Growing the Restoration Economy

At the TED Mid Atlantic conference, Storm Cunningham, head of Revitaliz, argued that the world needs to move past sustainable development, which is “200 years too late,” and towards “restorative development.” The new “restoration economy” focuses on reuse, restoration, redevelopment, replenishment, and revitalization — creating new value. The primary idea is to “invest in natural resources so we leave future generations with increased value.” At the same time, current generations can benefit from “healthier, wealthier, more beautiful surroundings.”

To date, economic development has been driven by “dewealthing,” or the depletion of finite natural resources like coal, oil, and natural gas. “Rewealthing” involves investing in restoring those depleted resources and turning them into something productive. These projects can involve restoring nature to earlier, less damaged states. In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is replanting oyster beds by hand. On a larger scale, there is a massive reforestation project in the 4,000-acre Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, which has led to the planting of 750,000 native trees, and will help bring back this important river valley ecosystem.  

Projects can also focus on recreating nature from scratch. The ecological restoration and landscape architecture firm, Biohabitats, completed the Spring Branch stream restoration project that restored the Maryland stream’s fluvial dynamics, added in natural vegetation, and then “rewilded” the entire site. “They are restoring the world for a living.” On a larger scale, he pointed to a former mining site on Vancouver Island that has been used to recreate nature and is now open as a public park. There are other examples of mines that have been used as platforms for restoring nature in Germany and the U.S. (see earlier post).

Cunningham says communities must use their “restorable assets” to rebuild their economies. “These are the ingredients, not the barriers, to revitalization.” So far, many local governments have approached their environmental and economic issues in separate silos, but instead “communities need to be treated as a living system, and issues need to be addressed as a whole.” He pointed to Bilbao, Spain, with its new Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum, as the “birthplace of the second global restoration movement.” Unfortunately, though, only a few cities have achieved Bilbao’s success. Many communities try to restore their assets but fail to hit “critical renewal.” 

Cunningham thinks the worldwide restoration economy, which involves all those restoration and rehabilitation projects, has the potential to reach two trillion a year. In addition, there are “some 100 trillion in restorable assets.”

Check out “ReWealth,” Cunningham’s book, which has grabbed the attention of a number of local policymakers.  

Image credit: Mississippi Alluvial Valley / Ducks Unlimited.

One thought on “Growing the Restoration Economy

  1. Storm Cunningham 11/11/2010 / 7:03 am

    Thanks very much for this coverage of my TEDx MidAtlantic talk!

    The exciting news is that communities and regions are no longer limited to merely learning how to create “critical renewal”: In two days, we’ll be unveiling the world’s first web tool for comprehensive regeneration of the natural, built, and socioeconomic environments.

    It’s called Revitalization Forum. You can learn more about it at

    Cheers! – Storm

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