4 Returns principles

What are the key principles of the 4 Returns approach? These principles have developed over 10 years of co-creative regeneration work with our partners. Adopting these principles in your landscape initiative, will make you part of our shared mission to make holistic landscape restoration the new norm. Will you join us?

Photo Reblex Photography | Commonland

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been inspired by the 4 Returns and would like to apply it to your landscape initiative. This Guidebook will guide you through all the steps to make that happen. Before you dive in, we’ll take you through the principles that bring the 4 Returns framework alive. Working from a 4 Returns perspective is not just about ticking off the Returns one by one. The 4 Returns is a common language that builds bridges across different perspectives and realities, combining the intelligence of the head, hands, and heart.

The principles in this module are born from the experiences of multiple organisations working closely together for 10 years. We want to fast-track your 4 Returns practice by learning from that consolidated experience. It’ll help to keep them in mind as your initiative develops.

Key Principles of 4 Returns Landscape Restoration

Principle 1: Work with the heart, the head and hands

In our modern world, we operate mainly from a rational level. This leads us to neglect our other intelligences: the heart and the hands (a concept from the Presencing Institute). This leads to a loss of potential because the intelligence of the heart and hands can unlock unique perspectives and abilities that we’d miss when we’re only operating from the rational level. Combining all three intelligences helps us dream of and build a better future.

The heart intelligence helps us to connect to nature and each other, and ourselves. We believe that we are part of nature, not separate from it.

The head intelligence helps us to think and reflect. We value knowledge grounded in the scientific method and thorough analysis as the basis for a landscape strategy. Reflection helps us to keep learning from our experiences.

The hands intelligence relates to our practice-based approach. We are dreamers, but also doers. We value the on-the-ground restoration as much as more conceptual work

We use different methods to unlock and practice our heart and hand intelligences, such as 3D modelling and case clinics. Learn more about these in the chapter Theory U for landscape restoration.

“The diversity and interconnectivity of life that we are part of, and that we depend on, binds us all. We struggle to see this because we mainly use our rational minds — and that’s when things become fragmented. When we observe with the heart, and truly listen to nature — and to each other, we find out how connected we all really are.” – Willem Ferwerda, CEO and founder of Commonland 

Principle 2: Work with the whole system

Landscapes are complex systems and must be treated that way. We use a whole systems approach to landscape restoration that looks at multiple overlapping contexts in the landscape we wish to restore.

Also known as a holistic approach, the physical, chemical, biological, ecological, economic, and socio-cultural processes of a system are addressed altogether.

Without addressing problems holistically, symptoms may return, or new ones arise. For example: if tomato crops increasingly suffer from drought-related issues, you could take the problem in isolation and develop a tomato that is more drought-resistant. Or you could look at the problem in context and regenerate the soil so that it regains the capacity to store water. Looking at the whole system means we can identify 4 Returns opportunities and create holistic solutions that keep producing at scale.

Principle 3: Work at the landscape scale

We are not only focused on nature conservation, agriculture, or sustainable cities but on all landscape uses and their interactions.

Zooming out to the landscape level, you see how different landscape zones fulfil different purposes of food production, living, recreation, habitat for biodiversity, and economic production.

Thinking at the landscape scale connects isolated activities in different areas. This allows for ecological corridors, the connection of water systems, and social cohesion. This can encourage and reinforce momentum for positive change.

Principle 4: Commit long-term to a landscape

System transformation is slow. Ecologies, mindsets, and economies all take time to change track. Traditional three- to five-year project cycles are too short to realise the benefits of land restoration. It takes persistence and adaptability, especially when times are tough. That’s why we believe it takes at least a generation (20+ years) to restore a landscape.

Principle 5: Nothing happens without trust

Landscape restoration is all about working with stakeholders. You cannot achieve anything if you do not have a foundation of trust. Trust is built slowly and destroyed quickly. Relationships need to be carefully managed as they can make or break a programme. Remember that trust is a primary consideration for all decision-making.

Principle 6: Regenerative business is a catalyst

Donor funding is vital for land restoration. However, only limited donor funds are available and they can’t sustain restoration projects indefinitely. To be able to create long-lasting outcomes, there need to be attractive and regenerative business cases to support the work. Existing value chains can be strong actors in determining land use and can become allies.

Think about how existing and potential regenerative businesses can sustain the initiative financially in the long run and contribute to achieving the 4 Returns.

We will look further at business-driven landscape restoration in the Module Regenerative business for landscape restoration.

Principle 7: Empower local ownership and build on existing initiatives

Local leadership and ownership make solutions truly sustainable. Communities know their landscape best and are in a much better position to say what will and won’t work in their particular context. Projects with locals in charge are better designed.

Building on existing initiatives and empowering local ownership is also important for the sustainability of the outcomes we create.  If local people don’t feel ownership over the project, no one will maintain it once it is finished. Local ownership needs to be embedded from the beginning and properly resourced in the long term to continue the work.

In many landscapes, there are already local initiatives that work on topics related to landscape restoration. A lot can be achieved by connecting these existing initiatives to create alignment and collaboration. It’s usually not necessary to start something new.

Principle 8: Work with the willing

In every landscape, you will find frontrunners already organising regenerative initiatives, connecting their community and bringing in innovation. We like to work with them first. We’ve found it best to connect this ‘coalition of the willing’, to strengthen their initiatives, and develop examples that work. Slowly but surely, more and more stakeholders will see with their own eyes what is possible, get inspired by it, and want to join.

We’ve also found it useful to involve and inform sceptical leaders and stakeholders who are nevertheless needed for success. Gaining the trust of this coalition of the needed provides a solid foundation to build on.

Principle 9: Think big, start small and act now

Multi-stakeholder processes towards long-term visions are complex, making it impossible to find the perfect action plan. A risk is ‘analysis paralysis’: when plans are endlessly fine-tuned with little actual progress.

Therefore, we act upon the basis that we always know enough to start. We trust we will learn more along the way. So think big, but start fast with small, tangible projects that can be implemented quickly. If it works, great, then we’ll do more of it. If it doesn’t work, great, because we have learned something and do something different next time. We can build trust either way if we show we are learning from what we are doing.

Principle 10: Learn, adapt, and iterate

Landscape restoration is an iterative process. The reality is too complex to predict. The 5 elements provide a process to implement our work without fixing it in a linear approach. These 5 elements build on the well-known design cycle of design, build, test, and reflect. Partnerships are placed in the centre to stress their importance to making the whole thing work. Different elements come into play at different times. They keep being iterated without ever being finished. Together with our partners, we keep reflecting, learning, and adapting. Learn more about this in the Module Monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

Which principles resonate with you, and why? Let us know in the comments!

Previous chapter

The 4 Returns Framework

What are the 5 elements, 4 Returns, 3 zones, and 20 years? Learn our common language towards holistic landscape restoration....
View module

Next chapter

Creating spaces of belonging with Theory U

Applied to systems change around the world, and adapted for landscape restoration, Theory U has become an intrinsic part of the 4 Returns framework. This module shows how you can use Theory U in your landscape initiative. ...
View module
← Back to overview

Tag a friend?