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Positive development

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Creating net positive design

Janis Birkeland, Professor of Architecture, Queensland University of Technology

Poor urban design and architecture kills more people each year than terrorism. A few years ago, in just two weeks, 26,000 deaths in Europe resulted from the urban heat island effect (by which cities are several degrees hotter than their surrounds). In Paris, more people died in one day from heat related causes than died in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Centre. The design of cities both creates and conceals negative cumulative impacts such as toxic chemical exposure, air pollution, fossil fuel dependency, inequitable distribution of wealth and life quality, vulnerability to extreme weather events, insecurity of access to the means of survival (eg food, energy and water), and a diminishing range of future social options. The good news is that, since most negative environmental impacts are caused by physical and institutional design, they can be reversed by design. Cities could increase the life support system, natural capital, and human and environmental health. Arguably, wilderness areas can only be restored; their carrying capacity cannot be increased without disrupting ecological relationships. However, buildings and cities could actually increase the ecological base by providing a multi-tiered infrastructure for ecosystem goods and services, or eco-services.

What is the Ecological Base and just how can cities provide Eco-Services?

The Ecological Base is an umbrella term for the natural life support system, including biodiversity, the means of survival, natural capital, carrying capacity and Eco-Services. Eco-Services are natural systems that provide essential services, like air and water decontamination, pollination, flood control, climate stabilisation, fertile soil, storm water retention, food and medical resources, and so on. When we try to substitute industrial systems for natural processes, we often use far more resources and energy than we produce. Using industrial processes, for example, it takes 10 calories to produce 1 calorie of food, and 2 kilograms of topsoil to produce 1 kilogram of wheat. This is clearly not sustainable. The design of development has been gradually reducing eco-services, while increasing risks such as extreme weather or loss of biodiversity that is essential to a diverse, accessible food supply. With threats like climate change, political terrorism, and global monopolies of oil and food (through GMOs), cities must become more self-sufficient. Design for eco-services means creating healthy, well-distributed and reliable supplies of food, air, water, energy and biota through ecological planning, management and design to increase the ecological base.

How could Design for Eco-Services actually increase the Ecological Base?

Some argue that if a city, development or building were designed on the model of a forest or reef ecosystem (ie be largely self-sufficient), it would be sustainable and in ‘ecological balance’ with its bioregion. This is often called biomimicry. However, the ability of natural systems to regenerate and evolve is now greatly impaired. The carrying capacity of nature itself is being eroded, diminished and degraded. So even if all buildings were designed like ecosystems and impact neutral, cities would still not be sustainable. If we are serious about Sustainability, therefore, it is necessary that development increase the Earth’s ecological health, resilience and carrying capacity, and protect biodiversity - simply to meet the legitimate demands of existing populations, let alone the demands of existing systems of production. In other words, to protect our life support system, cities must be re-designed to increase the total ecological base. This can be done. While green buildings replace nature, design for eco-services would provide the infrastructure for natural life support systems to function in cities. If we do not turn our urban areas into ecologically-productive systems, we cannot achieve sustainability, let alone save our remnant wilderness areas.

With limited space, how can we increase natural capital and carrying capacity?

We have to change the basic nature of our human-designed systems, including the built environment which creates about half our energy and material flows. We cannot achieve intra- and inter-generational equity unless we reverse these linear flows, so that cities actually support their bioregions. Cities have been designed more like Blue Bottles than productive ecosystems. They suck up nutrients and send toxins down their tentacles on a global scale. Fortunately, we could at least reduce the ‘ecological footprint’ of urban areas to a significant extent if we integrated natural and human functions in cities. Space for natural systems need not conflict with space for human activities, if we use multifunctional design. Urban areas can be re-naturalised without extra costs - as there are continual renovations anyway (regardless of how durable the buildings are). Eco-technologies are already available that use natural systems to produce clean air, water and soil, and improve human and ecosystem health much less expensively than mechanical systems. Examples include Living Machines, vertical wetlands, window terrariums, multi-functional atriums, planting walls, etc (see glossary). Moreover, new design concepts are proposed in Positive Development (in press 2008) that would go further to generate net positive impacts and increase ecological productivity.

