Using the Levers of Policy to Achieve a Regenerative Economy
By Shane Totten, Catherine Butler Gunter, and Lisa Bianchi-Fossati of Southface Institute
Part 2 in a three-part series on the Regenerative Economy. Read Part 1 on Regenerative Design.
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. (1). 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 (2), 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 (3), an important step toward regenerative design and construction practices which will allow for increased reductions in the embodied carbon emissions of buildings. (4). 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. 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.
Click here to read the full text of this article and learn about examples of how policy can help foster the transition to a regenerative economy.