What is Positive Development?

The Positive Development STARfish


What is the STARfish app?

The STARfish or net-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 brief summary of PD 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’ (a phrase sometimes misappropriated to mean offsetting their own impacts).

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, has been an ongoing challenge.  Net-Positive design would not cost more but requires new 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.  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 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, not just mitigating the impacts of the norm.

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. 

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 failings which provide the criteria for the STARfish tool.  Problems with green building rating tools are examined in the book Net-Positive Design.


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?

1.  What is the background of the STARfish app

1.1  What is the theoretical basis of the app? 

Net-positive or eco-positive design 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 the preceding 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 nature – 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’.   

PDis a set of methods and processes aimed to overcome 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 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 between 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 design tool or STARfish.

This 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, 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, not just 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 physical, 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 – not just offset the added negative impacts that they cause. 

2.1  What is the PD Test?

PD criteria are based on whole-system outcomes, not just 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 themselves.  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 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.  How does the STARfish app work?

4.1  What are some special features of the app?  

Among the difference between the STARfish app and typical green building rating and marketing tools are described in the boo, but some are noted here. 

Transparency is missing in most rating tools.  The basis for the rules are inaccessible to most paying users, although they are approved by building industry representatives.  They set rules based on what is achievable now.  They also conceal the impacts by framing less bad impacts as positive, rather than simply allowing negative scores to reflect relative improvements over unsustainable outcomes.

Multifunctional, adaptable design is not rewarded in most rating tools.  For example, a design element or action may improve both ecological and human health but it only counts in one category.  The STARfish radar diagrams help to remind the user that actions overlap or have multiple good or bad outcomes, but through better design they can have reciprocal benefits.  It suggests opportunities to think of positive impacts, as illustrated by the PD ‘reverse impact wheel’ (Figure 2 in Chapter 15)

Weightings are usually hidden by the rating tool developers.  This is where, for instance,carbon emissions count more than toxic waste.  The relative weight given to some impacts will affect scoring when impact categories are added or deleted.  In the STARfish, if there are 5 or 6 impact categories or ‘legs’ in Tier 3 of a radar diagram, they will each count for more than 7 or 8 categories.  However, this is usually negligible in the Tier 1 level.  Further, the weighting can also be modified by the user as long as the reasons must be stated.

Flexibility for different contexts is accommodated by the app.  Each project, site and conditions are unique, so prescriptive rules based on typical buildings and practices may not be at all applicable.  A building could get a maximum score on a rating tool and still be unsustainable.  The Main (General) STARfish and Satellite STARfish can have additional impact categories and sub-components, or they can be subtracted where irrelevant (if a good reason is provided). 

The slider is used to locate the impact in relation to negative, restorative and net-positive benchmarks which create a spectrum.  This approach avoids the prescriptive nature of other design tools that can only consider things that have traditionally been measured.  It recognizes that outcomes depend on the design, and vary with the site, building functions, type of negative or positive impact under consideration and so on.  As the design progresses, the app automatically calculates and displays the changes.   

Reasoning (versus rules)is emphasized.  The user states the reason for the score in relation to each whole-system benchmark.  The reasons are produced automatically in a Report, along with the negative, restorative and net-positive benchmarks.  Others, such as third-party assessors, council officers, teachers or clients can assess their validity.  Early on, many impacts will be estimates, but as more data becomes available, they are easily added in.

5.  How do the diagrams work?

There is a choice of diagrams to help different app users or their clients to get an overall visual of the development impacts.

5.1  The Main Diagram

The simple version consists of a General/Main Diagram with the core environmental impact categories represented as ‘legs’ or radii.  The diagram employs a graphical representation to describe the environmental ‘score’ for each category within a net positive framework.  Each impact category can either stand alone or have a sub-diagram (Satellite) attached to it, which has its own sub-categories of impact factors.  The app automatically adds up the subcategories. 

Figure 1. Main STARfish (ZeroStar version)

5.2  The Satellite Diagrams

Figure 1 shows the main diagram with no sub-diagrams or Satellites attached.  The 6 legs represent the 6 main impact categories (Materials/waste, Ecology/biodiversity, Greenhouse/carbon, Planning/spatial relations, Health/life quality, and Efficiency/energy).  The red area represents negative impacts, green represents restorative/regenerative impacts, and blue represents positive/net-positive impacts.  The app provides a range of diagrams options for representing these impacts.  The different diagrams are described in the ‘Different Diagram Types’ section below.  The diagram shown in Figure 1 is a ‘ZeroCircle’ diagram.

Figure 2 shows the main diagram with a sub-diagram attached to the Ecology/biodiversity impact category.  This is divided into 6 sub-categories.  The slider is used to estimate the impact for each sub-category.  These are automatically calculated by the app to provide the final score for the Ecology/biodiversity impact category. This helps to visualize the cumulative impacts.

Figure 2. The Satellite diagram

5.3 Different Diagram Types

One can select from among different diagrams that display the same impacts.  Each has a unique way of helping the user or clients understand the sustainability impacts of the design.  All the example graphics show below are for the same project with the same environmental impact scores.  

 5.3.1 ZeroCircle Star Diagram

The ZeroCircle Star is different to the usual radar diagram (Figure 3).  This bold circle in the middle of the diagram represents net zero impact (ie eliminates all the impacts of the project regarding that impact category).  From here, the negative impacts increase as the point on the leg of the star/polygon moves inwards towards the center which represents the maximum negative impact. Restorative/ regenerative impacts start at the point of the negative impacts and moves back towards the zero circle.  Being restorative, these scores do not go beyond zero impact. 

Positive impacts go from the restorative score outward toward the outer circle (+10).  If the outermost part of the star is outside the zero circle, then one has achieved a net-positive result for that impact.  Therefore, the goal is to try to increase the white area and reduce the red area and get more blue area outside the circle.

Figure 3. The ZeroCircle Star Diagram

5.3.2 ZeroCircle Pie Diagram

The ZeroCircle Pie diagram (Figure 4) is the same as the ZeroCircle Star diagram except that a pie diagram is used instead.  Again, instead of starting at the center of the diagram, one starts on the zero circle, and then moves inwards to record negative impacts, then outwards for restorative/regenerative, and positive/net-positive impacts.  The app provides these optional view automatically. 

Figure 4. The ZeroCircle Pie Diagram

5.3.3 Overlap Star and Overlap Pie Diagrams

The Overlap-Star and Overlap-Pie diagrams (Figures 5 and 6) are more traditional form of radar diagrams where a score of zero sits at the center of the diagram, and the score increases as you move outwards.  Since negative impacts are represented in red, the more negative the impact, the further the red pie slice or red star corner moves away from the center.  Restorative impacts and positive impacts are represented in green and blue respectively.  In these diagrams, like in the ZeroCircle diagrams, the restorative and positive scores are added together, with the positive pie slice, or star corner goes from where the restorative pie slice or star corner finished.  A net-positive result is then achieved when the restorative-positive combined pie slice goes further out from the circle center than the negative part.

Figure 5. The Overlap Star Diagram
Figure 6. The Overlap Pie Diagram
Figure 7. The Bar Chart Diagram

5.3.4  Bar Chart Diagram

The Bar Chart graph (Figure 6) is just a traditional bar chart – but wrapped in a circle.  For each leg, two bars are plotted side by side.  One bar is plotted for the negative impacts, and another is plotted for the combined restorative/positive impacts.  If the restorative/positive bar is bigger than the negative impact bar, then a net positive outcome has been achieved for that impact category.