Why aren’t ‘best practice’ green buildings enough to achieve sustainability?

Positive development is possible only if we completely rethink our design goals, methods, models and processes. We cannot achieve bio-physical sustainability through what now passes for ‘green building’, despite recent dramatic improvements over past practices. So far, green buildings only aim to reduce negative social and environmental impacts relative to standard buildings. They are seldom resource autonomous and almost never have positive off-site impacts. New buildings turnover just 2% of the total building stock annually. Operating buildings is only about 20% of total energy usage (building them is another 20%). Well under 10% of new buildings even try to be green. So green buildings represent about .04% less energy flows than there might otherwise have been (the resources required to replace the other 98% with green buildings would be too great). Moreover, the ‘greenness’ of buildings is usually based on claims such as: "the building will use 40% less fossil fuel energy and 30% less water than typical buildings of the same kind". Being the ‘biggest loser’ is a meaningless standard in a city full of morbidly obese buildings. Adding ‘thinner’ green buildings to the existing urban skyline will not reduce the ecological footprint of the city. Further, many of these buildings support such claims as being ‘carbon neutral’ by rather specious means, such as by counting ‘offsets’.

Aren’t offsets a good thing, or at least a step in the right direction?

Most offsets are really tradeoffs, not net positive action. Carbon neutral usually means such developments have merely included provisions to, for example: reduce the need to drive cars; provide childcare facilities or public open space; plant trees to compensate for carbon emissions; or purchase green power to reduce coal-based electricity sources. While resource offsets or positive social impacts should certainly be encouraged, they do not constitute net ecological gains. In other words, green buildings just reduce the amount of damage we plan to do. They still substitute industrial for natural capital and ecological productivity. Marginal improvements upon a non-sustainable prototype will continue to reduce the range of substantive choices available in the future. They lock us into manufactured environments that will drive excessive consumption and waste for decades. Without the existence of the green building at all, there would be far less fossil fuel, land and water consumption and pollution. Thus we need to set a ‘sustainability standard’. A sustainability standard would mean that an environment is more resilient, biodiversity is healthier, and people better off, after construction than before. A good designer would aim for no less.

Would achieving a Sustainability Standard solve all our problems?

Positive development is essential but, of course, not sufficient. Social and institutional change are also critical ingredients. The current model of development creates ‘haves and have nots’ on a first come - first serve basis. Fair distribution of resources, land and environmental amenities are a pre-requisite of sustainability. Otherwise, conflict over finite resources is inevitable. We cannot hope for positive social change while the disparity of wealth and life quality is increasing. However, built environment design could contribute to improving social relationships, environmental amenity, equity, and life quality. Built environment design can make everyone better off without increasing total resource flows. This would entail improving the public estate; that is, space, environmental amenity and eco-Services that are accessible to, and under the control of, the general public. To do so, however, we need to re-design our planning and development systems to correct the past legacy of inequitable resource transfers and ecological diminution and degradation. Eco-retrofitting of both public and private spaces could improve environmental justice and quality at no extra cost. Eco-retrofitting has been shown to pay for itself in resource savings. It is a ‘no-brainer’.

So development can be an improvement - ecologically - over no development?

