Q&A on Positive Development by Janis BirkelandThrough design, the built environment can become a sustainability solution. It could make everyone betteroff, increase the life support system, and expand future social options. However, as currently designed,cities, buildings and infrastructure make sustainability unachievable. This can be easily fixed, at no net costto society, as we modify our urban areas to contribute positively to the ecology, community and climate.Why is built environment design central to achieving sustainability?Human-designed systems of developments cause much of the disasters that we blame nature for. Floods,fires, landslides, the urban heat island effect, drought, malnutrition, malaria and so on, are exacerbated by‘industrial’ (fossil-fuelled) systems in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and transportation.The demand for production from these sectors is in large part shaped by the design of the builtenvironment.With a growing population, don’t we need more industrial production?Even if the human population was dramatically reduced, our industrial systems of development would stillnot be sustainable. The environmental and economic costs of conventional development outweigh thebenefits over time - as shown by climate change, biodiversity losses and world poverty. Through design,however, we could use natural systems to meet human needs in new ways to increase everyone’s qualityof life.Doesn’t sustainability depend more on reducing consumption than on design?Reducing consumption is important, but it does not change the global supply-led economy. Currentindustrial systems drive consumption more than consumers do. The design of cities also locks people intounsustainable life styles and causes collateral damage like congestion, homelessness, stress and pollution.Cities cause 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and buildings use 40% of energy so they simply must change.If design locks us in to unsustainable systems, how can design be a solution?When we realize the extent to which built environment design drives resource extraction, industrialproduction and consumption, we then understand the huge positive ripple effects that eco-positive designcould have. A system of development that does not pay its own way over its life cycle can no longer beseen as acceptable. We need a positive form of development that expands the ecological base, and naturaland social resources.Can we do that by replacing fossil-fuel-based systems with green buildings?Green buildings have made impressive gains over conventional buildings. However, the environment – thefoundation of life - would be better off without them. Since only about 2% of buildings are new each year,the time, money, resources and material flows involved in replacing them makes this physically unrealistic.New ‘green’ cities also leave the poor behind, or even bulldoze their communities to make way for newbuildings.How could we go beyond the current green building paradigm?What we now call ‘sustainable’ development replaces nature along with its ecosystem services, biodiversityand ecological carrying capacity. Any form of intelligent design should respect 4 billion years ofevolutionary experimentation. Nonetheless, a design ‘inspired by nature’, that uses nature as a model, orthat works like an ecosystem is usually not eco-positive. Urban areas must modified to supportecosystems.
Aren’t buildings that are regenerative and support nature being built?Yes, but ecological restoration or regeneration is not good enough, because we have already exceeded theEarth’s carrying capacity. Therefore just to support existing bioregions and populations, we need to reversethe ecological and social deficit. Fortunately, many eco-innovations already exist that could be integratedsynergistically with buildings and infrastructure to make the environment and humans better off.How can cities and buildings reverse the social and ecological deficit?One way is through ‘Design for Eco-services’. Ecosystem services are all the things nature provides for us,like producing clean air, heat, water, soil and food. We use a slightly different term, ‘eco-services’, toinclude the non-material benefits of nature, such as intrinsic value. We can integrate the (virtually) freeservices of nature with existing development to produce net ecological and social gains over the structure’slife span.How would we go about increasing ecosystems and eco-services in cities?Urban structures can support low-impact technologies using many natural systems that replace fossil-fuel-based equipment. For example, passive solar cooling, lighting, heating and ventilating provide thermal eco-services, but such systems can also include natural air, water and soil treatment functions. The change canbe made by design without first addressing the systemic barriers to sustainability. Design can leapfrogbarriers.Just what system barriers could a new kind of urban design by-pass?The dominant paradigm that evolved to rationalise the industrial revolution is completely negative. It waspremised on the idea that humans are in conflict with nature and that development can only have negativeecological impacts. ‘Positive Development’ represents a whole systems change that replaces thesenegative premises, methods and tools with positive alternatives that would facilitiate net positive designsand decisions.How is Positive Development defined and how is it different from green design?Positive Development can be distilled into: ‘a system or structure that increases the ecological base (eg lifesupport system) and public estate (eg access to the means of survival) - beyond pre-settlement conditions’.This is completely different from a development that leaves a contaminated site ‘better than we found it’.It requires an increase in positive onsite and offsite impacts to compensate for past development.How can any development have net positive ecological impacts?There are many ‘potentially’ eco-positive technologies, such as aquaponics, permaculture, living machines,vertical composters, vertical landscapes, and algaetecture. In combination, these can be integrated withliving roofs, walls, balconies, atria and/or empty warehouses. Living systems can remove many stresses ofurban life. Of course, it would be much easier to achieve net positive impacts by eco-retrofitting.What is eco-retrofitting and why would it make eco-positive design easier?Eco-retrofitting pays for itself, and costs less than doing nothing if we factor in the ongoing costs, waste andemissions from existing buildings. In practice, however, eco-retrofitting only aims to ‘reduce’ toxins, energyand water consumption. We can to go beyond ‘eco-retrofitting’ for better health and resource savings, byproviding more ecosystems and eco-services than consumed when retrofitting buildings.
