by Zac West
The term Permaculture, coined by Australians Bill Mollision and David Holmgren, describes a place-based design approach to agriculture. Mollision and Holmgren didn’t invent Permaculture; Nature did. They just observed natural system’s wisdom and then termed it.
To follow the principles of permaculture is to re-create the symbiosis found in natural ecosystems when engineering solutions in your farm, garden or home space. In many ways, it works like a biomimicry approach to farming.
While it has obvious benefits for off-the-grid farms, this philosophy has often been pigeonholed as hippie fluff. But after visiting a local permaculture farm, I’ve come to realize that the movement offers many lessons for the urban world.
Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead is nestled on Orcas Island, where you'll find some of the driest climate in western Washington. Three brothers purchased an initial 10 acres of arid mono-cropped land more than 20 years ago. But after a couple decades of thoughtful work and the addition of 10 more acres, they have completely transformed the land into a healthy, productive farm.
Techniques like intentional flooding enabled the creation an amazing microclimate, wetland, and riparian zones, which now let this land flourish with life. Their example reveals that these methods are only partially about crafting thoughtful bio-systems as nature will also always try to find you.
The Bullocks have done a remarkable job implementing other systems to improve sustainability, such as using landscape elements (e.g. elevations, sun exposure) to improve drainage, building in small eco-tones, and thinking through plant succession. This has resulted with greatly enhanced biodiversity.
One big-picture principle core to permaculture that resonates from a designer’s perspective is redundant duty: optimizing efficiency with minimal effort and materials by leveraging multiple uses from each component of your system. For example, while the conventional farmer would plant a fruit tree with only maximum yield in mind, the permaculturist will plan for the optimal yield. This may involve leveraging the tree’s other important functions like erosion control, pest resistance and shade; and placing the tree in an area that facilitates the easiest possible maintenance. It’s like a homeopathic approach for engineering systematic solutions.
Chicken tractors are another great example of redundant duty. These mobile pens allow the farmer to move her birds around the farm as they can easily and naturally fertilize the soil with their nitrogen-rich droppings. Moving them around also keeps the chickens happy, giving them fresh fields in which they can explore and search for tasty bugs.
Other work in sustainability also shares obvious parallels to permaculture principles: for example, green roofs offer a place to garden, a food source, enhanced insulation from heat and cold, and a natural filter for storm water. Passive solar architecture harnesses the sunlight that's already in the equation to warm and light a building with minimal energy requirements. Rain catchment systems protect local watersheds from polluted storm water runoff, and efficiently turn a would-be nuisance into a solution to a need in the home. Greywater systems help a home avoid a needless waste of water (though some regions have local government regulations on these systems). The Urban Permaculture Guild also offers ideas for translating permaculture principles into city life.
So where are other opportunities to use permaculture in the city? Intrigued by the topic, I came across some information on micro-hydro generators, which are designed for mounting within water pipes; where they spin off the pressure of city water as it enters a home. These tiny generators produce a small trickle of energy that adds up when used throughout many homes. This innovation can provide solution to our energy needs using existing infrastructure, rather than letting all that potential power go untapped.
Much of the permaculture magic appears with having a large bag of small tricks that collectively add up toward huge return. Like all good design, thinking through the big goals as well as micro details up front allows for unparalleled performance. A successful permaculture farm leverages creative thinking to support advantageous conditions where food and other farm products can thrive.
Urbanites can glean many lessons from simply focusing the question: “What can we get more out of in this system?” This could help us increase efficiency to avoid energy waste and create healthier environments, both of which result in supplying extra time in our lives.
Zac West runs IDeology, a sustainable design consultancy firm. He is obsessed with three things: creativity, efficiency, & sustainability. When not working in his Seattle studio, he loves spending time in remote alpine environments.