car garden - permacultureThere was a time in my life when I surrounded myself with volumes of bad news of what was happening on the planet. During this stage of my development I was empowered by finding out all kinds of things that were wrong with the world.

A major shift then began in my life. I grew tired of focusing on the problems and began searching for solutions. An inner voice called me forward to remember the ways my ancestors lived in accord with the Earth’s natural laws. I realized that my continual focus on the negative was really a reflection of what was going on inside of me. I decided to consciously focus on positive solutions, beginning the healing of both myself and the Earth.

This journey led me to permaculture, which is an effort to integrate a variety of disciplines to help us create sustainable methods for living on the planet. The word “permaculture” is a combination of the words “permanent” and “agriculture” or “permanent” and “culture.” It was developed by Australian Bill Mollison as a constructive response to the ecological and energy crises that became globally apparent in the early 1970s.

Because permaculture is not widely practiced in North America, many people believe it’s a variation of organic gardening. In reality, it’s much broader. Permaculture is the art of making connections between humans and the land, the plants and the animals. It’s also a way of seeing how humans can play a harmonious role in ecosystems. It draws from biology, ecology and agriculture, combining them with architectural design and engineering methods to help us design a sustainable future. Permaculture is a conversation about developing a practical, hands-on approach to redesigning human settlements and lifestyles that will allow our species to survive.

Elements of permaculture

[quote]“We’re only truly secure when we can look out our kitchen window and see our food growing and our friends working nearby.” – Bill Mollison, founder of permaculture.[/quote]

A typical permaculture design process addresses common barriers to a sustainable system and might include some of the following elements:

• Relative location and placement – Ecology teaches us that everything exists in relationship to everything else and that these relationships are what give the individual elements meaning and value. Therefore, it’s important for us to consider the relative location of the elements in our living design. For instance, locating our home on the mid-point of a slope decreases both the likelihood of flooding (which could happen at the bottom of the slope) and of fire damage (which is most potent at the top). Also, locating the garden near the house increases the time we can spend tending to it. Permaculture designers can also set up working relationships between plants, animals, people, land and physical structures so that the needs of one component are met by the yields of another component.

• Important functions should be supported by many elements – Whenever a natural disaster causes an outage of electricity in our country, stories abound about the “crisis” or “state of emergency” because our culture is dependent on electricity for many needs. One goal of permaculture design is not only to reduce dependency on any one source of energy, but to create redundancy in design. For instance, rather than depending solely on an electrical water heater, we could have several methods for heating water, including a rooftop passive solar heater, a wood stove and a geothermal heating unit.

• Encourage diversity and polyculture – This is nature’s way. A typical suburban lawn with one type of grass is poorly designed—it takes large amounts of both human and chemical resources to defy natural patterns of diversity. As designers, we can accelerate the process of ecological succession in areas that humans have already degraded. For instance, we can study a deforested landscape and strategically re-introduce plants and animals into the system that the forest needs to regenerate itself.

In addition, we can identify and utilize “edge” areas, which occur when two different mini-ecosystems merge, such as where a pond’s shoreline meets the land, or where a forested area borders a meadow. These biologically rich edge areas support a diversity of plants and animals that are greater than the sum of each part. A primary goal of permaculture, then, is to design our settlements to be consistent with natural processes, allowing us to support ourselves from the land with minimal disruption.

• Appropriate use of technology – Unlike some back-to-the-land ideologies, permaculture does not condemn technological developments outright. A myriad of technologies for subsistence living have been developed or reclaimed in the last quarter century, and it’s our responsibility to select ones that contribute to sustainable lifestyles. For example, we can learn how to identify “convivial” tools—ones that enhance our standard of living without reducing our quality of life. By this definition, many modern-day machines are not convivial at all—they force us to adjust our lives to suit them, rather than the other way around. Permaculture is about combining the best of the old ways with the most appropriate of the new ways in an ethical manner.

• Sustainable food production – Small-scale organic agriculture is a crucial part of designing a sustainable living system. Emphasis is placed on making healthy, fertile soil where it’s been lost (and even where it hasn’t). One helpful technique is to create guilds, which are beneficial assemblies of plants and animals that contribute to each others’ growth. A traditional guild is the “Three Sisters,” developed by Native Americans that involves planting corn, beans, and squash in the same area. The beans serve as nitrogen fixers, the squash fill the niche close to the ground and the corn grows high, providing climbing habitat for the beans. Planting all three together encourages polyculture and keeps additional land out of cultivation.

