Janis Birkeland: Positive Development. From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles Through Built Environment Design (2008)

A Systems Library, Vol. 23

Philippe Vandenbroeck
7 min readOct 6, 2021

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.

Janis Birkeland’s approach to put this notion at the heart of an alternative planning rationale is clearly reflected by the structure of the book:

  • Positive Development requires basic changes at the urban level;
  • Basic changes at the urban level require new kinds of planning and design;
  • Changes in design and planning need new environmental management concepts;
  • Changes in environmental management need new methods and strategies;
  • New strategies require new approaches to eco-governance.

This line of reasoning links a conceptual framework to a practical planning methodology which is called SmartMode (Systems Mapping And Re-design Thinking Mode).

Against the background of the wider sustainability debate, the ‘positive development’ approach offers four distinctive and interconnected features:

  • The concept of Positive Development;
  • The distinctive role of design;
  • The systems perspective;
  • A novel eco-governance approach.

Here I will focus on the latter two elements.

A system’s approach

For Birkeland there is no urban form that can be considered to be sustainable by default. Rather than to argue a case for a compact or dispersed, vertical or horizontal city, she proposes a series of systems (meta-)design principles:

  • A first 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. Densification approaches are not sustainable if they still use their regions as ‘sources and sinks’. Cities, to the contrary, need to ‘reimburse’ and support their bio-regions. Designers need to consider both natural and functional flows between regions and cities.
  • Second, rather than banking indiscriminately on densification strategies, accommodating the myriad biophysical and social needs of an increased population requires multiple use of space for natural, residential, economic and social functions and more shared space. So multifunctionality rather than density is the variable to be optimized.
  • Third, building and planning solutions need to be evaluated in terms of their whole systems impact. Birkeland proposes six levels to conceptualize that impact: 1) cleaner production, 2) recycling and down-cycling, 3) closing loops and up-cycling, 4) zero waste and no-loop design, 5) closing loops and eco-cycling, and 6) net positive design.
  • Fourth, as new construction is only about two percent of the total building stock, new green buildings have little impact on the growing rate of resources consumed by development. Given the resource flows embedded in existing development, eco-retrofitting is a sustainability imperative.
  • Fifth, urban areas themselves must become ecologically self-sustaining and eco-productive. Planners should consider food, water or energy self-sufficiency as realistic goals.
  • Finally, designs need to be adaptive and reversible. Incrementalism and masterplanning often lead to irreversible lock-ins.
  • From a systemic, resource transfer point of view, four interconnected transfer processes that are largely irreversible, and therefore foreclose future options, 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) from environment to development (equivalent to loss of natural capital and ecosystem resilience).

These six principles are at the heart of Positive Development. Methodologically, Birkeland puts forward a suite of systems mapping tools (she calls them ‘forensic audits’) to support the design and planning activity:

  • The Ecological Transformation (ET) analysis helps to establish an ecological baseline by comparing current to initial bioregional conditions (the focus of the forensic audit is here on physical design failures).
  • A Cost of Inaction (CI) analysis identifies the ongoing cost of existing wasteful practices that Positive Development could address (focus: management failures).
  • A Resource Transfer (RT) analysis maps resource transfers and associated inequities (focus: market failures).
  • An Institutional Design (ID) analysis traces differentials of power and resource flows to changes in legal and regulatory systems (focus: legislative failures).

Other tools, such as Lifecycle Analysis (LCA), Materials Flow Analysis (MFA), Ecological Footprint (EF) analysis and Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) methods, all of which have their 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.


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. The design scale underpinning this decision arena is important. As indicated earlier the appropriate perspective is the bioregional scale which purposefully goes beyond political jurisdictions, business interests or convenience (eg simply postcodes).

In addition, Birkeland calls for 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.

Design plays a crucial role in this endeavour: “Participatory design processes have often been useful in resolving conflicts but there is little evidence that they lead to more sustainable systems design. This is partly because participation has largely been an interest group struggle (…) even if some win and lose ‘less’ than they otherwise might have, the reality is a disparity of power (…) Community participation will not shift planning from interest balancing to value adding. (…) Design, however , is imagining and creating something that has never existed before. It’s about the coalescence of interests and ideas, not compromise or ‘balancing’ powerful financial interests against disparate individual interests.

Hence, Positive Development is grounded in the establishment of a new, ethics-based, democratically-controlled and design-led planning sphere.

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 inquiry 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.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?