Revitalization + Resilience + Adaptive Management = Adaptive Renewal

Revitalization + Resilience + Adaptive Management = Adaptive Renewal

In today’s climate of constant crisis and heightened uncertainty, planning for success means assuming the plan will probably fail, but not the project or program. Projects, plans, and programs for improving our built, natural, socioeconomic, and geopolitical environments must adapt not just to rapid change, but to an accelerating rate of change (AKA exponential) in each of these intrinsically connected arenas. And they are certainly necessary for climate restoration.

Such conditions are highly corrosive to plans, which now decompose and putrefy at an accelerated rate. Long-term plans are best suited to fundraising and political posturing. That said, the process of planning is often of great value, even when the relevance of the resulting plan rapidly decays as soon as it’s exposed to reality. An evolutionary approach is the key to operating in such an environment.

The only preservative we can add to our plans is adaptability. Once implementation begins, we must be ready to defenestrate our highly-perishable plans at a moment’s notice, lest they become toxic to our future. These days, only our shared visions of future we desire should be long-term, not the strategies and plans we devise for achieving them. Adaptive Renewal is a flexible, free-form style of management that suits today’s unprecedented level of social, economic, political, and environmental uncertainty.

Today’s economic growth is increasingly based on novel ways of restoring, repurposing, reusing, replenishing, remediating, or reconnecting natural, built, and/or socioeconomic assets;

  • Local food systems are revitalizing urban and rural economies by linking them;
  • Coastal cities and island nations face declining fisheries, rising/acidifying seas, and super-storms;
  • Cites must adapt to less-effective national governments, and less-stable surrounding economies;
  • Rural communities must deal with accelerating topsoil loss, droughts, floods, loss of pollinators, inefficient local food systems, fires, and more.

After 12,000 years in the Holocene epoch, we now live in the Anthropocene: the epoch of an unstable, human-dominated, urbanized planet. Homo “sapiens” weren’t so wise: Much of what we used or built is obsolete, fragmented, depleted, toxic, and/or decrepit…our ecosystems, energy sources, infrastructure, heritage, water, soil…and—as a result—so are our institutional strategies.

A 2013 poll…found that 79% of companies…faced current water challenges, and 86 percent expected to face water challenges within 5 years. 57%…reported that water issues affected their bottom line; the same number stated water would affect their growth in the next 5 years; and 80% expected water to impact where they will locate a facility in the next 5 years. Growth, supply, and siting – if those aren’t strategic issues, I don’t know what is.
– Jim Lauria, “Industrial watershed management”, Sept/Oct 2014 issue of World Water

Maybe we should instead be called Homo adaptus. Much of our progress to date has been based on adapting the planet to our needs. Thriving in the coming years means adapting to the unintended consequences of those adaptations, turning ubiquitous problems into novel solutions. For instance: Adaptive Renewal enables us to fight climate change, while simultaneously adapting to its disruptions.

Project examples include renovating and repurposing derelict buildings, properties, and infrastructure. Adaptive renewal is a subset of adaptive reuse: it only includes those projects in which the asset is actually improved in the process of being reused (as opposed to simply putting a new activity into an existing property without enhancing it). Program examples include repurposing and regenerating entire organizations, communities, or regions. This is often a process with no end date (as with a project). The fast-growing discipline of adaptive management is now being adopted by the disciplines and industries of the global Restoration Economy.

While some forms of Adaptive Renewal are well-established, many others are more recent or are still emerging. The latter include adaptive strategies related to climate change, sea level rise, and natural disasters, such as for cities, agriculture, and natural resources (including the creation of novel ecosystems), as well as the widespread adaptive management trend. One key to keeping community revitalization heading in the right direction–while simultaneously adapting to changing circumstances–is the presence of a well-crafted vision statement to guide daily decision making. In all forms of Adaptive Renewal, the asset—an urban area, a rural region, a property, a structure, an organization, etc.—is being restored, renovated, or revitalized in the process of being repurposed to a valuable new function. And, via adaptive management, it’s fixed in a way that stays fixed.
Repurposing is a key process of Adaptive Renewal. If something needs renewal, it’s probably outlived its original purpose. Repurposing is often at the core of the successful Adaptive Renewal projects.

