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Positive Development

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'Net positive', from Positive Development (PD) theory, is a paradigm in sustainable development and design. PD theory (taught and published from 2003)[1][2][3] was first detailed in Positive Development (2008),[4] and detailed in Net-Positive Design (2020).[5] A net positive system/structure would ‘give back to nature and society more than it takes’ over its life cycle.[6] In contrast, conventional sustainable design and development, in the real-world context of excess population growth, biodiversity loss, cumulative pollution, wealth disparities and social inequities closes off future options. To reverse the overshoot of planetary boundaries, a 'positive Development' would, among other sustainability criteria, increase nature beyond pre-urban or pre-industrial conditions.[7]

Net positive sustainability


According to PD, the original precepts of sustainability (nature preservation and equity among current/future generations)[8] require increasing future options.[9] This, in turn, requires that development increase the social and natural life support systems.[10] Green design always aimed for ecological restoration, social regeneration and economic revitalization.[11] However, these essentially only ‘add value’ relative to current sites, buildings or practices.[12] Green buildings are generally assessed as 'sustainable' if they improve upon best practices. They do not yet aim to increase nature, environmental security or justice in absolute (global) terms.[5] Positive Development, in contrast, is defined as structures that increase universal life quality and future options by expanding the ‘ecological base’ (ecosystems, ecological carrying capacity, biodiversity) and the ‘public estate’ (universal access to means of survival/well-being and social capital).[13] Sustainable design does not yet aim to increase overall natural and social life support systems and generally limits its focus to the health and environmental quality within the project's system boundaries. The mainstream perspective is probably because it is assumed that this is not possible. To address this, a PD website provides examples of how the built environment can address 30 crucial sustainability issues.



The term net positive is increasingly used by green designers,[14] developers and businesses.[15] However, they often apply it from a different perspective: ‘giving back more good than bad'. That is, relative to current conditions, not to sustainability.[16] In effect, this mean optimizing material resources, energy and stakeholder benefits, etc., or efficiency, not an overall (global) gain. This 'reductionist' approach was the aim of 20th-century green building design.[17] PD emphasized the need for development to be net nature positive, since nature had been largely ignored in sustainable or regenerative design until recently.

A key feature that distinguishes the term net positive in PD from misinterpretations of the original usage is that PD separates nature restoration from nature net positive. This is because reductions in negative impacts are not net gains. Calling buildings net positive if they have more positive than negative impacts is a basic misunderstanding of PD accounting.[18] Often, in conventional building assessment, reductions in negative impacts are sometimes called 'positive', many kinds of negative impacts are omitted, and negative impacts as judged to be somehow erased by adding positive impacts. The word ‘net’ in sustainability assessment necessarily means net in a whole-system sense. In PD, ‘net’ means public benefits beyond neutral impacts - not just reductions in the total negative impacts to zero by, for example, counting offsets or making tradeoffs.[19]

Theory origins


PD theory built on eco-philosophies that emerged in the 1980s.[20] Calling for social transformation, they deconstructed the hierarchical cultures, dualistic thought patterns and linear-reductionist analyses of modernity. PD added a positive/negative overlay to explain why these theories did not contemplate increasing nature to offset consumption. Later, sustainability was absorbed into the dominant paradigm (DP) which assumed that current institutions could resolve the problems they fostered.[21] According to PD, existing institutional and physical structures reduce future options and are thus terminal.[22] The hypothesis was that, by converting negative systems into positive ones, genuinely sustainable planning, decision and design frameworks would materialize.

Design-decision distinction


The distinction between decision-making and design is central to PD.[23] Decision-making processes/tools divide, compare and choose. They use bounded or ‘closed system’ thinking which excludes considerations that are difficult to quantify. Essentially, decision methods simplify issues and options to facilitate finding the best path from the present position or desired future. Back-casting and scenario planning, while powerful tools, presume the future can be predicted and selected.[24] Such methods decide now how future citizens must live. They also reduce future options by narrowing resources, adaptability, space and biodiversity over time.



