Dan Palmer’s Journey with Permaculture Design Process and David Holmgren’s Response (E11)

This episode is a recording of a session during a four-day workshop that was run last week by David Holmgren from Holmgren Design and Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger. The workshop was entitled Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process, and this episode shares the story of Dan’s personal journey with permaculture design process, to which David responds with something of his own story.

Here is a photo of Dan sharing his story…

…and David responding…

Huge thanks to Keri Chiveralls for coming and for taking and sharing all three photos, Bec Lowe and Brenna Quinlan for supporting David and Dan during the course (and for Brenna’s amazing illustrations), Su Dennet for feeding everyone, and the other participants for coming along and making it all possible and for integrating their beautiful energies into the mix of this emerging conversation whose time has come around (once again): Andrew, Anitra, Annaliese, Anne, Ben, Daryl, Delldint, Delvin, Franky, Gavin, Jazmyn, Jenny, Ken, Kim, Ko, Linnet, Lukas, Michae,l Michelle, Pierre, Sean, Stacey, Ugo, Venetia, Wayne & Willow

Brenna Quinlan’s brilliant pictorial summary of Dan’s talk (which was then condensed into this summary of the whole day):

The course group:

Finally, for anyone who might be interested, there is a detailed six-post report of the 2017 version of this workshop here, and future iterations of this course will be listed here.

Advanced Permaculture Design Planning and Design Process 2018 – In Pictures

By way of this week’s post I share Brenna Quinlan’s fantabulous hand-drawn illustrations of days 1-3 of the four-day Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process workshop David Holmgren and I ran last week (with thirty lovely participants). I’ll add a photo or two at some point and hopefully the day four illustration will eventuate also. I set a precedent for coverage of this event last year so figure I’ll keep the tradition alive.

The event was a huge experience for me and for making permaculture stronger, to the extent of prompting a possible change of name for the whole project, amongst so many other things. All will be revealed in due course, I promise. Meantime enjoy Brenna’s extraordinary gift for capturing the message of the moment with such beautiful imagery.

And I’ll start getting ready for presenting at a national gathering of Australian permaculturalists next week…

Jascha Rohr on the Field Process Model (E10)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger speaks with Jascha Rohr from the Institute for Participatory Design which is based in Oldenburg, Germany.

With his partner Sonja Hörster, Jascha has created a fascinating and powerful way of framing design process they call the Field Process Model. The Field Process Model brings together inspiration from Bill Mollison’s core model and Christopher Alexander’s generative process against the philosophical backdrop of field theory (rather than the systems thinking backdrop permaculture usually stems from). Here it is sketched at a high level in two dimensions (get your head around this first, where reading this article is highly recommended)…

…here in more detail in three dimensions (or of course four if you include the movement or dance through time):

Here are field process model originators Jascha and Sonja during the recording, which happened on February 20, 2018.

The red squiggle indicates a certain four-volume set of books, the second volume of which just happened to also be sitting just behind Dan…

On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Commentary from Anthony Briggs (Inquiry 2, Post 25)

Note from Dan: In this post Anthony Briggs from Melbourne shares his reflections on Making Permaculture Stronger, the current inquiry and in particular an alternative take on generating processes.

I’ve been reading Making Permaculture Stronger avidly since Dan first started writing it, about his reactions to the limitations of Permaculture’s big upfront design process, and how he and others have improved it by splicing in Alan Savory’s Holistic Management techniques and Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and holistic methods.

I watched a similar process play out in my field more than a decade ago. Around the mid-1990s, people started to realise that the standard software development process (usually some variant of waterfall) was pretty broken. Knowing enough detail upfront to be able to plan a successful project from beginning to end has a large cost; in complex, changing situations, mapping out every detail quickly becomes exorbitant. In response, systems like Scrum, Extreme Programming and Lean Software Development were developed, under a broad “Agile Development” banner.1

All of which maps onto Dan’s Permaculture design spectrum pretty well.2 Waterfall is the dreaded Big Design Up Front, aka. Fabrication, and most of the agile programming systems above fall pretty squarely under the Generating or Hybrid models that Dan’s described. All of them use rapid iterative cycles, deliver a small amount of stuff at a time, and accept feedback, and frequently use low-detail-but-good-enough documentation like user stories and burndown charts to get things done.

But of course, like any two human beings, Dan and I have differing opinions on some of the things he’s said here, despite agreeing on 95% of it, and so he’s suggested that I put down some of them in an article. There are also some of his ideas that I can extend or put a different spin on.

Design and Computer Science

The first cross-pollination was when I realised the overlap between some of the Permaculture design methods and Computer Science (CS).3 There’s an old adage about CS being about computers in the same way that Astronomy is about telescopes – they’re useful tools, but ultimately not what the field is about.

My favourite definition of CS is this one:

Computer Science is the study of the storage, transformation and transfer of information. The field encompasses both the theoretical study of algorithms, and the practical problems of implementing them in terms of computer software and hardware.4

If you think of design at a high level as being a search for a solution (or even just for information) given a particular set of resources, constraints, people and places (the context), then there’s a lot of CS that’s directly relevant: organising what you know and making connections between the parts, searching through that information, and then making sense of the knowledge and its connections and mapping that back onto reality.

A working definition of design that emphasises this might be something like:

The search for a workable solution to a problem in a highly complex situation.

If you’re doing something simple like making a sandwich or switching on a light there’s not much design needed, but as the complexity of your task goes up there’s more need for a structure to manage the information and communicate it as you search for a solution. Structure covers things like processes, algorithms, check lists and design documents but also more fundamental things: connections, hierarchies, trees and networks.5


Dan paints Fabricating as a terrible, horrible, awful thing to inflict on people,6 and it is a bad choice for most Permaculture projects. But depending on the situation it can be a better choice than a generating process:

  • If you have a high cost of failure – due to safety or financial concerns.
  • Your project is deployed into a very predictable situation.
  • If there are time constraints and you can’t iterate, or you only have one chance to get things right.

Sometimes this means that you have to reduce the scope of the project to just what you can accurately predict or model, or run a very specific process to make sure that things are predictable. Think of the programs running medical equipment, airplanes, cars, space probes, power plants, phone networks, banks, and so on.7

Most Permaculture projects are relatively small scale, but I can think of a few cases that might fit the bill. If you wanted to design an ecovillage or small town, you’d want to spend time making sure that you have enough water and food for everyone. If you were to run it in an agile way, you’d add people until your limits on water were reached. In Australia we have dry spells every decade or so. An agile village may start up during the good years, and grow rapidly, but then end up having to kick people out at huge personal cost when conditions change.

It’s much better in that case to map out better to map out the climate, soil types and rainfall patterns ahead of time than “just build the dam a bit bigger if you need to”. Permaculture tends to favour small and slow solutions, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

If you’re interested in exploring these themes in more detail, then Simon Wardley has done a lot of writing on the process he uses in mapping high level IT project landscapes, and deciding which technologies and project management styles to use. A good starting point is his article Better for Less, particularly figures 235 and 236.

