Bill Reed on the power of place

28 Apr 2022

Bill Reed, a world leader in regenerative development, had us transfixed during TRANSFORM 2022. How did he distil a lifetime devoted to regenerative development into lessons for working with the power of place?

Bill, Principal of Regenesis Group and a founding board member of the US Green Building Council, argued that a “single, particular place” is the only scale at which we can achieve dynamic stability between people and natural systems. So how do we work with the “potential” of each place, rather than “problems”, to achieve dynamic stability?

1.      Start with the system of life

Bill told our audience that he often advises: “Your project is not the project. The project is the system of life. Your project will be an outcome of understanding the system of life.” This thinking “flips the formula”. Climate change is a symptom of “not understanding life and our role in it”. Therefore, start with the “system of life”. Then engage the community, “which helps people to fall in love with their place” and then, your project team. Those three dimensions come before design, Bill said.

2.      Don’t just “arrest disorder”

Bill offered his own take on Carol Sanford's four governing paradigms for modern living: to extract value; address disorder; do good; and to evolve inherent potential. To “arrest disorder” – which is where much sustainability work currently sits, he said – is merely to “slow down the damage”. But “nature wants to restore itself if we work with her.” How do we do this? But understanding and harnessing the “intrinsic nature” of living systems to ensure they reach their “inherent potential”.

3.      Work with the whole

Another point of inspiration for Bill was anthropologist, biologist and psychotherapist Gregory Bateson, who contended that “the major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think”.

How do we bridge that gap and cultivate a new mindset?

Work with “whole living entities” not pieces or parts, Bill advised. This may be a plant or a forest, an organisation or a place, but it must be “alive, singular and evolving”. Buildings don’t fit into this formula. They are “fragments” of life that cannot sustain themselves.

Just as we can’t understand the health of a human by inspecting a liver or skeletal system, we must look at a whole place. “Then we have the context to work on the parts.”

4.      Understand unique potential

“Every place is a unique living organism. It’s alive,” Bill said. Each city, neighbourhood or street is different from the next. “Every square metre of the planet is different from the next in terms of microbial growth.” Understanding the uniqueness of each place is “vital” to our survival.

What does this look like from an architectural perspective? Bill pointed to a grocery store redevelopment project that Regenesis Group led on behalf of a New England food cooperative. By thinking about regeneration, rather than rebuilding, the project became a place “to teach people how to grow their own food again” that “by the way also had a grocery story”.

While there were some bumps along the road, the project was a “pebble dropped into the pond” that influenced the local ecosystem and became an “acupuncture point” for regeneration across the state.

5.      Start small to think big

The planet is too big and “too abstract” to tackle as a whole. We must “heal the earth place by place,” Bill said. Nobel Prize winning political economist Elinor Ostrom showed that small, local communities could manage shared natural resources – like pastures, fishing waters and forests – in ways that were both economically and ecologically sustainable. “If we pay attention to the places we live, we will understand them and eventually repair those. That has been proven over and over again,” Bill said. A building project can be a “high leverage point” to help people with this understanding, he added.

We can’t control life, but we can “pay attention to it,” Bill noted. Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk offers an instructive model for engagement based on ancient Indigenous wisdom and understanding of place: “respect, connect, reflect and direct”. But “piecemeal” problem solving takes the opposite approach. We direct. Then, when that fails, we reflect, make moves to connect and, finally, learn to respect.

But place is a “doorway to caring,” he observed. It is through love of place that we find the personal and political will needed “to make profound change”.