Current land use and development is crippling the Earth’s regenerative capacity. Many now recognize that built environment design is paramount in addressing climate change, consumption, pollution, wealth disparities, security issues, habitat and biodiversity losses, etc. However, most efforts focus primarily on incremental mitigation, adaption and regeneration activities. Positive Development (PD) advocates a fundamental re-evaluation, redesign, and retrofitting of cities and buildings to counter the past and ongoing damage caused by both conventional and ‘sustainable’ development. PD provides institutional frameworks, analytical methods, and structural solutions to increase nature, environmental justice, and other sustainability prerequisites in absolute (not relative), whole-system terms.

Positive Development (PD) contends that cities and buildings could create genuine sustainability, despite their huge, embodied impacts. However, today’s so-called ‘sustainable’ or green buildings do not pay their own way – socially or ecologically. Most green development does more damage to our social and natural life-support systems than no development at all. Despite reducing energy, waste and toxins relative to ordinary development, it still increases disparities of wealth, diverts resources from essential human services, destroys the ecological functions of offsite land and water, and the list goes on. The built environment is destroying the earth’s regenerative and ecological carrying capacity. This closes off options for creating a sustainable future.
Destroying what took 3.8 billion years to evolve is not rational. Nonetheless, sustainable development generally only aims to reduce negative social or environmental impacts to zero. Net zero or ‘to do no harm’ is not good enough in the context of mass extinctions, extreme poverty, inequity, and the breach of planetary boundaries. Moreover, most well-intended green designers continue to build upon status quo ‘sterile’ green building templates. The structures, standards and strategies that shape built environment decision making and design practices ignore the cumulative or remote impacts of development and its material flows. They aim to restore the environments they damage, but not to increase our natural life-support systems.
Our current leading ‘solutions’ (recycling, restoration, regeneration, resilience, circularity, etc.) can only slow the loss of nature or restore what remains of it after construction. This is mitigation, not net-positive gains. Mantras like ‘do no harm’ or do ‘more good and less bad’ mean an increase in total negative impacts and the loss of future possibilities. Around 70% of biodiversity has been lost in the last 70 years, while the human population has doubled, and disparities of wealth keep growing. The reality is that global ‘overshoot’ cannot be reversed unless we go beyond influencing consumer values and behaviours to implementing intellectual, institutional and structural systems that can actually enable net-positive sustainability.
Ironically, the priority in mainstream urban design and architecture is still on aesthetics and style, yet most built environments are really quite ugly as well as unhealthy. The design of urban development continues to replace public spaces with private citadels and to replace ecosystems with inanimate chattels. Even so-called ‘living’ buildings look and feel like sterile space capsules that are trying to escape the earth. With a major rethink of design, however, cities could resolve or mitigate virtually all sustainability issues while improving universal life quality. Existing design concepts using natural systems and new eco-technologies are sufficient to undo past environmental damage, sequester carbon, improve social-individual-nature relationships, provide clean energy, water, soil, air, and food, and so on [see powerpoints].
However, genuine sustainability or ‘positive development’ will require development that increases nature and justice in ‘net’ or whole-system terms. With PD models, methods and metrics, cities could increase our socio-ecological life-support systems per capita and per land area. Among other things, PD would anticipate and prepare for unforeseeable future environmental dangers is by expanding future options. This means, for example, increasing ecological space, rather than just regenerating remnant landscapes. PD contends that cities should be retrofitted to benefit the whole region (not just stakeholders) and reverse the overshoot of planetary boundaries (not simply try to stay within those boundaries).
Design is relatively easy to reconceive but implementing it in an anachronistic world constructed upon anti-ecological and anti-humanitarian ideologies is harder. While net-positive design could begin to transform built environments immediately, doing this at scale will require the redesign of the decision frameworks that shape ineffective urban policy, practice and performance. Reforms of environmental governance requires in-depth critique and alternative models, which PD theory provides. It upends existing ‘sustainable’ institutional and conceptual frameworks and shows means to reform our systems of governance, urban planning, decision making and design upon ethical and ecological principles. Some basic preconditions of a truly ‘positive development’ are:

  • An increase in the ‘ecological base’ (biodiversity, ecological space and carrying capacity, etc.) beyond pre-settlement conditions,
  • An improvement in social conditions or the ‘public estate’ (equity, life quality, environmental justice, etc.) on a regional scale,

Ideally, someday, urban development will aim to over-compensate for its ‘share’ of all past and ongoing global impacts and increase future options in order to become ‘net positive’.