From Conservation to Regeneration

square-50cm-spacer.jpg by JW
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Castle Lite square-50cm-spacer.jpg Regeneration 1
square-50cm-spacer.jpg transitioning to a more localist approach in urban planning

  1. see a previous published article Beyond Conservation (2021)
  2. see a revised published draft From Conservation to Regeneration (2022).


This article offers a template for transitioning from the conventional 'conservation' model of planning to a more 'regenerative' framework. In my previous article I argued that the UK's current planning laws are shallow, ambiguous and - ultimately - unfit for purpose in today's era of homelessness and climate change. I asked why, when science tells us we can look forward to several billion more years of free sunshine, our parochial 'planning' systems only think in terms of a few decades.

In the 19th century, when the term conservation was first introduced, existing buildings were being plundered to build new ones. However, since the 1960s, when planners introduced Conservation Areas the world has changed. Today, any focus on architectural heritage must also accommodate issues, such as biodiversity losses, food insecurities and the lack of affordable housing. Political activists are not alone in embracing this big agenda. In discharging its planning duties, Lewisham Council now has a mandate to act in accordance with:

  1. The climate change emergency (UK government policy).
  2. The London Mayor’s mandate for urban densification.
  3. Lewisham Council’s own (2016) Biodiversity Action Plan.

If we are to address these problems adequately we need new values, visions and terminologies. In my view this will mean transitioning from a 'conservation' approach to one of 'regeneration'. This is an ambitious shift. It will mean learning from living systems, rather than dead ones. After all, when push comes to shove, upholding the conditions for life is more important than preserving relics.

VALUES - Conviviality

If we are to devise more liveable human habitats, urban planners may need values that are more ‘convivial’ and less bureaucratic. Here, I use the word 'convivial' in accord with the original Latin word meaning 'with life'. Human-centred values are important, but they are no less important than the wellbeing of all other Earthlings. Indeed, our survival is intricately enmeshed in the wellbeing of other species. By implementing planning systems that follow ecological principles we can strengthen our ability to survive, as a species.

VALUES - Community Engagement

Arguably, the purpose of heritage is to fortify a shared pride in community. Adhering to the principle of 'conviviality' might encourage communities to take more responsibility for the wellbeing of their local fauna, flora, the more co-sustaining our habitat will become. In this respect, as conservationists we can learn more from gardeners and ecologists than from jam makers and embalmers.

VALUES - Diversity

Ecosystems are resilient because of their biological diversity and we can apply this principle to other diversities. For example, research shows that neurodiversity, gender diversities and cultural diversities are beneficial both for society and business.

VALUES - Rarity

We would prioritise the conservation of heritage features that are rare or unique rather than those that are commonplace or mediocre.

VALUES - Practicality

Of course, the diversity of Victorian architectural styles sometimes derived from business models that were exploitative and roughshod. A good example of this is the famous V shaped London roof, which builders hid behind a stone parapet so that it would not be visible from the front of the house. It would not make good sense to conserve too many of these these ugly, space-wasting, heat dissipating and corner-cutting designs. Indeed, they would achieve low scores for uniqueness, community engagement, energy conservation. At the practical level there of obvious conflicts of interest, especially in terms of affordability. Modifying roofs to carry PV panels and/or green roofs will encourage greater biodiversity but may offend the sensibilities of Victorian purists. Similarly, refusing to permit cheap double glazing under the terms of planning statute will limit attempts to conserve energy via thermal insulation.
square-50cm-spacer.jpg Checklist
square-50cm-spacer.jpg a criteria checklist:

Existing Criteria for Conservation Areas

1.Is this a historically rare or unique building?
2.Is the proposal authentic and/or appropriate to its architectural epoch?
3.Would the proposed changes be in accord with the local milieu?

Results of a Questionnaire

However, as the received understanding of conservation is ambiguous and limited we conducted a local survey (end of 2020) in which we invited local residents of The St Johns Society in SE London to re-think ‘Conservation’ by prioritising 'conservable' values:(see Beyond Conservation). We asked: "what are residents of Conservation Areas being asked to conserve? We also offered some additional possibilities (e.g. conserving energy / conserving community) and asked the participants to rank them in importance. This was the order of priority that emerged:

  1. CONSERVING Biodiversity__
  2. CONSERVING Heritage
  3. CONSERVING Community
  4. CONSERVING Local Health / Safety / Wellbeing
  5. CONSERVING Energy / Carbon
  6. CONSERVING Land Use

We adapted these priorities to make weighted list of planning criteria for our Conservation Area.

1.CONVIVIALITY - it enable local communities & biodiversities to flourish?
2.RARITY - would it enhance features that are rare/authentic/unique?
3.WELLBEING - would contribute to local pride and goodwill?
4.ENERGY MANAGEMENT - would it help to conserve energy?
5.FAIRNESS - would it be fair and equitable?
6.PRACTICALITY - Would it be affordable/realistic?