The reduction of the ecological base and public estate continues, PD argues, because new sustainability goals were spliced onto the old (anti-ecological) closed system models, methods and metrics of the DP.[25] Given escalating human consumption, even global depopulation and ecological regeneration would not counterbalance total negative resource flows and ecological impacts. PD maintains that closed system models created and institutionalized zero-sum decision and measurement frameworks such as cost-benefit/risk-benefit analyses.[26] It identifies and ‘reverses’ over a hundred systemic biases in governance, planning, decision and design frameworks by converting them into open system and design-based frameworks to facilitate eco-positive planning and design.[27]

Whereas the internal logic of decision frameworks tend to diminish ecosystems and land eco-productivity, eco-logical design (creating) can multiply functions and public benefits synergistically. Eco-positive design involves open systems thinking (i.e. with transparent/permeable boundaries). For example, building rating tools are based on limits or thresholds (borders) and do not contemplate net public gains. Perhaps because of the deeply-embedded historic elevation of rationalist decision-making over design, green building design templates and rating tools are decision-based. Being reductionist, they encourage tradeoffs between costs and benefits or nature and society in physical development. Hence, they tend to reduce adaptability, diversity and reversibility.[28]



Decision systems in governance (i.e., legislative, executive and judicial) resolve conflict by allocating rights and resources—not by increasing the ecological base and/or public estate. Hence PD suggests different frameworks for environmental governance.[29] These include a modified constitution with a new decision sphere to deal with the unique ethical dimensions of biophysical development, planning and design.[30] Given real-world political barriers to change, PD also suggests default strategies to enable incremental reform by changing institutions from within. PD contends that gaps can be avoided in new governance and planning systems by simply reversing each ecologically terminal convention into eco-positive ones.

Design and planning


While improved systems of governance, decision-making and planning can assist, biophysical sustainability is ultimately a design problem. To compensate for past system design errors, fundamental reforms of design methods and processes are required. PD proposes means to reduce material flows without tradeoffs by, for example, creating mutual gains and ‘low-impact luxury’ environments. PD contends that eco-positive design is already possible, partly through the integration of natural systems with building structures, spaces and surfaces (e.g. ‘living machines’, mycology, or ‘algaetecture’). PD contributes other design concepts (e.g. ‘design for eco-services’, ‘green scaffolding’ ‘green space walls’, ‘solar core’ and ‘piggyback roof, or ‘playgardens’).Digital sustainability can stimulate empirical advances in entrepreneurship, innovation and strategy and has the potential to have a positive impact on society.

SMARTmode (systems mapping and redesign thinking) is a PD planning process[31] that includes two dozen environment gap analyses to highlight sustainability issues that are almost never assessed in planning or design.[32] Some of these are forensic ‘flows analyses’ that identify (local/regional) social and ecological deficits that developments could ameliorate by design. They can be undertaken scientifically using emerging multi-dimensional digital mapping tools,[33] more pragmatically by design teams,[34] or more subjectively in community ‘charrettes’ (aka working bees) for workshopping planning criteria and design briefs.[35] Until planners perform these analyses routinely, therefore, they can serve as design thinking exercises, guidelines and/or criteria.

Eco-positive retrofitting is a priority PD strategy.[36] Due to the massive ongoing impacts of buildings, biophysical sustainability is impossible without retrofitting cities.[37] Replacing buildings with greener ones costs too much in materials, money, energy and time, as new buildings represent only 1–3% of the building stock.[38]

Eco-services design


The term ‘ecosystem services’ generally applies only to human benefits, which are usually valued by units (e.g. money, carbon or energy.[39] PD uses the term ‘eco-services’ to include not only nature's instrumental (pragmatic) values like ecosystem goods and services, but its intrinsic (priceless) and ‘biophilic’ values.[40] PD considers the value of nature to be ‘infinite’ as it is not only the basis of the economy, but essential to human existence itself. To counteract the ecological footprint of existing development,[41] ‘surplus’ natural and social capital[42]—assessed from fixed biophysical baselines—must be created both off-site and on-site by design.

