Book review: Positive Development - Janis Birkeland

Jul 20

This is an ambitious book, at times strident in tone, written `to leapfrog the intellectual and institutional barriers that are entrenched in the foundations of urban and regional planning’. The central notion is Positive Development defined as a `physical development that achieves net positive impacts during its life cycle over pre-development conditions by increasing economic, social and ecological capital.’ As such it embodies a strong critique on the notion of sustainability that has held sway since the Brundtland report in 1987. `Sustainability’ as it was originally defined comes down to seeking an appropriate trade-off between economic growth and the associated environmental cost. Technology plays a key role in decoupling growth from impacts as much as possible. Birkeland assumes a more radical stance that opposes equating sustainability with `industrial growth with less impacts’ and the underlying substitutability of economic, social and environmental goals. She refuses to see negative impacts as inevitable and argues that a productive infrastructure needs to be built that enhances our natural resource base, not merely minimizes our impact on it.

The central task for Positive Development, therefore is to come up with a design and planning approach that is able to increase natural capital: a `surplus’ of renewable resources provided by natural systems. However, thinking in terms of trade-offs is so deeply ingrained in the planning practice that it needs to be reconceptualized from the ground up. Building rating schemes and sustainability assessments are based on analytic frameworks that are reductionist, aggregative and sequential: “They prioritize bean counting over design, accounting over accountability, and prediction over performance.” As an alternative, Birkeland proposes a comprehensive, flexible and systemic methodology (SmartMode: Systems Mapping And Re-design Thinking Mode) built around a number of `forensic audits’. These audits are intended to create transparancy around the resource transfers (metabolic flows) and power differentials amongst stakeholders. Other tools, such as Lifecycle Analysis or Environmental Impact Analysis, all of which have considerable weaknesses, can function as potential subsets of the approach as they are subsidiary to design for democracy and ecology. They should definitely not determine the logic underpinning the complete design.

One of the most interesting features of Birkeland’s approach is the distinctive role it allots to the activity of design. It is a powerful, positive intervention strategy in its own right, a fundamental alternative to both regulation and incentives: “The latter two suggest we do not know what to do, only what people should not do.” Design is an antidote to the (often unintentional) complacency and `managerialism’ that now dominates urban planning. Here Birkeland connects to the broader debate on `design thinking’ which embodies a positive, non-survivalist, pragmatically utopian stance in dealing with the many `wicked problems’ we are confronted with. In its fundamentally participatory character, design also goes beyond the `traditional’ sustainability agenda that is mostly driven in a top-down fashion by big, transnational institutions.

Positive Development does not argue for a particular urban shape. Birkeland is no advocate, for example, of the compact city. In her opinion, when badly implemented, densification strategies can do more harm than good (for example, by eliminating shared public spaces or reducing the potential for passive solar energy). What Positive Development does propose is a series of meta-design principles. For example, one principle holds that urban systems need to be conceptualized as `open systems’, connected by resource transfer (metabolic flows) to their hinterland. The appropriate scale for urban planning is, therefore, at the bioregional scale. Once again, densification approaches are not sustainable if they still use their regions as `sources and sinks’. Also, rather than density, multifunctionality is the variable to be optimised. Another design principle is the need to be adaptive and reversible. Incrementalism and masterplanning often lead to irreversible lock-ins. Birkeland singles out four interconnected transfer processes that are largely irreversible, and therefore foreclose future options and need to be avoided: 1) the transfer from public to private interests (which is tantamount to loss of future collective control), 2) from poor to wealthy (which is equivalent to loss of individual self-determination), 3) from future to present generations (equivalent to loss of future social choice and adaptive capacity), 4) and from environment to development (equivalent to loss of natural capital and ecosystem resilience).

Birkeland is very conscious that achieving sustainability (by any definition) is a complex, multidimensional challenge that needs to be able to align many divergent interests. However, neither market nor bureaucracy are able to bring this alignment about as in both systems the fundamental ethical issues underpinning sustainability are out of bounds. Hence, a decision arena is needed where the ethical issues surrounding resource transfers can be made transparent, debated and resolved. This planning sphere needs to be underpinned by a constitutional approach that couches ecological issues in terms of long-standing and widely accepted ethical precepts. Obviously, Positive Development is very much driven by environmental concerns. But it is fundamentally not about foisting a `green agenda’ on urban planning. The spirit of planning ought to be a proces of rigorously, discursively creating transparency about resource transfers between nature and the city and between various groups of constituents bounded by an ethical framework that can be naturally accepted as binding by all stakeholders.

Positive Development, says Birkeland, “is analogous to focusing on healthy food instead of dieting.”: it is a systemic approach to urban planning, both in the `hard’ and in the `soft’ sense. As a hard systems approach it offers a set of tools to diagnosticize design, institutional and market failures and rigorously map resource transfers at a bioregional scale. As a soft systems approach it provides an ethics-based, design-led and participatory process of enquiry into positive and integrative solutions that enhance the natural, social and economic capital embedded in urban environments. Positive Development embodies a cogent critique on a concept of sustainability that has been dominating international debate for 25 years. It is to be hoped that the approach is able to make its way into mainstream planning practices.

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