Further reading

Articles about Net-Positive Design

Abstracts of papers on Positive Development and Net-Positive Design

Synopses of books on Positive Development

Articles about Net-Positive Design

What is Net-Positive Design and how to create Eco-Positive Cities?

Eco-positive design: moving beyond ecological restoration

Abstracts of recent papers on Positive Development

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Biography of author

Dr. Birkeland was an architect, urban designer, city planner and lawyer in San Francisco before entering academia.  She has been a Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Auckland, and Professor of Architecture at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.  She has also taught at the University of Canberra, University of Tasmania and the Australian National University, and has been a sustainability consultant.  These educational and professional choices were in furtherance of a lifelong interest in unraveling and resolving the systemic impediments to ecological sustainability and, in particular, exploring how urban design and development can generate net gains in both ecological and social sustainability.  She has written other books on sustainable urban design, planning and architecture, including Design for Sustainability (2002) and Positive Development (2008), in addition to many papers in academic journals.  She is currently an Honorary Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne.  

Challenging policy barriers in sustainable urban design (2018)

Birkeland, J. (2018) Challenging Policy Barriers in Sustainable Development, in Dymitrow, M. and Halfacree, K. editors, Bulletin of Geography, Socio-economic Series 40, Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, pp. 41–56. DOI: http://doi.org/10.2478/bog2018-0013

In built environment design, codes set minimum health and safety requirements, policies set aspirational targets, and incentives such as green building rating schemes set design standards.  These approaches have failed to provide universal wellbeing and environmental justice (i.e. intra-generational equity) or increases in the natural life-support system that exceed depletion rates (i.e. inter-generational equity).  Governments that do not ensure all citizens can obtain basic needs, life quality and resource security fail to meet their basic responsibilities. Two recent documents, one representing sustainable urban policy and principles, the other representing urban biodiversity standards, are examined against the Positive Development Test (whether the development increases the public estate, ecological base and future public options).  The discussion suggests that contemporary policies and incentive schemes, as presently conceived, cannot provide the basic physical preconditions for sustainability, let alone address socio-economic inequities.  An alternative design-based approach is presented to address the issues the paper identified.

Biodiversity offsetting and net positive design (2016)

Birkeland, J. and Knight-Lenihan, S. (2016) Biodiversity Offsetting and Net Positive Design, in Journal of Urban Design 21(1), pp. 50-66, DOI: 10.1080/13574809.2015.1129891

Biodiversity offsetting is used in both urban development and regional resource consent processes to compensate for unavoidable environmental impacts. Using North American, Australian and New Zealand examples, the limitations, opportunities and contradictions of the conventional approach in biodiversity offsetting schemes relevant to the built urban environment were reviewed. It was found that there is not adequate accounting for incremental and cumulative effects over time and space, especially given ecological uncertainty. Benchmarking against current conditions has sanctioned a gradual loss of ecological carrying capacity and biodiversity. Net biodiversity gains are possible, but this will require shifts in frameworks for assessing both buildings and biodiversity offsets towards net positive planning and design.

Net positive biophilic urbanism (2016)

Birkeland, J. (2016) Net Positive Biophilic Urbanism, in Smart and Sustainable Built Environment 5(1) pp. 9-14, http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/SASBE-10-2015-0034

Positive development and biophilic urbanism appear to be grounded in a different human-nature relationship.  Biophilic urbanism builds on the theory that humans have an innate need to feel connected with nature, and explores ways to amplify its psychological and physiological benefits.  Positive development contends that development must proactively increase nature in absolute terms (beyond pre-industrial conditions).  The purpose of this paper is to propose a radical reconstruction of development design and decision making.  Are these positions compatible?  A literature review revealed many similarities and differences between the two theories, and the views and visions among individual proponents of sustainability paradigms vary.  Therefore, the comparison focussed on the respective role of nature, a foundational element in each theory.  Biophilic urbanism stresses the individual’s experience of nature and its importance to human life quality.  Positive development stresses the preservation of species and ecosystems through the re-design of institutional systems and physical structures that increase the ecological base and public estate.  Both viewpoints are essential to the whole system transformation that sustainability requires.  However, if urban development does not increase urban nature and wilderness well beyond past/ongoing depletion and damage, the natural life support system will collapse.  These paradigms are too complex to be represented in a brief commentary, so the discussion focusses on a crucial difference.  Since many papers in this special issue discuss biophilic urbanism references, the emphasis here is on the lesser known theory.  These paradigms evolved independently and, as far as is known, this is the first time their essential messages are compared.