Carbon-neutral design


Net positive energy is barred by the laws of physics. Calculations of ‘net energy’ seldom include the embodied energy and the ecological impacts incurred during resource extraction, production and transportation. A case study showed that a building sequestering more carbon than it emits over its life cycle with building-integrated vegetation using PD design principles is possible within under twelve years.[43]

Design reporting


The PD eco-positive design reporting process (EDR)[44] aims to avoid many shortcomings of decision-based approaches to design.[45] In contrast to green building rating tools, the EDR aims to uncover opportunities to create net public gains. Design teams answer questions based on PD design criteria[46] and SMARTmode analyses.[47] This forces education, collaboration and ‘frontloading’ design (i.e. investing more in preliminary design stages).[48] Exposing the research and reasoning behind decision and design concepts facilitates input from community, assessors and independent experts, and should therefore occur be undertaken in development project.[49]



Most rating tools prioritize resource efficiency and treat ‘reductions in negative impacts’ as if positive. Their baselines and benchmarks preclude net-positive impacts. Some provisions consider respective rights/responsibilities, but not broader ethical issues like improving human-nature relationships, reducing total resource flows or increasing social capital in the vicinity. Also, innovation is often valued for its own sake, not outcomes, and eco-efficiency saves owners money anyway. PD's ‘hierarchy of eco-innovation’ analysis instead prioritizes positive system-wide outcomes and net public benefits.[50] Being non-numerical, it allows self-assessment during design when scientific data is unavailable, time and ego has vested or irreversible decisions are made.

PD Starfish


The PD Starfish design and rating tool enables quantification while assisting designers to consider more dimensions of sustainability.[51] It is a modified radar diagram with added layers and satellite diagrams.[52] Since most life-cycle assessment tools estimate impacts between ‘-1’ (bad) to ‘0’ (best) or zero impact, eco-positive public benefits are excluded. Unlike rating tools, benchmarks for different sustainability factors are based on fixed biophysical conditions—not typical buildings, sites or practices.[53] The starfish uses one scale to assess impacts in relation to fixed benchmarks (from ‘-1’ to ‘+1’) and a linear scale on another layer for scoring/comparison purposes.


