Urban Permaculture – Day One “It depends”

Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”
~ Gautama Buddha

This past weekend (July 27 and 28, 2013) I had the privilege to attend to the “Urban Permaculture” presentation by Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden

The event was organized by Brewery Creek Garden  and attended by about 56 people, mostly from Vancouver, although I could recognize at least two Village Vancouver http://www.villagevancouver.ca/  members (Randy and Ann) and three Village Surrey members (Courtney, Helena and myself).

The location could not have been more perfect: the beautiful VanDusen Botanical Gardens . Although the VanDusen were designed in 1966 and opened to the public in 1975 and never mentioned the term “Permaculture” as their philosophy, the entire design, including their sustainable new building: http://vancouver.ca/vandusen/capitalproject/philosophy.htm seem to be based on many Permaculture principles  such as multiple functions, optimizing edges, collaboration with succession, use of renewable resources  and value of diversity, among others.

We started Saturday with an introduction of Permaculture, where its three ethics where presented:

“Care for the Earth” – “Care for the People” – “Return the Surplus” (or share the surplus)

Hemenway explained how until recently in history, humans designed with two goals in mind: that it worked well (engineering/technology) and/or that it would be beautiful (aesthetics), but they never asked whether it would be ethical or morally right to build or bring it to life: this is a new concept that has rarely been used by those who have the power of designing any systems in their hands: be this a garden, a building, a business model, a product or a process. This is why we have been “designing” things that are dangerous, eroding, polluting, toxic and plan wrong: we designed the atomic bomb (and threw it over innocent civilians), we designed a whole culture sustained by fossil fuels who are killing the only planet we have and its species, we designed foods that make people sick, lifestyles that make people unhappy and unsatisfied, and so on…

Permaculture introduces Earth care, People care and the Return the Surplus as ethical foundations to determine whether a design would be worth creating. Is it good for the Earth and its inhabitants? Is it good for people and future generations? Does it allow for surplus to be returned and shared (or, in other words, does it create abundance and promotes compassion?)

We also reviewed the meaning of the word “sustainable” and agreed that sustainability is the breaking point between degenerative and regenerative systems: being just in the middle of these two is not enough, as so much has already been destroyed. Our current global systems have experienced so much stress and loss, that in order to “balance” them again we have to work more on the “regenerative” side.

It is not a matter of “sustain” what we currently have, but of asking first if what we want to “sustain” is worth sustaining (i.e., do we want to sustain a car-based society and way of life, in the case that is possible? Do we want to sustain consumerism, people’s exploitation so a selected group can live well?). It is also a matter of “repairing” and “regenerating” (i.e.  Build soil; create carbon sinks or areas friendly to pollinators to attract beneficial insects) and making ethical choices about what is worth sustaining…

Hemenway also presented his 14 Permaculture Principles, which can also be found in his book “Gaia’s Garden” and differ a bit from the 12 Permaculture Principles by David Holmgren http://permacultureprinciples.com/ . I particularly like to explore both approaches as I find value in each. Many other Permaculturists have proposed their own “principles list”…but most convey the same foundational messages about designing with ethics and caring in mind.

We finished the morning with an exercise to know each other better and reviewed the principles selecting two we liked most and two we had trouble with. Our group selected “Observe” and “Use small scale, intensive systems” as the ones we liked most and “get a yield” and “optimizing edges” as the ones that most challenged us.

Some great resources were provided to study further:

  1. “Places to intervene in a system” by Donnella Meadows: http://www.sustainer.org/pubs/Leverage_Points.pdf
  2. Geoff Lawton Permaculture course and resources: http://permaculturenews.org/author/Geoff%20Lawton
  3. Harvesting Water the Permaculture Way: http://www.permies.com/t/21129/videos/Harvesting-Water-Permaculture-Geoff-Lawton

Other learning moments from Saturday morning were:

