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Shaping America’s Role in the Post-COVID World

On March 4th, 2022, Future of Cities participated in the annual digitally mediated Horasis USA meeting. The meeting focused on the United States’ future and how it impacts the rest of the world. With 750 speakers and more than 150 sessions, it was an insightful event that resulted in numerous proposed ideas to positively shape the future of our world.

Tony Cho, CEO and founder of Future of Cities, was on a panel centered around the complexities of new urbanization—chaired by Timothy J. Nichol of Liverpool John Moores University—with Antonio Cantalapiedra of Woonivers, Mayor Eugene W. Grant of Seat Pleasant, Maxim Kiselev of Skoltech, and Avi Rabinovitch of Creative Links.

About Horasis: Horasis is a “global visions community committed to inspiring our future” and offers leaders and companies a platform to go global.

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As extreme weather events, like sea-level rise, wildfires, and other ecological disasters occur, climate change is becoming a more real and imminent threat by the day. In response, innovative concepts are spawning to mitigate effects and protect our society’s future. One such approach discussed in the sustainability and climate discourse has been regenerative placemaking. But what is this?  

Regenerative placemaking offers a new, holistic approach that is actively being applied in cities on a global scale. It seeks to go beyond net-zero to create a net positive impact on the environment. The principles that support regenerative placemaking are many, including living systems thinking, biophilia, sustainable practices, and community engagement. 

In this article, we are highlighting a few cities that are practicing these principles, and what can be learned from them.

Residents walking and riding bike in Copenhagen, Denmark.

1. Copenhagen, Denmark

Already known as the world’s greenest and most habitable city, Copenhagen has employed numerous regenerative placemaking tactics that contribute to its healthy living environment. 

Medellin, Colombia's hills with homes.

2. Medellin, Colombia

Medellin is a member of the “100 Resilient Cities” and part of the UN’s Green Cities initiative. In the midst of its natural forests, Medellin is evolving and has proven itself to be a model of social and urban transformation. The city owes its development to the collective co-creation amongst its citizens, public and private organizations. The presence of this transdisciplinary interaction has led to increased levels of community engagement.  Emerging from this partnership is an image of a resilient Medellin, one with goals of safety, equity, and sustainability. 

Innovative architecture in Medellin, Colombia.

Wide view of Auckland, New Zealand.

3. Auckland, New Zealand

As one of the most liveable cities in the world, Auckland continues to find ways to create exceptional strategies that result in the city’s transformation. There is an emphasis placed on eco-design and energy efficiency. For example, the city provides readily available resources to assist the community to make smart choices and reduce waste–whether home or business. Unique to Auckland is its reconnection with its indigenous population and natural systems. In an effort to create diverse and inclusive community engagement, a Māori design leader, Phil Wohongi, was appointed in an aim to foster the integration of identity and culture in Auckland. The city’s outreach includes speaking and listening to various community members and taking action. In regards to natural systems, Auckland has taken up many projects that include the redevelopment of waterfronts and biophilic practices.

Montevideo, Uruguay architecture.

4. Montevideo, Uruguay

Montevideo is the cultural, political, and economic center of Uruguay. The city is committed to the welfare of its citizens by placing an emphasis on human rights and sustainability. Montevideo is actively implementing the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda. The city has developed a number of strategic plans for development and tackling social, economic, and environmental vulnerability.  In 2016, Montevideo was listed as a member of the 100 Resilient Cities Network. A Resilience Executive Unit was established then, to create and deliver a Resilience Strategy by 2018. The Strategy involved regenerative placemaking approaches like inclusivity, co-creation environmental commitments. Beyond this, Montevideo, and Uruguay as a whole, have taken up other projects to constantly improve agricultural and energy systems.

Ultimately, what we can learn from these identified cities are the huge role nature, technology, and the community plays. The effectiveness of natural solutions to environmental challenges is evident. We can look to nature as an energy resource, and utilize its cooling and filtration properties. There is also the benefit of equipping the built environment with smart tools for energy measurement and efficiency. All these tactics depend on community engagement. It is important for the community, not just to understand these principles, but also to be involved in them, so that implementation and necessary lifestyle changes will be welcomed. 

There are many other cities that are implementing regenerative placemaking principles in an effort to create healthy and sustainable environments; It is only a matter of time before we start seeing the effect of these changes. 

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With thanks to conversations with Ludo Campbell-Reid, Ralph Webster,
and Frith Walker 

Twenty years ago, the City of Auckland was suffering from a depressed economy, declining public health, and a short-term, self-centric viewpoint called “Auckland disease.” Now a decade later with a ten-fold increase in private investment, public transport patronage doubling every year, and the strengthening of its social and natural systems, Auckland’s embrace of Regenerative Placemaking principles has resulted in this remarkable transformation and the recent recognition as the most liveable city in the world

Employing regenerative thinking in the sense of re-activating and enlivening the city; using the city to support social and ecological capacity; and activating these strategies through fine-grained testing of ideas and active agency of stakeholders; Auckland’s efforts to revitalize the heart of the city have been extraordinary. 

