Restoration vs. Regeneration

On Urban Greening and other ecocreative pursuits.

Ollie Cotsaftis
5 min readJun 3, 2024
The Shift to Regenerative Design (2022) (© Living Building Challenge).

TL;DR: Regeneration builds on restoration, and designing with Nature as a medium doesn’t necessarily equate to practising more-than-human design. I mainly wrote this post for the benefit of my students but here are a few thoughts and links for anyone interested in the origin and potential of these bio-based practices.

On Regenerative Design and Urban Greening

Inspired by ancient knowledge and wisdom, the 1940s General Systems Theory and the 1970s US bioregionalism movement, contemporary regenerative design practices are mainly influenced by American Architect and author Bill Reed and his 2007 paper Shifting from ‘Sustainability’ to Regeneration.

Bill Reed’s Trajectory of Environmentally Responsible Design framework (© Reed, 2007, with the author’s permission).

Looking at Reed’s framework, it is easy to imagine how Urban Greening, for example, can be viewed as either a Restorative (Humans doing things to Nature) or Regenerative practice (Humans participating as nature).

At its best, Urban Greening can mitigate the effect of urban heat islands, increase biodiversity and ecological value, protect against environmental impacts, improve air quality, and enhance both outdoor and indoor comfort as well as social and psychological wellbeing.

However, Urban Greening can easily fall into the Green Design category when plants are not suited to their local context, or when infrastructures are not adequately supporting plant needs and lifecycles. In addition, maintenance costs and potential structural damages are often overlooked.

This £100,000 green wall installation in west London died after 3 years (© Hugh Pearman).

To the point, Urban Greening is unlikely to provide long-term benefits without rethinking design, construction, and manufacturing through the lens of regeneration, a fact highlighting a difference between restoration and regeneration (quick precision here that I’m not saying one is better than the other, any step forward is needed at this stage, circularity, restoration, regeneration, others).

According to Reed and others, Restoration considers Nature as an outsider and focuses on its commercial exploitation or conservation, whereas Regeneration not only aims to restore ecological integrity but also contributes to the enhancement and resilience of ecosystems, humans and nonhumans included. Regenerative thinking, naturally, is not limited to urban greening and can be applied to all fields of practice.

Note that contemporary restoration — traditionally, “the action of returning something to a former owner or condition“ — is now counterintuitively looking forward and more akin to regeneration but that’s an entire other post!

Note also the capitalisation of the word Nature to describe Restorative practices in Reed’s framework — the human concept of Nature — as opposed to its lower-case writing in the description of Reconciliatory and Regenerative practices — as in the ecosystem of nature. I believe this spelling distinction comes from philosopher Timothy Morton.

June 20, 2024, update: On June 13, 2024, the Belgium government published an incredibly comprehensive Regenerative Development and Design report referencing Reed’s seminal work on its front page. More info here: https://www.health.belgium.be/en/study-regenerative-development.

Next, On More-than-human Design and Its Link to Regeneration

There are many people, papers and books to reference on this topic. Here are two I recommend starting with.

First: Design and Nature: A Partnership (2019), edited by Kate Fletcher, Louise St Pierre and Mathilda Tham.

Then second: Technology and More-Than-Human Design (2020) by Elisa Giaccardi and Johan Redström.

The term more-than-human has been broadly used to refer to design with and by nonhuman actors such as biological agents and living systems. It is also used, albeit less prominently, to describe design with and by autonomous digital technologies such as AI; and even spirits or deities (yup).

Sticking with the former what is sometimes seen, however, is the amalgamation of regenerative and more-than-human design practices with human-centered design practices using Nature as a medium. In theory, for regeneration to be regeneration and more-than-human to be more-than-human, human exceptionalism needs to be challenged; which I suppose is one of the reasons why Bill Reed included Reconciliation as a stage between Restoration and Regeneration in his 2007 framework (earlier versions exist without it).

Of course, regeneration is more than a framework and a framework is only a guide to a conversation. However, of interest here, is that this stage of Reconciliation is often included in Regeneration in commercial practice frameworks, such as the ones recently released by UK Architects Declare and Arup in 2024 — two reports well worth checking out.

In all honesty, simplicity often works for the best; but I do like this emphasis in the 2007 framework as Reconciliation simply entails acknowledging a biological fact (‘humans are an integral part of nature’) that in no way inhibits the pursuit of creative, cultural and even financially viable endeavours. Reconciliation also provides a fitting home for practitioners working on the Social Innovation aspect of regenerative transitions.

ps/ The Routledge International Handbook of More-than-Human Studies (2024), edited by Adrian Franklin, has just been published but I haven’t read it yet.

Dr Olivier Cotsaftis (PhD, MBA) is a post-disciplinary researcher-practitioner exploring pathways towards regenerative and more-than-human urban futures. At RMIT University School of Design, his work focuses on unlocking practical and scalable potentials for sustainable urban development, specifically in the areas of biomaterials and climate adaptation of the public place. Before joining RMIT, Ollie spent 10 years in Industry, engaging with start-ups, not-for-profits, governments and blue-chip companies. He was a design lead at Fjord Design and Innovation and the founder of future ensemble studio. Ollie is also an editorial board member for Research Methods: Biotechnology Design (Cambridge Press, UK).

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Ollie Cotsaftis

System-led, Place-based, Material-driven — and with a love for words.