What is Positive Development?

The Positive Development STARfish


What is the STARfish app?

The STARfish or net-positive (aka eco-positive, nature-positive) design app aids urban design and architecture professionals, educators and students in designing urban environments that create net public sustainability gains.  The computer app implements Positive Development (PD) theory and practice.  A summary of PD in a Post-Development Dictionary can be found here.

PD was premised on the notion that the built environment, despite its huge impacts, can be ecologically, socially and economically net positive.  It can be a generator of whole-system sustainability, rather than just being less harmful.  To be genuinely sustainable, buildings must ‘give back more than they take’ doing more good and less bad within system boundaries.

Over the last few decades, practitioners have come to appreciate that sustainable design can save society huge economic, social and ecological costs, while increasing profits.  However, the short-term costs of changing systems and practices, along with a lack of capacity-building in design, and inappropriate design and assessment tools, have been an ongoing challenge.  Net-positive design would not cost more but requires new theory frameworks and tools.

This is where the STARfish net-positive design app comes in.  The STARfish design app can facilitate the transition to genuinely sustainable design and development.  Unlike other tools it integrates creative design and engineering efficiency and, unlike other tools, exposes design synergies and incentivizes net-positive design opportunities from the beginning of the project.

The STARfish app is free for one year.  After that, you may need to subscribe to be entitled to upgrades and design support.  Suggestions, questions and feedback are encouraged.

Why is net-positive design necessary?  

Most sustainable design and assessment tools are generally very prescriptive.  They set standards based on current codes, buildings, practices or conditions (which means buildings can only be ‘less unsustainable’).  They ignore many negative and cumulative impacts, and record mitigation measures as ‘positive’.  These tools are based on out-dated intellectual and institutional premises and frameworks.  Consequently, the greenest buildings still do net harm during resource extraction, manufacturing, construction, if not operation.  This means, over time and space, green buildings are ecologically terminal and cannot be considered sustainable.

PD theory and its resulting new planning analyses, design processes and assessment methods turn what is currently known as ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ design on its head.  The STARfish measures the distance to sustainability, not improvements over patently unsustainable construction designs and practice.  ‘Net’ means design principles and assessment are based on whole-system conditions, rather than within system boundaries.

PD sets actual sustainable socio-ecological standards, rather than just aiming to restore remnant environments or improve stakeholder welfare.  It facilitates synergistic, adaptable and multifunctional design, which PD sustainability standards require, as explained below.

What is wrong with existing approaches?

Rating tools are now virtually dictating sustainable design.  Yet they ignore many negative and cumulative impacts that appear too difficult to measure.  They do this by using simplistic rules and thresholds to reduce complexity.  Socio-ecological impacts are therefore largely excluded.  Ignoring harsh realities in order to accommodate arithmetic does nothing to counteract mass extinctions or growing disparities of wealth and health.  Buildings must become nature-positive.

Scores based on relative efficiency alone (eg. ‘30% less energy usage than typical buildings’) also reduce the incentives to contribute to the public good.  As explained in Positive Development (2008), “if we labelled cigarettes the way we label buildings, people might start smoking more ‘light’ cigarettes to get healthier”. 

The STARfish app is based on a systematic critique of existing building rating and marketing tools.  This results in 88 criteria for the STARfish tool.  Problems with green building rating tools are examined in the book Net-Positive Design. A table with 35 differences between the STARfish app and most rating tools is posted on this website


This website briefly describes the functions and purposes of the STARfish app and touches on its theoretical foundations.  It also provides some user instructions, although the STARfish app has pop-up instructions built into it.  

