Part 2 of a three-part series on the Regenerative Economy. Click here to read Part 1 on Regenerative Design and Part 3 on examples of a Regenerative Economy.
As the American population increased over the last 150 years, the cost of the “take-make-use-dispose” nature of the linear economy was not fully understood or appreciated. The economy generally thrived; the middle class grew as prosperity abounded for many. Yet, the evidence surrounded us – growing landfills, polluted ecosystems, economic disparity, and systemic racism. Today, the climate crisis has highlighted the holistic cost of our linear economy, and the bill is coming due. Southface believes there is a compelling and urgent need for the world at large and each of us to change the way we conduct business.[i] Public policy can and should support our efforts to do so.
Transitioning to an economy that sustains us, a regenerative economy where the social, environmental and economic capital created is more than what was put in. We need to create greater capacity for future generations, all which can help heal the social, economic, and environmental damage created so far. We can strategically use the levers of policy to wean us off the linear economy and implement a regenerative one. A strong economy and employment opportunities are important aspects of healthy and resilient communities. Public policy provides the foundation. Given their place-based perspective, state and local governments are uniquely positioned to catalyze the transition. While the results of the 2020 U.S. general election are likely to provide increased federal leadership in addressing the climate crisis, cities and states must continue to lead efforts to set the direction for the road ahead.
The Power of Policy Amendments
From shaping education to regulating businesses to setting minimum building codes, state governments set the context of their residents’ potential. State policy often serves as a necessary companion or underpinning for municipal action by allowing, disallowing, or facilitating more advanced municipal policy adoption. Consider building codes. Most states adopt model building codes and customize them to their needs through amendments. Amendments can strengthen or weaken the code. Those model codes are regularly updated and reflect advances in construction techniques, building systems, resource efficiency, and more.
When Southface’s Eco-Office was designed in the early 2000s, harvesting and using gray water was not permitted by the Georgia Plumbing Code. Gray water systems can reduce the volume of potable water required for building plumbing systems and can be harvested and filtered on-site, reducing demand on local water supply systems and to some extent reducing stormwater impact. Southface worked with codes officials to determine the safety and effectiveness of such systems and was ultimately able to install and operate a cutting-edge gray water system, setting a precedent for its inclusion in future codes. (It is still working great today.)
Today, gray water is a standard section of the state’s plumbing code[ii], but it is not a requirement for buildings. Georgia is a Home Rule state, which would allow for municipalities to adopt ordinances that are more stringent than state codes. Local governments where water insecurity is an issue could require new construction to include gray water systems, reducing the need for municipally supplied water.
More recently, Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design is working with the State of Georgia Environmental Protection Division to implement its on-site water treatment system that will deliver potable water for the building. Currently prohibited by plumbing and building codes, if the system is successful, it will pave the way for private, on-site systems in the future.
As discussed in Southface’s recent article on regenerative design, building codes can advance both new building construction strategies and economic opportunities. The 2019-2020 Georgia General Assembly passed legislation to contemplate amending state building codes to allow for tall mass timber construction[iii], an important step toward regenerative design and construction practices which will allow for increased reductions in the embodied carbon emissions of buildings[iv]. As important as the environmental benefits of such a policy enabling an innovative building material like mass timber, so too are the social and economic ones. The state’s forestry industry would provide the market opportunities for local manufacturing of mass timber products, which would bring jobs in manufacturing, construction and timber harvest.
States Play an Important Role
States have the potential to drive homebuilding toward higher performance standards than the average housing stock. Building codes can be adopted with higher performance requirements, but the marketplace can be influenced by rewarding builders for better housing. In every state, housing finance agencies administer a complex annual process for allocating tax incentives to develop and operate affordable housing communities. In many states, this competitive process’s evaluative scoring includes opportunities to gain points for “green” or high-performance building certifications. Many developers use these point opportunities to gain an advantage in winning the tax incentives, and they end up with developments that are of higher construction quality, cost less for residents to live in and hold their value longer over time. Given developers must operate these properties as affordable housing for at least ten years, it is to their advantage to build better housing.[v] Local governments can similarly create incentives to drive more efficient homebuilding.
