I have this strange occupational hazard in which I fall in love a little with whatever group I am serving, even if the encounter is brief – even, I’m discovering, if the interaction is separated by monitors and keyboards within the constraints of social distancing. This is how I find myself thinking longingly of people who work in “the built environment” – architects, lighting designers, landscape architects, green building consultants, urban planners. Those who shape the spaces in which we live and work and love and play. In my occupationally induced infatuation, my greatest wish is always that these people – and the world – should see them as I do: essential to this moment, uniquely capable of contributing some vital aspect of a more thrivable world.
This latest tryst was exceedingly innocuous: an invitation to speak to a built environment group for 15 minutes over Zoom. That’s all. It wasn’t even an exclusive thing: there were two other speakers on the hour-long call. And yet, here I am. Smitten.
Perhaps you’ll understand once you see what I see.
The encounter started like so many others. In my standard courting ritual, I shared my belief that all of society’s ills can be traced back to the dominant worldview, which tells us that everything in life operates like a machine. Within this story, we are all separate from each other and from nature. We exist to compete and consume. And our sole purpose is productivity and profitability. Output above all, and at any cost.
This mechanistic view has shaped every aspect of our lives, from how we learn to what we eat and how we care for ourselves and each other. And in all of these, the built environment has played an outsized role, too often funneling us into boxy, lifeless buildings and toxic workplaces, crowded with cubicles and reeking of noxious chemicals. Beyond the four walls of our structures, we are similarly left with depleted, monoculture landscapes and soulless places – what my husband calls the United States of Generica. Winston Churchill famously cautioned that “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.”
Fortunately, as in so many spheres of our lives, there are sprouts of aliveness and hope poking through that barren scene. There are signs that a more life-aligned story is emerging. From the built environment, these are the examples I shared on the Zoom call:
– As early as the 1970s, visionary architect Christopher Alexander pointed out that “the mechanistic view always makes us miss the essential thing.” Over multiple volumes of work, he has offered guidance for enabling a greater sense and experience of aliveness in our spaces and places. “All space and matter, organic or inorganic, has some degree of life in it,” he advised, “and matter/space is more alive or less alive according to its structure and arrangement.”
– More recently, social ecology professor Stephen Kellert pioneered the field of biophilic design, an “architecture of life” that promotes improved health and wellbeing by creating connections between people and nature in the built environment. This connection, he wrote in 1993, includes “a human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction.”
– Launched in 2006, the Living Building Challenge is an international certification that consists of seven categories: place, water, energy, health + happiness, materials, equity and beauty. “The Challenge is successful,” writes founder Jason MacLennan, “because it satisfies our left-brain craving for order and thresholds and our right-brain intuition that the focus needs to be on our relationship and understanding of the whole of life.”
– The field of regenerative design and development, advanced most by the Regenesis Group over the past two decades, views architecture as “the process of building life.” “[Built spaces] either diminish the conditions for life,” asserts Regenesis principal Bill Reed, “or [they] create a positive framework for engagement and relationships upon which life builds and regenerates.”
Each of these philosophies and approaches aligns with my own understanding of what is needed and what is emerging in every field and every sector of society. In my work, I refer to it as “thrivability,” the explicit intention and ongoing practice of creating the fertile conditions for life to thrive at every level: for individual people, for organizations as ecosystems, for community, for the biosphere.
Whatever you choose to call it, more and more of us are recognizing that this “intention and practice” is no longer optional, if ever it was. If we don’t get clearly focused on enabling life to thrive, then we’ll continue to fall catastrophically short of that goal. And there is plenty of evidence of our precarious position in this regard. As I say in my book, The Age of Thrivability:
“[T]he hope is that we will be able to move forward more intentionally and quickly to the wiser, more life-honoring perspectives that characterize the emerging era, so that we may solve our most pressing environmental and social problems in time to avert the unthinkable.”
With this in mind, my message to those on the Zoom call – and to all who work in the built environment – was that the explicit purpose of your work must be to craft and cultivate the fertile conditions for life to thrive.
And certainly, this intention must include sustainable materials, efficient use of resources and inspiring physical design.
But your contribution goes well beyond that. If we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us, the starting point is how we shape the intention and process of design. And therein lies the most potent point of influence. This is where we start to see that you are in a special role in all of human civilization. The architect, the urban planner, the designer all bring people together in community and creative conversation about what is important, what is valuable, what is possible. With each project, you have an opportunity to invite people to reflect on how they engage with each other and their place and their collective potential. You are in a position to help people see themselves and their story – as it is and as it could be.
Indeed, you have the power to shape your every project as a practice ground for a more thrivable world. As a dojo for the skill of discerning what generates more aliveness, more energy, more thrivability. As a time and space dedicated to the practice of stewarding life, leaving everyone involved wiser and more nourished, capable and connected.
What I shared with the built environment Zoom group is that if we are to act as stewards of life, we have to know what that involves. Christopher Alexander advised that “we must first learn how to discover patterns which are deep, and capable of generating life.” Drawing on the patterns he outlined, along with many other disciplines, I have found that organizations and communities exhibit a core set of characteristics common to all living systems – what I think of as “life’s universal design principles.” Whether it is your body, a rainforest, an organization, or a community, these are the “fertile conditions” that must be cultivated if the living system is to thrive:
1. Divergent Parts: In every living system, there are individual parts, each with an urge for self-expression and contribution.
2. A Pattern of Relationship: The divergent parts are connected and supported in patterns of responsive relationship with each other and with context.
3. A Convergent Whole: The divergent parts come together in relationship to form a convergent whole with new, emergent characteristics and capabilities. In human communities, convergence is enabled and supported by shared purpose and identity – by shared story, most powerful when it is rooted in place.
4. Self-Integration: The entire process is self-organizing, animated and set elegantly into motion by the spark and spirit of life itself.
When these fertile conditions are cultivated in a coherent way, the result is more aliveness – and more capability – within the space and in the community of people connected to it. As Alexander observed: “The more living patterns there are in a place – a room, a building, or a town – the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.”
So as you shape the intention and process that lead to design – as you craft your project as practice ground for a more thrivable world – these are the types of questions you might ask as a means of exploring those four fertile conditions:
1. What more could it mean for each of us, individually, to be able to bring the best of ourselves? To feel deeply at home in this place, in this structure, in this work and in our own bodies? And what could support that?
2. What more could it mean for our infrastructure and interactions to support not only information sharing, decision-making, effective action and trust but playfulness, learning and joy? For our patterns of belonging with colleagues, customers and community to be infused with a sense of dedication, earnestness, perhaps even sacredness? And what could support that?
3. What are we called to express and create together, in service of life? What more do we understand at this moment in time about the calling or purpose — the emergent, unifying story — that propels us into transformative action together, as citizens, employees, customers, community members in this place? What is the wisdom that is needed now?
4. What would bring the most life to this process and this project? How can we be inspired, nourished, renewed and even surprised by nature, beauty, art, music, movement and celebration? How can we allow life to flow through us so that we can truly savor this experience of being alive?
If we are to reshape the world, the starting point is reshaping the purpose of our work, expanding it to suit the needs of this moment, each in our own way and within our own context. This subtle form of activism takes courage. But the situation we face demands nothing less. We need all hands on deck – and, even more, all hearts.
My heart is with you.
[Photos originally shared by @wrathofgnon on Twitter: Jerez, Spain; Cotswalds, UK; Marbella, Spain; Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina.]