For example, take the transformation of Fort and Elliott Streets. On Fort Street, there has been a 54% increase in pedestrian volumes and a 47% increase in consumer spending, while on Elliott Street there has been a 10% pedestrian and 27% spending increase.

Source, City of Auckland review, 2015 2

However, while these are tangible examples in simple terms, there are many additional reflections to map Regenerative Placemaking components over the past decade in Auckland. Six of note are: 

  1. Living systems thinking

Understood as a philosophy that studies the interrelation and dependence of all stakeholders and environments in a given place, for Auckland this approach was leveraged to emphasize reconnecting to its natural systems – the bay, rivers, and mountains. 

In practice, this was realized by:

A group of people running on a road

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Image source: Ralph Webster

  1. Transdisciplinary knowledge exchange

Focused on consulting with everyone to gain significant ideas and better solutions, Ralph Webster, the Auckland Council’s former program development manager said that working on a Regenerative Placemaking development was not “just a team sport, but an intergenerational team sport.”  

How so? 

  1. Rigorous and inclusive community engagement 

Community engagement done well means that they are agents in the eventual outcome and have a sense of custodianship and stewardship which is critical. This creates attachment and belonging leading to positive social, ecological, and economic outcomes. 

Critically this engagement should not only be about extracting ideas and good will from participants it is ensuring they gain benefit from the experience also as Webster said, “In addition to working with all stakeholders in projects to increase the vitality and vibrancy of a place, one of the most critical parts is to create the potential to have fun, laugh and play through the process and embed it in the end result.”

In Auckland this came to life in practical terms by:

  1. Biophilia and sustainability practices

Throughout Auckland, connection to nature is an integral part of how spaces are looked at, from working with threatened species to how to plan support biodiversity. This is evidenced through experimentation with green roofs on shipping container activation nodes, using them for insects and other small threatened species. 

A picture containing text

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Image from Presentation of Ludo Campbell-Reid, international urban strategist, and newly appointed Director of City Design & Liveability at Wyndham City Council.

Auckland’s focus on nature enables them to imagine future potential, and this leads to human benefits such as reduced urban heat and biophilic benefits with a stronger connection to nature. 

These practices are put into action by asking these simple questions: 

  1. Regenerative placemaking interventions 

Testing within the community was an integral part of the City of Auckland’s processes and their work with stakeholders. Practically, this collaboration has resulted in the Activate Auckland plan to support the 30-year strategic redevelopment plan of the City.


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Image: Activate Auckland

  1. Avoiding gentrification

Auckland has attracted its share of critique for increased housing prices, yet this was addressed by creating innovative models to support home ownership and community planning.

For example:


While Regenerative Placemaking is an ever-evolving, living development approach, Auckland demonstrates through its transformation as one of the least to most-liveable cities that with incredible amounts of private investment, collaboration, preservation, and conservation that a socially, ecologically, and socially thriving city can be willed. All it takes is commitment and vision!

Introduction by Tony Cho, Future of Cities Founder

This past year has been one of deep global transformation as we continue to navigate through one of the most impactful events in modern human history. The global pandemic has revealed a tale of two worlds, the haves and have-nots. The social and racial inequality gap continues to dramatically widen, and people and governments around the world are reevaluating policies, searching for answers and figuring out what’s next. How do we build back better, more sustainably, more equitably and more inclusively so 100% of humanity can thrive — while remaining in balance with nature?

This inquiry is at the core of our mission at the Future of Cities, where we aspire to impact the lives of 1 billion people through innovations in the built environment. So, how do we do this and where do we begin? Over the past 3 years, we’ve studied and analyzed Systems-Thinking theories ranging from Buckminster Fuller to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and recognized a need to co-design a new systems-oriented framework for real estate development. This framework we aim to open-source and share widely, putting forward new standards that will be embodied in demonstration projects that can serve as beacons for those interested in new, regenerative pathways for urban development and vitality.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) | United Nations
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Regenerative Placemaking contributes to a number of SDGs though primarily SDG #11 Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Building on local learnings from creative placemaking derived over the past two decades developing Miami’s Wynwood Art’s District and Magic City Innovation District in Little Haiti, combined with Regenerative Development practices most notably proposed by Bill Reed and Pamela Mang’s team at Regenesis, we’ve set out to co-create and popularize a new framework, entitled Regenerative Placemaking, which aims to accelerate place-based sustainability into new, mainstream industry norms.

In this process of discovery, we were quickly directed to Dr. Dominque Hes, one of the world’s foremost thinkers, theorists and practitioners of Regenerative Placemaking. Dr. Hes has been formulating the Regenerative Placemaking theory for several years and has authored multiple articles on the topic.

