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Since it was established in 2007, the World Future Council has promoted the concept of the regenerative city as a space that protects the environment, develops the local economy, and benefits the social and cultural life of its inhabitants. A place that also constantly renews its resources, ensures the prosperity of its citizens, and becomes an indispensable tool for fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fighting climate change.

The need for a new (and sustainable) urban paradigm

So, how do we transform what already exists into something sustainable? The new regenerative cities will have to fulfil the following key requisites:

● The circular economy: an indispensable change of model from a linear to a circular economy, governed by the philosophy of reduction, reuse and recycling of waste. Read more about it in this article. Cities are enormous consumers in the worst form of linear economy: producing, using, discarding. They are dominant polluters and over-exploit resources.

● Water conservation: the new model naturally confronts our use of water and demands that we reuse, and refrain from wasting, it. Regenerative cities need efficient water treatment facilities to be able to manage water properly and guarantee that everyone has access to this essential life source.

● Biodiversity, not just pleasing to the eye: green spaces in cities allow us to enjoy more natural, healthier and sustainable lives. In this sense, regenerative cities grow by respecting the nature that surrounds them and incorporating biodiversity into their design.

● A new energy model: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, it’s necessary for the industrial and transport sectors, for example, to move from depending on fossil fuels to operating with renewable energies.

● In the same way, a city’s buildings need to be energy efficient to avoid wasting resources and pumping emissions into the atmosphere, and this should in turn lower energy bills to citizens.

● Resilient infrastructure: regenerative cities are designed to tackle, absorb, recover and learn from their problems and both natural and man-made disasters. Their buildings, facilities and structures are built and reformed to avoid, withstand and contain any kind of catastrophic event, protecting citizens, especially the most vulnerable.

● Socially sustainable cities: regeneration of urban spaces needs to promote cohesive land development. It should be well planned, favoring pedestrians and the use of public transport. Regenerative cities should be designed with people at their heart, ensuring that everyone can access all the services without having to travel far.

● Increased citizen participation: in this sense, regenerative cities need to be built for, and with the involvement of, everyone. At the very least, the views, ideas and experiences of all inhabitants should be taken into account. Developing this type of model requires institutions, companies and civil society to work side by side to redesign the spaces they share. And to do so, of course, while taking nature into account.

A massive undertaking that will require a reimagination of our cities, that will not be achieved overnight.

Making cities regenerative is a massive undertaking that will not be achieved overnight. Yet even the biggest under- takings can be broken down into steps; in this case, the first necessary step is developing a thorough understanding, both practical and theoretical, of how regeneration can be achieved, in which areas it is most feasible, and in which other areas it might present more of a challenge. Reaching a goal means knowing where to aim in the first place.  

The density of cities is a large factor in reducing resource use. For this reason, regenerative cities could be designed to increase population density, for example by building tall rather than wide and by favouring shared spaces and facilities over personal spaces and facilities. When combined with the idea of cellular cities, the regenerative city of the future could take the shape of thin and tall ‘walls’ between green spaces, with little or no suburban sprawl as we know it today and rapid communal transport always within easy walking distance.  

It would not only take the application of new technologies to aid us in this quest toward regenerative cities, but also a tremendous shift in mindset and culture to act more responsibly as citizen-consumers. Ultimately, a lot will depend on international institutions and cross-city collaborations to get it right. As Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has said: 'It’s difficult to see if the current GDP-based model of economic growth can go hand-in-hand with rapid cutting of emissions.'


It is often argued that GDP is a poor measure of wealth and growth because it does not properly compensate for environmental costs. While this argument has merit, if consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable products and services, we may be able to achieve sustainable growth even by traditional measures like GDP. And this could be a big step in our road toward the Regenerative City.

Are regenerative cities possible?

As we have seen above, the new model city is based on the most demanding requisites. But each of these conditions is necessary to guarantee a sustainable future for the planet. The road is long, but some cities have already decided to take their first step toward urban sustainable regeneration.

London and harmonious living spaces

Companies in the UK capital have come together to develop a series of interwoven urban projects that seek to revitalize and recover disused areas such as housing estate courtyards and abandoned industrial sites such as that of the former Battersea power station. The aim is to attract people to live and make use of what is premium inner-city land, fostering community living and promoting local commerce and neighbourhood relations.

Life in these areas revolves around more than shops, with multiple activities held throughout the year. Residents are encouraged to enjoy, meet up and while away the time in accessible pedestrianized zones.

Cape Town, energy efficiency reforms

The City Hall of this South African metropolis decided to throw its weight behind a more sustainable and efficient energy model, when it adopted in 2010 its Energy and Climate Action Plan, a pioneering program linking energy and climate to the city’s development strategy. Some 40 districts are participating in the scheme, in which over 120 projects have been carried out.

One of the most promising outcomes has been the emission reductions achieved by modernizing the roofs of more than 10,500 homes, thus avoiding the emission of around 7,400 tonnes of CO2 per year.

From disused industrial parks to social activity hubs

One urban regeneration trend, increasingly popular in cities worldwide, is that of transforming abandoned industrial estates and buildings into spaces for cultural activities and improved neighbourhood facilities.

To mention just a few, the repurposing of the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Germany, today a Unesco world heritage site, and Kleefse Ward industrial park in the Netherlands, now a technology campus. The conversion of Lisbon’s LX Factory into a retail outlet.

There are thousands, if not millions, of initiatives that can be undertaken under the scope of regenerative cities. But change is urgent. People and the planet need new urban models. And to live together in new kinds of cities.

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