1.  What is the background of the STARfish app

1.1  What is the theoretical basis of the app?

1.2  What is Positive Development (PD)?

1.3  Why is a new kind of design tool needed?

2.  What qualifies as a net-positive development?

2.1  What is the PD Test?

2.1.1  The PD social standard

2.1.2  The PD ecological standard

3.  How does PD differ from mainstream sustainable design?

3.1  What is the mainstream framework?

3.2  Is Positive Development realistic? 

3.3  What is wrong with current approaches?

4.0  Examples of Positive Development Design Concepts

1.  What is the background of the STARfish app

1.1  What is the theoretical basis of the app? 

Net-positive (aka eco-positive or nature-positive) is the outcome of PD theory.  Although the app may be self-explanatory, an understanding of Positive Development (PD) principles and net-positive design is not.  (PD) theory is summarized in many publications, and some abstracts are provided here.  People are welcome to request specific publications via the website feedback button. 

The philosophy behind the tool is described in detail in Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development (2019).  It would also assist the app user to read the description of the tool in Chapters 15-16 in that book – but preferably the entire rationale for the approach and tool in those chapters.  The following section provides a capsule description of PD.

1.2  What is Positive Development (PD)? 

Positive Development (PD) contends that built environment design can create environments that make everyone, everywhere, better off and increase positive interrelationships between humans and be nature-positive – while simultaneously reducing or reversing overall (global) material/energy usage and environmental damage.  To decrease societal consumption while increasing life quality, the built environment must do more socio-ecological good than ‘no development at all’.   

PD is a set of methods aimed at overcoming the obstacles to quality control and the sustainability of the built environment.  It is a systematic deconstruction of both the paradigm underlying current practices of architecture and urban design, and the institutional frameworks and conventions that shape unsustainable development.  PD explains, for example, how cities and buildings can be eco-positive: increase ecological carrying capacity beyond pre-urban or preindustrial times (although extinctions cannot be reversed of course). 

The STARfish app aims to enable the young at heart and mind to adopt net-positive thinking and bridge the cultural divide between creative, positive design and reductionist decision making, and combines institutional and social change.  It corrects the anomalies in current sustainable planning and design practices, as explained in the book Net-Positive Design.

  • Part I of the book discusses the conceptual flaws and procedural failings in sustainable urban planning, design and assessment (including policy approaches, design strategies and technical tools) and suggests reforms. 
  • Part II converts this analysis into specific new criteria, methods and tools for translating the new net-positive design paradigm into practice and provides the rational for the net-positive computer app or STARfish.

This new book builds upon Positive Development (2008) which explained how buildings could be truly sustainable.     

1.3  Why is a new kind of design tool needed?

Current tools do not deal with whole systems, although some purport to.  They are really only assessment tools that seek greater economic efficiency, not net socio-ecological gains.  That is, they put the cart before the horse (design).  Designers have always tried to leave the environment better than they found it, but in a world of mass extinctions and genocides, that bar is too low. 

PD standards are not even assessed yet, let alone encouraged.  They still only measure less bad, as others have noted for well over two decades.  Governments and industry have been unresponsive, engaged in displacement activity or focused on either describing (or denying) the problem.  Whether policies change or not, a new tool is needed enable managers, decision makers, planners and designers to save the planet by building in net-positive public gains*.

PD aims to transform the nature of urban-regional planning and urban design to expand future options, rather than merely reduce future damage.  Positive development concepts have been percolating since 2002.  In fact, net positive terms have even been adopted in a green building rating tool, although weakened to mean merely ecologically restorative and socially beneficial for stakeholders.  Net-positive design is the future, if there is to be one. 

2.  What qualifies as a net-positive development?

To achieve net-positive development, physical conditions must provide net benefit to the wider public (not just stakeholders) and increase nature beyond that which existed before any development occurred.  The baseline for ecological gains is pre-development conditions; that is, pre-industrial, pre-urban or pre-settlement – depending on the bioregion.  The baseline for social gains is region-wide increases in socio-environmental justice and equity – in biophysical, tangible terms (not monetary transactions).  

In short, as discussed below, the built environment must increase the ‘ecological base’ (biodiversity habitats, ecological carrying capacity, etc.) and ‘public estate’ (life quality, social needs, environmental justice, etc.).  Social and ecological gains would over-compensate for past and present global rates of unavoidable damage, depletion and deprivation, instead of barely offsetting the added negative impacts that they cause. 

