Regenerative cities: the new normal

By Fiona Woo, World Future Council

Our understanding of the cities, whether in theory or practice, stands at a turning point. Urban areas across the world face complex and rapidly evolving challenges.

But what are the changes we need to transform our cities into future-just and livable habitats? What does a city that inspires and engages citizens, governments and the public sector and private sectors to work together towards a common goal look like?

Is “sustainable urban development” still the best concept to provide guidance for policy makers, urban planners, architects and investors in building the cities of the future?

RUDI has been invited to participate in the next Future of Cities Forum, which takes place in Hamburg, Germany, on September 4th – 7th. Visit post-event for news, highlights, summaries and next steps. For more information please visit

There is less to sustain today than there was 20 years ago
The classic definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland report of 1987: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But the term has since become like a rubber band that can be stretched in all directions.

Whatever the interpretation, one thing is clear: Sustainable development is not enough anymore. This is because “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is already compromised.

We are eating into the natural capital of the planet and eroding its resilience when we should be living off the income it regenerates. When we consider how degraded our ecosystems already are, there is far less to sustain today than there was 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, cities and urban areas are major contributors to this trend.

We can trace the increasing resource intensity of the urbanisation process back to the industrial revolution. Since then, disregard for resource generation and use has significantly contributed to climate change and the loss of soil carbon, natural fertility of farmland and biodiversity all over the world.

Regenerative urban development as a prerequisite for the future of cities
A new urban agenda is necessary in ensuring that cities not only become resource-efficient and low carbon-emitting, but go beyond that to positively enhance the ecosystems which provide them with goods and services.

The solution lies in thinking beyond the vague and rather unambitious notion of sustainability and, instead, actively working towards regenerating soils, forests and watercourses. The aim is to improve rather than merely sustaining their currently degraded condition.

This new urban agenda transforms urban areas into regenerative cities that dramatically reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, boost the deployment of renewable energies, reintroduce water to the hydrology cycle and make sewage reprocessing and nutrient capture a central plank of urban waste management.

A wide range of technical and management solutions towards this end are already available, but so far implementation has been too slow and too little.

Multi-stakeholder dialogues enable regenerative urban development
Enabling policy frameworks constitute the foundation of achieving climate protection goals, social and economic development and meeting ever-increasing global energy demand. The political environment plays a critical role in enabling businesses to invest in future-just and sustainable technology.

Transforming urban infrastructure into regenerative systems consequently requires an integrated approach, coordinated action and policy dialogue. It requires straddling the public, private and civil society spheres as well as a cross-sectoral approach among authorities.

While urban planning used to be the exclusive realm of specialised experts, today public participation is understood as a prerequisite in transformation processes. Multi-stakeholder dialogues that ensure representation of a diversity of voices from those concerned in the development process are therefore inevitable.

Policy makers as the enablers of change, businesses as the drivers of innovation and civil society as the pathfinders for the future need to work together to design a cross-cutting strategy that provides competitive, feasible and effective solutions.

The Future of Cities Forum: A platform for multi-stakeholder dialogues

In order to design the roadmap and reach the goal of a regenerative city, providing information is not enough. We need to inspire change by enhancing policy dialogue and capacity building for agents of urban change. An important tool for this is the dissemination and promotion of solutions and best practices worldwide.

Legislators, experts, learners, business leaders and civil society need to come together to exchange knowledge on successful approaches and instruments as well as to identify the key obstacles and rate limiting factors to progress. To facilitate this, the World Future Council initiated the Future of Cities Forum to annually bring together agents of urban change to discuss the visions, strategies and pathways for the future of our cities.

It gives participants the opportunity to showcase best practices and gain encouragement, inspiration, capacity building and a sense of empowerment which enable them to undertake the necessary actions in their constituency.

The next Future of Cities Forum takes place in Hamburg, Germany on September 4th – 7th. For more information please visit