I have just read through all your posts on this link and think you are on the right track. I read it this morning along with the article below –
in which George laments the lack of a credible ideological alternative to the neo liberal machine post the 2008 financial crisis. At this moment in history we had the chance to accept the awful mistakes that had led us to this meltdown and begin afresh. Of course there would have been and there still are credible alternatives to the status quo but the powers that be lacked the intestinal fortitude to change the course of history for the better.
I mention this because you refer to the moment when Permaculture ‘ needs to shine and get its gallop on’ and the concern you have that its design systems may not be as robust as they need to be in order to be truly credible to what will invariably be a suspicious and doubting ‘mainstream’. I think your work in attempting a constructive critique of the design systems of permaculture and identifying where the weak links are and making them stronger is important work if permaculture is to be taken seriously as a ‘mainstream’ alternative.
As a relative newbie to the discipline i am not sure i can offer you much assistance at this stage other than my moral support. I have just started my first PDC through the Waikato Environment Centre so will pay attention to the course structure in light of your observations, so as to better understand how improvements can be made in the future.
Looking forward to catching up at the Hui.
Lovely to hear from you and to have your support Shane (moral or otherwise) – I’ll check out George’s piece and I look forward to some good chats next weekend.
Thank you for this. I completely agree.
I found Aranya’s book, Permaculture Design filled this gap. It was provided as part of the package on a PDC I attended and I was impressed with the step by step approach to the design process. Unfortunately the opportunities to teach the content were limited by time.
I’d like to design a course where we work through this process with participants, perhaps on a weekly basis, so that they get practical support in designing their gardens and implementing as they go. My concern is that many PDC plans never leave the paper, and that good design comes with lots of practice and experience. Giving critical feedback to people that are just starting out is difficult and while there were some glaring design flaws in some of the personal and group projects in our PDC there was a reluctance to point them out to enthusiastic and hopeful beginners.
I also think we need to be realistic about what’s achievable in a two week course. The PDC is really an introduction to permaculture design and while it goes into more depth than a two day introductory course it couldn’t and doesn’t qualify anyone to be a designer.
I’m pleased to see the recent introduction of a university level permaculture qualification. I’m hoping we see more of that in the future.
Thanks Meg and great thoughts.
Our Milkwood PDCs are design process focussed, built on Dave Jacke’s process after working with him extensively in 2014. It flipped our PDC model upside down, and it’s much better for it 🙂
Thanks so much for sharing Kirsten – I’m also so grateful for Dave Jacke’s work in this area, and remain grateful to you/Milkwood for bringing him over that time – his visit left a lot of positive and continuing ripples! Much more on Dave’s approach to come in future posts.
Warning–I am not part of permaculture institutions so I may deviate from certain cultural norms, even as I work for permaculture.
Traditional design/construction/maintenance thrives because of a whole socio-economic infrastructure that supports and reinforces implementation over time. Mainstream strategies have legs, BECAUSE they devour ecosystems and turn them into personal privilege. Decentralized ecological designs (Pc and friends) are not yet supported by solid cultural infrastructure. So one of the key components of a Pc “design process” is the evolution of a human system that can continuously observe and interact ecologically while it sustains itself culturally. Dominant human systems (however maladaptive) grow BECAUSE they self-design to conserve flows of authority, ownership, information, and belonging–the flows that characterize the dynamics of human systems, just as energy, water and nutrients flow in ecological systems. If we are not in there redesigning core human system infrastructure (governments, professional societies, education systems?) our ecological systems fail due to cultural entropy–they are poorly organized within the human system flows. Can we really build durable cultural systems in isolation? Is the romantic notion that we are Noah building an Arc useful or accurate? Existing human systems are powerful BECAUSE they are keyed into human system flows, and are ruthlessly adaptive. I don’t see an honest reckoning of human system design in permaculture. There seems to be this hope that if you better organize the ecological context that then the social context will follow. I’d propose that effective gardeners have forever been hard at work shaping the socio-political setting (giving voice and power to the ethics), to protect their projects from warlords and cultural entropy. However the human system design process (even within the mainstream environmental movements) is shallow, politicized, and defensive, rather than empirical, practical, and constructive.
