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The 4 Returns Framework

In this chapter

  • Landscape degradation is at the root of multiple crises facing the world.
  • The 4 Returns framework helps bring a variety of stakeholders to a shared understanding of holistic landscape restoration.
  • The 4 Returns framework includes the 4 Returns, 3 zones, 20+ years, and the 5 elements for implementation.

Why landscape restoration?

Landscapes are fundamental to 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. 

Without ecosystem services, we cannot survive. Degraded landscapes make communities vulnerable to risks such as flooding, drought, fires, invasive species, 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 challenge of the 21st century is to halt landscape degradation and transform it into landscape restoration, leading to an entirely new landscape restoration industry. This is far from easy. Landscape degradation continues to accelerate, eroding our systems of life support. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), land degradation negatively impacts 3.2 billion people worldwide. According to the the UNCCD Global Land Outlook, humans have already transformed more than 70% of Earth’s land area, causing unparalleled environmental degradation and contributing significantly to global warming. Already disadvantaged and at-risk groups are disproportionately affected by the consequences of land degradation, drought, and desertification. The area of degraded land is increasing by 12 million hectares each year — about 32 soccer pitches per minute.

Many serious 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 at the centre of the solution. 

There are barriers to overcome if we are to reverse landscape degradation. To people, degradation appears slow compared with the length of a human life. It is complex because it is shaped by geological, ecological, climatic, cultural, spiritual, social, economic, and political forces. These issues make it difficult to pinpoint exactly where degradation comes from. This often leaves current landowners and land users in tricky situations, unable to leave the land, of which they perceive themselves as stewards, in a healthy state for future generations. 

But just as landscapes can be degraded, they can also be restored. By “landscape restoration” we do not mean restoration to a state it was in the past. The landscape can never be the same again because humans and other lifeforms evolve and the interactions in the ecosystem are dynamic. Rather, we aim to restore the “functioning” of the landscape — ecologically, socially, and economically — so that it is resilient to future changes. That’s why the term regeneration is often used. We want to transform the cycle of degradation to one of regeneration. A regenerative landscape aligns human activities with the landscape and its ecosystems. The goal is healthy landscapes that benefit all — nature, people, community, and business.

What do we mean by landscape?

A landscape is a socio-ecological system that consists of interconnected natural or human-modified land and water ecosystems. It is influenced by geology, climate, flora, fauna, and micro-organisms as well as historical, economic, socio-cultural, and political processes. Where water is the dominant feature, this can also be referred to as a wetland landscape. Where oceans are predominant, this can be referred toas a seascape (Modified from The Little Sustainable Landscapes Book).

The 4 Returns framework

Landscapes play a wide range of roles in people’s lives — as places to live, make a living or profit, or areas to cultivate or let flourish for their own sake. So, it’s understandable that different groups of people have their own way of seeing the landscape and their own way of talking about it. 

An important part of landscape restoration is bringing stakeholders together to share their views. They can come to appreciate each other’s perspectives better and, eventually, realise that they have a shared interest in living and working in a healthy landscape. 

To aid this process of alignment, the 4 Returns Framework uses a common language that can be understood by anyone, no matter their background, who is collaborating with others to reverse landscape degradation. 

4 Returns

The foundation of the 4 Returns Framework lies in the recognition that land management focused solely on maximising profit per hectare ultimately leads to landscape degradation, manifesting as four distinct losses. Through holistic landscape restoration guided by the 4 Returns Framework, these losses can be transformed into tangible returns benefitting all stakeholders involved. These 4 Losses are: 

  • Loss of purpose or hope
  • Loss of livelihoods and social cohesion
  • Loss of biodiversity, soil, and water
  • Loss of economic value

By regenerating the landscape, we create 4 Returns:

  • Return of inspiration – increased connection to the landscape, motivating stewardship
  • Social returns – bringing back jobs, social connections, and effective governance for more resilient communities
  • Natural returns – healthier ecosystems: soil, water, and biodiversity
  • Financial returns – long-term economic resilience and prosperity for communities and businesses

We dive deeper into each of these returns in the chapter Unpacking the 4 Returns.

3 zones

We identify 3 Zones in a landscape to show stakeholders how the area’s various purposes can co-exist. The 3 Zones are called natural, combined, and economic. 

In natural zones, the aim is to conserve nature and, if necessary, to regenerate or rewild the ecological foundation by restoring native vegetation, natural habitats, and natural connectivity through wetlands and water flows. Natural zones provide resilience against climate change, droughts, floods, disease, and other threats. For many people, pristine nature also has a religious or spiritual meaning. In many natural zones, you will find protected areas or national parks, as well as places where rewilding can take place. Natural zones also include ecological corridors to connect protected areas. Here the landscape goal is often to boost, protect, and connect the natural zones. 

In combined zones, sustainable production and the regeneration of biodiversity and ecological functioning are combined. Here, natural, economic, and cultural ecosystems exist side by side. The combined zone is usually absent in a landscape because land use is often divided into either a natural zone, which needs protection, or an economic zone, which needs maximum return on investment per hectare. The goal in this zone is to shift to regenerative production systems, such as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, rotational grazing, polyculture plantations, paludiculture (farming on rewetted peat), and sustainable aquaculture-mangrove systems. 

Economic zones deliver sustainable economic productivity, with dedicated areas for value-adding activities such as processing. They are typically highly transformed parts of the landscape, such as industrial and urban areas, where hard infrastructure prevails. The goal is often to reduce pollution, boost local economic activity, and keep expansion in check. 