  • “It depends”: in Permaculture there are not fixed recipes to follow nor “right” and “wrong” rigid responses: observation will guide us to determine what works for us with what we currently have. I particularly like this approach against the “rigid” and autocratic approach that claims to know always black from white.
  • “If You’re Not Living on the Edge, You’re Taking Up Too Much Space!” (sorry, didn’t get the origin of this quote) But the main meaning is that edges are real and everywhere and we need to observe and learn how to play with them: either stretch them (or ourselves) or shrink them depending on the circumstances, needs and long-term goals. Edges are usually those areas in both Nature and society where you can find more diversity. They may also be a source of resilience as well as challenges and conflicts.
  • How dynamic systems work: all systems start simple and complexity increases with time. They eventually reach a plateau and may eventually collapse. Naturally, the process may re-start again and go over the cycle again. Such is the case of forests, but as we are all “systems”, this well can be applied to relationships, businesses, gardens, etc. The key is to know where to stop the complexity and convert a circle of erosion into one of abundance or reach some “sustainability” (in my humble opinion, and knowing how systems work, sustainability is an oxymoron, systems will always tend to become complex and collapse, we can work to make them more resilient so they can change and adapt without changing their foundational characteristics, but we can’t expect them to be always the same, in a way “Permaculture” is a contradiction as no culture is “permanent” and no biological system can forced to be “eternal”)

The last learning was that the better a system is designed, the least work we will have to do: a good designed system should provide for most of its elements needs: i.e. grey water may irrigate plants, compost and livestock may provide fertilizer, trees may provide shade and light spots will ensure enough sun for those plants who most need it.

In the afternoon we reviewed methods we could use to design:

  1. By exclusion (basically eliminating the pieces that wouldn’t work, i.e. the land that is not suitable for gardening)
  2. By needs/yield analysis (what each element of the design needs are and what it supplies or creates/yields and how we can relate it with the needs/yields of each other element in the system needs/yields: i.e. chickens need food, water, calcium, space, etc. and provide eggs, fertilizer through manure, weed and pest control, etc., what other elements in the system can provide the food, etc for the chickens and benefit from what chickens provide?)
  3. Zones: in Permaculture, zones may go from I to V, locating what we use and need more (as well as what requires more of our attention)closer to us in zone I (i.e. herbs) and things we use less or require less attention in zones II, III, IV and IV respectively (such as fruit trees, etc)

We used a comparison with our current system and how a “Permaculture” based system may work in our kitchen:

  1. In our current system we buy our food, use or consume a portion of it and throw “away” the rest (produce waste)
  2. In Permaculture, we may sort the kitchen scraps, we may then take the seeds to re-utilize them, use some of the scraps or all to make broth, use the rest to both feed the animals, the worms or compost and then use the compost created as fertilizer. The cycle would be complete when we obtain a yield from the crops rose using that fertilizer. No waste is created.

Learning moments and resources from Saturday afternoon:

  1. Unmet needs create work, so you better re-assess the needs of your system well, to reduce work
  2. Sectors which may be affected by our design need to be considered: i.e. how having backyard chickens will affect our crops, our family dynamics, our neighbours, zoning bylaws, etc.?
  3. Challenges can be managed by three different approaches: a) harvesting from them, b)blocking or differing them or c) let them pass in with conditions
  4. Other examples of affected/affecting sectors are: places, people, regulations, institutions, processes, products.
  5. Sectors to consider in your individual life may be: your partner, your children, your co-workers, in-laws, etc.
  6. Patterns are important: the pattern you choose will determine what is possible and is not: i.e. spirals may slow down and invite meditation but may prevent you from reaching certain resources you need; in human designs (buildings and relationships) circles are egalitarian while rectangles and triangles tend to be hierarchical.
  7. By-products need to be considered (in contrast with “buying products” J ): what is this system producing or taking, apart from what it was intended to do?
  8. Succession is important in design: what will happen in the future? What is the long term vision of our design? What is the natural evolution of the elements?


City Repair: a wonderful project started by Mark Lakeman in Oregon: community spaces were created by people and for people to enjoy, share and recover their city spaces: here

Dignity Village: also in Oregon, a series of buildings and projects created for homeless people:

Books: “The Resilient Gardener” by Carol Deppe:

End of day one feeling: encouraging, engaging, motivated, happy, thankful and part of a wonderful community.

In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

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