Appreciate your thoughts Paul and find myself in complete agreement. I hope to tackle these essential issues in future posts and hope you’ll still be with us then!
Can’t agree more about the lack of focus on design process in permaculture.
It is not only lacking in the design of physical places but I find it lacking (not completely, of course) in the behavioural and problem solving capacity of some in permaculture. They are fine people, of course, but their thinking I have found to be reactive to situations rather than analytical and solution-focused. This I witnessed in the panicky response of a national permaculture organisation to what was a minor incident.
Thus I submit a subset to your finding of a lack of design process: a similar lack in employing design process in the business of permaculture organisations.
VALIDATING THE NEED FOR DESIGN PROCESS
I’ve been fortunate to have been on various teams involved in permaculture design implementation through local government. I suspect there are those who would write off this avenue of mainstreaming the design system as it is institutional rather than community-driven although it engages with community as volunteers and students, and although the works being done were those identified through a placemaking process (itself a participatory design process) that involved regional permaculture groups and individuals.
To get back to why I feel fortunate, it is because those on the design team include an architect and a landscape architect, both with the PDC in their background, and a local government sustainability educator who used to teach the PDC. A structured design process has been critical to the development of the Randwick Sustainability Hub at the community centre.
What has been revealing in this process is the need on civic projects to work with the needs of others and to accept that this will to some extent limit what you can do in terms of design.
…We met at the Turangi APC.
Thanks for your thoughts Russ.
great work Dan!!
Think swales could be rethought . darren is on the right track ie keyline….. P.s come drop into zaytuna soon
Dan, et al,
There’s another huge weak link in permaculture at the bottom of the pyramid. People talk about ethics and principles, yes, and these are key, but these are incomplete as the basis for any coherent cultural/philosophical system. Ethics and principles essentially fall into one category of philosophical discourse: axiology (the branch of philosophy dealing with values, as those of ethics, aesthetics, or religion). My (very basic and limited) understanding from way back is that no philosophical system is complete/coherent unless it deals with at least these three aspects of reality: axiology (what we value / believe is right or wrong), epistemology (a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge–how do we know what we know? what are valid ways of knowing anything?), and ontology (the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such: that is, what is the nature of reality?). OK, I admit this sounds high falutin’ and heady, for sure. But I guarantee you that these themes will come back around (usually unconsciously) as we continue the exploration and get into arguments/discussion on this blogsite. Indeed, unconscious disagreements on epistemology and ontology underlie many of the heated arguments I’ve witnessed and participated in as part of the permaculture scene over many years. And these themes underlie many of the challenges you lay out re: design processes also. I don’t have time to get into specifics here, but I’ll watch and bring this up as examples occur in the conversations. Thanks for doing this man! Rock it out!
Thanks so much for chiming in Dave – is a great honour to have you drop in! My response to your two comments is I’m with you, I get you, but easy tiger, all in good time ;-). I believe everything you mention needs to be addressed one way or another in due course if permaculture is to reach its potential, but I feel that to jump into such realms prematurely will lose most folk and hinder the deeply collaborative nature of the required pathway forward. But I look forward to hearing more of your thought when the conversation catches up to you, I can say that much.
Oh hooray for bringing back ethics! I often feel that while we give our most thoughtful nod to “Earth Care,” permaculture to date seems to have so much less to say about “People Care” or “Fair Share.” The very idea of setting limits and sharing the surplus feels like a vital and direct critique of core tenants of capitalism, and could be a profound ethical basis for beginning to bring alternative economic and cultural patterns into our designs — a hugely needed paradigm shift in a world consumed and exploited by our “need for constant growth.” Yet, so often, it seems that in our rush to build “successful” permaculture projects (whether farms, consulting professions, or others) we find it easier to fit them comfortably inside of modern capitalism. So much “richness” to explore here! So many challenges and opportunities to live more fully into (and to design with more integrity to) our foundational ethics.