For the past 12,000 years of the Holocene Epoch, we’ve been repurposing the Earth’s features to our own needs. There’s nothing wrong with this: that’s how civilizations are created. But now that we’ve entered the Anthropocene Epoch, we’re suffering from the impacts of those adaptations.

Creating a healthier, wealthier, happier future for all now means adapting our economies and societies to this new reality. It means repurposing farmlands and fisheries in a way that restores the biodiversity and productivity of damaged ecosystems. In the face of relentlessly-growing human populations, it also means boosting the capacity and resilience of the urban environments we’ve already created. At the program/institutional level, this can mean repurposing the organization entirely, or focusing it to a greater degree on the repurposing of its assets. At the project level, those assets can be built, natural, social, economic, and human.

With natural assets, repurposing sometimes means restoring the original function, such as providing ecosystem benefits:

  • A buried urban stream that became an ugly urban highway can thus be repurposed as a natural asset that provides revitalizing green public space for a city.
  • A dammed rural river that was repurposed a century ago as a power-generating or agricultural water source can be repurposed to its original function of providing fish, and ecological health.
  • In a world of sea level rise, waterfront properties can become green barriers to storms.

With built assets, repurposing often means creating an entirely new function:

  • A historic bank building becomes a restaurant. An abandoned church becomes a coffee shop.
  • A derelict rural railway becomes a trail. A disused urban elevated railway becomes a linear park that revitalizes adjacent properties.
  • A contaminated former industrial property is cleansed and repurposed as a revitalized mixed-use (residential and commercial) urban neighborhood. And so on.

Adaptive renewal programs often include the “repurposing” of social, economic, and human assets via training in new skills and technologies. These are often best derived on-the-job from regenerative projects. Good strategies enable places to achieve their goals with what they have. An Adaptive Renewal strategy is one that reconnects, renews, and repurposes the assets of today to meet the needs and threats of tomorrow. The resulting projects fix the present by reusing old buildings, undoing previous planning mistakes, cleaning and reusing contaminated sites, restoring natural resources, and the like.

They fix the future by ensuring that these projects are designed and located in a way that adapts the place to known future threats and opportunities, while also making it more adaptive in the face of unknown threats and opportunities. When Hurricane Irene unleashed devastating floods Vermont in 2011, it was found that some of the culverts under the roads were too small to handle the flows, causing the roads to fail. The village of Townshend did what any sane place would do, and rebuilt them larger.

But, in 2012, FEMA refused to reimburse them for that upgrade. FEMA knew how to rebuild the past, but didn’t quite get the concept of fixing the future. It took a lot of arguing, but Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Vermont’s congressional delegation announced in 2013 that FEMA has reversed their policy and would pay for such upgrades. In such small steps do institutions start incorporating strategies for the future into rebuilding the present.

Adaptive Renewal has two major aspects: 1) Leadership that effectively adapts to surprises in general, and to emergent resources/initiatives contributing to Resilient Prosperity in particular, and 2) Implementation that renews, repurposes, and reconnects your existing natural, built, and socioeconomic assets, adapting them to both current needs and future threats/opportunities.

To reliably advance resilient prosperity, we need an Adaptive Renewal system with three key components:

  1. Revitalizing tactics that grow prosperity by renewing natural, built, & socioeconomic assets;
  2. Resilient strategies that help perpetuate that renewed prosperity; and
  3. Adaptable processes for implementing those tactics and strategies in a climate of uncertainty.

We don’t need to understand all the parts of a car in order to operate it, but we do if we intend to fix, modify, and/or improve it. And so it is with improving our urban, rural, and natural systems. Over the next three issues of REVITALIZATION, we’ll look at each of those three components separately. We’ll describe the creation of such a system later in this book.

About the Author

Storm Cunningham is the publisher of REVITALIZATION, a new twice-monthly global magazine ( ).

Since 2002, he has been a full-time revitalization coach to organizations, communities and regions. He’s also a professional speaker and workshop leader on community revitalization, economic resilience, and natural resource restoration.  His clients include national and local governments, universities, and non-profits in over a dozen countries.

He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of two highly-acclaimed books:
The Restoration Economy (Berrett-Koehler, 2002), and Rewealth (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008).
See and for more information about these books.

His third book, RECONOMICS, will be published in November, 2019.
See for more on his work.

Storm can be reached at 1-202-684-6815, or at

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