Permaculture Culture

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Fundamentals of permaculture design

We recommend reading about these concepts in the order presented below during your initial contact with the material. This way the concepts feed into one another, again following the ‘patterns to details” idea. For example “Ecology” is the study of nature. Nature and its ecosystems are what we look to as a model for design in Permaculture methodology. Then “Systems Thinking. is the understanding that is derived from observation of nature. Once you understand systems thinking it is easy to understand the essential value of the “Triple Ethic” and so on. Be sure to keep this chapter handy when reading the reports and refer back to it whenever necessary for clarification or review. Think of it as a preparatory glossary of concepts.

To thoroughly comprehend Permaculture design A is important to consider and understand the following key concepts:

1. Ecology
2. Systems Thinking
3. Interdependency
4. Holistic Design
5. Efficient Design
6. Triple Ethic
7. Ecological Principles
8. Design Process
9. Strategies & Techniques

1. Ecology

Ecology is the study of interrelationships and interdependence of living organisms and their environment. It is a study of networks, connechons, feedback loops and their consequences in nature. Permaculture places itself on the shoulders of ecology and looks at ecosystems as models for designing human systems.

Natural ecosystems are the best examples of energy efficiency and resilience we can observe. When we understand how they function, we can apply their functional patterns and ecological principles to any of our human systems.

As Patrick Whitefield mentioned “what makes an ecosystem work is what makes a permaculture system work. This can only be achieved by means of careful design. Useful connections can only be made between things if they are put in the right place relative to each other.” (Permaculture in a Nutshell,1993)


2. Systems thinking

We find it essential to understand systems thinking in order to understand how permaculture design works. In my own search for understanding it, I felt the need to go back to the basics and answer the following questions:

“What is a system?”

A system is an integrated set of elements that relate to one another for a common purpose or desired function”.

“How can we think in terms of systems?”

Systems thinking, a modern branch of ecology, is thinking about whole systems in terms of relationships, patterns and context. Systems thinking considers that parts of a system can be better understood in the context of relationships and offers an approach to problem solving that views problems as part of an overall system, rather than isolated specific parts.

Systems thinking is the concept of systemic wholeness, looking at the whole as more than the sum of the parts while including the interconnections between the elements in the systems and between the systems with each other. 

General diagram ilustrating whole systems design

3. Interdependency

As the book .Living in the Environment’ clearly explains, Life on the earth depends on three interconnected factors:

• The one-way flow of high-quality energy from the sun, through living things in their feeding interactions, into the environment as low-quality energy (mostly heat dispersed into air or water at a low temperature), and eventually back into space as heat.

• The cycling of matter or nutrients (the atoms, ions, and compounds needed for survival by living organisms) through parts of the biosphere. Because the earth is closed to significant inputs of matter from space, its essentially fixed supply of nutrients must be continually recycled to support life (Nutrient cycling: an important natural service that recycles chemicals needed by organisms from the environment (mostly from soil and water) through organisms and back to the environment). Nutrient movements in ecosystems and in the biosphere are roundtrips, which can take from seconds to centuries to complete.

• Gravity, which allows the planet to hold onto its atmosphere and helps to enable the movement and cycling of chemicals through the air, water, soil, and organisms.

4. Holistic Design
(Whole Systems Design)

What is design?

Design in itself is a creative way of thinking for problem solving that is systemic and solution oriented. It is also a way of putting content, form and function together for a particular purpose. And like Victor Papanek mentioned “All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time is design, for design is basic to all human activity”.

“How does permaculture apply systems thinking to design?”

Permaculture is a design discipline that uses systems thinking as an approach to designing sustainable human systems that function as a whole. This means that each part of the bigger system (singular elements or smaller systems) is included in a network of beneficial relationships that forms a whole (“whole” being whatever we are designing). And that the placement of elements and their functional interconnections is thoughtfully planned for the effectiveness and resiliency of the whole.

Looking at the whole as more than the sum of the parts allows us to first understand the wider scale before focusing on the details, which is another fundamental contribution of systems thinking for effective permaculture design. This will be further explained when clarifying the difference between design, strategies and techniques.

But first, let’s see how permaculture design combines systems thinking with ecological principles and ethics, another of its fundamental innovations. As we mentioned previously, the concept of permaculture evolved from designing agricultural systems to designing human systems.

This means permaculture is about sustainable design applied to human environments, with a focus on how we can provide for our needs in a way that works with ecological systems and nourishes the planet.

Permaculture Flower, "Principles end Pathways Beyond Suateinability.