I will add to this a reflection I’ve been having and sharing lately: In Shaivite philosophy there is an understanding that “the perceiver, the perceived, and the act of perception are one.” Huh? I invite you to observe an object, any object and contemplate this as you perceive any thing. The more I have done this, the more I realize how true it is. (And I know it sounds very “woo woo”; if that leads you, dear reader, to dismiss what I’m saying, I feel sorry for you. Pay more attention to your direct in-the-moment experience and let’s talk). More so, the longer I have practiced design in a conscious way, I have come to realize that “the designer, the designed, and the process of design are one.” If we want to have an ecological design outcome, we must use an ecological design process, ***and the designer must be an ecologist.*** Who does the design is as critical as the process used. And indeed, if the design process used does not change the designer, the design process is faulty or the designer is not paying attention. I know I am making several long leaps in here from beginning to end of this post, but I hope folks can follow them.
Beautifully put Dave. Makes me want to hang out and co-design with you more!
Then a complementary question would be: what makes an ecologist? What are the skills, worldview and state of mind that best lead to this ecological design outcome?
From A bit more contexton
Can I add “Spermaculture” to the list of weak links please?
This means a range of things and comes from an article written in the last few years.
In the women’s groups I’m a part of we find it galling that the permaculture movement is a difficult place to be a woman teacher or practitioner.
At both of the convergences I’ve been to I found it necessary to call a women’s circle because women’s space was extremely limited.
Both times we talked about feeling the exclusion of women at convergences even when organisers had men and women on the committees.
Children were not allowed at the last convergence and those that did bring children were chastised.
We no longer have women only spaces at even international convergences even though we request them.
There have been some great stuff on patterns for women in Permaculture but it is still a very weak link.
I’m happy to contribute to this project on this topic.
From A bit more contexton
Hey there Tamara and though I don’t think that term is necessarily conducive to opening the right flavour of conversation about this indescribably critical weak link in permaculture (men can be a defensive bunch sometimes), I’m stoked to have you putting your hand up to contribute in this regard. I am at a NZ permaculture convergence right now with children intermixed throughout and both genders appear pretty well balanced in the program, which is refreshing, but I in no-way mean to imply that this means everything is hunky dory with respect to this issue. ‘Cause it ain’t. But know I am very actively striving toward ways of avoiding the same old pattern with this project (whether I succeed or not, at least I’ll have tried). One thing this means is that I am extremely open to feedback whether public or private with respect to this topic. Please help me not perpetuate this crippling divide! Meantime Tamara or anyone else I would love to know if you know of any women working critically on the foundational understandings of permaculture. Not from a let’s try and add women in as an afterthought but from a let’s get things in balance from the beginning. Again, I’m open to feedback and suggestions here!
From A bit more contexton
Great Dan – yes, both genders need to be included at the foundations of any permaculture project. Please recognise that I am not attacking you personally with any of this message – I think we need to have a few things written down to address a weak link in this area.
I’m so glad to hear that children were welcome at the NZ convergence – because it means that parents, including single mothers can attend.
I wonder what women thought of the convergence. Was there a women’s only space? And – did anyone ask the women if they felt included? At the Sydney convergence we felt so disenfranchised that we called a women’s circle and presented our discussion to the main group. At the Tasmanian convergence we again had a women’s circle but were unable to present back because we had to come together after the convergence had finished.
We asked for a women’s only space at the London convergence and we were turned down. The attitude was that woman are equal and therefore don’t need women’s only spaces. And that if we have a women’s space we also need to have a men’s space (I totally support a men’s space). This forgets that one in three (worldwide) women have been on the receiving end of male violence. With woman coming from all around the world this is higher (60-70% in Pakistan, India, Asian Pacific). Almost every activist group or counter-culture event I know of has a “safer spaces” policy. It seems that many permaculture events don’t.
I used the word “spermaculture” because it demonstrates the way some women *feel* about the continuing exclusion of women in mainstream permaculture.
Its not the right word for a weak link analysis, but it is evocative of what we are discussing on our women-only permaculture women facebook groups, and face to face. That we are excluded and have to work that much harder to claim our place in Permaculture.
I’m sure many permaculture men will say “we don’t exclude women” or “from my perspective, women have equality”. But that is how we again exclude woman’s voices being heard. We aren’t saying these things to make men feel bad. We are asking to be heard by the movement. We are half of the movement.
