Building the Future Through Regenerative Design with Architect Bill Reed

An architect, planner and visionary, Bill Reed, a principal in Regenesis Group, has been working in the realm of integrating shelter, community and nature since the 1970s—before the sustainability and regenerative development movements had a name. 

He was inspired by this thought-provoking question: if the context and surroundings of a building are damaged, polluted or unsafe, what good is beautiful architecture? He has since become an internationally-recognized leader in regenerative development, a founding member of the Board of Directors of the US Green Building Council and one of the co-founders of the LEED Green Building Rating System.

According to Reed, regenerative development and design is about more than the physical construction of a project. 

“You end up going on a metaphysical journey,” he says. “Not only in the physical world, but who we are as people, what we’re developing toward, and how we take care of the environment and the ecology. How do we become part of that ecology? How do we become integral to that ecology?”

We were able to get into the weeds with Reed during an insightful interview about what it truly means to be regenerative.

Bill Reed, principal at Regenesis
Bill Reed, principal at Regenesis Group

How long have you been working in “regenerative” development, and how did you first come to work with that term? 

Regenesis was founded in 1995 by a group of permaculturists and deep organizational systems professionals. The organizational professionals were working with whole systems of human nature to make businesses more effective, while the permaculturists were working with whole natural systems. Both groups realized their work could reinforce the other; a section of restored ecosystem would be more influential if the people within the communities were motivated to spread this positive way of working and living. So that was the genesis of Regenesis.

The founders approached me after I spoke at a conference and introduced regeneration as a concept. It’s about continual transformation—rebirthing a new mind and a new evolutionary understanding. It is not a one-time event, or simply a ‘design’. 

What does regeneration mean to you? How do you best describe it for the average person trying to differentiate regeneration from green, eco, sustainable, etc.?

If it’s only anthropocentric—meaning that we’re simply using nature in service of us—then it’s not regenerative. Regeneration means to transform and develop a collaborative relationship with nature. We have to understand it on a deeper level and pay attention. Life is not static. It is a continual process of engaging in evolutionary processes. It is about developing a renewed spirit of relationship—with nature and each other.    

At the most basic level of “green” design—saving energy, recycling, reducing pollution and so on—we are working toward efficiency. We equate efficiency with sustainability. But efficiency only means we are doing less bad; we are being more efficiently unsustainable. The world is still not sustainable if we’re dumping more carbon into the atmosphere. 

We are seeing lots of green and sustainable hospitality projects these days. What makes regenerative hospitality specifically different from these two?

The majority of green and sustainable hospitality projects are working on being efficient. Regeneration is about engaging and understanding the larger lifeshed of the resort. If we can learn and appreciate the systems of life in the places we visit, there is a chance we will take that perspective home with us and engage our places in renewed ways. Further, it is about learning to be in a renewed relationship with the people of that place. After all, people are nature; for us to understand nature means that we also have to understand ‘human nature’.

The only way we will be able to heal the earth is to improve our capability to be in relationship with ourselves and our communities. Then we can more powerfully engage the combined intelligence of many people to reverse the damage we’ve caused. 

A woman in Boston told me about her visit to Playa Viva. She got to know the local people and invested in their work. That’s not just observing nature as a disinterested observer—that’s participating in the lifeshed of that place. Participation is integral. It makes a distinction between what most eco resorts talk about versus what happens when you’re engaged in the life of that place as a participant. 

You worked on the Playa Viva project over 10 years ago. How is the market catching up to regeneration and regenerative development?

I don’t know if the market is catching up. We are certainly getting more calls these days. People are beginning to hit the panic button—they’re realizing the way we’ve done things in the past doesn’t work. Our education group is continuing to grow—teaching more people how to understand and work with living systems (including each other). We’re getting requests to work on more projects than in the past. There’s definitely something going on here. I believe people are realizing that we need to shift our thinking and way of being in significant ways. 

Unfortunately, many people are now using the term regeneration as a new way of describing sustainability without understanding it. We’re concerned about the banalization of meaning. For example, the word “sustainability” doesn’t mean much anymore. It’s morphed into sustaining the self, not the system: “I’m making a sustainable dam project so I can make more money for my country.” Yes, that’s a dimension of sustainability, but it’s not sufficient to sustain life. Or, “I have an endowment for my school, therefore my school is sustainable.” Economically, yes. Maybe not for all the other systems out there. We are generally sloppy in our thinking. That’s why we try to be precise about language and meaning. It helps us to be honest with ourselves. 

When you stay at a hotel, what do you look for that makes you think, “this place is regenerative”? Or at least, moving toward regenerative?

I’ve never seen a regenerative hotel, other than Playa Viva. Playa Viva is different.  As we began our work, there was the realization that the elders of the village had a lot of wisdom. This village was just a blip along the road. It was a very poor community. The usual eco-resort approach is more of a transactional one, “We’ll hire local people and give them work, that’s our gift to the economy.” 

Playa Viva is the village. The community and the resort honor each other. That makes a gigantic difference in the state of being and development for a community—the whole ecology—soil, crops, habitat, water, lagoon, turtles and people.

My favorite indicator of the success of Playa Viva is that the teenagers are choosing to stay or are moving back to the village. That is the beginning of regeneration. 

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