Continuous scale, rather than four process types

One of the tenets of Agile processes is that you should modify your process where it makes sense. You might need some extra steps around a risky task like updating a server, or you might be able to drop something (like a meeting) that doesn’t make sense. There’s a balance between how much time and money you spend upfront, and the risk that something will go wrong, and you can spend more effort if you need more control.

So I don’t really see four separate types of development as Dan’s mapped out (and Dan’s mentioned “continuum” and “hybrid” several times, so I know he doesn’t either).

Instead, there’s a more continuous scale of “How much control (or pre-knowledge, understanding or certainty) are you trying to get over the thing that you’re designing for?” One end is “lots of control”, and the other is “no control at all”. One more document or design meeting won’t tip you all the way into Big Design Up Front, but maybe just an extra 1/17th of the way.

The important point though, is that you can modify your process (more or less up front design work) based on how much information you have, or control that you want. It’s also one of the reasons that I think “Winging It” should be on the right hand side of Dan’s chart: it makes the gradient of control much clearer.

I can imagine a hybrid between any of these four types of design, except for Winging It and Fabricating.

As an example, if you’re in a situation where you don’t know enough about your current context, then it’s difficult to come up with a design until you do. So a hybrid between Winging It and Generating works: Try some things out until you can see the patterns, then fit your observations (and current “design”) into a generative process. Processes like the Lean Startup model tend to work this way – come up with a “pie-in-the-sky” business model, write down the assumptions that it’s based on, then demonstrate or invalidate them as cheaply as possible.

And sometimes, yes, once you’ve figured things out, you find that what you’ve been doing is completely wrong, and the best option is to throw away what you’ve done so far and start over with something more appropriate. You might have quite a bit of time, money or ego invested in the existing design, but it’s a sunk cost – in the long term the better design will win.8

Actual control

But the control that you’re trying to assert is a two-edged sword – it’s only *attempted* control. The more chaotic the situation, the less well your control works, and the return on investment of your planning starts to diminish. A detailed design or program specification in thick, three-ring binders isn’t going to help if the whole business model is likely to change, and most of the money and time you spent developing it will be wasted.

Though unlikely to happen in reality, if a situation is genuinely completely random,9 then any plan is as good as another, so the best option is to spend no time or effort planning at all, aka. our old friend “Winging It”.

Sometimes too, the situation changes. It might become more or less chaotic 10, and so the best methods to use change too. Better technology11 can help too, by making design cheaper or less risky. A good example is drone mapping. 50 years ago a 50cm contour map over 100 acres would’ve been too expensive to worry about, but now it’s doable with a drone for only a few thousand dollars. With better, more detailed information available, you can improve your control over the project, and make a more detailed, predictable plan for less cost.

Large -> Small patterns

As an extension to one of Dan’s diagrams, I’ve noticed that the “decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do” charts are not the whole picture. Dan also uses the Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence in guiding what to work on first. Similarly, when Dan talks about how Bill Mollison set out hybrid designs, Bill starts with large scale up front plans, then works out the smaller details as he goes.

So, the “decide-draw-do” diagrams would more properly look something like this.

Impact grows smaller as you progress through and complete a design. Choosing your site will have the largest impact, adding water and access a smaller (but still large) one, crops and animals a smaller impact still, and so on.

In an ideal design and implementation, the impact of designing and doing is large to start with, but then tapers off as you “fill in the gaps”. If you reach an impasse and need to step back and fix parts, then the impact will jump high, then taper off again.

Dan’s techniques and “Qualitative” design

Where I think Dan’s having the biggest impact is in adapting Christopher Alexander’s process to Permaculture, and fully exploring how a design might “feel” when it’s implemented and you’re in it. Our culture trains our analytical conscious mind to override these feelings, so you might not even notice them – but in the long term they have the most impact.

Dan frequently refers to “tuning in” to a situation or context, or “immersing” yourself – slowing down and taking time to see how a particular place or element of a design makes you feel. Hot? Cold? Windy? On edge? Exposed or isolated? Too close or confined? Enclosed in a nest or sanctuary? Worried about whether you’ll have enough water next summer? Dan’s design process starts with the feelings that are the strongest, which I think is hugely powerful.

I’ve been thinking of this perspective as “Qualitative Design”, as opposed to the normal“Quantitative Design” view, which mostly focuses on easy to measure yields like “How much food can I get out of this patch of land?” or “How long does it take me to do my chores each morning?” If we want to change Western culture, and we desperately need to, this (I feel) is the place to start. Another way to think about it might be as “Inner Landscape Reading”; the human-centred dual of David Homgren’s physical landscape reading.

What does this look like with a person in the middle?

As a hard core reductionist scientist type person, this was a key realisation for me on the last day of the Advanced Design Course with Dan and David – that the aesthetics of how elements are arranged (or differentiated) and how they interact with the people involved should be an integral part of the design process. People are the biggest component of a design, so it makes sense that one which facilitates happy, productive people will give much better results than just optimising yields and drawing straight line efficient paths between parts of a site..

In a comment on an early draft of this piece, Dan describes his process as:

…in a generating attitude MORE time and effort goes into upfront mapping, listening, immersing, tuning in, calculating, researching etc (not to mention honing in on and crash-testing first steps). As in much, much more, such that what actually happens is much more deeply a reflection of the real forces at play in the situation. The focus is on getting the next step right […] a generating approach is more closely focused on letting the details change as proves optimal for the context as the actual dam is being built.

…which seems pretty bang on to me in context with everything that I’ve seen Dan and VEG do. Ironically though, by taking more time and mapping out everything to do with the next step, Dan’s moving back towards what seems to be a more deliberate, Fabrication side of the scale, albeit Fabrication after trying to absorb as much information as possible, including via subliminal impressions. Perhaps this is a sign that there are two parts to the Living Design Process that might need to be differentiated: the iterative process, and the “tuning in”.

But that’s just me being contrary again, I can’t help myself.12 It’s been amazing to take both a PDC and and Advanced PDC with Dan, as well as following Making Permaculture Stronger, and watch him evolve these thoughts and put them into practice, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.


Robyn Francis on her Permaculture Journey (E09)

In this episode Dan from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a conversation with permaculture elder Robyn Francis from Djanbung Gardens.

Amongst other things Robyn shares on:

  • Her recent return to India (having in 1987 co-taught India’s first permaculture design certificate or PDC course alongside Bill Mollison)
  • What she was up to before hearing about permaculture
  • When and how she got involved in permaculture
  • Her own impressions of Bill Mollison’s character having worked alongside him
  • How she got started in permaculture design
  • Her approach to permaculture design process including the roles of
    • Visioning / strategic planning
    • Restraint overlays
  • Her work with communities including Jarlanbah Community
  • Her view on the state of the global permaculture movement
  • A taste of all the amazing projects she is currently involved in, locally, bio-regionally, and abroad (including PDCs in China)

A short video about IPC India 2017 featuring Robyn

Simultaneous Permaculture Gardening and Design Implementation (Inquiry 2, Post 24)

Author: Alexander Olsson

Note from Dan: In this post Alexander brings us back to our ongoing inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process.

