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The Shift from Sustainable to Regenerative Design

Landscape architects have made strides at making their designs more environmentally friendly. Over the past few decades, many have incorporated sustainability practices in order to cause less damage to the environment. But as we become more knowledgeable about the current state of the environment, many have shifted over to regenerative design. By using regenerative design principles in their landscapes, landscape architects can have an even more positive impact on the environment.

History of Sustainable Design

During the 1970s, the architectural and design world faced a push for environmental protection and energy efficiency to be incorporated into new designs. At the time, the movement was not yet known as sustainability. However, it included many of the same goals. This movement continued to grow and become more incorporated in the early 1990s. 

Then, in 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined “sustainability” as we know it: “meeting the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The focus of the sustainability movement was on minimizing the harm caused by human activity.

Solar panels on house

Increasing energy efficiency was the primary goal of sustainable design.

Buildings, landscapes, and other manmade structures were designed in a way where they did as little damage to the surrounding environment as possible. Throughout the 1990s, this way of design was adopted even more until it became thoroughly incorporated in the design and construction mindset.

A Shift in Green Design

During the high point of sustainability building, designers focused on using fewer harmful chemicals, saving water, and increasing energy efficiency. Many materials were made from recycled content and were locally sourced when possible. Plus, landscape architects frequently chose to use materials that could be recycled or used again in the future. Certifications such as LEED helped support teams that were creating sustainable buildings. All of these techniques had the goal of not harming the environment so future generations would have the resources they would need to thrive.

However, sustainable design and systems have not resulted in reducing negative impacts enough. Although they certainly help, climate change has continued to become a more serious issue. 2019 was the second warmest year on record, and the UN forecasts that temperatures will rise by up to 3.2°C by 2100. Related industries realized they needed to do more than just avoid future problems. 

In response, the focus has shifted from doing “less bad” to doing “more good” through regenerative design. Designers and builders using regenerative design principles work to not only keep the environment at its status quo but to actively work to reverse the harm that has been done in the past.

Principles of Regenerative Design

Regenerative design can be used across different industries. Buildings can be designed and built following regenerative design practices, as can landscapes. They can often even work together to create a holistic design approach that works across indoor and outdoor spaces.

HBD near river

Landscapes using regenerative design principles can more easily bridge the gap between human activity and the natural environment.

Planners aim to restore the environment to a way that is not affected by human activity, leading to net positives and long-term sustainability. Because of this, the design mimics natural systems and nature itself. But regenerative landscape designs can be incorporated into the traditional design process.  One still ends up with a beautiful, usable space that also gives back to the environment. In addition, the area usually blends into the surrounding environment in a visually pleasing way.

Landscapes that incorporate regenerative design principles:

  • Control erosion and maintain healthier soil
  • Reduce maintenance and construction costs
  • Decrease water use
  • Decrease or even eliminate chemical use
  • Increase biodiversity
  • Increase resilience to changes such as weather events or climate change

Incorporating Regenerative Design into the Landscape

There are a number of ways that regenerative design can be incorporated into landscape design. If there is a building in the area, green roofs and skins can sequester carbon and clean the surrounding area. They can also reduce the ambient air temperature and reduce the heating and cooling needs of the building. Buildings designed following regenerative design practices are thermally efficient, which reduces energy consumption and the mechanical system load. Inside the building, curtain walls can be used. 

In the landscape, windbreaks and other methods of reducing drastic temperature shifts can also be incorporated. Low impact materials, such as reinforced stone, which can help keep air temperatures low, can be used in drains, grates, and other installations.

Reinforced stone bench

Installations made from reinforced stone, such as benches, can help reduce ambient air temperatures.

Capturing rainwater is useful because it can help replenish groundwater levels while preventing flooding or erosion from excess rainfall. This can also help protect nearby bodies of water from pollution. Regenerative design may also focus on treating wastewater, which can positively impact water conservation goals. 

Landscapes utilizing regenerative design encourage native plants and wildlife and promote biodiversity. This makes the landscape closer to what it would be like without human intervention. Many times, it can also help protect vulnerable species by providing homes for them.

Final Thoughts

Sustainability was an excellent start to solving the climate crisis and other environmental issues caused by human impact. However, the shift to regenerative design has provided a way that landscape architects and other designers and builders can actually have a positive impact on the environment instead.

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