Philippe Vandenbroeck

Oct 6, 2021

7 min read

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

A Systems Library, Vol. 23

Photo by Егор Белов from Pexels
  • 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.
  • The concept of Positive Development;
  • The distinctive role of design;
  • The systems perspective;
  • A novel eco-governance approach.

A system’s approach

  • 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).
  • 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).


  • 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.