In a previous post Dan encouraged permaculture designers to share how they “have responded to or adapted some of the outcomes of this inquiry into their own design process understandings, models, or diagrams.”

I was encouraged to write something down after hearing Ben Falk talk about good design that emerges out of necessity rather than from a surplus of money in episode 4 of the Making Permaculture Stronger podcast.

Finding myself without a job but with a love for nature and gardening, it was out of necessity that I bought a mower and a bicycle trailer and started servicing my neighbourhood with weed pulling and lawn mowing.

There aren’t a lot of jobs for Permaculture designers who are unknown, something Dan and Darren Doherty talked about in episode 5 of the podcast, and it’s very rare that a person could derive a full-time salary from only doing “the design” of a permaculture project. Most designers need to be part of the actual implementation of the project, teach PDCs or engage in other work to get enough cash to fund their professional plans (as well as their on-line seed shopping habits).

However, in contrast to the number of permaculture design jobs, there are quite a few gardening jobs. Having moved to Melbourne a little more than a year ago I find most of my jobs through the site Airtasker, which is a “sharing economy” website which is aimed at connecting people with a bit of spare-time with people who need a job around the house done. I receive search alerts in my inbox as soon as there is a gardening job available. To illustrate the difference in jobs between the two categories of gardening and designing, it is interesting to see that I have received around 1800 search alerts about gardening and/or lawn mowing within 20 km of my home in the last year, 38 search alerts including the words garden design (and variations thereof) within 100 km of my home and only 2 search alerts with the word permaculture within 100 km. Anyone can mow a lawn, but very few people would let a random guy they found online design their garden.

That’s why my necessity approach has been to take on every possible gardening job I can. For the jobs I do take on, I show my passion for permaculture and eventually after a period of ongoing gardening for a client, they have a permaculture garden without them even really noticing it. It doesn’t matter if the job description says “spray and kill all the weeds” or “clean up my garden”, I’ll be there advocating against roundup and planting vegetables. I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer, who doesn’t ask the client if they want a permaculture design, I (politely) implement one anyway. Well maybe not in such definite terms, but I at least try to encourage things to travel in that general direction…



In a few cases I can at least say that I have started with a simple mowing job and then successfully moved on to implement a permaculture design in a generative fashion. The circumstances I found myself in actually led me to develop this generative design approach, rather than a fabricating approach, without even thinking about it.

At times I made a concerted effort to sit down and draw things down on a base map. I marked out trees with exact measurements between them and I completed sector analysis on paper, but it all felt a bit superfluous. After all, both my client and I already knew where the hot afternoon sun made plants wilt and the soil baking hot. I already knew that the south-westerly wind (reminding northern hemisphere readers that southerly wind is the cold wind in the southern hemisphere) made parts of the garden freezing during early spring. I wrote things down because I wanted to be a permaculture designer – not a simple gardener – and that’s what permaculture designers do; they make maps. My clients liked receiving the maps too. People really enjoy receiving their property on a google earth map with colourful overlays. I still use maps to some extent when explaining different concepts to clients, but I have found that as I’m getting busier in the garden I also like to communicate with the client while walking around in the garden. This allows us to grab a handful of soil and feel the organic matter with our hands, or observe the sun angle in the sky at different times of the year while absorbing the real experience of the scorching rays on our skin.

When I started reading Dan’s blog posts on Making Permaculture Stronger, they strongly resonated with me. All of the sudden, there was someone saying “hey that design approach might not be so bad after all.” Where I thought I was simply trying a few things in my client’s garden while waiting for their feedback on it, I was actually designing generatively. Spending a few hours every fortnight, instead of several days in a row completing an upfront design, allowed me to take small steps in the general direction I thought the garden would benefit from, and the very same evening I would get a text message asking politely what the hell I was doing (!). This would make it possible for me to explain the benefit of using lawn clippings as mulch or of having a compost pile. Most of the time though, people actually like permaculture ideas and smart design solutions, so I can honestly say the word “hell” was rarely used.

How can I be sure that I’m not winging it, you might ask, and this is what has troubled me the most, that the generative approach sometimes feels like it borders on random implementation. I have implemented a few fabricated designs too, and many of them have been implemented within a tight time frame. Perhaps surprisingly, these fabricated designs, if not given plenty of time and flexibility for the implementation, have more elements of winging it than does the generative design approach. When I’m “just gardening”, and not drawing the design down, I can take very small steps forward, accept feedback from the client and the garden, and then watch the next step unfold. This realisation is consistent with the move away from this picture (which was introduced in this post):

which puts chaos next to the generating approach as if Dan was afraid of going too far in the process away from fabricating into the dangerous land of generating (a feeling I totally relate to), to a move towards this picture:

which recognises winging it as extremely arbitrary on the more arbitrary-less arbitrary scale. This picture was first published in an update to a previous blog post and I can recommend the discussion between Dan Palmer, Anthony Briggs and Alex Bayley in the comments section.

The gardening approach to design also helps with the expectations on a designer that they will deliver a master plan as the end result, something that was discussed in episode 4 of the podcast series. A gardener is not expected to deliver a master plan on an A2 sheet of paper, a gardener is expected to squat down to pull out weeds. If a permaculture design has been implemented after a year or two of gardening, then so be it, no one will notice until it is too late to stop it! Death of a lawn by a thousand cuts with a gardening trowel! Note also that during the interactions with the client, the garden acts as the very classroom for teaching ecological literacy. While you might hear many objections to a fabricated design which you present to a client who barely knows what permaculture is, through the gardening approach you will be able to take the client through every step and educate them on the relevant ecology as you go. So when saying “I’m a guerrilla permaculture designer”, I’m actually a “guerrilla permaculture teacher” facilitating the client’s own design process.

I know this gardening approach to design might be limited to an urban context. It would be impossible for a permaculture designer to travel 100 km to do four hours of gardening on a farm every fortnight. That being said, there are a lot of urban designs waiting to happen, and I believe this approach is a great way to start as a new permaculture designer.


To conclude this post I’d like to share a few differences between “normal” gardening and gardening/generative design:

Whereas a gardener might … a permaculture designer will …
try to patch up an ill-functioning garden address the root-cause of the problem.
benefit economically from an uneducated client educate on ecological literacy to make the client more engaged and capable in the garden.
leave the garden as it is structurally suggest restructuring or differentiating the space at given points in time when the understanding is right.
come in and CLEAN UP the garden assess what is the cause of the “mess” (both literally in the garden and in the mind of the owner)
agree on the clients will to do some winging it put the ideas of the client through a decision-making process.

With this table I’m merely reflecting on my own experience, and I’m not saying that gardeners are irresponsible in their profession and consciously act in the way suggested in the left column. However, from personal experience, what I can say is that I have worked in many gardens where I for some reason have given up my attempts on pursuing a design process and instead settle for the approach on the left. Working there is never satisfying and leaving without addressing the underlying tensions present in the garden makes me cry inside. Luckily, over time I have found more and more gardens where I love spending time and have built a good rapport with the client. This in turn has enabled me to develop confidence in my gardening/generative approach and act in accordance with the right column.