We do need to come up with a name for the topic of true inclusion of women in permaculture – rather than what we call in the academic historian’s world – “add women and stir”.
Thank you for this opportunity Dan.
From A bit more contexton
Thank you for sharing Tamara – your reflections are welcome.
Hi Dan – I would suggest consideration of acknowledging Starhawk and Pandora Thomas (both women) and others who are working on the frontline of making permaculture better regarding people care and social permaculture. In my mind, one way we could make permaculture better is to begin rethinking the curriculum of the PDC to include a short analysis of domination and oppression for our students, which is glaringly absent from the Designer’s Manual, and the ways we are trained to dominate nature rather than work with and respect nature, and the ways that plays out among people – the ways many are trained to dominate women, the ways whites are trained to dominate people of color. There are many who have been hurt within permaculture by sexism and racism.
Thanks for your comment Kelly – any particular links to the work of Starhawk and Pandora Thomas you’d recommend as a good place to start in getting a feel for their work toward making permaculture stronger?
Here’s Pandora’s site with a link to the Black Permaculture Network she set up, great work going on 🙂
Thanks so much Veronica and I look forward to checking this link out!
Without having “holistic worldview” defined I find it difficult comment (although I understand you invited definitions). I don’t think many within permaculture would argue against a “holistic worldview”, in the same way few would argue against a word like “considered”. Un-holistic or ill-considered approaches are plainly bad. And in that sense I wonder if saying it brings much to the table. (“Holistic” is a pretty abused term, and so brings a bit of cringe factor too.) But that said, I feel the need for… something.
In the past I’ve mentioned that I think “ecological literacy” was missing from this framework, if not somewhere in the framework hierarchy, then sitting somewhere in the background. That’s a phrase I can relate to! It’s a thing I believe I’ve acquired some of, through learning, and it’s tangible enough I can aspire further towards it.
Incidentally, in Permaculture Principles & Pathways, Holmgren also uses the phrases “wholistic thinking” (spelt with a “w”), and phrase “ecological perspective” to describe permaculture thinking in contrast to “reductionist perspective[s]”. But “holistic worldview”, “systems thinking”, “wholistic thinking” and “ecological perspective” all suggest habits of thinking, rather than understandings based on knowledge. I like “ecological literacy”, because it suggests both knowledge, understanding and perspective. But it *is* more limited in scope, as it doesn’t really cover the realm of human nature, whereas “holistic” covers everything and anything. Maybe “holistic thinking and ecological literacy” is closer to covering what’s missing?
In terms of my relationship to the term “holistic thinking”… The habits of thought that I have found useful across multiple contexts, picked up at least in part through permaculture, are:
* Taking time to observe a situation until the context is understood from multiple angles, while studiously avoiding making judgements or leaping to solutions too soon.
* Energetic literacy applied to ecological and human systems.
I suspect these might be parts of a “holistic worldview”. What else would you include? Or how would you describe it? (I feel like things I’ve maybe got from in and around permaculture such as thinking in terms of feedback loops & nested loops, organisation at different scales and how this relates to co-operation within and competition between scales, thinking in terms of ecological niches, would all be candidates for inclusion as components of holistic thinking.)
Incidentally, the first point about taking time before jumping to solutions has been really reinforced for me through reading self-identifying rationalist (reductionist even!) literature: (http://lesswrong.com/lw/ka/hold_off_on_proposing_solutions/).
The second point is informed by the laws of thermodynamics.
Which brings me to one other concern with the world “holistic” — that it’s sometimes framed as being an alternative to, or worse, diametrically opposed to rationalist and reductionist thinking. I think it should *include* rather than reject reductionist thinking. Or it’s not holistic. 😉
Great initiative Dan! I’m loving the cutting edgeness of this…
As a VEGucated permie I have to say I’ve been lucky enough to have been instilled with a solid design process. In fact I was tasked with defining permaculture in writing recently and automatically described it as “a design and consultation framework……..” so it’s ribbing off!
Looking forward to keeping up to date with your work.
Good on you Matt!
So interesting to see how you’re approaching this. Lots of resonances with a current project of mine, which is elaborating a framework research agenda for permaculture. I’ll post about that soon. Keep up the good work!