  1. ^ Birkeland, J. (2003) ‘Retrofitting: Beyond Zero Waste’, in KLM-UC International Conference Proceedings, University of Canberra, ACT, Australia
  2. ^ Birkeland, J. (2004) ‘Building Assessment Systems: Reversing Environmental Impacts’, Nature and Society Forum, ACT, Australia, http://www.naf.org.au/naf-forum/birkeland (accessed 2005)
  3. ^ Birkeland, J. (2005) ‘Reversing Negative Impacts by Design’, in Sustainability for the ACT: the Future’s in our Hands, Office of Sustainability, ACT, Australia.
  4. ^ "Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design".
  5. ^ a b "Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development". Routledge & CRC Press. Retrieved 2024-05-06.
  6. ^ Eco-positive impacts of development must keep pace with human consumption (or ecological footprint) and offset past losses of nature, as defined in Positive Development (Ibid) p. 6.
  7. ^ A sustainable building should aim to be better for nature/society than no building at all, as well as increase nature beyond native conditions. A rule of reason would be applied as to whether the baseline is pre-industrial or pre-historic, depending on the location and circumstances.
  8. ^ These principles are common to most early definitions of sustainability and were endorsed at a national level as early as 1969 in the preamble to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in the United States. Among the first international documents to define sustainability was the IUCN/UNEP/WWF (1980) World Conservation Strategy, re-published in 1991 as Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living, The World Conservation Union, United Nations Environment Program and World Wide Fund for Nature, Earthscan, London, UK. Here it meant improving life quality within the earth’s ecological carrying capacity. See also COAG (1992) The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (NSESD), Council of Australian Governments, Canberra, Australia. For historical context, see Commoner, B. (1971) The Closing Circle: Nature, Man And Technology, Knopf, New York and Porritt, J. (1985) Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained, Blackwell Publishers, UK.
  9. ^ Social options do not mean more consumer products but rather substantive and positive life choices which requires increasing the ecological base and public estate.
  10. ^ The idea that sustainability requires maintaining or increasing future option was discussed in Birkeland, J. (1993) Planning for a Sustainable Society: Institutional Reform and Social Transformation, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania. See also Norton, B.G. (2005) Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois for a comprehensive discussion on this point.
  11. ^ For a typology of green building design, see Birkeland, J. (2013) ‘Business Opportunities through Positive Development’, in A New Dynamic: Effective Business in a Circular Economy, in K. Webster, J. Bleriot, and C. Johnston (Eds), Ellen MacArthur Foundation Publishing, Isle of Wight, UK, pp. 87-110.
  12. ^ For a discussion of contemporary sustainable building design approaches, see Hes, D. and du Plessus, D. (2015) Designing for Hope: Pathways to Regenerative Sustainability, Taylor & Francis, New York. USA.
  13. ^ Birkeland, J. (2007) ‘GEN 4: ‘Positive Development’, BEDP (Built Environment Design Professions) Environmental Design Guide of the Australian Institute of Architects, ACT, Australia. http://www.environmentdesignguide.com.au/ Assessed June 2008.
  14. ^ The term also appears as ‘net-positive’ or ‘netpositive’. A special issue was dedicated to net-positive design. See Cole, R. (2015) ‘Net-zero and Net-positive Design: a question of value’, in Building Research & Information 43(1), pp. 1-6.
  15. ^ For example, see Forum for the Future, WWF, and The Climate Group (2015) Net Positive: A New Way of Doing Business. Available at http://www.theclimategroup.org/what-we-do/publications/net-positive-a-new-way-of-doing-business/ Accessed June 2015.
  16. ^ Benchmarks are relative to the present, so eco-restoration is seen by some as net positive, yet this does not account for past biodiversity losses and increased human consumption.
