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How to get started

In this chapter

  • There is no one way to get started with holistic landscape restoration. Often it starts with an existing conservation or restoration project from an NGO, or a small group of enthusiasts, and grows to a more comprehensive landscape partnership over time.
  • If you haven’t selected a landscape yet, you’ll need to start with a scouting phase. This involves defining search criteria, researching options to create a shortlist, and visiting potential landscapes.
  • Certain insights or mindsets have helped others use the 4 Returns Framework. Take inspiration from these thought processes and opinions while designing and implementing your landscape programme.

So, you’re ready to apply the 4 Returns Framework to your landscape initiative. This guidebook will take you through all the steps to make that happen. But where to start? This chapter offers you an inspirational starter kit. First, we explore how other people began their landscape restoration journeys. Then, we consider the scouting phase, and offer resources to learn more. Finally, we share mindsets that align with the 4 Returns approach to holistic landscape restoration. Every initiative is different, so take from this starter kit what you need, and leave what doesn’t apply to you.

Pathways for getting started

There are many entry points to holistic landscape restoration, each tailored to the unique context and goals of a project. Over the past decade, we’ve seen diverse examples of landscapes successfully integrating the 4 Returns Framework. Sometimes the existing initiatives already had fertile soil to build from, and other times new organisations were launched. While most large landscape projects start as a conservation project, many other examples exist. From regenerative agriculture practices to community-driven reforestation efforts, the possibilities are vast. By drawing on these experiences, we can glean valuable insights and adapt strategies to suit your specific landscape’s challenges and opportunities. Let’s explore a few pathways, some hypothetical, but most based on real cases. 

"There are many possible entry points to holistic landscape restoration."

Many restoration initiatives are associated with farming, whether they are started by farmers themselves, those that venture into new businesses on a pathway to regenerative farming practices, or by organisations and networks that aim to bring farmers together with other stakeholders. The starting point is often a realisation that the current model is degrading the landscape, leading to 4 Losses rather than 4 Returns, combined with a motivation to care for the land. People may be motivated by a desire to improve things for the next generation of farmers or to halt depopulation of rural areas. A period of acting on a small scale may be followed by the realisation that only a holistic approach, involving stakeholders beyond the farmer’s community, will have an impact on the larger landscape. The 4 Returns Framework can be helpful in situations where stakeholders’ views are are in opposition. It can then help facilitate a good engagement process. 

A different starting point for landscape restoration may apply to the organisations that care for rare species which depend on a larger area of habitation than what’s currently protected. The survival of the species may depend on the success of holistic protection measures that meet the need and aspirations of people using the land and in search of a vision to thrive in harmony with all elements of the larger landscape. A sense of pride and identity can be found when people feel connected to a vision for the landscape that expresses their own views about what makes the landscape unique. The scope of the partnership will shift from species conservation to a 4 Returns landscape vision carried by the stakeholders in the land. Similarly, some holistic landscape restoration initiatives get started next to a protected area when people realise that the successful management of a species needs to consider the dynamics of the larger landscape and should engage inhabitants of that landscape. 

Entrepreneurs, change makers, and other bridge builders often act as initiators for holistic landscape restoration as well. The desire to have place-based impact in the most visible, tangible, and meaningful way can be a key driver for this group and can inspire others to take collective action. Across Europe, Ashoka fellows play a key role in bringing landscape restoration partnerships together in Bioregional Weaving Labs. Similarly, funders and larger NGOs instigate holistic landscape restoration, bringing in experience and methods from other sources. 

Another catalyst for holistic landscape restoration is water. Whether the challenge is water quality, scarcity, erosion issues, flooding, or upstream or downstream dynamics, this element often binds together stakeholders at landscape level. The complexity of improving dependencies on water are often expressed at a landscape level and watershed dynamics frequently help define boundaries to a landscape. The need and potential for seascape restoration is great. This guidebook is equally relevant to seascapes as it is to landscapes. The 4 Returns Framework is being applied to seascape restoration increasingly around the world — whether in combination with island restoration, restoration of fishing grounds connected to nearby villages, or offshore. 

Your initiative and context may resonate with these examples, or not at all. In any case, they may show that there are a wide variety of ways to advance your journey towards holistic landscape restoration.

Selecting a landscape

Perhaps you still need to seek out a landscape to kickstart your project. You may be engaged in a few landscape projects already and pondering where to work more holistically. In this case, a scouting phase is necessary, in which you’ll need to understand partner interests and outline criteria. 

The scouting phase involves defining search criteria, researching options to create a shortlist, and visiting potential landscapes. A key criterion should be a sense of urgency for restoration. Another would be the existence of local initiatives that mean you can reach scale faster by strengthening and building on existing work rather than starting from scratch. Other factors such as knowledge networks, stakeholder engagement, business dynamics, and restoration potential also play a crucial role. These criteria help in narrowing potential landscapes. 