Net-positive building carbon sequestration (2015)

Renger, C., Birkeland, J. and Midmore, D.J (2015) Net-positive Building Carbon Sequestration, Building Research & Information 43(1), pp. 11-24, DOI: 10.1080/09613218.2015.961001

A greater appreciation of architecture as a means to drive social, economic and environmental sustainability is emerging around the world. Practices are beginning to adopt closed-loop and cradle-to-cradle strategies, and some are even aiming toward net-positive design. However, life cycle assessment (LCA) tools do not measure ‘beyond zero’. The question of how net-positive carbon sequestration (i.e. impacts beyond net-zero) can be assessed within LCA is explored through a proposed carbon amortization performance (CAP) method. CAP overlays energy-related carbon and biomass sequestration over the building life cycle. CO2 equivalence (CO2e) is used to combine both positive and negative impacts from different sources. Net-positive contributions are defined as those exceeding ‘zero operational carbon’ – after the embodied carbon is paid back during the life cycle. The CAP method was tested on a building design with the technical support of multidisciplinary experts. The results indicate that a building can sequester more carbon over its life cycle than it emits by using on-site current renewable energy technology and extensive building-integrated vegetation. Buildings designed on net-positive development principles can potentially reverse their carbon impact and begin to regenerate their regions, while providing multiple eco-services.

Positive Development and Assessment (2014)

Birkeland, J. (2014) Positive Development and Assessment, in Smart and Sustainable Built Environment 3(1) pp. 4-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/SASBE-07-2013-0039

There has been a tendency in sustainability science to be passive. The purpose of this paper is to introduce an alternative positive framework for a more active and direct approach to sustainable design and assessment that de-couples environmental impacts and economic growth.  This paper deconstructs some systemic gaps that are critical to sustainability in built environment management processes and tools, and reframes negative “sustainable” decision making and assessment frameworks into their positive counterparts. In particular, it addresses the omission of ecology, design and ethics in development assessment.  Development can be designed to provide ecological gains and surplus “eco-services,” but assessment tools and processes favor business-as-usual. Despite the tenacity of the dominant paradigm (DP) in sustainable development institutionalized by the Brundtland Report over 25 years ago, these omissions are easily corrected.  The limitation is that the author was unable to find exceptions to the omissions cited here in the extensive literature on urban planning and building assessment tools. However, exceptions prove the rule.  The implication is that it is not too late for eco-positive retrofitting of cities to increase natural and social capital. The solutions are just as applicable in places like China and India as the USA, as they pay for themselves. Positive development (PD) is a fundamental paradigm shift that reverses the negative models, methods and metrics of the DP of sustainable development. This paper provides an example of how existing “negative” concepts and practices can be converted into positive ones through a PD prism. Through a new form of bio-physical design, development can be a sustainability solution.

Design Blindness in Sustainable Development: From Closed to Open Systems Design Thinking (2012)

Birkeland, J. (2012), Design Blindness in Sustainable Development: From closed to open systems design thinking, Journal of Urban Design 17(2), pp. 163-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13574809.2012.666209

ABSTRACT The fields of urban ecology, ecological design and environmental ethics are essential elements of sustainable urbanism. Thus far, however, these fields really only contemplate eco-restoration, regeneration and resilience. To achieve sustainability, urban areas must be retrofitted to be net positive; that is, to expand future options, diversity and ecology relative to pre-industrial conditions. It is contended that the failure to do so is because the methods and metrics of sustainable urbanism were influenced by decision theory. Decision theory is ‘bounded’ systems thinking as it is designed to choose among alternatives or pathways. The resulting analyses and tools are negative as, for example, they allow social gains to balance out ecological losses. Design, in the sense of ‘open’ systems thinking, is needed to increase future options and add multiple benefits across many dimensions and scales. Key sustainability strategies in urban ecology, ecological design and environmental ethics, such as eco-efficiency, interest balancing and closing resource loops, reflect closed systems thinking. ‘Positive Development’ would require eco-positive design as well as eco-efficiency, an eco-positive ethic as well as procedural fairness or equity, and open systems thinking as well as closed loop systems.  A tool is provided to illustrate how eco-positive design can be assessed.

Synopses of books on Positive Development

Preface from Positive Development (2008)

Nature has provided for the infrastructure and basic services to support human life, and has even subsidized our profligate Western lifestyles.  Now, however, we have exceeded the Earth’s carrying capacity.  We have also exhausted the cultural and social viability of many resource-rich, but impoverished countries and colonies around the world.  This unilateral relationship between humans and nature must be reversed.  Fortunately, urban design and architecture could undo much of the damage of past policies, actions and developments.  However, genuine sustainability will require more than social change and ecological ‘restoration’.  It will require increasing the total amount of ecosystem goods and services, as well as increasing the health and resilience of the natural environment.  This book contends that the built environment can create the infrastructure, conditions and space for nature to continue its life-support services and self-maintenance functions.  Development can provide greater life quality, health, amenity, conviviality and safety for all – without sacrificing resources, money or comfort.  For it to do so, however, we need a new approach to the planning, design and management of our built environment.  What we will call ‘Positive Development’ would actually expand the ‘ecological base’, meaning ecosystem goods and services, natural capital, biodiversity and habitats, ecological health and resilience, and bio-security.  It would also expand the ‘public estate’, meaning the substantive democracy that ultimately depends on equitable access to, and expansion of, the ecological base – the means of survival.