Endnote: Alexander has recently moved back from Melbourne to Sweden using a generative process to develop a property there with his partner Courtney. We look forward to progress reports and learnings!

Alexander and Courtney’s current digs (from 35 degree days in Melbourne to -15 in Sweden – brrr!)

A Second Dialogue with Dave Jacke (E08)

Dave during the chat with Dan

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys another high-energy, cut to the chase dialogue with Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens.

The first episode/instalment can be found here.

This second instalment of an energy-rich conversation that is far from done includes:

  • Dan sharing his recent feeling that in framing permaculture design processes using linear-sequence-implying flow charts a (kind of big) mistake is being made
  • Dave putting flow charts and other things in a successional (but non-linear!) framing where they have their role in the learning journey
  • Dave sharing his cutting edge, hot-off-the-press, so far unwritten about approach to framing design processes as ecosystems
  • The relation between what he calls the four ecosystem ps:
    • properties
    • principles
    • patterns
    • processes
  • Why Dave avoids using the name permaculture
  • Much, much else!

Dave Jacke’s work has been referenced many times in previous posts, and was the sole focus of this one and this one.

Oh yes, the Ludwig Wittgenstein quote Dan mentions was:

One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing around the frame through which we look at (Philosophical Investigations)

and the quote Dave shared was:

Ecological communities are not as tightly linked as organisms, but neither are they simply collections of individuals. Rather, the community is a unique form of biological system in which the individuality of the parts (i.e., species and individuals) acts paradoxically to bind the system together. —DAVID PERRY, Forest Ecosystems

Finally, you can organise yourself a copy of David Holmgren’s amazing new book Retrosuburbia (which Dan quotes from at the start) right here.

We really hope you enjoy the episode, and please do leave a comment sharing any feedback or reflections below…

Dan during the chat with Dave

Some Recent Email Conversations

In this post I’d like to share snippets from a bunch of recent conversations with colleagues from around the world. So many great insights, themes, questions, and so forth that I couldn’t bare to leave buried in my inbox.

Many thanks for these fine folk giving their permission for me to share.

Hakai Tane (New Zealand)

I recently found myself in an unexpected email interchange with Haikai Tane, who, as shared here, was David Holmgren’s mentor in design process. I was amazed to read Haikai sharing (without any prompting or hint from me about the latest MPS inquiry) that:

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

Contemplative cognition was documented by Carl Jung and taught by Alan Watts (Berkeley Uni) from his studies of the Dao de Jing.. It involves learning-by-doing experiments and gaming using geospatial simulations with dynamic imagery, sound, and symbolic logic to generate/produce co-evolutionary pathways for specific situations leading to unpredictable and undesignable outcomes … which are so much better than anything the mind can conceive or design.. it works best with communities not individuals

how to is a skill not knowledge, it requires an empowering culture ~ like Dao culture ~ Western cultures have not transcended dualism yet, so they are blocked by their mindsets from comprehending how and when to engage …. Recently in China I engaged with a rural community living beside the Huang He practicing these methods ~ they are essential for empowering their sophisticated farming systems ~ no talking or phones allowed, no paper or pencils employed ~ only dancing, music and skillful leaders showing how ~ and the rest following ~ so intricate and complex!

Yes eventually the final design can be recorded on paper ~ but only after the plan is implemented and completed in reality ~ as in ecography ~ however getting it right takes years, decades and sometimes longer … This is why ecography records the completed ecosystems for specific sites only when they are finished and proven ~ which is why the ecography method doesn’t work for permaculture which requires the closed system method of pre-design!

In giving permission for me to share these (sparkling!) words of his, Haikai asked that I add Laozi’s first line from the Dao de Jing:

the way that can be told in words is not right!

Pippa Buchanan (Austria & Western Australia)

Writes Pippa

Hey Dan, I am so grateful for all of the work that you are putting into this and how it is encouraging me to think and communicate. I came to permaculture from an adult education background and following encouragement from Rowe have ended up working towards permaculture teaching. I was feeling kind of lame about this because my land based experience is limited, but realised that what I can draw on is years of learning design and adult education understandings to try and make permaculture stronger.

I think that one of the things that hinders a more thoughtful, intuitive and emergent design process across the board is how permaculture is taught.

And what learning objectives we are trying to achieve as teachers and how we ‘assess’ the students at the end of a PDC. So I wonder if one part of making permaculture stronger is in better ways of presenting the design exercises and explaining the goals.

Anyway my \}’@% feeling was because I’ll teach a design process module at the January PDC at Fair Harvest in Margaret River, and listening to the podcasts and reading the blog has made me think about how best to explain these ides A LOT.

It is an exciting teaching challenge – especially as the discussion of what good process & design practice is still an emerging and moving discussion.

So how can the idea of design as an ongoing and emergent process be captured and explained well even if at the end of a PDC students still end up producing a series of layered maps based on a hour visit to a site and a shared interview?

I will let you know how I go, but if you have any immediate ideas I would love to hear them!

Have a lovely wrap up to 2017 and an abundant 2018

Replies Dan

Great stuff Pippa – yeah it’s so interesting in that my focus has been okay, let’s forget about how to teach design process well, and focus on what the heck is good design process, in the sense of something worthy of permaculture and able to more authentically serve permaculture’s beautiful ethos and aspiration.

Yet of course it is not a finish-that-and-only-then-think-about-how-to-work-what-is-emerging-into-teaching situation because the teaching of it is an enormous help to its exploration and articulation, not to mention that there is no ‘finish.’ One thing I have found already though is that the shape of the educational experiences I am part of has changed enormously as a result of trying to take a better approach to designing and facilitating them. A simple example is consciously breaking the habit of designing a course by choosing a bunch of cool topics then assembling them :-).

One thing we’ve done with our PDCs is that the design exercise is not only with 100% real clients but we start on day three and then progress it every day so that the participants end up have many hours and many site visits. We of course fall short of the ideal of starting the implementation but it feels an enormous improvement over the tokenistic exercise traditionally tacked onto the end of a PDC which almost necessitates a design process that flies in the face of all I’ve been learning through the MPS inquiries etc etc..

Anyways lovely to hear of what you’re up to and let’s stay in touch and support each other as we explore and learn more!

Replies Pippa

I think that maybe a broader discussion about teaching within MPS is something that has to come down the line. Its been at the edge of your discussions on the podcast, but I think that until you know what good practice is and where it should move towards (the what), it’s difficult to work out how to explain that whether it is in PDC, an advanced design course, or written into a blogpost or book

I’ll see if there’s a chance for our January PDC group to meet with the clients earlier in the week, I know the site visit is currently booked midway in week two

Anyway thank you, I’m looking forward to more MPS over the next year!

Replies Dan some time later

I am wondering what you would think about me including the following excerpt from our chat in an upcoming post sharing some recent private conversations I’ve been having with folk around the world??

Replies Pippa

Sure! If you think the rambling nature of my comment is understandable I‘m happy for it to be included.

