Q&A with Herbert Girardet, Author of 'Creating Regenerative Cities'

Herbert Girardet, author of Creating Regenerative Cities, discusses the key themes of his book and what led him to write about cities and the environment.

Prof. Herbert Girardet is an international consultant on sustainable development and a recipient of a UN Global 500 Award ‘for outstanding environmental achievements’. He is a member of the Club of Rome and an honorary member of the World Future Council. His main focus has been regenerative urban development. He has been a consultant to UN-Habitat and UNEP and has developed sustainability concepts for major cities such as London, Vienna and Bristol. The sustainable development strategies he developed as inaugural ‘Thinker in Residence’ in Adelaide in 2003 have been largely implemented. Herbert was as senior adviser to the Dongtan Eco-City project on Chongming Island, Shanghai, and he has also worked extensively across the Middle East.

From 1996 to 2008 Herbert was chairman of the Schumacher Society, UK. He is an honorary fellow of Royal Institute of British Architects, a patron of the Soil Association, UK, and a visiting professor at University of the West of England. He has produced 50 environmental TV documentaries for major broadcasters. He is author and co-author of 13 books, amongst these: The Gaia Atlas Of Cities, 2002 and 2006; Cities, People, Planet – Urban Development and Climate Change, 2004 and 2008; Surviving The Century – Facing Climate Change and other Global Challenges, 2008; A Renewable World – Energy, Ecology, Equality, 2009. His latest book, Creating Regenerative Cities, was published by Routledge in October 2014. Huffington Post U.S. called it one of the top three green books of 2015. Herbert has also written many other reports and book chapters. He will be giving lectures in Zürich, Bristol, London, Berlin, and in the US in 2016.

Why did Creating Regenerative Cities need to be written?

It challenges the emerging, questionable consensus that the world needs to urbanise in order to be sustainable. In developing countries urbanization and major increases in resource – and particularly fossil fuel – consumption are intimately connected. This is a major problem in a finite world which is still heading towards seemingly infinite growth of economies, resource use and urban populations.

How is it different from other books in the field?

The book argues that concept of sustainable development is no longer adequate. During the last 50 years, since the concept was first formulated, sustainability has often been preached but rarely practiced. Major opportunities for sustainable use of resources were lost and the living world has been depleted in many ways. The time has come to assess how we can regenerate rather than just sustain depleted ecosystems, soils and other resources on whose the health an urbanizing world ultimately depends. This also implies a major global shift towards mainstreaming renewable energy.

Are there any key messages you’d like to highlight?

We need to develop a new, holistic understanding of the impacts of urban systems on the world’s living environment and the atmosphere. The book offers some guidelines on how to achieve this.

Can you share an example from the book that illustrates your thesis?

The first case study in the book focuses on Adelaide. 12 years ago the government of South Australia asked me to be a ‘thinker in residence’, with the task of rethinking the environmental performance of this primarily urban region of 1.3 million people. Since then a major transformation has been achieved there, particularly in the fields of renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste recycling, efficient water use, etc. I am closely identified with this major, pioneering achievement.

What are some of the controversies surrounding the theme of the book?

Urban officials and researchers prefer focusing on topics such as healthy, smart, resilient, livable and creative cities. This is because people, quite rightly, like to live in such places. But all these themes tend to ignore the bigger picture. Environmental sustainability or, indeed, regenerative development are too far ‘out there’ for a lot of people – they are not a priority in day-to-day decision making. However, as global problems such as climate change and resource depletion become more pressing, people are gradually broadening their horizons. That is what the book is aiming to contribute to.

What got you interested in sustainable urbanisation?

I have been an environmentalist all my working life. 25 years ago I came to realize that the impacts of cities on the global environment were a greatly underexposed issue. I have tried to rectify this.

What findings in writing/researching the book surprised you?

That there was so little material on this vital topic.

What suggestions would you make for change/future research/interventions?

Creating Regenerative Cities was authored by one person – me. The topic is vast and in order to generate appropriate policy and technology interventions, much more research is needed.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

A new sense of direction in urban planning and management. 

  • Creating Regenerative Cities

    By Herbert Girardet

    Large, modern cities have effectively declared their independence from nature. But while they take up only three percent of the world’s land surface, their ecological footprints actually cover the entire globe. Humanity is building an urban future, yet urban resource use is threatening the future…

    Paperback – 2014-09-11
    Routledge