All 3 Zones can have a place within a landscape and are interdependent. Recognising the zones helps to create a better shared understanding of their influence on the landscape and what it needs to thrive. As a tool, it can be used to identify the zones of future initiatives. The 3 Zones can be applied to farms as well as at landscape scale. Wetlands connect the 3 Zones through water flowing above and below ground.

The chapter Defining the landscape explains the 3 zones approach in detail.

20+ years

Transformation of a landscape needs long-term thinking and action. A minimum of one generation, or 20 Years, is a realistic time to successfully implement large-scale landscape restoration with all stakeholders. From an ecological point of view, 20 years is short. This duration stretches beyond traditional funding and planning cycles of two or three years. Thinking on a scale of 20+ Years opens a pathway to multigenerational thinking. 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 restored. 

While a long-term view is always necessary, some returns can be achieved early in the process. For example, it is possible to inspire people and deliver social benefits to local communities within the first few years of a landscape programme. Because every context is different, it is not realistic to prescribe strict timelines for specific steps in the process. The timelines in this guidebook are drawn from the experiences of landscape restoration practitioners implementing the 4 Returns and serve as inspiration. 

The 5 elements of successful implementation

Now that you know about the 4 Returns of holistic landscape restoration, the different zones, and the long-term thinking required, it’s time to learn about getting started. 

You will need to engage people and inspire them to collaborate towards a shared goal, which might seem daunting at first.The 5 Elements will support you in doing this successfully. They are the crucial phases and benchmarks that guide landscape restoration practitioners through the process of putting holistic landscape restoration into practice with the 4 Returns Framework. 

  • Element 1: Establish a landscape partnership. At the core of all these steps are the partnerships that are fostered.
  • Element 2: Develop a shared understanding. Building a shared frame of reference for decision making
  • Element 3: Build a landscape vision and plan. Setting a desired future state and translating it into an action plan
  • Element 4: Take collective action. Think big, start small, act fast with activities that deliver lessons and impact.
  • Element 5: Carry out monitoring and learning. Reflect, learn, and adapt.

The 5 Elements create a structured approach to landscape restoration. Every element is important, and they depend on each other for success. They help explain the journey towards achieving the 4 Returns over the long term. They make it easier to align the landscape planning process with what is going on in the landscape already, guided by clear outcomes. They also facilitate learning and exchange with other landscape restoration initiatives. 

The 5 Elements are described here in a logical order, but they are rarely followed one after the other. It’s fine to circle back and repeat phases whenever necessary. Holistic landscape restoration is a continuous process, which is why we here depict the 5 Elements as an infinity loop with the landscape partnership taking central place.

Applying the 5 elements in the landscape

All 5 Elements deserve adequate attention and investment. From a business-as-usual point of view, taking action is the most crucial step because it delivers results, which justifies the continued existence of the landscape partnership. Taking action follows the vision and action phase. These two elements tend to attract most attention and funding. Developing a shared vision and collective plan, however, requires a strong landscape partnership in which stakeholders align their interests with a shared understanding of the state of the landscape, and what needs to change. A landscape partnership that is fragmented and lacking coherent vision will struggle to implement holistic restoration activities and deliver the 4 Returns impact. Establishing a strong foundation requires investment in skills, funding, and time — areas that are often overlooked. Impact and learning may be addressed in reports to funders, but it is also important to learn from experience and continuously adapt. Overall, the ability to deliver the 4 Returns impact in the long-term, in a rapidly evolving context, depends on adressing all 5 Elements and their clear outcomes. 

In this guidebook, you will find advice and practical methods to support the implementation of each element. For each element, we explore the purpose, suggested methods, and envisaged outcomes. Some methods and tools can be used to support more than one element. For example, the 4 Returns diagnosis helps stakeholders to create a shared understanding (Element 2) and will also be a solid foundation to inform the vision and planning (Element 3).

Getting ready

You can check the status of your initiative with the 5 Elements Scorecard. This assessment can reveal the potential for developing a holistic landscape approach in your area. It will identify key entry points to getting started on your journey. It is helpful to use the scorecard at the beginning of engagement with two to five key partners in a landscape. It might highlight that while a stakeholder mapping process has been conducted, a multi-stakeholder partnership is yet to be set up, for example. Such a partnership will be essential to maintain momentum for restoration and build an economy around regenerative practices in the long term. Each landscape will have specific considerations and entry points along the 5 Elements. Understanding these can help landscape partners to develop the most appropriate plan for holistic landscape restoration.

From framework to practice

How do we put the 4 Returns Framework into practice? This guidebook aims to show how the framework and related tools and processes can be applied across various contexts to support holistic landscape restoration. 

Throughout the text, you’ll find references to Theory U, a social transformation framework for systems changes. There are many helpful methodologies for social transformation and stakeholder engagement processes. Commonland has found Theory U particularly helpful in the context of landscape restoration because it is designed for achieving transformative outcomes. How Theory U and the 4 Returns work together is described in the chapter Creating spaces of belonging [page 88]. It also highlights other tools and processes for stakeholder engagement, including the Mutual Gains Approach. 

What’s next?

We are about to dive deeper into each of the 4 Returns. Can you describe your landscape initiative through the lens of the 4 Returns framework? You can do this by adding your own landscape story!

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