Human beings have various basic needs (air, water, food, shelter, clothing, community…) and our current lifestyles add to these. Therefore, in order to address all aspects (and needs) of the present human culture, permaculture applies design holistically. Its holistic scope includes natural systems, social systems and financial and economic systems and its systems thinking approach integrates these various systems into a functional whole. And this is why permaculture is considered “whole systems design”, meaning it integrates various systems (disciplines, fields of knowledge, strategies and techniques) and designs them as a beneficial and functional whole.

A permaculture system can integrate the house, vegetable gardens, animals, people, community, local economy, etc. and connects these elements and systems together as an integrated whole system.

As Robyn Francis states, “permaculture addresses all aspects of human culture, not only food production, but how we build, how we organize ourselves and how we utilize all our resources including the human resource.”

The Permaculture Flower

In “Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” (2001) David Holmgren presents ‘the permaculture flower’ showing the 7 key domains of human lives that require transformation (new thinking and new solutions) to create a sustainable culture that is prepared for energy descent.

7 key domains for redesigning human culture are represented in the flower petals:

– Land & Nature Stewardship
– Building
– Tools & Technology
– Education & Culture
– Health & Spiritual Well-being
– Finances & Economics
– Land Tenure & Community Governance

For each of the 7 domains, David presents a ‘tool kit’ of sustainable options that can be useful to integrate in permaculture systems. This tool kit includes many sustainable disciplines, fields of knowledge, strategies and techniques.

The options considered in the ‘tool kit’ aren’t new or exclusive to permaculture, although the way they are organized as an overall/holistic framework for sustainable design is a permaculture innovation and is extremely informative and convenient for anyone interested in sustainable and regenerative design.


5. Efficient Design

Nature is our best teacher. Natural ecosystems are great examples of functionality and efficiency. In an ecosystem everything is interconnected for maximum benefit of the whole. Each species takes care of its own needs and its surplus provides for the needs of something else and contributes to the entire system. Resources and energy flow in various forms and ways through a useful web of connections between organisms and their environment.

If we mimic the way ecosystems function we can create human systems that are equally functional, efficient and resilient. And we can eliminate pollution and unnecessary work from our systems.

Through good design, we can create a system where all the needs of the elements in that system are satisfied within the system and so minimize work (this being labor or maintenance). The same for pollution, in fact in nature there is no such thing as waste or pollution (SONG). Resources circulate within the system and are used by one element or another. What is waste for one organism is useful for another. It is simple, and we can mimic this easily in our human systems, we just need to change our mindset.

permaculture ethics, font

6 .The Triple Ethic: Permaculture's Triple bottom-line

When working within a system, it is clear that interdependency is the rule. We can break a complex system into parts to make it more manageable but we must always keep in mind that no matter how thoughtfully we dissect the whole, these “parts” are essentially arbitrary and are inextricably linked to each other through the function of the whole, The creation of these “parts” is simply a strategy to help us discuss and understand the whole system. These “parts” are defined by their relationship not independent, isolated components. They are constantly and deeply interacting with each other. Think of the “whole” as a three-legged stool. . Because of this it is imperative that we create a tool to keep this reality of “wholeness” in the forefront of our decision-making. This powerful tool is an Ethical Framework.

As a result, Permaculture Design is supported by a philosophy of cooperation with nature and each other while sharing resources evenly.

The Permaculture Triple Ethic is at the heart of every design decision and is what we measure our potential solutions against.

7. Permaculture Principles

Permaculture principles are universally applicable principles derived from the study of the natural world, the observation of natural patterns and the study of systems. Their scientific foundation lies in the shoulders of ecology and more particularly in systems ecology, explains David Holmgren.

Originally, in his books “Introduction to Permaculture” and “Designers’ Manual” Bill Mollison presented one set of principles and then a later one. A few years later, David Holmgren came up with another set of principles in his book “Principles and Pathways beyond sustainability”. Many of their principles overlap.

Bill Mollison’s permaculture principles:

– Work with nature rather than against it
– The problem is the solution
– Make the least change for the greatest effect
– Relative location
– Each element perform multiple functions
– Each important function is supported by multiple elements
– Efficient zone planning: zone, sector and slope
– Use of biological resources
– Cycling of energy, nutrients and resources
– Value small-scope intensive systems
– Accelerating succession and evolution

David Holmgren’s permaculture principles:

– Observe & interact
– Catch & store energy
– Obtain a yield
– Apply self-regulation & accept feedback
– Use and value renewable resources & services
– Produce no waste
– Design from patterns to details
– Integrate rather than segregate
– Use small & slow solutions
– Use & value diversity
– Use edges & value the marginal
– Creatively use & respond to change

Along the years, other permaculture authors have adapted or redefined these permaculture principles and have created new ones. In the future there may be more principles.