Even if so, how can eco-positive retrofitting be implemented on a large scale?Even using conventional economic accounting methods, the resource savings and improved human healthand productivity more than pay for the work. Therefore, mechanisms already exist to cover the upfrontcosts. Buildings need ongoing maintenance and repair anyway. Eco-retrofitting can occur simultaneouslyat great speed, while creating jobs and revitalizing urban areas.Where would we begin to get design ideas for eco-positive retrofitting?We have gathered many dozens of existing eco-innovations that could be integrated in urban structuresand synergistically combined to provide surplus eco-services. For example, a living wall can produce about25 different eco-services and other benefits. So design that omits living systems is a lost opportunity.Modular retrofitting prototypes that provide multiple eco-services are being virtually modelled andassessed.If the solutions are so obvious, why doesn’t the market drive this change?The market makes owners and investors better off by generating financial capital or ‘growth’. It does so bytransferring wealth from natural resources from society to individuals. However, it does not create naturalcapital. We have analysed the impact of buildings on the ecology using financial frameworks. Marginaleconomic analyses do not deal with the infinite value of nature or its potential collapse.So our development metrics and measurements are part of the problem?Yes. Building impact assessment methods measure the wrong things in the wrong ways. Methods thatbalance economic gains against environmental losses omit the economic benefits of a healthyenvironment. These tools aim to benefit occupants, investors and owners, rather than support design thatmakes everyone better off. They also fail to measure many long-term costs, due to their complexity, andignore positive benefits.Does that mean we need to measure more things like positive impacts?We do not need to know the exact value of positive impacts, but it is easy to measure if what comes out ofa building is healthier than what went in (eg stress levels, and air, water and air quality). We cannot nowthe exact value of negative impacts, in contrast, because these depend on complex and inseparableinteractions. For example, we cannot trace the impacts of multiple pollutants on myriad different immunesystems.If measuring positive impacts is easier, then why don’t we measure them?Our metrics are premised on the idea that development can only be negative ecologically. Therefore, lifecycle assessments usually have a scale from minus one to zero. Downsizing to zero is economic rationalism,whereas design is about multiplying benefits. We can shift design thinking from ‘less negative’ to eco-positive by deducting less negative impacts from negative impacts, and deducting the result from positiveones.So what sort of metrics would enable us to assess Positive Development?An ‘Eco-Positive Design Tool’ would measure both positive and negative impacts from a new benchmark – a‘Sustainability Standard’ (that is, the indigenous or pre-industrial ecology). As a general guide, ecologistscan approximate the ecosystems and biodiversity that evolved in the given biophysical and geographicalconditions, or compare the site to a similar one that is relatively pristine (if one exists).Is this Sustainability Standard objective and verifiable?It is much more objective than the standard benchmark, which is ‘typical’ or code compliant buildings. Theaim of improving upon the old prototype explains why few designers, if any, have thought to design eco-positive buildings. Some designers aim to restore damaged environments but, as noted above, this is notenough to support even the current population. Doing relatively less harm does not fix things.
Are there any examples of net Positive Development?Buildings are not yet assessed on an eco-positive scale. There are of course many ‘resource autonomous’buildings that draw all their energy and water from the site. However, they do not demonstrablycompensate for the past and ongoing damage of existing development, or show positive offsite impacts. Itis a matter of time until new development will need to offset any unavoidable damage by retrofitting oldbuildings.For more information see Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through BuiltEnvironment Design (Birkeland, Earthscan Publishers, 2008).A proposal for a new type of design and assessment method are provided on the website of AGDF’spartner organization, the Australian National Sustainability Initiative. www.sustainability.org.au