We are grateful and honored to welcome Dr. Hes to our global board of advisors for the Future of Cities, and excited to co-create, design and open-source our research on this critical advancement for our industry. The time has never been more urgent for developers to reimagine their role as stewards who are responsible for the wellbeing of communities and cities. And so, we are pleased to introduce you to this newly synthesized and still-emergent body of work, with hope you will be inspired to build the future with these values in motion, to evolve the role of placemaking, and urban development as we know it.

Creating The Future of Cities With Regenerative Placemaking

By Dr. Dominique Hes, Advisor to Future of Cities, with Bill Reed of Regenesis

Addressing Systemic Failures

The world’s urban population is playing a game of chicken with our environment and global economy. By 2050, more than 6.6 billion people, or 68.4 percent of the population, will live in cities. However, whether the threat of pandemic, sea level rise, food deserts, or myriad of other challenges, this growth is going unchecked. 

Does this mean a moratorium should be placed on urban density in favor of suburban sprawl? Or is a solution that is more evolutionary and redefines urban living and development more feasible? 

The answer is that we must create places that support the future of cities. Places designed for living, working, creating, and contributing, combined with strategies that incorporate nature integration and the non-human aspects of life critical to all local ecosystems. Enter, regenerative placemaking. 

Enter: A New Design Paradigm

Defined as a strategic process of (re)igniting people’s relationship to socio-ecological systems through place-specific activations, regenerative placemaking harnesses the key strengths of regenerative development and placemaking practices. 

The merging of these two practices delivers places designed for both humans and non-humans, shifting city-making from a largely anthropocentric practice to one aligned with living systems, by which people are empowered as cultural and environmental stewards.

The result is the creation of a way to interact with a geographical location that enables continual adaptation, health, and wellbeing. The aim is not to create utopia, but a realistic way to engage with the problems and potentials of a place and all its complexities. 

The regenerative development component creates the ways to understand a place, to see its essence, its potential and the ways to understand what healthy, vital, viable and abundant looks like. The placemaking component ties these ideas to a specific place, with the local stakeholders, supporting them to be a critical part of the potential of the place and its capabilities.  

Pandemic Lessons and Proper Practices

While the effects on populations and economies were severe, what the pandemic showed was how changes in urban living could influence our environment. From better air quality and cleaner water ways to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the global population can slow and reverse negative climate impacts. 

To start creating regenerative placemaking demonstration projects, what is needed is a process to guide design and development, and to enable the ability to learn, understand, and grow. Key components in moving regenerative placemaking forward include:

Measuring and Refining Success

Having developed the ways to enact the above processes, how does a project understand how well it has done? 

The first step is to understand that measurement serves a developmental process, not as a way to ‘score’ an effort. The second step is to evolve and adapt measurement as within regenerative placemaking, fixed and adaptable system measures can change over time in negotiation with stakeholders. We ask: what are the signs of life of a healthy place (fixed) and what are the unique traits of thriving and abundance of the place that may change as it matures (adaptable)?

However, while the measures and benchmarks can shift, the objective does not. Regenerative Placemaking is about contributing to improved social, ecological, and economic outcomes by building local capacity and potential. This means looking at the richness of the relationships – individual, community, built and natural environment – contributing to these outcomes.

Though not a perfect example of the full potential of Regenerative Placemaking, a project that illustrates the importance of building relationships to the flows through a place is the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project.  In this example, water flowing through a community is of no benefit in a pipe where it cannot contribute positively through relationship (habitat, urban cooling, watering, recreation, etc.), similarly, money flowing through a place is only beneficial if it nourishes and contributes to the area. Michael Shuman has shown that every dollar spent at a locally owned business generates two-to-four times the jobs, income, wealth, and taxes as a dollar spent in a comparable nonlocal one (link). 

The Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project

Benefits of daylighting the river:

Find more information on the Cheonggyecheon Stream Restoration Project here ⟶

Moving Forward

To implement regenerative placemaking principles, a sea change is required in how developers approach projects and their regulation. From the scaling of ESG standards and creating incentives for sustainable development, to further enhancing Opportunity Zone framework and shifting investors’ mindsets to focus beyond triple bottom-line returns, to creating local potential, these adaptations are vital and achievable. 

It is the responsibility of those with the ability to influence change to make it happen, and for stakeholders and communities to help co-create the future in support of better, self-sustaining cities. 

About Dr. Dominique Hes

Holding a PhD in Architecture and Degree in Engineering from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Botany degree from Melbourne University, Hes is an associate of the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and award-winning author. She is also the chair of the board of Greenfleet, and an advisor for the Future of Cities; a mission-driven consortium that is part-real estate investment and development company, part-venture capital ecosystem and part-think tank that will cultivate living laboratories to steward regeneration and improve liveability in cities.