2.1  What is the PD Test?

PD criteria are based on whole-system outcomes, rather than standards relative to typical buildings, property lines, ownership or current conditions.  A net-positive design would meet the PD TestThis asks whether a development increases future options (eg. inter-generational as well as intra-generational equity) by meeting the following PD social and ecological standards.  (More detailed design standards and benchmarks are provided in the tool.)

2.1.1 The PD social standard  

To be socially sustainable, construction must increase direct physical access to basic needs, increase environmental justice, correct social deficits/inequities and improve life quality – for the surrounding area as well as the stakeholders. 

  • Economic aspects:  Economic considerations are a subset of social considerations because economics is a means to sustainability, not the end in itself.  Monetary approaches are inherently reductionist and usually led by price efficiency – instead of whole-system and biophysical efficiency.  In contrast to economic levers and pullies (with sometimes unintended consequences), design can provide multifunctional public gains, often at no extra cost/impact. 
  • Social indicators:  The provision of resource/environmental equity and security through sustainable built environments (eg. direct access to means of survival, health and wellbeing), provides far more reliable measures of social wellbeing and equity than money.  Physical outcomes (ends) are better indicators or equity, security and wellbeing than monetary transactions.

2.1.2  PD ecological standard

To be ecologically sustainable, construction must increase nature’s ‘positive ecological footprint’ beyond humanity’s negative ecological footprint on a floor area or material basis (ie. not simply reduce its land coverage or replace it with a green roof).

  • Biophysical issues:  The design tool sets net-positive standards based on fixed, biophysical conditions – instead of relative to regulations, typical buildings or best practices.  The term ‘net-positive biodiversity’ has been misappropriated recently by an organization in the UK as ‘better than laws require’.  This means that countries that reduce their environmental standards are net positive.
  • Means to achieve eco-positive development are design for eco-services, eco-positive retrofitting and multifunctional, adaptable design.  Also, while offsetting and trading schemes usually only mitigate negative impacts, PD ‘net-positive offsetting’ standards ensure a net public gain.

3.  How does PD differ from mainstream sustainable design?

3.1  What is the mainstream framework? 

Mainstream approaches to sustainable development are construed within closed-system frameworks.  Closed-systems thinking has pervaded environmental decision making, problem solving, project management and assessment from its inception*. Put simply, closed systems are where externalities are only ‘internalized’ (eg. financial costs = benefits, resource inputs = outputs, or waste = recycling rates).  This is a circular model. 

Sustainable design paradigms also reflect a closed-system mental model and methods.  Circular systems, such as closed-loop and upcycling strategies, are indispensable components of sustainable systems.  Although they would be a big improvement over terminal, linear systems, however, they are not net-positive.  Recycling cannot achieve actual biophysical sustainability since, for instance, ecological losses and damages bioaccumulate.  

Decision-making frameworks have focused attention on reducing negative impacts instead of recognizing or incentivizing adaptable, multifunctional net-positive outcomes.  Sustainability is a design problem, yet institutional and conceptual frameworks have marginalized design, because they evolved around decision making and not design.  Decision making is essential, and complementary with design, but it is inherently reductionist and hierarchical. 

Decision tools generally simplify choices by eliminating considerations that seem remote in time or space.  Design, in contrast, can create new options that expand future opportunities.  Lateral design or open-systems thinking is or can be about creating synergies and multiple benefits.  It goes beyond efficiency to create environments that increase symbiotic relationships between individuals, society and nature. 

3.2  Is Positive Development realistic?

Physical change: There are many examples of how eco-positive systems are possible.  For instance, buildings can absorb more carbon than they emit over their full lifespan* and materials can be grown from mushrooms, rather than forests, mines or broadacre farming*.  Buildings can support natural systems that provide ecosystem functions and services or ‘eco-services’*.