Policies and practices that shape the way we use energy and water in our buildings are equally as critical as housing policy to the transition to a regenerative economy and are often shaped largely at the state level. Responsible resource use is a longstanding core component of regenerative principles, and clean energy is fundamentally regenerative in nature. Yet, technology advances much faster than codes and utility planning can accommodate, and unless such undertakings can evolve more quickly, potential advances in the transition to regenerative practices could be delayed or lost.
Backing Clean Energy Policies and Commitments
A clear and often–cited example of such rapid evolution is solar photovoltaic (PV) energy. Within the context of the built environment, solar PV-generated electricity stands to accelerate the transition to clean energy and greater energy security. Incredibly, the cost of solar PV energy has dropped by 82% since 2010[vi], while the performance of a standard solar PV module has increased by 19% over the same timeframe. In a nutshell, “…solar has been seeing better products at lower prices every year for a decade.”[vii] However, a variety of factors including homeowners’ associations, local permitting processes and limited or poorly structured utility programs can make it challenging for individuals and organizations to install solar PV on their homes and buildings even though such distributed energy generation can support more resilient communities and strengthen the grid.
Solarize programs have helped make solar energy more accessible to consumers, but states could re-position the market by encouraging distributed energy generation. One step in that direction for Georgia was in 2015 when the General Assembly passed the Solar Power Free Market Financing Act, which allows third parties to install and operate solar arrays. The Act enabled Solar Energy Procurement Agreements (SEPAs) in Georgia, which are similar to Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in other states in all but name. Third-party agreements can substantially lower financial barriers for solar access while creating jobs and business opportunities in the clean energy sector. Southface recently leveraged that opportunity in combination with the federal tax incentive for solar projects to create a program for nonprofits. Funded through a private foundation and private investors, Southface financed a solar array at a local charter school that meets 80% of their electricity needs. The utility savings will recoup the financing expenses in ten years, after which the school will fully own the array. Southface is now implementing this program nationally with other organizations.
Local governments also have policy opportunities to accelerate the transition to clean energy and a regenerative economy. Cities often begin such efforts with the passage of a benchmarking ordinance that requires municipal government and private property owners to report their buildings’ energy performance. Atlanta’s benchmarking ordinance was one of the first in the nation to also require water in addition to energy reporting[viii].
Many Southeastern cities have made 100% clean energy commitments, such as those adopted by Atlanta[ix] and Athens, Georgia[x] as well as Orlando[xi] and Sarasota, Florida.[xii] Clean energy plans in cities like these have performance and time-driven thresholds not only for the local government’s own operations but also for the private sector to achieve the 100% goals. Cities can leverage their regulation of design, development and construction activities in the built environment to transition to a regenerative economy by implementing measures like Atlanta’s electric vehicle-ready ordinances[xiii], Decatur’s high-performance building requirements[xiv], and Savannah’s tree lawn provisions[xv].
Shifting From Gray to Green Stormwater Infrastructure
The tree lawn provisions in Savannah, Georgia, have several beneficial outcomes, but some that particularly resonate are the stormwater management benefits the policy brings to flood-prone areas. As the climate crisis increases the intensity of storm events, many municipal systems struggle, and fail, to effectively manage the volumes of stormwater. These conditions can flood low-lying areas often populated by low-income families, exacerbate soil erosion, and in the case of combined sewer systems, release human sewage into natural waterways.
