an advancement to “mechanical muddling through.”

! …and please consider a little creative chaos.


Thank you for your time and interest,

Ric Stephens
President, International Society of City and Regional Planners

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