Then, a bit later Pippa continues

Hey Dan, thinking about this further – one of the challenges is that so much of the PDC is about teaching a Permaculture / systems worldview and general ways of being for the majority of participants (let me call this “embodied design”, and then there is a layer of teaching about “design as service” in which designers work with clients. Possibly “design as service” the MPB approach gets confused with “design as product” aka just the paper master plan. To a certain extent, actual “design as service” involves facilitating a client to step into the mode of “embodied design” to interpret, implement and design from the design plan product.

So, that effectively is three levels of teaching design process A) embodied design, applied permaculture principles and ethics as daily practice (the everyday paradigm shift) 😎 working with a design client and an existing (land based) system in order to propose a new version of the system that applies permaculture ethics and principles – aka a “master plan design” C) establishing “design and communication practices” about working with clients (professional, community groups, family members) to justify the design and facilitate others to interpret, establish, maintain and evolve the system that emerges as a result.

Oh yeah, and all that stuff about ecosystems, forest layers, superhero chickens, economic collapse, soil food webs, keyline etc and decision making, social Permaculture, ethical economics which are all required to do design in modes a, b and c.

My guess is that this generally happens in most PDCs to some extent but possibly through the PDC being pretty solid and the types of people attracted to permaculture anyway. (A) has to happen for all students but it often gets overshadowed by the master plan product focus of the final design project.

Dan Replies

Love these insights Pippa and will share them too!

Rutger Spoelstra (Netherlands)

Writes Rutger

On your latest blog post you asked for a diagrammatic summary of my take on sound permaculture design process. I have made a drawing:

It is based on the design web which has been created by Looby Macnamara. See her book People & Permaculture page – for an explanation. If you haven’t got the book…run to the book store, you won’t regret : ) There is also a short explanation here.

What I like about the design web is that is non-linear and it helps you to design a design process for each design you make. There is no formula for a good design process in my point of view. Every process is unique.

Looby’s design web has been created for people-based designs. My version has been created for designing gardens, farms, landscape, buildings, et cetera. It is a project in progress, I’m still working on it.

For now I don’t have time to explain more. I am a slow writer and it is getting late on this side of the planet (Netherlands). But I hope the drawing will explain my ideas. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Replies Dan

Hey thanks Rutger and lovely to hear from you,

Thanks so much for sharing and hey I’d love to share your drawing and some of your writing on making permaculture stronger as part of a guest post in the next month or so if that’s okay with you. I’ve also ordered Looby’s book and sent her an email – will try and get a podcast recording with her I think.

Dan Palmer

Replies Rutger

Hi Dan,

Thanks for you enthusiastic response. It would be an honor to be part of a guest post.

Would be nice to have a podcast with Looby, she has a lot of interesting thoughts about the design process to share. I have had a conversation with her about it last year at the European permaculture convergence and it was really inspiring to me.


ps. On a side note, did you ever read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert? She has some very nice observations about the creative process. It is not permaculture and the style and tone of the book are not my favorite, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

Replies Dan

Greetings Rutger and great to hear from you,

I have now a copy of Looby’s book and I look forward to reviewing her design web approach (which I agree is great and relevant!) on the blog, though it’s first mention will be via yourself.

I’ll look up Big Magic thanks!

Richard Cleaver (France)

In response to your request for ‘a little reciprocation’ to Part 23, I’ve attached a map of my (limited) understanding of the field-process-model by Jascha Rohr & Sonja Hörster. I know this is not exactly the kind of thing you were asking for but it is a starting point for us. Maybe you could help fill in some gaps?

As mentioned earlier, we are hoping to move to a new property soon and we intend to use the Hybrid or Generative design approach. I’ve attached a satellite image of the acre site (in central France)

All the best,

Holger Hieronimi (Mexico)

Thanks for this series of deep inquiries into the field of “design process” – be aware, that quite a few PC designers & activists here in Mexico & Latin America, are in a similar process of re-discovering what design is all about – haven´t commented yet on the series, but following with a lot of interest and (if possible) insight your discussions, resonating with many if not most of your discoveries – I´d like to read the series in context…is there a PDF version of the instalments, for printing & better reviewing?

saludos desde México1

Alexander Olsson (Sweden)

AO: I’ve thought about the permabliz concept and how it could incorporate a generative design process. Any thoughts there?

DP: Re permablitzing I’m not sharing my thoughts until you share yours 🙂

AO: Haha yes, thank you for asking. I see an immediate problem with the whole concept of people rocking up on one day with lots of expectations and limited time. To start the design process while people stand ready with mattocks is a challenge. If the next unfolding step can somehow be clear on the day of the blitz, then that step has to be pretty large for people to feel like they have done something on the day. After that step there would have to be some kind of break then, maybe for a few weeks and for people to come back to implement the next step. Another approach could be to mock-up things with the host/client before the blitz and work through the steps, and then after all that have a blitz where it is all implemented at once. But you’re not going to be able to stop the implementation when new realisations arise, and even if the mock-up sessions are diligent there are so many things that only become obvious when the actual implementation starts. So I’m leaning towards feeling that a hybrid approach might be as far as one can go to bring some of these ideas to the permablitz. What do you think?

Manuel da Gama Higgs Pereira Morgado (Portugal)

Dear Dan Palmer,

It is hard to make an introduction regarding my feelings after reading what you wrote concerning Permaculture other than the description I wrote as title (kindred spirit). Let’s just say David Seamon was absolutely correct to send me here.
I had long conversations about the research I am doing with Seamon and he insisted four times that I should check your work out. I was too busy at the time (a month ago) but am now at absolute awe at what I was missing! Thank you for sharing your views! Indeed, let’s make permaculture stronger! : )

I am an architecture student, an academic like you claim to be. I’m deep within that realm of existence at this point, finishing my Master in Architecture at Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal.

Needless to say, “permaculture” is a word something like 0.01% of the students at this University are aware of the existence of such a concept or of what it could mean as a design approach. That alone made me skeptical when I first started my research about it – years ago now.

I came to Permaculture by accident during a post-graduation in Eco-Architecture. However, I have been interested in Ecology from a very young age. I pursued Urban Ecology, Environmental Design, Eco-Architecture, name it whatever you want, call the approach whatever you like… I know you know exactly what I am talking about.
But only within the hardcore niche of the people who gravitate these “strong-sustainability” and “deep ecology” circles, where Gaia Theory gnostics meet and eco-literacy is culture I heard about the word permaculture for the very first time.
Those are the same circles that lead me to David Seamon, who in turn, directed me to your blog. It was an enlightening and reassuring read, thank you. I wonder if you have this published elsewhere? I would like to know how you would prefer me to quote you and refer to your design methods schematics.

I found this “exclusivity” regarding permaculture to be a problem as I dug deeper on Permaculture I, II, Pathways and Principles Before Sustainability, Gaia’s Garden and more recently Rainwater Harvesting for Dry Climates and Beyond I, II, and III in the near future. I will try to explain why as briefly as I can.