Some municipalities have recognized that gray infrastructure, traditional stormwater management, is insufficient for managing today’s major storm events, and they have implemented new green infrastructure requirements to better manage stormwater. Green infrastructure manages stormwater by recharging groundwater tables, retaining topsoil, and easing pressure on natural systems. Techniques include harvesting rainwater in cisterns, maximizing pervious surfaces, installing bioswales, and leveraging strategic detention devices, like the pond at Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park. Many of these techniques also create green space providing urban neighborhoods with connections to nature, habitat for animals, and relief from the urban heat island effect. Historic Fourth Ward Park also fostered substantial commercial and residential development around it given its attractiveness to Atlanta residents. The icing on the cake was that it saved the City about $22 million based on the original gray infrastructure plan.[xvi]
Having long struggled with an old and combined stormwater/sewer infrastructure, the City of Atlanta in 2013 adopted a “1-inch rule,” which requires the first inch of rainwater that falls on a site to be retained on site with green infrastructure techniques.[xvii] Given the pace of development in Atlanta over the last decade, green infrastructure has reduced stormwater by over one billion gallons.[xviii] In metropolitan areas, particularly those that are water insecure, collaborative agreements between local governments for the harvesting of rainwater and implementation of green infrastructure at scale could substantially reduce the expense of managing potable water, stormwater, its adverse impacts, and begin to provide for water security.
For all the concern that exists about managing stormwater, municipal governments are also the primary providers of potable water supply networks. They are responsible for the extraction, transportation, processing, and delivery of clean, safe drinking water. For water insecure jurisdictions, like most in metropolitan Atlanta, there exist few options for extraction. Traditionally, rivers have been dammed to create reservoirs to leverage surface water for drinking and electricity generation, but those have a capacity that will not support growing populations through times of drought. Groundwater found in aquifers is also finite in its supply, particularly when recharge is diminished by urban impervious surfaces.
So, how can local governments maximize the water supplies they have? Adopt water-efficient fixture requirements or incentives like DeKalb County’s toilet retrofit rebate program,[xix] incentivize or require agriculture and landscape irrigation best practices, incentivize gray water systems, incentivize or require rainwater harvesting for large industrial water users or district-scale developments.
Waste Doesn’t Just Disappear
Managing waste is another challenge facing most local governments. The linear economy’s ultimate product is waste, and as our economy and population have grown over the years so has our volume of waste. Local governments are most often responsible for providing for waste disposal, which typically means piling it up somewhere. Even the robust recycling efforts of the past decade were based on our ability to send those materials somewhere else. When receiving countries stopped accepting our recycling content, many local governments resumed sending those potential materials straight to the landfill citing lack of demand. The problem is not just the waste of materials that could be processed into new goods. Landfills often pollute adjacent communities, ecosystems and waterways with toxic materials despite requirements to contain them.
They also contain large volumes of organic materials that decompose, and in that process release gases, including methane that is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.[xx] Much of that organic material is yard debris and food waste. Municipal governments should evolve their landfill management practices to include composting both yard debris and food waste. CompostNow, a local composting business, has proven the financial and operational viability of composting services. They collect organic waste from residences and businesses, manage the compost process, and then distribute the nutrient rich soil back to customers or community gardens. Municipal governments are well positioned to mandate and scale these practices, substantially reduce solid waste and landfill gases, and support local agriculture with nutrient-rich soils while also protecting the vulnerable communities often adjacent to the landfills.
An Opportunity for Better Construction Materials Reuse
A more difficult waste issue for municipal governments to solve is that of construction and demolition (C&D) debris. With the breakneck pace of construction over the last ten years, and the common practice of demolishing viable building stock because it is less expensive than renovation, C&D volume is increasing. Many of these materials can be recycled, and many can be repurposed, such as crushing concrete into aggregate for foundations and roadways, but there are very few requirements and incentives to create the push and pull of the economic argument.
