Planning – from conservation to regeneration

In a ‘heritage culture’, transitioning from ‘sustaining’ to ‘regenerating’ may seem odd John Wood outlines a planning framework designed for long-haul futures.

Beyond Conservation
In a previous article (see Beyond Conservation) I suggested that the UK’s planning regulations for ‘Conservation areas’ are insufficiently future-oriented to meet today’s needs. One way to improve matters would be to make planning more inclusive and to aim for ‘regeneration’ rather than ‘conservation’. Instead of focusing on local and parochial issues a regenerative approach might encourage communities to emulate the long-term resilience of living systems. Given that the Sun is destined to provide us with ample free energy for another four or five billion years, this approach would enable us to plan for thousands, if not millions of years ahead.

The Mindset of ‘Conservation’
This idea may take some time to sink in. Human reasoning was shaped by millions of years of mining and trading, so words like ‘conserve’, ’save’, ‘sustain’, ‘preserve’ are comforting. Mined assets are homogeneous and durable, so it seems natural to divide them up and ‘account for’ them using numbers. Persistently extracting a given asset from the ground will make it increasingly scarce until it is irreplaceable. However, living systems don’t ‘add up’- they are too complex to ‘account for’. Some economic thinking disregards ecosystems as ‘externalities’. This might help to explain the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Fortunately, many ordinary citizens are waking up to a different reality. In our local questionnaire, residents ranked ‘biodiversity’ over ‘heritage’. This is heartening, as upholding the conditions for life is more important than conserving relics.

Thinking Bigger
Perhaps ‘conservation’ should be more like gardening and less like embalming. An apocryphal story attributed to Gregory Bateson – a guest is dining at an Oxford College. He is an insect expert, so the master invites him to inspect the dining hall’s ancient oak beams. He agrees, but knows what beetles do to oak that is more than 500 years old. Predictably, he must inform his hosts that a new roof is needed. This alarms the bursar, who suspects that it might be difficult to source timber of just the right size and quality in a short time. Fortunately the College owns abundant woodlands, and someone offers to track down the head forester. “I was wondering when you’d ask me” says the forester, pointing to a grove of magnificent oaks – “them’s are yours”. It turns out that, over many hundreds of years, each departing head forester had dutifully instructed his successor to conserve those particular trees for the future dining hall.

Towards a Regenerative Planning Template
How can we transition from conservation to regeneration? A first step might be for communities to prioritise the values they hold dear. Here is a template communities can adapt to suit their own values:

1. Would this (planning) proposal improve ecological well being?
How well would this proposal sustain, or improve the habitat for a diversity of living species? 
Biodiversity is important because human-centred well being depends on the wellbeing of all other Earthlings.

2. Would this proposal respect traditional values?
Would it regenerate community pride, trust and willingness?
The primary purpose of heritage is to keep history alive and to foster local pride. It should make communities resilient and self-regenerative. Although negative emotions, such as anger or shame (e.g. Edward Colston’s statue) may also bind communities together – pride is more regenerative. E.g. DIY house-building fosters mutual trust, resourcefulness and resilience as well as creating affordable housing.

3. Would this proposal improve energy conservation?
This is also linked to the climate emergency and to biodiversity, etc.
N.b. In conservation areas, prohibiting housing extensions or UPVC double glazing may please some residents on historical or aesthetic grounds, but will not help low income families who need to reduce their fuel bills.

4. Would this proposal look/feel ‘right’?
Does it respect the scale and visual proportions that exist in the area?
Even though renovation may use traditional materials of the finest quality the result may still look disturbing or ugly. The ‘milieu’ of a given conservation area is created by sets of subtle proportions that relate to each other in the context of the human form. Visual clutter (e.g. large wheely-bins / oversized bicycle sheds) can distract the eye and disturb the area’s original character. In Germany, there is a planning statute (‘Milieuschutz’) designed to preserve the ‘look and feel’ of a given neighbourhood.

5. Would this proposal promote different types of diversity?
Does it celebrate many types of uniqueness?
It is biological diversity that makes ecosystems so resilient. Applying this principle to planning values would ensure that rare and useful architectural features are conserved. There is little justification for preserving, or perpetuating commonplace architectural features, especially if they are unpractical or mediocre. Although Victorian architecture is famous for its diversity of ideas and styles some stylistic conceits reflect ignoble or even unscrupulous business practices. Diversity will become increasingly important in a post-fossil fuel world. This is because we will need a diversity of diversities in order to build self-sufficient local communities that flourish without rapid, long haul travel.

6. Would this proposal deliver the desired outcomes?
Can we attain all of the above ideals? – if not, how might we do it better? 
Are these ideals attainable (e.g. affordable) in this context? Planning sometimes highlights conflicts of interest, especially in matters of ethical values and aesthetic taste. E.g. Choosing to retain traditional Victorian roofs may appeal to some purists, but may also contribute to thermal inefficiencies that deplete energy.

Read more of John Wood’s articles in Sublime

Further Reading
– Chapman, J., 2012. Emotionally Durable Design: objects, experiences and empathy. Routledge.
– Illich, I., 1975, Tools for Conviviality, Fontana
– Wahl, D. C., 2016, Designing Regenerative Cultures, Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press
– Puchol-Salort, P., O’Keeffe, J., van Reeuwijk, M. and Mijic, A., 2021. An urban planning sustainability framework: Systems approach to blue green urban design. Sustainable Cities and Society, 66, p.102677
– Thomson, G. and Newman, P., 2020. Cities and the Anthropocene: Urban governance for the new era of regenerative cities. Urban Studies, 57(7), pp.1502-1519.