Bioregionalism for Resilient Living

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

Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough to just ‘love nature’ or to want to ‘be in harmony with Gaia.’ Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience.

— Gary Snyder

Every person lives in a specific bioregion, a life-place that is an essential component in the planetary Web of Life of living networks within networks, linked by fast and slow moving natural cycles that make up the planetary life-support system.

Since everything is connected to everything else in this planetary scale-linking system, global changes like climate change and have drastic local and regional impacts, while being caused by the cumulative effects of many local changes (carbon emissions everywhere). In the same way efforts to restore the health, resilience and diversity of local and regional ecosystems will eventually contribute to regeneration and healing at the planetary scale.

In our intention, as co-designers of sustainable communities, to contribute to a sustainable future for all of humanity we may choose to start with our group and our community. It is at the human-scale of community where sustainability turns from a concept into a lived reality of regenerative cultures adapting to the uniqueness of the life-place they inhabit. Yet, to create sustainable communities effectively and efficiently we will have to do so with our bioregion in mind and in collaboration with the community of life we are sharing our bioregion with.

To design and create sustainable communities we have to contextualize and weave what we do into a wider strategy to aid the transition towards increased sustainability in the bioregion we inhabit. Kirkpatrick Sale, one of the pioneers of the bioregional approach, spoke about ‘re-inhabitation’. We need to learn about the ecological, social and cultural uniqueness of our place and safeguard and restore its diversity wherever we can.

Here are some guidelines for strengthening the resilience and vitality of your bioregion:

  • Give priority to active projects— learning by doing essential work to achieve natural health in our life-places.
  • Restore and maintain natural features to whatever extent is possible — the health of the social fabric will be improved with this restoration.
  • Develop sustainable means to satisfy basic human needs — access to food, water, energy, shelter, materials, and education (knowledge, information and wisdom) are essential.
  • Support living in place in the widest possible range of ways from economics and culture to politics and philosophy — this involves both proactive undertakings that create positive alternatives as well as protests against ecological devastation and disruption and social injustice.
  • Heighten awareness of issues pertinent to the bioregion through public media, involvement in local politics, and education, both local and global

What is Bioregionalism?

Bioregionalism is a comprehensive way of defining and understanding the place where we live, in the aim to live in that place sustainably and respectfully. While the term “bioregionalism” is a new way of representing and identifying with a place and its history and culture and living within the laws of nature, the concept is new only for people who come out of the Western industrial-technological heritage. The essence of bioregionalism has been a reality and common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years, and remains so for most human beings today.

Bioregionalism re-connects us into the living biosphere through the places and regions where we live. Bioregionalism acknowledges that we not only live in cities, towns, villages or ‘the countryside’; we also live in watersheds, ecosystems, and eco-regions.

The awareness of those connections to the living planet is vital to our own health and to planetary health. As co-designers of a culture of sustainability we are fundamentally designing for systemic health — optimization of the system as a whole.

When we speak about sustainability, what we are actually trying to sustain is the pattern of health that connects healthy individuals to healthy families, communities, ecosystems, bioregions and one to the network of bioregions that make up a healthy planet with a healthy biosphere. Design for sustainability is health-generating design for human and planetary health (see also salutogenic design).

By discovering our connections to the planet, we find a context for our lives to grow in. This context allows us to find ways to live sustainably in our settlements while at the same time nurturing and restoring the more-than-human community that surrounds us and which we are dependent on in so many ways.

What is a Bioregion?

A bioregion is a way to describe the natural geography where one lives. It also identifies a locale for carrying out activities that are appropriate for maintaining those natural characteristics. Bioregions have distinct features such as climate, soils, landforms, watersheds, and native plants and animals. They have also been sites for adaptive long-term inhabitation by native peoples in the past, and they can be re-inhabited by their present occupants.

[…] if the life-destructive path of technological society is to be diverted into life-sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited. Reinhabitation means developing bioregional identity. It means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within it. Simply stated, it involves becoming fully alive in and with such a place. It involves applying for membership of a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.  — Peter Berg & Raymond Dasmann

The intellectual roots of bioregional thinking lie with Patrick Geddes who in the early 20th Century call for designing cities within the bio-geographical context of their providing region. Lewis Mumford spread Geddes’ ideas in the USA and through Ian McHarg the bioregional approach inspired a civic movement on the US West coast lead by Raymond Dasman, Peter BergKirkpatrick Sale and the poet Gary Snyder. Just as it is difficult to draw clear boundaries around a bioregion, as in nature boundaries are not demarcation lines but fluid and permeable membranes, the concept of bioregion has different facets that merit more than one definition. The following quotes paint a rich picture of this attitude toward and practice of living-in-place.

“Bioregion refers both to a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness — to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion the conditions that influence life are similar and these in turn have influenced human occupancy.”
— Peter Berg and Raymond Dasman (in Doug Aberley, 1999: 23)

“Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watersheds, climate, and native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributing parts.” — Peter Berg, 1993: 28

“The natural region is the bioregion, defined by the qualities …[and] the givens of nature. It is any part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural characteristics rather than human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by particular attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soil, and landforms, and by the human settlements nd cultures those attributes have given rise to. The boarders between such areas are usually not rigid — nature works of course with flexibility and fluidity — but general contours of the regions themselves are not hard to identify by using a little ecological knowledge.”
— Kirkpatrick Sale, 1991: 55

“The concept of a bioregion … refers to a regional-landscape scale of matching social and ecological functions as a unit of governance for future sustainability that can be flexible and congruent still with various forms of government around the world. […] In acknowledging humans as part of landscape-scale ecosystems, bioregions provide a pragmatic holistic management context based on both human cultural and environmental attributes.”
— Horst Brunckhorst, 2002: 8

One of the first steps in developing a bioregional context for any design exercise and as a context for sustainable community design is bioregional mapping.

