For my Friend John: How do you “Do” Permaculture in the City?

All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”

~ Francis of Assisi, The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi


Permaculture gives people a place to be a part of the solution” ~ Rosemary Morrow (one of the oldest and wisest Permaculture grandmothers, works with refugee camps, war-torn communities and people in developing countries)

me and my produce

“But, how do you ‘do’ Permaculture living in the city?” that was my colleague and good friend John’s question…and the question that reflects my own everyday struggle and the one that started this blog in the first place: if you don’t have access to land, if you have lived a somewhat “mainstream” life, if you have a family, a mortgage and a full time job and are stuck in the city or the suburbs, how do you “do” Permaculture?

With all the pressure, hopes and frustration already put into the upcoming COP21 Paris where a real EDAP (Energy Descent Action Plan) may be started (or may not) and calls from all places to do our own to support this important cause (beyond reducing emissions), this conversation should be part of every true Permaculturist, social justice and environmental activist and anybody who truly cares about life in this planet…

With almost 80% of people stuck in cities, that’s our future, at least for a long while…there is not enough arable land in this planet for each one of us to move away from the grid and grow our own food, and many of us consider we have a responsibility towards all those who live around us…so community needs to be part of the solution, not going away from it all!

Let’s first take a look at some good definitions of what Permaculture is:

“Permaculture is the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing appropriate technology and community development. It offers a practical, creative approach to the problems of diminishing resources and threatened life support systems now facing the world. Permaculture integrates people into Nature’s design. A permaculture design provides us with shelter, food, water, income, community and aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment within a balanced and healthy biological community.” Simon Henderson, Cortez IS, BC


Permaculture is Applied Science and Ecology; Ethical design of human systems for a sustainable future. It offers practical solutions to the global environmental and cultural crises we now face. ~ Dan Hemenway

Permaculture is a world-wide movement of designers, teachers, & grassroots activists working to restore damaged ecosystems & human communities. Permaculture derives practical techniques & principles from the study of natural systems & applies them to earth repair & care”. ~ Anon

We could continue forever because there are as many Permaculture definitions as permaculturists. What’s more important is to understand some basic concepts that, if not present, then it is not Permaculture:

  • The three ethics (implicit or explicit): Caring for the Earth, Caring for the People and Caring for the Future (or, as some call it, “Share the surplus”)
  • The conscious design of truly sustainable and resilient systems to support human life
  • Working “with” Nature and not “against” it (Permaculture is not a competition on how to control or constrain other species, ecosystem’s elements or “resources”)
  • Permaculture is a path to design our Energy Descent Action Plan (and I would like to add, the “Resource Exploitation Descent Action Plan” ) in a world of dwindling resources and high levels of pollution
  • The understanding of Transition: we need to work however we can, wherever we are and with whatever we have, using as fewer as possible external inputs and reusing/recycling as many outputs within the same region/system.

This last one is an important one, because a Permaculture project is never a one-size-fits-all formula: Permaculture is based in deep observation; and if we have to drive far, leave our jobs and families or communities and/or bring costly materials from outside, then we are not applying Permaculture!

It is super easy to “do” Permaculture when we are young, healthy, single and have access to land. Better if we have a supportive partner or friends and some funds to start investing in tools, land and to go by while we are building our cob house, sowing our seeds and raising our chickens.

The trick is how to transition to a more ethical, healthier, sustainable, resilient and responsible life as individuals, households and communities when we are middle-age or elderly, not-so-healthy, have a not so aware or supportive family, carry debts and mortgages and have no choice to access land, tools or even supportive neighbours and by-laws that may allow for food gardens, chickens and rain water harvesting…

The reality is that it is challenging, sometimes painful…and there are many times where we say to ourselves: “I give up, this is not working!”…

These are the times when I look at my messy balcony and deck and even messier small backyard…when I realize I haven’t been to my community garden for four weeks, or I have much more garbage to take to the curbside than I was planning, or I need to buy at Walmart…

And then I realize the fourth “Permaculture ethic”: Transition…

Transition (not to be confused with the other Permaculture-child, the Transition Movement) means “using what we have around” and that includes accepting us as we are and with what we’ve got, wherever we are in life…if we wait (or wish) for the time where the mortgage is paid off, the children grow up or we have enough money to buy land, then we will probably become frustrated and old.

Where to start:

  • People Care: start by forgiving yourself, having real compassion for yourself. None of us created the predicaments we have, we were born into this system and for many there was no much “choice”. Even if you think you had choices, you may have not been aware when you made yours. We can’t chance the past and we are not guilty of what’s going on. We are not in control and in many ways, we are even powerless. The “caring for people” starts with ourselves and accepting and celebrating that “now” we are aware, than “now” we have started to take control and make decisions, than “now” we are starting to become less powerless.
  • People Care: the second step is to forgive those around you. The above applies to them too. People are at different places on the awareness and engaging spectrums, give them the space and time (as well as the support) they need to get to wherever they are able to get in their own process. Judging, blaming and making people feel bad about their choices only brings defensiveness and rejection. Also, if you are in a leadership position, make accommodations: if we only organize PDCs, workshops, work-parties, celebrations, transition meetings and activities when regular people cannot attend, we will only attract those who can…and instead of being inclusive and building a resilient community, we will be building up frustration and discrimination.
  • Start small and at the most basic needs: there are many ways where we can cut consumerism, pollution and unethical choices from our lives. Start with food, water, heating/cooling, transportation, healing/health, relationships/communication, debt/income and so forth: you can start by something so small as sprouting your own seeds for your sandwiches, soups and salads and bringing your meals to work instead of buying them out and using disposable containers. You can try using public transportation once a week, or resolving to reduce waste a 10% this coming new year…you can harvest rain water and use it for your greywater needs and garden, the ideas are endless once you allow your imagination (and your memory) to get all that out…have an “sustainable/resilient ideas party” with your family, friends or co-workers and you’ll see how much more can sprout!
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes: I have made them all. I started with a (failed) worm bin and have experiments that go from laughable to disastrous when trying composting toilets, canning, pickling, fermenting, making cheese, gardening and so on…I have to still solve the mystery of what to do with cat and dog poop living in a townhouse (so I can’t easily bury it). I’ve learned a lot from all of them and those from others, mistakes are normal and demonstrate you are trying.
  • Assess before and after results and accept that learning the skills is more important than being “successful” as measured by our current society standards. You’ll find that many of the Projects require that you invest extra time, tools, resources and sometimes money than if you get the “stuff” from Walmart or the “service” from a paid “expert”…remember that the goal is to learn to be self-reliant (not self-sufficient or perfect). When I grew my first Brussels sprouts, I had to invest on seeds, take time to sow, water and mulch my plants and patience to take all the little sprouts out from the neck of the plants…all just to see how they are sold for $1.89/pound at the grocery store! But the skills I’ve learn by growing my sprouts are priceless…not only now I know how to care for them (and how good they taste when growing your own) but I can teach this to others…and spread the seeds and share to those who may not have even the $1.89…also, these $1.89 are the product of an unsustainable, un-resilient and unjust system that may not survive for more than 20 years from now…so when I assess my “success” I use different parameters than those used by society: success is measured by answering the question: “how much has my resilience, self-reliance and sustainability increased/improved?”


Finally, remember that we can choose either to be part of the problem, or part of the solution. Not all of us would be able to (or should be able to) go back to the land and get off the grid, so if we chose (or have no other option) to stay here, we better make good choices from how we want to live the rest of our lives…

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not
.”  ~ Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

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