I am an architecture student first and a permacultural wannabe second. However, I have always been a curious spare-time biologist and technology fan… And recently I have become aware that Ecology needs to stop becoming a Science and to become Culture – intersubjective and diverse eco-literacy as the foundations for the new regenerative and symbiotic development paradigm that we wish to give birth to.
I became increasingly convinced, while visiting some permaculture – related initiatives in my country that there was a lot of strong-willed wishful thinking about it and that scared the academic in me at first, to say the least.

I went to read the theory in order to try to understand what the fuss was all about and I was at shock. The design methodology was the most ecologically sophisticated I had ever come across. How was it possible that nobody even knew about it among the architects I go to school with?

I immediately tried to indoctrinate people. I had the first testaments for the new Bible of Sustainability in my hands, I felt at the time. I had to spread the good word. And so I did with some success.

Most people were very impressed with the core concepts and principles to be so well organized within my peers who do -really- care about sustainable designs. What a beautiful societal model they were, so intertwined, complex and coherent. The problem came when I first began investigating case studies – how the Hell could I present -that- as worthy of the attention of such a snob elite of architectural post-modern design? Most designs looked like gardens or rural campsites with a eclectic 70s ring to it.

Still I kept the logic and began applying it to architecture. I found case studies in my homeland that were worthy at least of being discussed in architectural grounds – Aldeia de Tamera, Aldeia das Amoreiras, and Herdade do Freixo do Meio (in Portuguese, “permaculture” is spelled “permacultura”, in case you try to google them to no avail).

I am now doing a project for a big building and rural infra-structure in Alentejo region within the “montado de sobreiro” ecosystem (cork oak forest molded by agricultural and forestry practices dating back centuries – still can’t reveal the project program, but I promise I will do so as soon as I finish my master thesis).
The reason I am telling you all this is because I came to feel the way you do about permaculture when I had this cultural inheritance at hands to deal with. The reason was that even though people at my research and project groups were impressed theoretically about permaculture, they were very skeptical about the final design quality of the case studies I could gather – even the finest ones! (not ecologically – but aesthetically). And that made me wonder… why? What was wrong?
And the answer that came to mind as valid was culture. I am about to say a very bad thing about “permaculturalists” and I confess it might be pedantic of mine to do so, because I never actually took a PDC or got to know a very vast sample of individuals within the permacultural movement. However, one can’t deny that we are often accused of being the contemporary equivalent of hippies – as in we are deluded with dreams of grandure and imbued with an aura of self-righteous epiphany fueled by cannabis, magic mushrooms and ayahuasca.

Therefore, I am aiming in my master thesis to dignify permaculture as a design system worthy of concern and interlocking it theoretically with many other approaches and concerns – mainly cultural ones, but also other ecological approaches worthy of mentioning regarding architecture.

I have become increasingly certain that the problem with permaculture is that it represents an embryonic cultural movement, often underfunded. It relates with many distinct societal models, but it is always deeply ecocentric. But when it comes to culture, that is where it become tricky.

Let’s just say for the sake of the argument that the community to which I am applying the permaculture approaches and ecological design methodologies is -very- strict when it comes to the priority of its way of life and rituals above everything else. How the hell was I supposed to interfer in that with something as encompassing as permaculture? How was I to -offer- it to -clients-?

And that was exactly when everything started to make sense. Sustainability is not an end in itself, nor ecology. We pursue meaning, we value perception and we seek intersubjectivite values, culture. Was permaculture naive enough to believe it had a different DNA from every single cultural movement in Mankind’s history? You are well aware that the answer is No. Permaculture must be holistic.

Permaculture must turn to Art, History and Philosophy. It must learn with its cultural roots. The ones acknowledged and the ones ignored. Ecology as culture is a very long school of thought – even if implicitly, in a number of anthropological senses. Zeitgeist documentary was wrong – science is not the only universally valid form of knowledge, nor the only useful one – for it is also not an end in itself. How could one explain the contemporary spiritual renewal and interfaith agreements intertwining with ecological and environmental movements? This is exactly what brought me to David Seamon’s Phenomenological Ecology and to the “whole” concept of “nameless quality” and the pattern languages that allow us to identify it. Again, I am sure you know what I am talking about.

My point is… permaculture must penetrate academic existing academic circles. You are absolutely right to do so. I am no sensei of Permaculture by far, but you learned from them so you must know what you are doing.

I apologize for the long winded confession… But having access to your rants and personal introductions, I felt in the right and obligation to do so as well.

I’m sorry if I commit any errors… English is not my first language!

Sincerely grateful,
Manuel Higgs Morgado

Note from Dan: I will share my reply and something of our ongoing discussion as a separate post soon.

Jamie McCall (Western Australia)

Writes Jamie

I’ve been reading some of your writings with interest for a while. I am a permaculture teacher and designer of my own property over the past years.
Without wanting to offend anyone, including you, can I make the following observations.

Some Permaculture Design Courses consciously create and cater for a professional class of Permaculture designers. I wonder if this was ever the original intent, or whether it was a sensible or proper intent, of permaculture. I am often asked if I do designs and respond that I don’t, but refer the questioner to one of my co-teachers who will do designs for people. I am not comfortable with designing for other people as it is currently understood – the provision of a paper representation of an idealised layout for a property.

My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site. Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.

The amount of time spent in the “planning” stage seems to have little correlation to the adequacy of the outcomes, in my experience. Practical skills are far more important, yet there is little emphasis on teaching these.

I see the PDC not as a tool to equip a professional design consultant, but as a way of opening participants eyes to the possibilities of life outside that formed by their present worldview, with a focus on energy descent and a meaningful human response to the challenges that will arise as a consequence.

Equipping people with mental tools to think about challenges is key.

The focus, I feel, should be on empowering every fellow traveler to make their own design decisions in their own context, without reference to a class of “professional” designers. In this way the use of permaculture thinking tools such as the holmgren principles, and those borrowed from holistic management, keyline and others, are shared as widely as possible in a user-friendly way. The ability to implement these tools mentally (in a planning and practical sense) is the skill a PDC should attempt to impart.

The design lessons are learned in the observing of local site-appropriate examples, and attempting to replicate or adapt them according to need. Through this practical experience innovations occur and are again shared over time.
Designers visiting sites and producing plans for eager clients to follow misses the crucial experience of developing observational and adaptive skills by seeking out real life design templates to draw on for the next unique project.

Is this where you are really going with your inquiry? Towards a bottom up design experience rather than a top down process that is commonly experienced today?

I see the place for skilled practitioners sharing their knowledge, but the focus should be on education and empowerment – the implementation – which includes the planning phases – should be in the control of the inhabitant/s so they design to their skill levels and needs.

Jamie Burnside (Burnside Organic Farm)

Replies Dan

Many thanks for your email Jamie – your reflections resonate deeply with my own, especially lines like “My belief is that permaculture design is a process that properly belongs with the inhabitant/s of the site.  Fellow travelers can offer advice, examples, seedlings and cuttings, but design occurs in the “doing”.” I’m 100% with you on that and part of my overall mission is to try and defuse and expose this inherently problematic idea of the external permaculture design expert who blows in and out leaving the residents with a piece of paper that can be more a curse than a blessing and as you say doesn’t mean a hell of a lot when push comes to shove and the real process of living and adaptively co-evolving inside a developing landscape gets under way.