Thanks Rafter! I can’t tell you how much I love and respect your work and I’m feeling the resonances too, trust me. Look forward to your research agenda post and to staying in touch as the space of this wider conversation evolves.
These are good questions Dan.
Hey Dan. To me, an holistic worldview for Permaculture, or THE holistic worldview for Permaculture is that WE ARE ONE. It is the antithesisis of anthropocentrism. It is not so much a worldview as a WORLDEELING! It is the divine connection to spirit, source, nature, God, whatever you want to call it, there isn’t really a word suitable in my opinion. Everything emanates from this worldfeeling. Bla bla bla
I like that Deb – worldfeeling!
And i think it comes down to how we define THE SELF. Not just the skin encapsulated ego, but an extension, inclusion of everything else…
I think “system thinking” and “holistic worlds view” are different things although they aid each other.
I’m inclined to agree Niva and look forward to exploring this more later…
“I think “system thinking” and “holistic worlds view” are different things although they aid each other.”
How? Curious to know how you describe their difference.
I wanted to voice one of the weaknesses I see in Permaculture at the moment, the issue of using (or more precisely not using) indigenous native vegetation in permaculture design. For me it fits in under a gap in the ‘Earth care’ ethic of permaculture and also under design process. I was fortunate enough to be able to discuss this issue at the Gippsland Permaculture Convergence last weekend with Adam Grubb who challenged my views on this issue and sent me away with some extra reading from David Holmgren on the topic. And while everything that was raised by Adam, and I read in David’s paper are very valid points, I am not completely convinced by the arguments.
I first discovered permaculture through my interest in ecology and growing interest in personal sustainability. I remember reading the ethics and the broad overview of the idea of zones and being inspired by the feeling of hope. One of the key points that really resonated with me this idea of zone 5, wilderness. To me Permaculture was about creating human habitat in areas already disturbed by humanity and utilizing that land to be more productive while also being regenerative. Therefore, we wouldn’t need to clear more anymore native vegetation because we can produce more in the areas we already farm and live in. The problem I see now is that there are areas where biodiversity decline is so great that we cannot just rely on the areas that are left and even in areas where biodiversity is hanging on, I believe permaculture can further stabilise and promote (native) biodiversity gains as well as people care. I discuss this further later on.
Permaculture places a big focus on utilising plants for multiple uses. A plant that is beneficial insect attracting, produces something edible and fixes nitrogen is viewed as more advantageous to have in the garden than a plant that only does one or two of those things. And this is where indigenous native species fall down in permaculture eyes. There are few natives that produce high quantities of ‘bush tucker’ and therefore most are overlooked by exotic species that offer more uses in human habitat. The argument made is that the more we can produce on our property, the less needs to be produced elsewhere on currently unsustainable farms and therefore, the less native vegetation that will need to be cleared ‘over there’ to feed us. It is seen that the amount of native vegetation we could possibly plant in our gardens will be less than needs to be cleared to produce our food in our current unsustainable farming practices. And I completely agree with this idea. And I should also state that I believe permaculture systems typically are (and should be by design) more biodiverse and provide more habitat for native species than a typical garden or lawn.
But now I get to where I think there is a gap. We look, as permaculture designers, across the landscape as part of our design process. We take into account climate, local weather, water movement across the landscape etc. And then we take all that landscape information and apply a design process to a box. The land within the boundary fence that we own. Logical? Maybe. We don’t own the land next door so we can’t directly influence it so why think about it in design if it doesn’t provide a shading, pollution or other impact to our property (or us to theirs)? And this is where, in a hostile matrix that is often neighbours ‘standard’ gardens, I think we can forget we are still part of a landscape and community. A community that one day will ideally implement a permaculture design themselves. I am not naïve enough to think that by planting a native garden I can reverse the decline in native biodiversity. But I do believe if I devote a small section of my property to native plant species, and everyone else in my community does, we can have a positive impact. The personal loss of produce from the area of native vegetation is reclaimed across the permaculture community through fair share of excess produce, the third principle of permaculture.