Yes. Positive development would increase both the ecological base and public estate. It would go beyond resource autonomy to generate eco-services while improving equity, generating ‘positive’ social and ecological off-site impacts, and providing greater access to shared public spaces and amenities. We need to recognise that sustainability is not just about consuming less than we do now. Generally, planners only mitigate the impacts of future development. We need to ‘fixigate’ the social and ecological problems caused by the existing urban context. By increasing what we can call ‘ecological space’, cities and buildings can reverse the impacts of previous development, while fostering safer, healthier, less consumptive forms of social interaction, and increasing the ecological base as a whole. Ecological space is the space devoted to healthy ecosystems per person in a development. The horizontal/vertical area allocated to essential eco-services and habitats for biodiversity need not reduce the floor area or amenities required for human activities and functions. Moreover, the infrastructure for eco-services can create very exciting architectural forms. The design for a proposed Australian National Sustainability Centre is being developed to demonstrate how to do this.

How would we measure the positive ecological impacts of development?

Our project assessment tools focus on predicting and measuring negative impacts - which is an impossibility in a complex system - by definition. We cannot, for example, trace all the synergistic interactions between immune systems and toxins over time. We pretend we can by drawing ‘systems boundaries’ around problems to exclude unpredictable impacts. Because of this focus on the negatives, we forget to design in positives. In contrast, it is easy to measure positive ecological impacts. After all, if a design only uses natural systems and healthy materials, we only need to establish that the development or innovation is a relatively good investment. The financial benefits of providing eco-services in building design are easily measured by, for example, the cost of mechanical air conditioning equipment avoided. After construction, it is straightforward to measure improvements in, say, air or water quality between that entering and exiting the building or site. We can do post-occupancy evaluations or simply check energy, water or air quality meters after construction. Or we could skip the compliance activity and put a much higher price on resource consumption. For development approval purposes, however, Councils prefer to predict and quantify impacts before construction. Ecological space would provide a simple measure for added eco-services.

Doesn’t Ecological Space just refer to a positive ecological footprint?

No. Like all our past environmental management concepts, the ecological footprint is an inherently negative concept. A positive ecological footprint would only mean a reduction in negative impacts, whereas positive development would add ecological value. In fact, virtually all our environmental decision aids are premised on the idea that development must have negative impacts. Thus, we engage in displacement activity, such as predicting ecological thresholds and extinction rates in hopes of frightening people into altruism. Creating and refining ever more complex, competing assessment tools only increases the accuracy of the body count in our war on nature. Sustainability assessment tools amount to ‘accounting games’, not direct action to improve human and environmental health by design. If the costs of inaction exceed the costs of action, it is irrational not to act. Planners could identify and assess priorities for eco-innovation and eco-retrofitting to assist investors in solving environmental economic and social problems at a return on investment. They could establish ‘development credits’ for retrofits that support ecological Space in existing buildings or urban dead zones. In the built environment, financial incentives need not cost anything.

What kinds of incentives could speed up Positive Development at no cost?

It is a simple matter to add ‘points’ for ecological space in existing development guidelines and criteria, building rating tools and development approval processes, and/or award schemes. Currently, instead of rewarding responsible developers, we make them pay a lot extra for green building ratings or ‘stars’. We do not put ‘minus stars’ on non-green buildings. I have previously proposed the incentive of allowing second floor units in the suburbs - but only where both dwellings are converted to resource autonomy. (Where required, a table-like structure over the existing building could support the new unit.) Bonus development rights, such as additional floor area, could be granted to developments that improve ecological conditions on and off site. The additional rental income and capital value through such developments would provide a strong investment incentive. Councils could also allow exemptions from the building envelope (ie floor area, set back or height restrictions) for sunspaces, living machines, greenhouse terrariums or other features that provide ecological value. We could also use trading mechanisms, such as transferable development rights, to encourage design for eco-services. For example, building owners could sell the right to develop part of their property (courtyard, entry, roof, etc) for urban food production.

How would such trading schemes for Ecological Space work?

