Excerpt from the ‘Social Design Dimension’ of Gaia Education’s online course in ‘Design for Sustainability’.

Kirkpatrick Sale states the rationale for bioregional organization in terms of scale, economy, polity, and society in his book Dwellers in the Land (Chapters 5–8):

Scale: People can understand issues and their connections to them at a scale where the forces of government and society are still recognizable and comprehensible, where relations with others are still intimate, and where the effects of individual actions are visible. This is the scale where abstractions and intangibles give way to the here and now, the seen and felt, and the real and known.

Economy: A bioregional economy would seek first to maintain rather than use up the natural world, to adapt to the environment rather than try to exploit or manipulate it, to conserve not only the resources but also the relationships and systems of the natural world. This economy would also seek to establish a stable means of production and exchange rather than one always in flux and dependent upon continual growth and constant consumption.

Polity: A bioregional polity would seek the diffusion of power, the decentralization of institutions, with nothing done at a higher level than necessary, and all authority flowing upward incrementally from the smallest political unit to the largest.

Society: Symbiosis is as apt a model as any for a successful human society, which we may envision as a place where families operate within neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods within communities, communities within cities, cities within regions, all on the basis of collaboration and exchange, cooperation and mutual benefit, and where the fittest is the one that helps the most — and of course is thereby the most helped. The most important instance of such an interaction on a bioregional scale would be the social symbiosis between the city and the countryside.

The sustainability consultants Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone of the London based consultancy BioRegional suggest that we need to reconsider the scale of our production systems and create more locally self-sustaining communities in compact cities. They propose that “creating stable regional economies can help to create a sense of community and security that can alleviate the stresses inherent in a globally competitive world”(Desai & Riddlestone, 2002: 75). Desai and Riddlestone ask the question: “What route might development take on a more bioregional planet?” (Desai & Riddlestone, 2002: 76); and answer their own question as follows:

“By ensuring that the economy is taking into account all the costs of environmental damage, fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources would become more expensive. Transport, particularly by air, would cost more, so that market forces would create an economy in which goods were moved around much less. This would shift production towards a more local and a smaller scale. In agriculture, the competitiveness of local farmers would increase, creating a healthy farming ring around the city. The proximity of these farms to the cities would mean that the farmers could use organic wastes and sewage from the city for fertilizing their fields, creating a symbiotic relationship between city and farms. […] In industry, the economy would favour local production of bulk commodities. Local paper recycling would become the norm. Losing the economies of scale by moving to smaller scale production in reality would simply shift employment away from the transport sector to jobs in recycling, local manufacturing, farming and forestry. Whilst smaller scale production might increase labour costs per unit of production, these would be offset by lower investment costs and greater adaptability to local conditions. […] Creating a more balanced regional, self-regulating, diverse and stable economy will create greater richness in opportunities for people to chose a wide range of careers and vocations. The connection between quality of life and economic diversity will become increasingly evident. […] Regional scale development encourages people to become engaged, creating an environment in which the political ideal of subsidiarity can be expressed.”— Pooran Desai & Sue Riddlestone, 2002: 76

Implementing the Bioregional Approach institutionally:

Brunckhorst (2002: 133) suggests a series of guidelines for how to implement bioregion-based planning and decision-making frameworks effectively.

Become focussed on the process as much as the product;

Be driven by the communities shared values and concerns,

Be easily understood and encourage open communication,

Be action oriented, but realistic,

Provide long-term direction;

Try to build consistency with other relevant strategies at State/National level;

and

Include mechanisms for on-going evaluation and feedback.

Implementing the Bioregional Approach in your day-to-day life:

Make a seasonal wheel, a circle bisected by twelve angles (one for each month of the year). Record the cycles of plants, animals, weather, and cultural events within and around the circle. Note the date or week when a bird began building a nest near your house, when the babies hatched, and when they fledged. Note the date that your favourite flowers emerged, blossomed, and went to seed.

Begin a nature journal to record daily experiences and history of your neighbourhood or sub-watershed. Note the specific location, time of day, weather conditions, sounds, what the animal was doing or eating. Draw and colour illustrations to bring the journal to life.

Map your backyardMap places that feel special to you, and write why the place feels special. Map places that you have seen animals, their burrows and habits, native plants, geologic formations, and historic information about your house or neighbourhood.

Map your local water cycle. Where does your water come from and where is the wastewater discharged? You can include the location of any reservoirs, treatment systems and discharge points. You might decide to show the locations of the major components on Google Earth maps.

Tell the story of your areaLearn the natural and human history of your bioregion and turn it into a story that will interest both adults and children.

Plant seedsPlant three native culinary herbs for your kitchen.

Cook local food. Cook a meal for your family or friends using only fresh food that you know originated from within 20 miles of your home or that you have grown in your garden.

Look for an aspect of the bioregion that needs your help. It shouldn’t be too hard to find! Help clean up a polluted waterway or a deteriorating neighborhood, school, park, or wild place. Create a team of people who share your concern and meet regularly to have work parties.

Note: The next cohort of students in ‘Design for Sustainability’ are enrolling now! The course starts on October 15th (22nd late enrollment), 2018 with the Social Dimension. This section was initially authored by Daniel Wahl in 2016 based on his 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’. See:

Teaser photo credit: The author created this image based on the excellent work of the geographer Róbert Szücs who used the open source geographic information system (qgis.org) to create these watershed mapps of the planet. Apologies for the baseline Mercator projection and the fact that the continents/countries are not to scale to fit this slide.