Field trips give you a chance to see things clearly, such as how engaged stakeholders are and the potential for restoration. By following this process, you can find the best-fit landscape and kickstart meaningful restoration efforts. 

For help defining criteria to select a landscape for restoration, see the Quick-start guide to scouting for a landscape. For an in-depth look at scouting, try the Restoration Diagnostic  developed by the World Resources Institute. 

What’s your mindset?

We’ve found that certain mindsets allow holistic landscape restoration initiatives to align particularly well with the 4 Returns approach. We are sharing them here to inspire you at the start of your journey. After reading them, take a moment to reflect on which mindsets resonate with you and which you’d like to take with you, or share with your colleagues or partners.

Work with the heart, the head, and the hands

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 heart, the head, and the hands. 

Many cultures nowadays mainly operate from a rational level. This leads us to neglect the other aspects of our being: the heart and the hands. This brings about a loss of potential because the intelligence of the heart and hands can unlock unique perspectives and abilities that we miss when we only use the head. Combining all aspects of our being — or as the Presencing Institute refers to it, our “three intelligences” — helps us to dream of and build a better future. 

The heart intelligence helps us connect to nature, each other, and ourselves. We believe that we are connected to 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 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 Creating spaces of belonging.

Work with the whole system

Landscapes are complex systems and should be treated as such. We look at multiple overlapping contexts in the landscape we want to restore, including the physical, chemical, biological, ecological, economic, and socio-cultural processes of a system. This is also known as a holistic approach. 

In practice, it involves including a wide variety of stakeholders because they each bring unique perspectives. Just as biodiversity increases resilience of the ecosystem, in society we see that cultural, ethnic, and gender diversity contributes to resilience. To see the whole system, we need diverse perspectives, so it is important to ensure a diversity of voices including socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, and ability. Diverse perspectives help us to pinpoint blind spots in our thinking and to develop solutions that address root causes. 

Working with the whole system also involves realising a shared understanding of the landscape, its history, culture, and its current state, before acting. Without addressing problems holistically, symptoms may return, or new ones arise. Looking at the whole system means we can spot 4 Returns opportunities and create holistic solutions at scale.

Think 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 wetlands, and social cohesion. This can encourage and reinforce momentum for positive change.

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 considering the many different local conditions.

Trust is key for joint action

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

Build on existing initiatives

Local leadership makes solutions sustainable. Communities often know their landscape best and are in a much better position to say what will and won’t work in their specific context. Plans and processes with locals in charge are better designed. 

Building on existing initiatives and empowering local ownership is also important for the sustainability of outcomes. If local people don’t feel ownership over planning, implementation, and results, no one will maintain these when the funding 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. It’s usually not necessary to start something new. A lot can be achieved by connecting these existing initiatives and making use of policies to create bridges from local to regional to national to international, and vice versa. 

Policies can play a crucial role in amplifying existing initiatives. They do this by providing frameworks (such as combined land use), resources (financial and capacity), and incentives (such as tax incentives or subsidies) that support and amplify local efforts. 

Work with the willing

In every landscape, you will find some front runners already organising regenerative initiatives, connecting their community, and bringing innovation. Most people, however, will resist change. In line with the theory of Diffusion of innovations, we’ve found it best to not try and get everybody on board from the get-go, but rather create focus on the innovators and front runners first. We bring together a “coalition of the willing” to strengthen their initiatives and develop examples that work. Slowly but surely, more stakeholders will see what is possible, feel inspired, and want to join.

Think big, start small, act now

Multi-stakeholder processes towards long-term visions are complex, making it impossible to find the perfect action plan. “Analysis paralysis” happens when plans are endlessly fine-tuned but little progress is made. Perfect is the enemy of good. 

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 tangible projects that can be implemented quickly. If it works, great, we’ll do more of it. If it doesn’t work — that’s great too because we have learned something — we’ll do things differently next time. We can build trust either way if we show we are learning from what we are doing. 

Learn, adapt and repeat

Landscape restoration is a repetitive process. The reality is too complex to predict. The 5 Elements are a process of implementing our work without fixing it in a linear approach. These elements build on the well-known cycle — design, build, test, and reflect. Partnerships are central to making the entire process work. Different elements come into play at various times. They are repeated without ever being finished. 

Together with our partners, we keep reflecting, learning, and adapting.

Learn more about these in the chapter Monitoring the 4 Returns.

What’s next?

There are many entry points for applying the 4 Returns Framework to landscapes, but you don’t have to start from square one. You could draw from the wealth of experiences and useful mindsets cultivated by others. 

While it’s possible that one individual or organisation gets the ball rolling, a large-scale and long-term restoration effort needs to be held by a larger partnership of diverse organisations. 

That’s why the upcoming section on Element 1, Partnership Building, will explore strategies for nurturing and expanding fruitful partnerships that guarantee the systemic impact of your work. 

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