Further Reading

  • Illich, I., (1975), Tools for Conviviality, Fontana
  • Wahl, D. C., (2016) Designing Regenerative Cultures, Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press, 2016

Planning - from Conservation to Regeneration
©John Wood - 22nd June 2022
FINAL VERSION - submission for Sublime Magazine
Email: maxripple at gmail.com
Beyond Conservation
In a previous article (see Beyond Conservation) I suggested that the UK's planning regulations for ‘Conservation areas’ are insufficiently future-oriented to meet today’s needs. One way to improve matters would be to make planning more inclusive and to aim for ‘regeneration’ rather than ‘conservation'. Instead of focusing on local and parochial issues a regenerative approach might encourage communities to emulate the long-term resilience of living systems. Given that the Sun is destined to provide us with ample free energy for another four or five billion years, this approach would enable us to plan for thousands, if not millions of years ahead.

The Mindset of ‘Conservation’
This idea may take some time to sink in. Human reasoning was shaped by millions of years of mining and trading, so words like ‘conserve’, ’save’, ‘sustain’, ‘preserve’ are comforting. Mined assets are homogeneous and durable, so it seems natural to divide them up and ‘account for’ them using numbers. Persistently extracting a given asset from the ground will make it increasingly scarce until it is irreplaceable. However, living systems don’t ‘add up’ as they are too complex to ‘account for’. Some economic thinking discounts the way ecosystems work as ‘externalities’. This might help to explain the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Fortunately, many ordinary citizens are waking up to a different reality. In our local questionnaire, residents ranked ‘biodiversity’ over ‘heritage’. This is heartening, as upholding the conditions for life is more important than conserving relics.

Thinking Bigger
Perhaps ‘conservation’ should be more like gardening and less like embalming. An apocryphal story attributed to Gregory Bateson - a guest is dining at an Oxford College. He is an insect expert, so the master invites him to inspect the dining hall’s ancient oak beams. He agrees, but knows what beetles do to oak that is more than 500 years old. Predictably, he has to inform his hosts that a new roof is needed. This alarms the bursar, who suspects that it might be difficult to source timber of just the right size and quality in a short time. Fortunately the College owns abundant woodlands, and someone offers to track down the Head Forester. “I was wondering when you’d ask me” says the forester, pointing to a grove of magnificent oaks - “them’s are yours”. It turns out that, over many hundreds of years, each departing Head Forester had dutifully instructed his successor to conserve those particular trees for the future Dining Hall.

Towards a Regenerative Planning Template
How can we transition from conservation to regeneration? A first step might be for communities to prioritise the values they hold dear. Here is a template communities can adapt to suit their own values:

1. Would this proposal improve ecological well being?
How well would this proposal sustain, or improve the habitat for a diversity of living species? 
Biodiversity is important because human-centred well being depends on the wellbeing of all other Earthlings.

2. Would this proposal respect traditional values?
Would it regenerate community pride, trust and willingness?
The primary purpose of heritage is to keep history alive and to foster local pride. This will keep communities resilient and self-regenerative. Although negative emotions, such as anger or shame (e.g. Edward Colston’s statue) may also bind communities together - pride is regenerative. E.g. DIY house-building fosters mutual trust, resourcefulness and resilience as well as creating more affordable housing.

3. Would this proposal improve energy conservation?
This is linked to the climate emergency and to biodiversity, etc.
N.b. In conservation areas, prohibiting housing extensions or UPVC double glazing may please some residents on historical or aesthetic grounds, but will not help low income families who need to reduce their fuel bills.

4. Would this proposal look/feel 'right'?
Does it respect the scale and visual proportions that exist in the area?
Even though renovation may use traditional materials of the finest quality the result may still look disturbing or ugly. The 'milieu' of a given conservation area is created by sets of subtle proportions that relate to each other in the context of the human form. Visual clutter (e.g. large wheely-bins / oversized bicycle sheds) can distract the eye and disturb the area's original character. In Germany, there is a planning statute ('Milieuschutz') designed to preserve the 'look and feel' of a given neighbourhood.

5. Would this proposal promote different types of diversity?
Does it celebrate many types of uniqueness?
It is biological diversity that makes ecosystems so resilient. Applying this principle to planning values would ensure that rare and useful architectural features are conserved. There is little justification for preserving, or perpetuating every common architectural feature, especially if it is unpractical or mediocre. Although Victorian architecture is famous for its diversity of ideas and styles some stylistic conceits reflect ignoble or even unscrupulous business practices. Diversity will become increasingly important in a post-fossil fuel world. This is because we will need a diversity of diversities in order to build self-sufficient local communities that flourish without rapid, long haul travel.

6. Would this proposal deliver the desired outcomes?
Can we attain all of the above ideals? - if not, what might be a better way of doing so? 
Are these ideals attainable (e.g. affordable) in this context? Planning sometimes highlights conflicts of interest, especially in matters of ethical values and aesthetic taste. E.g. Choosing to retain traditional Victorian roofs may appeal to some purists, but may also contribute to thermal inefficiencies that deplete energy. 

Further Reading
Chapman, J., 2012. Emotionally Durable Design: objects, experiences and empathy. Routledge.
Illich, I., 1975, Tools for Conviviality, Fontana
Wahl, D. C., 2016, Designing Regenerative Cultures, Axminster, UK: Triarchy Press

maxripple at gmail.com - 07803 824557