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The 4 Returns Framework

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

Why landscape restoration?

Landscapes are the foundation of our existence. They provide us with food, water, clean air, materials, a balanced climate, and more. These are known in technical terms as ecosystem services but perhaps a better term for them is gifts.

Without these gifts, everyone loses. Degraded ecosystems make communities vulnerable to flooding, drought, and landslides. Farmers lose production while jobs and business opportunities dry up. Social fabric becomes more fragile. People lose pride and hope in their landscapes and may decide to leave for the city. Globally, this drives instability, displacement, and conflict.

The inheritance of living in the 21st century is that the degradation of the landscapes in which we live continues to accelerate. According to the FAO, land degradation from human activity affects nearly 2 billion hectares worldwide, home to 1.5 billion people. This is increasing by 12 million hectares each year – about 32 soccer pitches per minute.

Many major issues facing the world can be traced back to degrading landscapes.  If climate change, biodiversity loss, food security and mass migration are to be tackled at source, landscape restoration must be part of the solution.

However, reversing landscape degradation faces two issues: the degradation is slow and complex. It appears slow relative to the scale of most people’s lives.  It’s complex because it’s shaped by different forces: geological, ecological, climatic, social, economic, and political. Both make it difficult to pinpoint exactly where degradation comes from. Because conventional views of land use are too short-term and too narrow, the land becomes degraded (see image).

But as landscapes can be degraded, so they can be restored. By ‘landscape restoration’ we do not mean restoration to a state it was in in the past. The landscape can never be exactly the same again. Rather, we aim to restore the functioning of the landscape – socially, ecologically, and economically – so that it is future-proof. That’s why the term regeneration is often used. We want to exit the self-reinforcing cycle of degradation to one of regeneration. In regeneration, we look at re-aligning human activities with the landscape and its ecosystems. The goal? Healthy landscapes that benefit all – nature, people, community, and business.

What do we mean by landscape?

A landscape is a system defined by specific geology, climate, flora, and fauna as well as human economic, social, and cultural activities. It also includes the history of all these factors. When water or oceans are the dominant features, we refer to these systems as waterscapes or seascapes.

The 4 Returns framework

The complex way that landscapes work is mirrored in the variety of people that have a stake in them – as a place to live, to make a living, and have an interest in making them more sustainable. Every group has their own way of seeing the landscape and their own way of talking about it.

An important part of landscape restoration is therefore to bring stakeholders together and to understand each other. They can then appreciate each other’s perspectives better and, eventually, see they have a shared interest in living and working in a healthy landscape.

This process requires a common language to show how everyone fits into a common direction. The 4 Returns framework provides such a language.

The starting point of the 4 Returns framework is that landscape degradation leads to broadly four losses: hope and pride, jobs, biodiversity and economic value. Regenerating the landscape, therefore, creates 4 Returns:

Inspiration – Giving people hope and a sense of purpose

Social Return – Bringing back jobs, business activity, education, healthcare & security

Natural Return – Restoring biodiversity, soils, water quality and capturing carbon

Financial Return – Realising long-term sustainable profit

3 Zones

In a landscape, we identify 3 types of zones – essentially distinguished by the intensity or absence of human activity. This helps to imagine how different purposes can co-exist in a landscape.

In natural zones, the aim is to regenerate a landscape’s ecological foundation by restoring native vegetation, natural habitats, and water availability. People play a minimal role here. Natural zones provide resilience against climate change, disease, and other threats.

In combined zones, sustainable production and the regeneration of ecological functioning are combined. Here, natural, economic, and cultural ecosystems exist side by side, typically agriculture and agroforestry, fisheries and smaller human settlements.

Economic zones deliver sustainable economic productivity with dedicated areas for value-adding activities like processing. They are typically urban areas, industrial complexes, or monocultural plantations.

20 years

Transformative change in a landscape needs long-term thinking. A minimum of one generation, or 20 years, is a realistic time frame to successfully implement large-scale landscape restoration with all stakeholders. 20 years is longer than funding streams traditionally allow for. It’s also longer than most business plans, agricultural or otherwise. Thinking on the scale of twenty years opens a pathway to multigenerational thinking to understand whether an activity is truly sustainable. It shows what activities are worth doing, even if they do not pay off in the short term. It shifts the focus of policymakers, funders, communities, and businesses to the kind of timescales the land needs to be healthily restored.

5 elements

Now we know the impacts of land restoration, the 3 landscape zones, and the minimum length of time these activities need to continue to have an effect. We now look at the process used to make the 4 Returns a reality. It contains 5 elements in total. These elements can be followed sequentially, but in reality, they often take place at the same time, or in iteration.

Let's start learning

This was your birds-eye explanation of the 4 Return framework. Find more detail and background in our latest publication The 4 Returns Framework for Landscape Restoration. Here, we move on to the process of applying 4 Returns in practice. By far the greatest amount of learning happens in the field – engaging with stakeholders, forming partnerships, carrying out, and evaluating activities. This guidebook is therefore a gateway to your 4 Returns adventures. It guides you through the essential elements you need to consider. It is educated by a decade of experience in the field by a large number of practising organisations. While you’ll need to cover the ground yourself, it will help to have a well-established map by your side. That map is this guidebook.

Please share in the comments your thoughts on the 4 Returns framework. Can you describe your landscape initiative through the lens of the 4 Returns framework? You can do this by adding your own landscape story!

Next chapter

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...
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