Permaculture is an approach to creative design thinking, based on working with nature and natural processes. Although originating in farming, it’s now applied in diverse areas from water management, energy and forestry to finance, building design and even managing life itself. Born in the Seventies, permaculture design has taken on a new lease of life in recent times –thanks largely to the growing awareness of the impossibility of infinite growth with finite and dwindling resources, and the urgent need to use what we have more effectively.
Permaculture design principles express a fundamental ethical basis of care for the earth, care for fellow humans, and a commitment to ‘fair shares’ using only what we need, so there’s enough of everything for everyone. The essential design principles flow from this philosophy, which I can only list here briefly. Firstly, observe and gather information – take time to understand the natural processes you’re working with. Gather and store energy and resources to reduce consumption. Obtain a yield; in other words, everything should be a productive part of the whole. Create self-regulating, closed systems. Use renewable resources, and waste nothing. Design from patterns to detail; the same patterns appear in nature in many forms, whether waves, spirals, branches, tessellation or networks, and the application of these natural patterns at a broad or small scale is key to permaculture design. Integrate, don’t segregate; plants (and people) do best in diverse and mutually supportive groups, not disconnected monocultures. Look for small and slow solutions that require minimal energy. Value diversity. Value margins and edges – the interfaces between different groups and processes can be where the really interesting stuff happens. And finally, respond creatively to change. Just as the natural world is in constant transition, be adaptable and go with the flow.
Some of these principles will seem obvious to anyone working with living and natural resources. They represent a whole-system way of thinking about the natural world and our place in it, not a set of twelve commandments to be obeyed. While methods and applications will differ widely, these underlying principles provide a constant frame of reference. At the heart of permaculture is the management of natural systems for the long term. It’s no surprise that more and more landscape practitioners are looking to
permaculture for a solution focused, future-facing approach to maximising land use
and natural resources.
As suggested by the phrase ‘permanent agriculture’, from whence ‘permaculture’ derives, it’s the ultimate in sustainability. The benefits are too numerous to mention: reducing
consumption, building skills and resilience, developing social capital and community
capacity, and restoring depleted land to name but a few. Most significantly perhaps, it actually changes the way you think – the more immersed in permaculture you become, the more you see opportunities rather than obstacles. Many permaculturists believe it’s our best hope for saving the planet. I think they could have a point.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.