  17. ^ There are a wide range of 20th Century green design books, including: Papanek, V. (1971) Design for the Real World: human ecology and social change, Pantheon Books, New York; Johnson, R. (1979) The Green City, MacMillan: S. Melbourne, Australia; Todd, N. and J. Todd (1994) From Eco-Cities to Living Machines, N. Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.; Vale, B. and R. Vale (1975) The Autonomous House: Design and Planning for self-sufficiency, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London; Wann, D. (1996) Deep Design: Pathways to a Liveable Future, Island Press, Washington, DC.; Lyle, J.T. (1994) Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development, Wiley & Sons, New York; van der Ryn, S, and Cowan, D. (1996) Ecological Design, Island Press, Washington, DC. Mackenzie, D. (1991), Green Design: Design for the Environment, Lawrence King, London; Girardet, H. (1992), The Gaia Atlas of Cities: New Directions for Sustainable Urban Living, Gaia books Ltd, London; and Yeang, K. (1999) The Green Skyscraper: The Basis for Designing Sustainable Intensive Buildings, Prestel Verlag, Munich, Germany [Yeang has written numerous books on green design].
  18. ^ "Buildings Alone Will Never Be 'Regenerative' – Architecture . Construction . Engineering . Property". sourceable.net. Retrieved 2024-05-06.
  19. ^ For an overview of zero-energy building, see Kibert, C.J. and Fard, M.M. (2012) Differentiating among Low-energy, Low-carbon and Net Zero-energy Building Strategies for Policy Formulation, Building Research & Information, 40(5), pp. 625-637.
  20. ^ See for example, Merchant, C. (1980) The Death of Nature: Women, ecology, and the scientific revolution, HarperCollins, New York; Warren, K. (1997), Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana; Naess, A. (1989) Ecology, community, and lifestyle, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, UK; Warren, K. and Wells-Howe, B. (1994) Ecological Feminism, Routledge, New York; Salleh, A. (1997) Ecofeminism as Politics: Nature, Marx and the Postmodern, Zed Books, London; Shiva, V. (1988) Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development, Zed Books, London.
  21. ^ See WCED (1987) Our Common Future, Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. This seminal report couched sustainability within the dominant economic and policy making frameworks and did not engage with the sustainability literature critical of the dominant paradigm.
  22. ^ Planning for Sustainability, Ibid. Birkeland, J. (2008) Positive Development, Ibid.
  23. ^ Birkeland, Janis (May 2012). "Design Blindness in Sustainable Development: From Closed to Open Systems Design Thinking". Journal of Urban Design. 17 (2): 163–187. doi:10.1080/13574809.2012.666209. ISSN 1357-4809.
  24. ^ Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 165-179
  25. ^ Positive Development, Ibid.
  26. ^ Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 117-130.
  27. ^ "Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development". Routledge & CRC Press. Retrieved 2024-05-08.
  28. ^ There are many critiques of green building rating tools. Brandon, P.S., and Lombardi, P.L. (2011) Evaluating Sustainable Development in the Built Environment (2nd ed.) Chichester, West Sussex, Ames, Iowa, Wiley-Blackwell; Gu, Z., Wennersten, R., and Assefa, G. (2006) ‘Analysis of the Most Widely Used Building Environmental Assessment Methods’, Environmental Sciences, 3(3), pp. 175-192; Birkeland, J. (2004) ‘Building Assessment Systems: Reversing Environmental Impacts’, Nature and Society Forum, ACT, Australia http://www.naf.org.au/naf-forum/birkeland (accessed 2005).
  29. ^ Birkeland, J. (1996) ‘The Case for a New Public Forum’, in Furnass, B., Whyte, J., Harris, J., and Baker, A. (Eds), Survival, Health and Wellbeing into the 21st Century, Nature and Society Forum, pp. 111-114. Birkeland, J. (1995) ‘Ethics-Based Planning’, Australian Planner 33(1), pp. 47-49.
  30. ^ Birkeland, J. (1993) ‘Towards a New System of Environmental Governance’, in The Environmentalist, 13(1), pp. 19-32; Birkeland, J. (1993) Planning for a Sustainable Society, Ibid; Birkeland, J. (2008) Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 220-233.
  31. ^ Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 251-173.
  32. ^ Birkeland, J. (2015) ‘Planning for Positive Development’, in J. Byrne, J. Dodson and N. Sipe (Eds), Australian Environmental Planning: Challenges and Future Prospects, Routledge, pp. 246-257.
  33. ^ Jackson, D. and Simpson, R., eds. (2012) D_City: Digital Earth, Virtual Nations, Data Cities, D_City, Sydney, Australia.
  34. ^ Birkeland, J. (1996) ‘Improving the Design Review Process’, CIB Commission Conference Proceedings, RMIT, Melbourne, pp. 150-155; Birkeland, J. (2014) ‘Systems and Social Change for Sustainable and Resilient Cities’, L. Pearson, P. Newton and P. Roberts (Eds), Resilient Sustainable Cities, Routledge, UK, pp. 66-82.
  35. ^ Sarkissian, W. (2002) ‘Pros and cons of design charrettes’, in J. Birkeland (Ed) Design for Sustainability: A Sourcebook of Integrated Eco-logical Solutions, Earthscan, London, p. 113.
