Tarn Rodgers Johns

Co-Creating Urban Regenerative Futures

Part 1: Why we can't buy our way to a regenerative future


Regeneration is starting to replace sustainability as the new paradigm for pro-environmental thinking. But what do we mean when we talk about a 'regenerative culture'? How do we reimagine ourselves living, playing, working and thriving in a city that nurtures the vital links between individuals, communities and ecosystems? What does a city able to regenerate itself on a regenerated planet look like? And how do we get there?

In this new ‘What is Emerging? Dispatches from the Future’ series for Emerge, Tarn Rodgers Johns will be exploring the movement towards urban regenerative futures in Berlin. 

'Regenerative Futures.' The phrase had been rolling around my head for a while. I felt that it pretty neatly summed up the direction I wanted to be heading with my work and life. 'Regenerative' - I reasoned - is the next stage after sustainability: Degeneration->Sustainability->Regeneration. And 'futures' is, well, the future. Or multiple futures, since there is no predetermined future. I was reading and writing quite a bit about regeneration and so, like a good little millennial, I put it in my Instagram bio as a flag in the sand to indicate my allegiance.

After a while, though, what had seemed like a cute phrase started to annoy me. Was this just another hip term, vacuous and virtue-signalling? The task of creating a regenerative future is a lot more complicated than dropping a few idealistic buzzwords on social media. Regeneration needs a bit of unpacking and grounding. It is a blanket term for various emerging practises and discourses, such as permaculture, peer-to-peer economics and rewilding, that are starting to map the routes towards a more 'regenerative future', i.e a future more in line with planetary boundaries, where vital ecosystems are restored.

It seems like a kind of unnecessary (if you're reading this) but necessary injunction here to say that the way the collective 'we' are living right now is not conducive to life on this planet. This is the Anthropocene, an era in which human activity is responsible for the mass extinction of thousands of species per year. 9 out of 10 people are breathing polluted air; soon, we may have more plastic in our oceans than fish and the widespread use of agro-chemicals is compromising the long-term fertility of our soil. In pretty much every direction you look, it's not looking good.

In one of his recent newsletters, Mark Manson spoke about how an uncertain future increases impulsiveness. It means we're more likely to go "full YOLO". In the vacuum of ideas or tools to build stronger collective and individual security, we're more likely to just "spend all the money, eat all the food and go to all the parties". Closely coupled with avoidance, a "full YOLO" attitude is a psychological response. We can't deal with the complexity of our major and interrelated existential crises, so we shut down, get wasted and adopt a hyper ironic stance as a coping mechanism.

Many disaffected and burnt out young people are craving more groundedness and security about the future, but there is a void of any real maps or routes of how to get there. Instead, we get aesthetic trends like cottagecore, the popularity of sourdough baking and the revival of home crafts.

Thanks to the technology in our pockets we know exactly what's going on, but the solution continues to be "buy more stuff!" In the space of a few minutes on the internet I can find myself being urged to purchase the apparatus needed to adopt a 'zero-waste lifestyle', buy a new pair of sustainably produced shoes or become a glamorous digital-nomad driving off into the sunset in my eco-friendly camper van conversion. A ‘H&M conscious’ sweater might be a soothing balm for climate and survival anxiety, but if you look closely, the ingredients are the same. We can't buy our way to a regenerative future, although they sure as hell are going to try and convince us that we can.

To paraphrase Richard Bartlett, I think that one way that we can avoid going full-YOLO about life on Earth and find some of this core stability and meaning that we're all craving is by taking responsibility for improving a small part of this world, concentrating our energies on local initiatives  and forfeiting responsibility for the rest. Regeneration is a process, and a regenerative future hinges on the ability of all of us to engage in that process. So, Berlin, my adopted home, I turn my attention to you. 

With its "poor but sexy" reputation, Berlin has become a honey-pot for those escaping other expensive, market driven megacities. For my MA, I focused on gentrification and housing in London because I felt like I was being priced out of my own home city and I wanted to understand why. In 2018 I moved to Berlin.

We know the pattern so well it's as if it's a law of nature. A regenerative mindset recognises that the narrative of disconnection, domination and extractivism that created a climate crisis is a pattern that will follow us around until the root cause is addressed.

Permaculture teaches us that the solution to an unbalanced system is most likely to be found by standing back and observing what is already happening around you.While many turn to ‘intentional communities’ and HOMESQUADING, a regenerative future can’t always be about leaving the city entirely. As globally we continue to move towards increasingly urbanised populations, this series of blogs is a self-designed learning journey to discover how people in Berlin are dancing, digging and designing their way to a reclaimed relationship to and with the natural environment, and explore the role that urban landscapes and communities can play in building a regenerative future. 

Over the next few months I'll be sharing my notes with you, highlighting projects in Berlin building new models and systems to improve food security, create community resilience, establish different metrics for meaning and success and clean up the city's metabolism through circular waste models and waste prevention.

See you soon.

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Header image courtesy of Gerd Eichmann.
Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the Lead Editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.