The most important thing to remember when practicing permaculture is that attitude matters. If we choose, we can see “disadvantages” as available resources that can help us turn our “problems” into solutions.

Urban permaculture

When asked to visualize a sustainable living environment, many of us envision a rural farm-like setting with lots of land and plenty of natural resources around that can support our needs. The reality, though, is that the majority of North Americans live in cities and for various reasons the proportion of city dwellers is continuing to rise. So we’re faced with the difficult question, “How can permaculture address life in a city?”

Permaculture Design Principles At A Glance

• Everything is a resource
• When in doubt, do nothing
• Everything works both ways
• Pollution is an unused resource
• Work with nature, not against it
• Observe carefully before designing
• The problem is often the solution
• Make the least change for the greatest effect
• The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts
• Every element in a natural system performs many functions
• The yields of naturally balanced systems are theoretically unlimited

When applying permaculture to an urban environment, it’s especially important to understand the principle, “the problem is the solution.” It’s very easy to identify problems in most cities—air and water pollution, overcrowding, and lack of green space–but this can work to our advantage if we are intent on creating solutions rather than merely drawing attention to the problems.

First, we might think of a city’s characteristics in terms of an ecosystem such as a forest. A mature forest has a forest canopy, which in a city is the top of tall buildings. Mid-sized buildings can be analogous to the forest understory. Small buildings and other human and natural structures are parallel to a forest’s shrubs and ground cover. Finally, the city equivalent to a forest’s soil could be streets, sidewalks, and yards. Once we look at the city’s elements as opportunities to create beauty through design, we begin to find solutions, including:

• Building greenhouses and planting herb gardens on rooftops
• Turning our grass lawns into gardens that produce food and are aesthetically beautiful
• Creating community by combining backyards with our neighbors, such as tearing down fences to create bigger parcels of usable land
• Using the presence of buildings to cultivate plants that need partial shade or vertical climbing space
• Designing a water catchment system on the roofs of our houses that can provide all the water needs for the garden
• Building bridges between biological, cultural, social, and economic sustainability

Remember, it is a conscious choice for us to see “impediments” to rebuilding sustainable cities as resources and opportunities. Urban areas have lots of energetic people who, when putting their minds and hearts together, can create beautiful, healthy living environments in the midst of supposed chaos.

Permaculture as an art form

[quote]“We can’t take on the powerful system head on in a strength versus strength battle… but we can dance right past the bastards.” – Chuck Marsh, permaculture instructor and practitioner.[/quote]

A piece of the above quote is challenging for me because it implies a duality between us good guys and the bad guys out there that must be defeated. For me, it borders in contradicting the essence of permaculture—focusing on positive solutions rather than on problems. At the same time, however, it instructs us that permaculture design is inherently creative and proactive.

When people are constantly bombarded with doom and gloom news about how the world is falling to pieces, most quickly tune out. Permaculture, on the other hand, inspires us to accentuate beauty—something most people respond favorably to.

As designers, we can translate our values and feelings into systems, forms, and structures in our living environment and in society as a whole. And we don’t have to be professionals. We’re all designers. If you’ve ever rearranged the furniture in your living room, you’re a designer. We can apply those same talents to create loving and sustainable ways to live on the planet. Creativity in permaculture grows directly from our ethical beliefs about how the world should be and how we should live in the world.

Permaculture IS art

Permaculture combines our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves into the process of designing our lifestyles. If we omit any one of these elements, we are not allowing ourselves to be fully human. In fact, the boxes we often find ourselves living inside of (literally and figuratively) inhibit our development as human beings. Permaculture allows us to address the monumental task of healing ourselves and the Earth at the same time, and helps us realize that by doing one we are actually doing both.

For more information about permaculture, consult any of the following:

• Introduction to Permaculture, by Bill Mollison
• Permaculture Activist, magazine published three times annually –
• Eco-Village Training Center –

Jeff Brown is a community organizer, permaculturist and certified trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication. For more information visit: © 2008, Jeff Brown

photo courtesy eliduke (CC – Some rights reserved)