Our current methods for addressing sustainability challenges are shaped by institutional and intellectual frameworks that reflect negative, defensive attitudes towards the environment.  Negative impacts are seen as inevitable, so we only aim to slow the pace of environmental destruction.  The belief that we have no option but to ‘trade off’ nature for social and economic gain is deeply engrained.  We assume the best that sustainable development can do is provide (short-term) social benefits that compensate for long-term ecological losses.  Traditionally, policymakers and environmental managers have thought they were dealing with sustainable development issues by merely monitoring, measuring, managing and mitigating the predicted negative impacts of future plans, policies and designs.  However, creating environments that are socially and ecologically productive requires breaking out of our mental cubicles and undoing what has already been done.  Towards that end, this book provides:

•   New paradigms and design concepts that enable us to expand future options, increase resource security, increase human and ecological health, and improve life quality for all.

•   New design criteria, review processes, assessment tools and design methods that shift from   narrow ‘input–output thinking’ to design that supports natural systems and communities.

•  New approaches to analysis, assessment and management systems that move from mitigating   negative impacts to multiplying positive ecological and social synergies.

•  New approaches to futures planning methods, strategies and incentives that do not just prepare for a grim future, but increase the means of survival and meaningful life choices.

A critique of ‘best practice’ planning, design and management systems forms the basis for new methods and processes to facilitate design and innovation for net Positive Development.  We will call this positive approach ‘SmartMode’ (short for Systems Mapping And Re-design Thinking Mode).  It is intended to reverse negative attitudes towards the natural and built environment, and provide an analytic framework to help us reverse the impacts of past development by design.  SmartMode aims to help us leapfrog the intellectual and institutional barriers that are entrenched in the foundations of urban and regional planning, natural resource management, and even ‘green’ urban design and building.  It challenges vestiges of negative thinking in green design criteria, standards, benchmarks, rating tools, reporting systems, planning strategies and design methods.  Alternatives to each of these are suggested to help de-couple environmental impacts from economic growth, but also to add value to the public estate (at a net economic gain).  This may, however, only be possible through community-based initiatives, to which industry and government must contribute, but which they must not control.  The suggestions are collated in the last section to provide a generic framework to guide more positive forms of community planning, design and decision-making. 

Preface from Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development

This book poses a challenge to academics and professionals who still believe in the capacity of current decision-making processes to solve sustainability issues.  ‘Sustainable’ urban planning, decision making and design continues to underwrite most sustainability problems.  About half of global biodiversity and coral reefs have been destroyed in under fifty years.  Development has perpetuated the degradation of resources and ecosystems while concentrating wealth and concretizing social disparities.  Roughly eight people on the planet now have the combined wealth of half its population.  This is entirely unnecessary.  Urban environments can be designed to increase nature and advance society. 

Positive Development posits that development could create more net socio-ecological gains than no construction at all.  The urban environment could become generators of eco-positive sustainability.  This book attempts to explain how current conceptual, physical and institutional structures are inherently biased against the protection and expansion of social and natural life-support systems.  It then suggests how development can improve universal life quality and increase nature and public options beyond any damage caused during building manufacturing, construction and operation.  Debate is always welcome.  Any reader may contact the author via email to dispute or discuss any of the propositions in the book. 

Part I Synopsis from Net-positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development

Essential design and decision-making principles and standards are still missing from all dimensions of sustainability theory and practice in urban design and architecture.

Many proponents of sustainability have argued that efficiency is not enough and that systems change is needed at all levels of society.  However, it has largely been assumed that a change of values and public policy would trickle through the interstices of governance and urban planning would automatically transform the built environment.  Yet urban theory and practice has not addressed the basic sustainability dilemmas.  Omissions are found at all levels of urban planning: planning analyses, development controls, decision methods, design processes and building rating tools.  This book explores each dimension and suggests means to make the transition to eco-positive cities.   

To have socio-ecological gains without adverse economic impacts, urban planning, decision making and design need to be reconceptualized and restructured for net-positive outcomes.    