In the upcoming podcast interview with Dave Jacke we explore this topic and these questions remind me of an old article of Holmgren’s where he argues that permaculture design is not and should not be a profession. I’d love to try and spark some more dialogue about this stuff on the blog – would you be open to participating in such a thing? Even if you were okay with me starting off a post with your email then adding some complementary reflections of my own would do it.
Your call and either way I really appreciate you getting in touch. I had a quick look at your site and decided immediately that I’m not the least bit interested in either of us offending each other or doing anything else that would decrease the chance of coming for a paddle board with you if my family ever gets over your way!


Dan Palmer

Replies Jamie

Hi Dan,
Happy to participate publicly in the discussion.
It worries my the number of “permaculture business” discussions and articles popping up on the web.
I like to talk to PDC participants about the “wrong” questions to ask about permaculture.
One of these is – “how do I make money out of it?”.  To me that is a fundamental misunderstanding.
That is the thinking paradigm we are trying to challenge, but it seems many are simply adapting permaculture to the predominant western world view, rather than seeing it as disrupting the status quo.
I guess I wrote to you partly because I felt a lot of your investigation was getting quite intense in terms of language to describe the permaculture design process, and I feel it is quite simple, but a lot of people have lost their way and are adapting permaculture to the mainstream rather than using it to disrupt.
Seems we are on the same page, however, and you are welcome to join us for a SUP.

Replies Dan

Thanks Jamie,

What about I use some of your first email content in a post I’m planning where I share several emails and comment on recent posts that have come in to try and prompt discussion and to encourage others to share their view on all this (above all I want making permaculture stronger to be a healthy conversation and not about me imposing my views). I’d send you a draft of the post first for your sign off.
I’m not so sure about permaculture design process being simple, mainly because I find it to have in practice unwittingly bought into so many mainstream ideas in a way that I see repeatedly undermining its ability to be beneficially disruptive. Yet on the other hand I agree it is simple once you peel of all the confusing nonsense it gets wrapped in. But that itself is an important conversation, which intersects with the one about professional design / making money out of permaculture.

Best, Dan

Trevor Lohr (Vermont, USA)

Writes Trevor2

Hey Dan,

I’ve been a lurker for a while here, and I love this dialogue you’ve stirred up. I really appreciate your dedication to presenting Christopher Alexander’s work because I haven’t been able to get into his books yet. You’ve provided so much context to his relevance to permaculture, design and just being a decent human being. It seems to me that there’s a lot in common between Alexander’s concept of wholeness and the worldview espoused by many world religions, specifically the non-duality between subject/object, self/other, body/mind. I really believe that in order for humanity to continue on this planet for the long term, we must change the perspective that man and nature are separate, or that human beings are fundamentally different from each other. Luckily, I see people sharing similar sentiments from all walks of life and corners of the world. The dominant cultural worldview is shifting, and dare I say it even appears to be speeding up as we speak.

I hope that we can take it even further than just viewing ourselves as stewards or custodians of earth, and treat all creatures, and even the rocks and rain, as we do family. Indigenous peoples around the world related to all things alive and (apparently) inanimate as valuable as a parent or sibling; not only by caring for and loving them, but by allowing themselves to be loved by such things as the wind, or to learn from the mountain, or find one’s purpose from a bear. One step at a time of course, I’d be happy with a cultural transition towards global stewardship in my lifetime.

Anyway, I’m digressing from my appreciation because I figured you wouldn’t mind if I took your time- I don’t think this will be as long as your post! By applying your perspective to others’ design processes, you’ve condensed much of your work in this blog down to smaller chunks (relatively speaking when you compare this post to your whole body of work). I took a couple pages of notes on your three main points about Design Thinking/Rationality, Creation and Conservation, and Problem Solving because I’m actually starting a college class in design tomorrow.

Don’t cringe too fast though, I’ll explain a bit about myself and what I’m doing so I can ask a few questions. I went to college like a good little suburban white boy should, starting out in Philosophy and switching to Biology half way through. After 4 years with at least 1-2 remaining years to finish the BS, I took a break because I felt that my heart was not in it, and I didn’t want to keep taking loans for a degree I wasn’t sure I needed. A few years later I attended a PDC and learned a kind of holistic ecological perspective not taught in a typical biology classroom; and though I did know a few outdoorsy permaculture kids then, I didn’t really get the full picture from them.

Fortunately, a nice little school in Vermont offers a program for students to finish up an undergrad degree from home or any state college courses, and they let me create my own plan of study. I call it Regenerative Development and am taking a variety of classes in: Landscape/Horticulture, Diversified Agriculture, Community Development and Entrepreneurship. None of it is on the frontier of regenerative business or permaculture, it’s just what’s available to me to be able to balance my priorities of finishing my nearly complete degree with classes that teach me some relevant skills and all for a fair price. Meanwhile I’m digesting your blog, Dave Jacke, Christopher Alexander, working in landscaping during the summer, growing a little food and trying to get involved in community where I can.

So now that you know a little about me, I can get into some relevant thoughts and questions. Naturally, (or rather unnaturally, you might say) this horticulture and landscape design program from which I am cherry picking a few courses requires you take Graphics before Intro to Design. So last semester I got to work on my drawing ability where we just fabricated imaginary landscapes and courtyards, and it drove me a little crazy. I had some okay conversations with the teacher about the difference between fabrication and generative design process, but she didn’t really get it when I suggested that “design process” (quotes are for you because I’m not going to repeat everything you just wrote about those words!) and particularly observational skills be taught before blueprint level drawing. She just insisted that students need to get on board with the “language” of modern design before they can learn to see and draw landscape. So my fellow students are being encouraged from the get go to make decisions without any context, and certainly zero emotion.

I piped up every now and then in class to share some of your wisdom because these are potential future designers who are not being given any realistic context about the world and economy that they are [not] being prepared for. Unfortunately, the class really encourages students towards a career in commercial architectural design and big projects for institutions with big funding; a path that likely requires higher credentials than the associates degree from this program. There’s very little specifically about doing useful projects for lower class working people or food production at different scales, and it drives me to speak up when it seems appropriate in or outside of class. Tomorrow, the Intro to Design course begins with the same students and I’m a bit anxious about whether it will continue down the same trajectory. I feel bad for my fellow students and will try to pepper in different perspectives where I can, but I’m not sure many of them are very interested or aware about the different theories and practices behind design (and I don’t expect them to either, being ten years younger than me).
Do you have any advice for getting the most out of this kind of standard design course which I’m taking for a variety of reasons that do not include submitting to the fabrication ideology? I want to do landscape design/coaching/build and maintenance type work for the people who need it most, but can’t afford it because fewer and fewer working people have discretionary income for things like “landscaping”.

I’d really like to take what you’re doing to the small town context in Vermont. What do you think about applying such a living process to town planning? I’ll also be taking a course in Land Use Planning this semester, which I suspect will be similarly steeped in the expensive, lengthy, up-front town plan fabrication. I would love to see lower cost, more inclusive and adaptable strategies come into the small community context because many little towns in Vermont are in economic decline for a variety of reasons. I believe the heart of the issue has existed throughout VT history and that’s the impact of global capital markets on local community resilience and resources.