"each element performs multiple functions" font Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison
3 1
ethics (center) + design principles (around), font

8. Design Process

Doing a thorough Permaculture design can be as complex as the system we are creating. As mentioned above, Permaculture’s holistic scope and multidisciplinary approach to systems design (which includes the application of various principles, ethics and appropriate techniques and strategies) to create a functional web of elements, beneficially located in relation to each other, the environment and the whole, can be overwhelming.

In our own experience, we find that using a design framework to guide the design process and following its steps is a great help for us designers to accomplishing effective designs. We shift from feeling overwhelmed by the all the information, to being curious and excited by each step of the process and trustful that it will all result in a functional and integrated design.

Designing is fun, it is like a game. We follow the steps of the design process and the result is like magic: everything find its place in harmony!

Imagine you have the task of designing your farm. Independently of its size, a farm is a complex system because it includes various elements and even systems inside the main system. To come up with a design you will also have to consider many factors (biotic and abiotic, natural and human, etc). In general you will be working with a complex diversity of variables and unvariables and that’s why following a design process can be very helpful in guiding your design work and ensure its success.

Basically, at this moment in time, if we want to accelerate regeneration and create sustainable systems we can’t afford to act randomly. We better follow a process (a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end) to get quickly, accurately and efficiently to the solutions we need and the goals we want to achieve.

Design is complex and to go through a design process leads you to think (consciously or unconsciously) in terms of design. The design process informs the pattern of thinking that enables design. Going through the process makes us designers and being designers we start to think design and we start applying it in many things we do.

There are many ways of designing. Some people design through thinking, some design through doing, some design through collating experiences and references. You can design through your hands, you can design through your mind… All is fine, as long as we don, skip steps.


9. Strategies & Techniques

Permaculture’s holistic scope and systemic approach to design can sometimes be overwhelming for a designer.

As Robyn Francis says, ‘one of the challenges for the Permaculture Designer is to see how all elements, systems, strategies and techniques interact and work with each other and design them in such a way that they all work together as a functional whole (2000)’.

From my observations and interactions with Permaculture students, enthusiasts and experts, design is frequently misunderstood and often mistaken as the simple application of techniques and strategies.

A very common example is when people ask ‘what is the difference between permaculture and organic agriculture?’ The difference is simple yet sometimes subtle:

Permaculture is a system for designing sustainable human systems, it helps to clarify functional needs and goals within and passing through a system while upholding the triple ethic. Once these interdependent functions are determined, then we use strategies and techniques to best fulfill the functions. For example we may use the strategy of organic agriculture to produce food since it allows nutrients to be cycled onsite as well as many other benefits. In turn, we may then choose from a variety of techniques like cover-cropping, compost tea, integrated pest management (IPM) and livestock rotations to maintain soil fertility and crop health within our organic agriculture strategy. It may appear to be a subtle difference but if you confuse these concepts, it can greatly reduce your success.

Permaculture integrates organic agriculture practices in design, but we can’t say an organic garden is a permaculture system because we integrated a certain techniques. For it to be a permaculture system it has to be designed, which involves the planning of the space as a whole and the placement of elements and processes in relation to each other, and it has to follow certain principles and ethics as well.

I particularly like the way Robyn Francis describes the difference between design, strategies and techniques. She explains:

“Techniques are the “how-to-do” something, like various composting systems, how to set up an irrigation or watering system, different methods of mulching and planting, building a chicken tractor and so on.”

“Strategy is about “how and when”, the timing and sequence of jobs and events. Like my food forest, the strategy was inspired by the ecological process of natural forest succession. In the first year, I planted fast-growing pigeon pea bushes and longer-term tree legumes to provide shade, frost protection, mulch and nutrients. The next year fruit trees were planted under the shade of the pigeon peas (…)”

“Design is about where we place things in relationship to each other and how we integrate the connections between them (within in a functional whole). It’s where we place the food forest in relationship to the whole garden or farm, and the way we pattern the relative placement of the plants, paths, water and other elements within the food forest itself.”

“So first comes the design, planning out “what goes where”; then we need to devise our strategies, “what happens when”; and then you select the appropriate techniques for the situation.”

Planting and mulching technique
Food Forest strategy
Design - Conceptual Plan