The sustainability crisis is a whole-system problem, requiring the redesign of development, yet circuitous arguments over policy plans persist.  This is partly because design has been marginalized in the culture.  It is portrayed as a subset of decision making, concerned mainly with communication, but it is a different way of thinking.  Both decision making (choosing solutions) and design (opportunity-creating) are necessary and, ideally, complementary.  However, neither processes and practices evolved with sustainability in mind.  Both need to be reconceived upon ethics-based and positive principles.  This book therefore proposes a reconceptualization of both biophysical design (built structures) and institutional design (decision-making structures).    

Part I concerns biophysical design concepts and processes, and proposes paradigm shifts: 

  • From negative/fatalistic mindsets that assume development must be ecologically-terminal – to reconceiving development as a means to increase socio-ecological sustainability [Chaps. 1-2].
  • From closed/bounded system models – to open-system paradigms that enable design that externalizes public impacts and expands positive future options [Chaps. 3-4].
  • From efficient innovations that create more products and material flows – to structural and spatial design solutions that reduce inequities and increase public gains [Chaps. 5-6].
  • From analyses that share the same conceptual roots as neo-classical economics – to whole-system analyses that prioritize the correction of socio-ecological deficits [Chaps. 7-8].

Part II concerns institutional or decision-making structures, and proposes paradigm shifts:

  • From reductionist decision-making – to design-based ‘methods’ that can create synergies and multiply public benefits [Chaps. 9-10].
  • From numerical standards for green building assessment tools that only reduce the project’s damage – to design tools based on whole-system sustainability [Chaps. 11-12].
  • From either top-down or bottom-up but ineffective consultation processes – to new community-based collaborative processes for developing design criteria [Chaps. 13-14].
  • From ‘metrics’ that assess design outcomes relative to typical projects – to measurements that allow for net-positive impacts by using stationary benchmarks standards [Chaps. 15-16].  

The specific outcomes from a critical examination of sustainable planning and design methods are a community planning process, a design review process, and a design tool (with a computer app).  

Part II Synopsis from Net-positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development

Having examined issues pertaining to design and analysis, this part concerns decision-making structures for governance, planning and assessment that can foster eco-positive environments.   

Part I examined ways that the design of physical structures and spaces could create the biophysical conditions for economic, social and ecological sustainability.  Conventional sustainable design can mitigate the growing impacts of population, pollution and wealth disparities, and slow the rate of environmental destruction overall.  However, it does not increase the total ecological and social life-support systems.  The remediation and regeneration of the remnants of nature cannot counteract the ongoing losses of the ecological base.  Ultimately, ecological restoration cannot compensate for losses of ecosystems, biodiversity and eco-services unless space for nature is, in effect, increased beyond pre-colonial or pre-industrial conditions.      

New frameworks of governance, planning and development control are suggested to overcome current biases against ecological sustainability, in order to embed net-positive sustainability.      

Built environment design can leverage biophysical sustainability without waiting for social change or institutional reform, because eco-positive retrofitting can occur immediately and continuously, and can pay for itself.  However, institutional redesign will eventually be necessary to embed proactive approaches and positive thinking across the governmental, professional and academic disciplines.  To promote net-positive outcomes, institutional structures, planning methods and assessment tools must integrate design thinking with the more reductionist, technocratic approaches.  Part II proposes positive institutional frameworks for governance, planning, management and assessment that can guide decision making to expand future sustainable options and increase the ecological base and public estate.     

A new constitution could catalyze the transition to a sustainable society but, meanwhile, new decision rules would enable development that supports socio-ecological transformation.     

Chapter 9-10 discuss eco-governance generally, review sustainable planning approaches and describe development control/consent processes and participation in planning.  It then introduces green building rating/marketing tools (RTs).  RTs have come to dominate quality control in urban design and architecture but reinforce the mechanistic approach to problem solving.  Chapters 11-12 suggest that RTs did not learn from or build upon earlier development control strategies.  Since managers need evaluation tools and designers like challenges, two alternatives to RTs are presented to address their problems: Chapters 13-14 present a qualitative approach to support planning, and Chapters 15-16 present a quantitative design tool, the STARfish.      

The STARfish design tool assists sustainable design and assessment by establishing eco-positive benchmarks and stimulating processes that can achieve maximum positive public benefits.

The STARfish is an app (computer application) to support net-positive design and assessment.  It creates an interactive collaborative ‘game’ in which a design team competes with itself to create the most sustainable design possible by revealing opportunities for positive design synergies.  It draws upon a combination of radar, spider and impact wheel diagrams to assist visualization and communication.  The STARfish is geared for identifying opportunities to provide net public gains and increase social and ecological life-support systems in a global sense.  It is called the STARfish because it can have any number of legs or discard and grow new ones.