Continuing with the status quo not only increases the amount of waste that goes to landfill but also carbon emissions from both the production of new products and materials, their transportation, and their installation. States and municipalities should work together to encourage, incentivize, and require more regenerative practices within building and waste management codes that result in increased salvage and reuse and decreased conveyance to landfills. In Atlanta, Georgia, the Lifecycle Building Center[xxi] aims to recapture and utilize materials that would otherwise be destined for the landfill with the demolition phase of development. Historic preservation tax credits are one potential mechanism to encourage this by applying similar credits to renovation of non-historic buildings; percentage reuse or related renovation incentives and requirements are another. These are policy provisions that can be contemplated at the state and/or local level within codes and even economic development programs.
Regenerative Policy and the Social Environment
A critical thread weaving all these issues and opportunities together is the social environment representing human endeavor. The foundation of every local government is its constituency – the residents and the communities created by those residents, neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations who live, work and play within the jurisdiction. When considering new policies or programs, local governments can shift their strategies for community engagement and general approach to interactions with the community to create a more equitable and circular process, whereby there is ongoing engagement and interaction between the government and the community versus more discrete project or issue-specific engagement.
Authentic community engagement and consistently working to provide everyone a seat at the table not only fosters a stronger and more trusting relationship between local government and residents but also enables the needs of both to be met. Through this dynamic, municipalities can and should endeavor to fully involve the community in the dialogue and decision-making – whether policy development through mechanisms such as robust public review and comment periods, or project development through opportunities such as neighborhood-specific workforce development programs[xxii] or community benefits agreements[xxiii] (CBAs) designed to support neighborhood and community resiliency.[xxiv]
The community-based efforts that resulted in Historic Fourth Ward Park illustrate the success that can be seen by working with community leaders, advocates and experts to develop solutions and really show what is possible when municipal government is willing to listen and adapt to the voices of its constituents. It can be done – we just need to reassess and reimagine how we think and operate. Local government leadership can help show us the way.
Education and Employment to Bolster the Shift
In addition, one of the most important components of building a regenerative economy is education and awareness. Governments should not only utilize demonstration projects, such as the Kendeda Building, to illustrate what is possible but also take intentional action to advance some of those principles community wide. Educate the building trades to advance and embrace regenerative design and development. Begin educating children at an early age about regenerative principles to ingrain these practices in the next generation. Educate residents that energy and water efficiency reduce bills, can reduce taxes, can improve health and even equity.
Attention should also be given to prioritize hiring locally and providing more equitable employment opportunities for those who are un- or under-employed. The Kendeda Building’s general contractor, Skanska, partnered with Georgia Works! to hire and train local unemployed people. Despite the slightly higher employment cost, this illustrates the possibilities of working with the local community for hiring and/or utilizing community benefits agreements[xxv] (CBAs) to support the local community surrounding the development.
Effective policy can be a strong driver for change for state and local governments aiming to transition to a regenerative economy and partner with their constituencies to build a better tomorrow. Through design and implementation of better processes and systems, local governments can realize a more equitable landscape both within and adjacent to their borders – in some cases through unified government, in others through simply providing peer leadership by example.
Just because you build it does not mean they will come. Successful policies rely on the ability not only to design and shape them but also to adopt and implement them. Considering the feasibility and market, conducting cost-benefit analysis, and examining technical, economic and achievable potential are only some of the critical elements of policy evaluation. In addition, considering the political will or appetite of decision-makers is critical to policy adoption. As importantly, a combination of access to capital and resources, robust stakeholder and community engagement and outreach, and focused education and training can be critical to successful policy adoption and implementation.
Within policy, there are many levels of governance including at the federal, state, and local levels. Throughout the country and in the Southeast, state and local policy can be – and is – a driving force for change. When paired with supportive state policies and strong market drivers, local policies remain poised to play a pivotal role in the transition to the regenerative economy. The future is ours to determine.
[xv] City of Savannah, Georgia Code of Ordinances. Division II, Part 8, Chapter 12, Sec. 8-12008.
[xvi] Anand, Spandana; Butler, Catherine; Hanson, Alex; Roopini, Revathi. “Historic Fourth Ward Park:
A Planning Process Analysis.” October 27, 2015.