By decoupling ecological space from property, ‘eco-retrofitting banks’ or other businesses could develop these ecologically productive spaces. Banks would then sell credits to developers that are seeking enough ‘points’ to acquire development approvals from local authorities. This would be similar to wetlands banks, where wetlands are restored, and the acquired credits ‘sold’ to developers. Of course, many of these artificial wetlands are not ecologically resilient and productive, as ecosystems and endangered species cannot be replaced or substituted. Urban ecological spaces, in contrast, do not replace ecosystems, but create new infrastructure for adding eco-services. Mortgage systems can also provide incentives for eco-retrofitting or other developments that provide ecological space, just as some mortgage rates already reward people for energy efficient homes. However, we also need to develop policies and knowledge systems to assist in increasing the ecological base of the city as a whole. Squeezing up cities does not reduce the ecological footprint or resource flows of cities. By ‘re-naturalizing’ cities, design for eco-services we would increase the quality of life and urban resource security and attract investment and people (businesses, residents, tourists) back into central urban areas.


How to plan positive cities and design net positive buildings is the subject of Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles (in press, 2008). A shorter version of this paper was presented at the ‘Students of Sustainability’ conference at the University of Queensland, July 2006.


Glossary of new terms

Design for eco-services refers to the integration of natural systems with the existing built environment to actually increase the ecological base (life support functions) - in place of the current target of reducing impacts of development relative to standard buildings.

Eco-innovation is an institutional or technological solution that improves human and environmental health, well-being and equity while radically reducing resources (ie whole systems efficiency), by utilising natural systems that replace ‘unnecessary’ machines or products.

Ecological base is an umbrella term for natural capital, biodiversity, ecosystem goods and services, ecological health and resilience, bio-security, etc. It represents the life support system and ‘means of survival’. Those not under private control can be called the public estate.

Ecological space is the effective ecological area provided in a development. It is a measure of positive impacts (eg air and water cleaning; natural heating, cooling and ventilating) - in contrast with the ‘ecological footprint’ (or negative impacts that can only be minimised).

Eco-retrofitting means modifying (and ‘greening’) urban areas to improve environmental and human health while reducing resource depletion, degradation and pollution. The aim would be to achieve a ‘Sustainability Standard’ - net positive improvements over existing conditions.

Eco-services is short for ecosystem services provided by natural systems (air and water decontamination, pollination, flood control, climate stabilisation, fertile soil, storm water retention, biodiversity, etc). Cities should provide their own ecosystem services.

Positive development would meet established ESD (ecologically sustainable development) criteria - but also reverse the impacts of current systems of development, increase the ecological base and eco-services, and improve human life quality and economy.

Public estate refers to the means of survival - land, air, water, soil and eco-services. As civilians loose access to the means of survival, they also effectively loose basic democratic rights. The public estate is not the same as public property.

Sustainability standard requires an ‘improvement in human and ecological health over what would have been the case if the development was not built. This means the ecological base would be more extensive and resilient than before development occurred on the site.

Sustainability as used here, means that all future generations will inherit substantive environmental and democratic rights - control over the means of survival, an increased ecological base, and genuine social choice (ie not the ‘substitution’ of manufactured capital for future life choices).



Living Machines are self-contained networks of (solar powered) ecological systems designed to accomplish specific chemical functions that support the microorganisms that eat toxic wastes. They also generate and support gardens and fishponds at the end of the remediation chain.

The ecological footprint is the equivalent area of land and water needed to produce the supplies from around the world to feed, clothe, house and entertain urban dwellers in a given city. A city’s ecological footprint is many times greater than the geographic footprint.

Vertical wetlands are a series of containers of plants, soil and rocks suspended from ceilings, or hung on walls, through which water drains (from the roof or greywater from the building). These ‘hanging gardens’ filter the water and clean the air while feeding the plants.

Planting walls are walls, room dividers or screens that provide space for plants in their structure for air cleaning functions and visual amenity. Their design can accommodate windows or openings as well, and can be structural or temporary, indoor or outdoor.

Window terrariums are attached greenhouse windows that contain planters (or even microhabitats for frogs or caterpillars) that provide air cleaning and conditioning functions. They can be retrofitted onto existing buildings.