Institutional change:  Conventional sustainable planning, design and assessment methods and processes reproduce the old paradigm.  New decision and assessment frameworks are therefore needed, in addition to new design standards and practices.  Systems change appears too hard partly because few designers are very conversant with governance and few decision makers are conversant with design thinking.  Positive Development aims to integrate both dimensions.  Both books on PD suggest how to modernize institutions while returning to their core values:  the public interest.

3.3  What is wrong with current approaches?

Past efficiency-based environmental ‘solutions’ can only mitigate ongoing damage, not over-compensate for past losses.  They can only slow the gradual deterioration of the life-support system.  The STARfish app overcomes many anomalies in current sustainability frameworks, methods, tools, processes (eg. BIM, building rating tools, lifecycle assessment, design guidelines) that limit net-positive outcomes. 

The book isolates and explains many problems in green building rating tools, each of which contribute several criteria that the new STARfish app was designed to remedy.  The ways in which PD and the app address these problems are explained in Net-Positive Design (See chapters 11-12 and 13-14).

4.0 Examples of Positive Development Design Concepts

‘Playgardens’ were constructed by the author in the 1980s. These are ‘botanical exploratoriums’ where play spaces (cubbies) and physical challenges are fully integrated with nature. Playgardens support ecological functions, biodiversity and ecosystem services while exposing children and parents to biophilic (‘nature loving’) experiences and stimulating creativity, imagination and social interaction.
Playgardens provide more developmental benefits, play value and landscaping at less cost than sterile, single-function equipment, while increasing safety. Vegetative groundcover provides soft landings, is renewable, and slows children down where they might collide or fall. Children must negotiate the low-scale support structures instead of passively riding on dangerous equipment.

Energy retrofitting has been shown to be profitable for owners while saving substantial environmental and public health costs. However, it is usually only done with energy and water savings in mind and seldom supports biodiversity. The book gives examples of original eco-positive retrofitting concepts that can provide multiple socio-ecological benefits.
One among many such ideas is to preserve existing neighborhoods while doubling their occupancy. Units built above homes can ‘solarize’ both dwellings, using passive and renewable energy and green roofs. Owners can house elderly parents, struggling adult children, or rent-paying tenants, without losing their gardens or ever having to move.

Existing cities are responsible for a substantial portion of carbon emissions. Yet most efforts at reducing atmospheric carbon are still focused on emissions rather than sequestration. The author’s collaborators proved scientifically that buildings with substantial ‘permanent’ building-integrated vegetation could sequester more carbon than emitted throughout their lifecycle – within years.
Many green buildings use indoor plants to clean the air and improve worker productivity, but only ‘tokenistically’. Since these buildings are not really designed for interior landscapes, dead plants are regularly replaced, involving costs and transport emissions. Most buildings could instead be retrofitted to support substantial vegetation and natural daylighting.

The author’s Green Scaffolding is an ecological envelope around buildings or parts thereof. It supports ecosystem services, passive solar energy and other natural systems that provide environmental and building benefits, such as urban air cleaning. This adaptable skeletal frame can accommodate diverse micro-climates and create biodiversity habitats or ‘living views’.
Green Scaffolding can form the wall structure itself or be used to retrofit homes, buildings, infrastructure, or free-standing park features such as band stands. In impoverished regions, it can fortify structurally-weak homes to reduce flood, hurricane or earthquake damage and support food production, water collection and purification, among other functions.

Questions and suggestions are always welcome. Contact netpositivedesign@gmail.com

The book, Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development, can be acquired from Routledge Publishers. They are making a 20% Discount Available – enter the code FLR40 at checkout at routledge.com (Net-Positive-Design-and-Sustainable-Urban Development/Birkeland/p/book/9780367258566)
Paperback: ISBN 9780367258566
Hardback: ISBN 9780367258559
A brochure for the book is available here

A short accessible overview of Net-Positive Design can be found here