People in my community have even recently started a conversation on a local online forum about what to do about vacant storefronts in town. A few even liked my proposal to convert the ailing public/private golf course into a cooperatively owned regenerative farm and community hub that can act as a center for education, business incubation, food/fiber/fuel/fodder/fertilizer/”farmaceutical” production, and especially as a space for gathering and celebration.

Gosh, I don’t want to write a comment longer than your original post. I’ll write more in the future now that I’ve finally broken my silence. Again, I love what you’re doing and saying Dan. Please keep it coming, you’re truly an inspiration!

Much Love,

Replies Dan

Okay Trevor – yours is one comment that deserves a proper reply!

First thanks for coming out into the open where I can see you – may that your doing so encourages other lurkers to do the same :-).

One step at a time, yes, but I do like your statements about indigenous ways of being where it’s all alive and we feed into the rest of life as it feeds into us.

I appreciated hearing about your experiences in classes on design – because I lack much direct exposure to the mainstream of design education it is good (if demoralising) to be reminded that people really do still think, teach, and practice this way. Fabricating masterplans with deadlines, some of these words themselves carrying clues to their own impotence…

I don’t know about advice, but one thing I’d mention is that I’ve found it helpful when engaging in certain projects to have the ability to draw up pretty scaled diagrams on computer etc etc in terms of not being intimidated with all that stuff (or belittled and pushed aside due to its absence). It can be useful to know the standard practice approach in terms of being most informed toward where the nodal intervention points are when it comes to disrupting it. Sometimes a little stealth may be in order – “yes, here I am the expert who can whip you up a masterplan! But now I am in the door, here’s what we’re really going to do, and why it is going to serve you better…”

Applying living process to town planning sounds like a bit of fun to me! Alexander does give several examples of this kind of thing in Book Three of the Nature of Order, though I personally have not applied it in this context. I’d be keen if the opportunity comes up though, my word.

Please do keep chiming in Trevor and yes, I’ll keep it coming to, don’t worry about that! I’m just getting warmed up here!

Zev Friedman (North Carolina, USA)

Hey Dan, I’ve been meaning to follow up and get some more juices flowing on the thread that Courtney included me in where you commented about weaknesses in design process and queried where I’m at in my design practice. Looking very much forward to meeting you in person and going deeper in the kitchen, round the fire and so on. Thank you also for having me as a guest at the course.

Courtney and I have talked quite a bit about this lovely idea of living design as embryonic hatching instead of assembly of elements, and I read your article in Permaculture Design magazine when it came out there. I am indeed a fan of Christopher Alexander and the rest of them, especially grateful for the concept of a pattern language (even though pattern languages smell suspiciously like assembly of elements in spite of their differentiation from general to specific), and working myself on a patterns language for transformative permaculture education.

I’ll get to more thoughts on the differentiation vs. assembly question below, but first I want to respond to your question about weaknesses in my design practice. I use a stage system of concept drawings–>preliminary plan–>master plan that essentially does work with vague placements and flows at the beginning as you illustrated in your article, then differentiates into more detail based on new ideas and client feedback. I think it does a good job at creating learning opportunities for the client, multiple chances to talk about pros and cons of different options, and time for the client to self-examine about what is most important in their goals. It maybe takes more time than some more streamlined processes that I have heard some designers use. I’ve been doing it this way and tweaking it for years. The weak point is in people enacting the vision once the design drawings and report are in place. In the majority of cases, as I hear from the client – years after the final design was presented, they are far, far behind the timeline that we carefully developed together for their project. Like, farther behind than I am in my own homestead. Maybe this is a uniquely U.S. issue, I’m not sure. But I can’t avoid the feeling that there is something I could be doing better as a designer to help these designs take root in the land and the people’s lives.

This brings me to the thoughts on a design being like an embryo. I totally agree with our core permaculture premise, that like other processes, our design process will be most powerful if it mimics life forms and ecological patterns. And like we teach in patterns, we have to carefully study exactly why ecosystems and life forms use different patterns so we can mimic each pattern in the right application and not mimic it in inappropriate applications. This is why things like mandala shaped vegetable gardens drive me bonkers, because people are copying a sunflower double-fractal (ish) pattern in an application which just minimizes growing space, maximizes high maintenance path space, makes it difficult to get a wheelbarrow in, and gets none of the light access and growth sequence benefits that a sunflower gets by using that pattern.

So definitely the main idea rings true, that things which “grow” are truly alive and have an internal power and coherence, while things that are “built” must be assembled by an external force and then maintained and micro-managed by that force from then on. But with design, what does it mean to truly grow a permaculture design, or a permaculture system, based on a deep comparison to biological processes that takes the metaphor/image of biology all the way? So that the power of the system arises internally from pre-existing intelligence inside the system, as do life forms. Put another way, if living things have DNA and non-living things don’t (a tricky idea, but just to go with it for a second) what is the DNA of a permaculture project? Within the embryo, what provides the information of when and how and where to differentiate cells which then turn into organs and so on? What kind of animal is the embryo of a given project? Or, is a project necessarily an animal? Might it be a plant, a fungus, a protozoa? In which case both the format and content of differentiation would be much different. A plant will be sending a rootlet and a cotyledon out into the environment to interact and feed, shortly after its seed germinates, unlike an animal which stays contained until its esophagus/anal tube opens. Or might a project actually be comprised of a whole food web of life forms which inform the patterns of the design?

And I think more important even than what kind of life to compare a given project to is the question of what is the lineage of the DNA it is germinating/hatching from? If it is truly alive, that means it has ancestors, and then we as designers are not creators but actually midwives, or nursery-keepers. So for a given piece of land, or other project, with a given group of people, how do we find what ancestors are marrying/pollinating to give rise to the thing that is trying to hatch/sprout in this setting? I think that this is truly and pragmatically important to ask if we want projects to be alive from the inside with DNA and enzymes, rather than assembled and built and managed from the “outside”. And I think that this is somehow right in there with my challenge of why clients don’t run with their designs in a big way all the time, because somehow I’m not identifying and working as a midwife with the DNA of what is actually present.

And that is where I’ll leave it and invite thoughts from you two. Thanks for reading and for the opportunity to go deeper with these things.

Zev (Zev runs Living Systems Design)


Hannah Moloney on Permaculture Design, Business, and Life (E07)

In this episode Dan Palmer from Making Permaculture Stronger enjoys a rich conversation with his friend and permaculture colleague Hannah Moloney from Good Life Permaculture in Hobart. Hannah and Dan explore:

  • How Hannah got into all this
  • Hannah’s journey working as a professional permaculture designer
  • The permaculture design process Hannah uses
  • The tension between providing a service people are willing to pay for and honouring sound process at the same time
  • Much more

Here are some of Hannah’s design diagrams (more here):

Her and Anton and their daughter Frida’s beeuitiful pink home on a hill (more here):

and Dan, Hannah, Anton (and young Frida) in 2015…

and 2016…