Example of a layer in a bioregional map (Source)


Mapping the bioregions opportunities and challenges in layers that focus on hydrology, geography, vegetation, bioproductivity, climatology, the histories of places, biodiversity maps, infrastructure, the local economy. All these layers of information about our region can inform us in the process of helping our community and our region to meet basic needs as much as possible within the regional boundaries. Yet, these boundaries have to remain fluid and increasing regional self-reliance does by no means imply stopping global trade and collaboration.

The environmental educator Mitchell Thomashow, in a very insightful article entitled ‘Toward a cosmopolitan bioregionalism’, argues: “Bioregionalism must avoid the shadow of extreme regional identification. Rather, strong communities allow for permeable boundaries, and recognize the connections between places as intrinsic to the well being of any one place (Thomashow, 1999: 129).

Bioregionalism is an inwardly (locally) empowering, but outwardly (globally) engaging concept and planning/design strategy. It celebrates and values the diversity that arises from millions of locally adapted communities and regions that are collaboratively engaged in maintaining human and planetary health

“Bioregionalism emerges as a response to the formidable power relations of global political economy and the ensuing fragmentation of place. It seeks to integrate ecological and cultural affiliations within the framework of a place-based sensibility, derived from landscape, ecosystem, watershed, indigenous culture, local community knowledge, environmental history, climate and geography. More than an alternative framework for governance or a decentralized approach to political ecology, it represents a profound cultural vision addressing moral, aesthetic and spiritual concerns. In effect, bioregionalism seeks to penetrate, inform and reinhabit the interstices of contemporary political economy, turning states and countries into biomes and watersheds, changing not only the boundaries of governance, but the boundaries of perception as well. Indeed, the reinhabitation of landscape is fundamentally a challenge of perception as well as citizenship.”     — Mitchell Thomashow, 1999: 121

Guidelines for Developing Bioregional Sensibility and a Cosmopolitan Bioregionalism

(Reproduced and adapted from Thomashow, 1999: 130–132)

Mitchell Thomashow speaks of “bioregional sensibility” and calls for a “cosmopolitan bioregionalism.” He explains: “Developing the observational skills to patiently observe bioregional history, the conceptual skills to juxtapose scales, the imaginative faculties to play with multiple landscapes, and the compassion to empathize with local and global neighbours — these qualities are the foundations of a bioregional sensibility” (Thomashow, 1999: 130).

Here is some advice on how to develop this sensibility and awareness.

Study the language of the birdsIntegrate language and landscape. Make the study of flora, fauna, landscape and weather a daily practice. Know what species coinhabit a community. Know who is just passing through and where they are going. Learn from the ecosystem. Tell stories about wildlife and landscape as a means of revitalizing the spirit and psyche, of honouring the diversity of species, of expanding the notion of community. Restore natural history to the collective memory so that it is no longer endangered knowledge.

Navigate the foggy, fractal coastline: Understand that different scales may yield contrasting observations and that different people will have various interpretations. Avoid the illusion of contrived stability. Local knowledge requires practitioner-based science and place-based wisdom, cadres of bioregional investigators who catalogue the dynamics of local environmental change in their home communities, who compare notes with their colleagues, who chart a steady course in the midst of complex, turbulent change.

Move within and without: Trace the ecological/economic pathways of everyday commodities to fully understand the impact of globalisation — its benefits and threats. Consider the full matrix of citizenship, all the ways that speech, intentions, motivations and actions contribute to the formation of bioregional sensibility.

Cultivate a garden of metaphors: Pay attention to sensory impressions and their broader symbolic meaning. Find the metaphors of anxiety that illustrate the relationship between the psyche and the planet. Find the metaphors of wholeness that pervade good nature writing — fruitful darkness, turtle island, attentive heart, crossing open ground, the spell of the sensuous, the island within — and contemplate their meaning. Trace the ecology of imagination.

Honour diversityUse different ways of thinking and various cultural perspectives as a conceptual lens. Understand the world through the eyes, ears, and nose of wild creatures. Incorporate multiple learning styles. Attend to difference by exploring what is common and learning from what remains different.

Practice the wildExperience wild nature and wild psyche. Consider the stark reality of food chain. Observe how civilization can never keep the wild completely at bay. Let wild nature inform play, work, love and worship. Practice the wild to balance the civilized.

Alleviate global suffering: Have compassion for the chasm of despair. Find the holes in the bioregion, the places of darkness that require healing and attention. Understand how the fruits of affluence often hinge on the exploitation of the weak. See the world as it is, without blinders, transcending denial.

Experience planetary exuberance: Life bursts forth everywhere. It is an indomitable, ever-present, mysterious force that permeates every surface of the biosphere, every pore in your skin. Every life-form is a unique expression of the poetic and the sublime.

In order to achieve a frame of mind that acknowledges the magnitude of global and personal change, cosmopolitan bioregionalism represents a way of integrating psyche and nature for the purpose of constructing meaning and interpreting the world.

Organizing Bioregionally

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;

  • 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.






Blog reposted with permission by Daniel Christian Wahl
Glocal educator, activist and consultant, generalized in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenenerative cultures. Originally posted