There are many areas of the world where the native biodiversity is at such risk that we must rehabilitate the landscape if we want to preserve our unique biodiversity. And yes we could rehabilitate these areas with exotic species that directly benefit humanity but at what point do we balance earth care and people care? One example I will use is when I was told about exotic beneficial insect attracting plants, my first question was “well surely there are indigenous herbs etc that will bring in beneficial insects?” The response was, “probably, but you can eat the flowers from these exotic species in a salad so they have an extra use and are therefore desirable in most cases.” While that fits with what is widely taught in permaculture I couldn’t help but think, do humans need flowers in salads? I mean sure they look nice and have some nutritional value but has the permaculture movement become so human-centric that it’s willing to have a pretty salad in favour of habitat for indigenous insect species that promotes local biodiversity resilience? Does the gain from having edible flowers really outweigh the value of increased habitat and stability to local insect and flora biodiversity?
I am a bird watcher by hobby and if there is one thing that I have learnt through countless hours of observation is that nature (native biodiversity) doesn’t need much to hang on. The fact we still have biodiversity after all humanity has done to the planet proves that it is resilient. The fact that we are still losing species out of our farming and urban areas shows how drastic an impact we are having. Permaculture was developed in response to this global threat. Get our own ‘human habitat’ in order to stabilise the collapse and then reverse it. I believe permaculture can help in this area of reversing biodiversity decline by taking a long term view of the landscape and world we want to live in but we need to work together as communities to make it a reality. This needs to start by looking outside the box of our property and at other local landscape biodiversity issues. If your property is an area where there are threatened species or community then shouldn’t it be a consideration of how you, in conjunction with the community (whether they join in now or later), can provide habitat for that species or at the very least not provide extra threats to the species, in your design process?
I guess what has crystallised in my head as I have wrote this piece is that permaculture is taught by beginning with all the issues in the world, climate change, biodiversity collapse, pollution etc. And permaculture is held up as a way of thinking (and doing) that can help save and protect us from this dismal looking future. But aside from soil health (a major focus) a PDC is very human-centric by focusing so much on people care and through that fair share (between people) that I feel it is just assumed that if we look after the people and attend to our needs the rest of the earth care bit will take care of itself somewhere else in the background and we don’t need to worry about it. And I guess I am not convinced that is the case and believe that we need to and can do more to protect our biodiversity of which we all rely on if we work together thinking outside of our ‘boxes’.
Thanks for your comment Brett lots of good thinking and questions albeit not directly relevant to my main point in this post as regards starting weak link analysis with design process. My thinking is your topic here more to do with both some of the foundations (ecological literacy, an wholistic approach or worldview, the earth care ethic) and with some of the applications that are generated by particular instances of design process. One question I’m left musing on is given that I know permaculuralists on every point in the continuum of preference for natives/exotics, whether permaculture needs a uniform stance on this or it is a region where a diversity of stances is actually a good thing. Anyways I’d like to think that down the track making permaculture stronger can return to address and explore these issues head on (but at this stage will be a fair way down the track). Possibly we could move or copy your comment at that stage and use it to help stimulate the discussion!
Fantastic job you’re doing here Dan, teasing out the definitions/meanings/distinctions of design as assembly from ‘parts’ as opposed to design through the differentiation of wholes. This is a widely misunderstood aspect in permaculture, but a very important one to ‘nut’ out.
Thanks for your kind words Vasko – and right on – let the nutting begin!
Very interesting article.
I think that you proved that the definitions of permaculture emphasis the assembly of elements. I admit have used these myself.
Yet my observation is that despite that, most permaculture designs do start in differentiation.
Permaculture also emphasis observation, a good long one, long before any elements are put in the mix. When we walk on the land and when we look at a map, we start looking for boundaries, of the property, of aspects in the property. what’s in and what’s out. then we start layering information- sectors – here is the sunny part, here is the damp part, that’s more differentiation. after that, dare I say, we look at zones, which at first are just like those clouds Christopher Alexander talks about- much before we put any elements in them, that cloud is closer to the house, this cloud is where i hardly ever go to… and on it goes with flow charts, Keylines etc.
i think that we need to expand how we think about permaculutre, it’s not just about assembly of elements. but that we have the materials to do so in exciting design processes. We can work on better defining them, and on getting more tools for them but the framework is already there. So basicly, yeah, by making permaculture stronger 🙂
I agree Niva, we are gradually differentiating our 13 acres as we come to grips with what is already there and how the aspect, slope, soil, shelter, water and climate interact. Also the paths we take and places we congregate, the views we admire, and how the wildlife and pest animals use the space…
As we decide on the ‘clouds’ and how they broadly relate, we can work on further differentiation within them as need, time, resources and brainspace permit, following principles to ensure that elements are combined in a pleasing, efficient and effective manner.
Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts Niva! I totally agree that despite how most of the permaculture books (and as a result many of us) define permaculture design as element assembly, what happens in practice (as in what you see if you watch what any experienced permaculture designer actually does when designing) is at least some degree of whole-to-parts differentiation, starting in the observation phase where the whole point is to tune into the nuances of the people and the site (or whatever it is you’re working with) where naturally the higher-order distinctions (patterns) reveal themselves first, and you only then move toward the finer details. Indeed what is it to ‘analyse,’ as in the phrase “site analysis” if not to differentiate a whole into parts. But I do think a lack of clarity about the two approaches means that often times we unconsciously default to letting the element assembly approach dominate the task of translating the client’s wishlist into some sort of pattern or configuration on the ground. This leads us toward something that feels more an imposed aggregation of parts than an organically differentiated whole. So I’m also excited that this conversation is happening, where as you say the point is not as much about critiquing permaculture design as to the contrary acknowledging its value and seeking to make it even better by revisiting and firming up foundational understandings – yay!
ps. I will leave you with this thought to ponder, however. Why are we permaculturalists so attached to the word ‘element,’with its rather non-holistic connotations of ‘basic substance,’ ‘essence’ and ‘fundamental building block’? Merriam Webster online starts its definition of elementalism as “a tendency to postulate a separation into independent entities or elements of things…” Words are powerful things and I have an inkling permaculture is somehow shooting itself in the foot with this one.
Thanks Dan, a thought provoking article indeed.
Your PS poses a why question (why are we attached to the word ‘element’). To me, the answer is a further reflection on common approaches to permaculture design – we humans are reductionist by nature and by education. That is, we prefer to reduce complex things to its simple elements so that we can gain an understanding of the complex whole. This is a bottom-up approach to design, one where we applaud the vision of people who clear-fell an area and then bring in the bulldozer to contour the land to make nature comply to the designers view of how nature should look.
I agree with your inkling that permaculture is “somehow shooting itself in the foot”. Doing so, is a powerful way to (re)learn first principles and I thank you for bringing the issue to front of mind.
Thanks Rural Johnny and I love your example – “just look at those beautiful earth-healing contours!”
A characteristic aspect of Alexander’s process of differentiation, is still different to what we do in Permaculture. In permaculture we tend to ‘differentiate’ the elements (from their wholEs) through a rationalistic approach of recognition, (more what I would call segregation) whereas what Alexander is doing is subtly different I think. It comes from the different basic working model he uses.
I’m with you Vasko and look forward to teasing this distinction out more in due course. Got to get the sequence of unfolding right though!
The definition of permaculture which has always stuck with me (which I think Gary gets credit for) goes something like this:
If being “indigenous” means to be “of a place”, then permaculture is a system to help people orient and become “of a place”.
May not be what you are looking for but this definition has been haunting me for a couple years …
Thanks Adam. Reminds me of a definition Robyn Francis once shared with me – “Permaculture is a dance with nature where nature leads the dance.” I think the becoming of a place definition has a lovely feel to it though one reaction from my analytic side is that there are very many things that also fit this definition and it thus doesn’t distinguish permaculture within that large group. Also I wanted to mention that the Gary you mention is Gary Williams – a wonderful elder of the NZ permaculture movement Adam and I and others have been enjoying great conversations with recently…
Hi Adam, I like that as a definition, and I like those sorts of definitions in general as they stay more in the realm of “what” we are trying to accomplish and leave the “how” for a separate conversation. One I have heard recently which I like was from Ethan Hughes and goes something like “Permaculture is simply living within the divine laws – the laws of nature”. It has a similar feel about it to the one you shared above.
