What is Regenerative?
New ways to understand what it takes to create lasting economic vitality in a community
Most of the ways we measure the economic and social health of a community today are flawed because they focus only on outcomes rather than the underlying processes that make or break local economic vitality. Instead of merely measuring how much money is made (which is what the old measure, GDP, does), regenerative development strategies seek to capture the overall flow of human activities--economic, cultural, and social--within a community and its place in the larger network of these interactions outside its boundaries. The next step is to support ways to remove bottlenecks to those flows that might strengthen those networks. This strategy validates what many researchers have long observed and local residents have intuitively recognized makes their communities thrive.
Today we often look to the wrong measures to tell us if a community is prospering. For example, for many municipalities, a common, closely watched, economic measure is sales tax revenues. If viewed through that lens alone, the strip malls along Tottenville's Page Avenue are an economic miracle. But sales tax dollars don't tell the whole story. In contrast, new measures of regenerative vitality look at the overall flows in a community, including how government revenues are used, and how business revenues are generated, and how much they contribute to the overall health of the local economic network.
These regenerative measures look at how many of the businesses' activities that generate sales tax are constructive (that is, they add value to the community in some way, like a grocery store or doctor) versus destructive (for example, they fail to pay a living wage). They measure how many of a company's purchases, expenditures, and profits stay in the community in ways that generate more good, local jobs and opportunities, versus how much are extractive (for example, sent off to some distant headquarters).
Different size businesses are designed to serve different size needs—for example a small, local bank is better designed to serve small-scale local commercial needs than a mega-bank. So exploring the ratio of small, medium, and large businesses also provides additional insights into how the communities human and business needs are being served. New measures even explore such qualitative factors as the "degree of mutualism," in the business community—that is, the number of predatory, "no choice," "ripoff" transactions that are occurring versus high integrity, high quality, mutually beneficial business exchanges that build trust and a sense of community, and most critically, tend to catalyze new economic and social connections.
A locally-owned (or stakeholder-owned), locally-anchored, business can theoretically be housed either in a strip mall or on a Main Street. But pedestrian-friendly Main Streets are more likely to nurture the social fabric that supports naturally bubbling vitality, as resident and business owners are afforded more chances for interactions that lead to new insights, opportunities, and useful connections among people.
Other regenerative measures include: do the businesses pay their employees a living wage? Are they creating ongoing learning opportunities for employees to develop higher level skills? Are they providing workers with opportunities to contribute in meaningful ways to community vitality, not just to the company's bottom line?
Regenerative development is also about trust building
Human beings are social animals and when trust among them breaks down so does the social fabric. This leads to the lack of social commitment verging on lawlessness that Tottenville HIstorian Linda Cutler Hauck is observing in Tottenville. The lawlessness is an inevitable result of reduced economic opportunities, lack of personal and business commitment to community, and a dysfunctional local governance network that seems unable to get things done. All this leads to a pervasive sense of anxiety and malaise. "To stay vibrant, a community needs a sufficient assortment of types of interactions to process its many needs," our Science Advisor Sally Goerner maintains. "A healthy community should be designed to effectively catalyze all the crucial interactions of life."