  36. ^ Birkeland, J. (2009) ‘Eco-Retrofitting with Building Integrated Living’, in Smart and Sustainable Built Environment Conference Proceedings. Delft, Netherlands. www.sasbe2009.com/ accessed May 2011; Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 23-41.
  37. ^ UNEP (2013) Buildings and Climate Change: Summary for Decision Makers, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Nairobi (by United Nations organizations and national building institutes). UN-HABITAT (2011) Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements. http://www.unhabitat.org/downloads/docs/GRHS2011_Full.pdf/ accessed July 2012
  38. ^ Romm, J. (1999) Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Emissions, Island Press, Washington, DC.; EPA (1998) Market Values for Home Energy Efficiency (study by Nevin and Watson for the USA Environmental Protection Agency), Washington DC.
  39. ^ Costanza, R. et al. (1997) ‘The Value of the World’sEcosystem Services and Natural Capital’, Nature, vol 387, pp. 253–260; Heal, G. (2000) Nature and the Marketplace: Capturing the Value of Ecosystem Services, Island Press, Washington, DC; Folke, C. Jansson, Å., Larsson, J. and Costanza, R. (1997) ‘Ecosystem Appropriation by Cities, Ambio Vol 26, pp. 167-172; Daily, G. and K. Ellison (2002) The New Economy of Nature, Island Press, Washington, DC.
  40. ^ Wilson, E.O. (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis, in S. Kellert (Ed) Island Press, Washington DC.
  41. ^ Wackernagel, M. and Rees W. E. (1996) Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing the Human Impact on the Earth, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia.
  42. ^ Surplus in PD means ‘giving back more than it takes’ from a life cycle and whole system perspective, not sending energy or water back to the grid or mains.
  43. ^ Renger, C., Birkeland, J. and Midmore, D. (2015) ‘Net Positive Building Carbon Sequestration: A Case Study in Brisbane’, in Building Research and Information: Special issue on net positive design 43(1), pp. 11-24. See also Birkeland, J.L. (2008) ‘Space Frame Walls: Facilitating Positive Development’, in Proceedings of the 2008 World Sustainable Building Conference. Melbourne, Australia, September 22–25, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ accessed June 2009.
  44. ^ Birkeland, J. (1996) ‘Improving the Design Review Process’, CIB Commission Conference Proceedings, RMIT, Melbourne, pp. 150-155; Birkeland, J. (2014) ‘Systems and Social Change for Sustainable and resilient Cities’, L. Pearson, P. Newton and P. Roberts (Eds), Resilient Sustainable Cities, Routledge, UK, pp. 66-82.
  45. ^ Birkeland, J. (2008) Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 83-96. Rating tools often give credits for things that have financial gains like energy and water savings or worker health and productivity but do not increase the ecology, let alone offset biodiversity impacts. They do not credit actual net positive impacts.
  46. ^ Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 257-258.
  47. ^ Birkeland, J. (2015) ‘Planning for Positive Development’, in J. Byrne, J. Dodson and N. Sipe (Eds), Australian Environmental Planning: Challenges and Future Prospects, Routledge, pp. 246-257; Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 251-273.
  48. ^ See Weizacker, E. van, Lovins, A. and Lovins, H. (1997) Factor 4: Doubling Wealth – Halving Resource Use, Earthscan, London, UK. Hawken, P., Lovins, A and Lovins, H. (1999) Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Earthscan, London, UK. It is a widely cited claim that design is only about one percent of the total cost of the building, yet can save fifty to ninety percent of the total operating cost of a building.
  49. ^ An example EDR process was created for Bogota based on a study of cultural, economic, social, ecological and other special needs. This is not yet published.
  50. ^ The PD ‘hierarchy of eco-innovation’ is summarized in Birkeland, J. (2008) Positive Development, Ibid, pp. 240-242.
  51. ^ Birkeland, J. (2010) ‘Starfish Tool for Net Positive Design’, Presentation at Positive Communities, DEEDI (Queensland Government), Brisbane; Birkeland, J. (2012) ‘Design blindness in Sustainable Development: From Closed to Open Systems Design Thinking’, in The Journal of Urban Design, 17(2), 163-187. (Note the tool is elaborated in a forthcoming book).
  52. ^ Radar diagrams are standard spreadsheet tools.
  53. ^ Jackson, D and R. Simpson (2012) D_City: Digital Earth/Virtual Nations/Data Cities - Connecting Global Futures for Environmental Planning, D. Jackson and R. Simpson, E-book, http://dcitynetwork.net/manifesto/; Birkeland, J. (2012) ‘The Eco-Positive Design Tool’, in Solar Progress, Journal of the Australian Solar Energy Society.