From A bit more contexton
So there were quite a few points that got my attention in the list above. Let me start by saying that although I have spent considerable time studying and practicing permaculture I do not have a PDC and it seems that this makes me an outsider. I have actually almost completed a PDC online, thought I was finished and work got lost, life caught up and I haven’t got back to it. Now I am starting to feel a little rebelious about the issue. Does the fact that I don’t have a PDC mean I have nothing valuable to contribute? I noticed that I cannot attend a convergence unless I have one. So I get the closed shop vibe. Where is the recognition of prior learning? experience in the field?
Permaculture is one of the tools I use in promoting sustainable life styles and biophilia. At the present I am studying a Masters in Social Ecology and looking everywhere for articles in peer reviewed journals. Yes they are out there, mainly to do with practical technique and not design principles as such or the impact of permaculture education. Is there resistance in the permaculture community of practice towards academic study? Why? or is it to do with funding issues? I find it suprising since there seems to be a lot being said on social media.
I think this is a valuable approach to strengthening permaculture. I look foward to more reflections and critical thought.
From A bit more contexton
Thanks for your comment Tanvier and these are all great questions!
The holistic worldview definitely comes after the ethics. It’s the big picture version of observation, to know the as much of the context as possible. So, I guess it’s part of the principles.
What about social maturity? You have to mature enough to realize that it’s not about you, only humans, or even this planet. We’re not special and we’re not going to get any special treatment other than that we generate ourselves. Hence the ethics.
Hey Milton. I look forward to exploring these questions more in due course. But I don’t think it is clear whether it even makes sense to say one comes before or after the other. For instance depending on your world view you can interpret the ethics in very different ways. Perhaps in some sense they are so inseparable that they sit at the same level?
Hi Dan, just wanted to let you know of a series I’ve just launched on Permaculture Ethics; it’s been in train for a while and by the time this came along was too far advanced to see how it could work in more directly! But I’m hoping that it can all be part of the same conversation one way or another although I’m focussing on a different area to this at the minute. Now that I’ve got it to the point of starting to publish them I hope to be able to contribute more over here too. It’s very inspiring work!
Greetings John and great to hear about your new project – let’s stay in touch – very open to cross pollination and the merging of common threads.
Loving these posts Dan- and totally agree.
I have had many conversations with people about this.
I always try and facilitate Design Thinking- Its not the Herb Spiral (!), its the thinking that has gone into the herb spiral- its the observations, the considerations to climate, the considerations to client etc.
Its always site and context (client) specific, and so many times I see stock standard ‘elements’ or ‘techniques’ just basically drag-dropped into a design, instead of seeing it and getting to know it as a living landscape, and marrying the landscapes needs with the clients needs.
Permaculture, as it has become more popular I imagine, has had its focus shift to very trendy techniques a lot of the time, forgetting our responsibility to wild places (revegetation and a connection with Native habitat is crucial) and our need to have a relationship with our landscapes (and I am talking inner and outer).
I am also keen to explore the gap Permaculture has with Native vegetation, people and culture, as it has originated from looking at ingenious methods around the world. I’m seeing gaps being bridged slowly, especially with the response from Bruce Pascoes book, and I am hoping to see Permaculture start to incorporate more wisdom from our Indigenous peoples.
Will be following these articles 🙂 Thank you!
Good on you Taj and glad the conversation is resonating! Thank you!
I think the weak link is people!
Everything in permaculture comes from people. The cultural climate, participants awareness, and their emotional maturity all can have serious impacts when carried forward into the design process. To use the language I’ve been working with on my blog, it’s a holon: the ethics are a subset of people/culture/awareness. They don’t exist without those things.
Thanks Milton and yep us fallible humans sure can trip ourselves up with this stuff (and generally). Cheers for your thoughts. Also we’ll be going deep into holons in future posts – look forward to your feedback then!
Thank you for the post.
Perhaps the internship method adopted by David and Su at Melliodora is a good template for teaching permaculture in a more holistic way as it allows for a “slow and steady” education, compared with the classic 2 week intensive PDC. Could it be that the “whole” of a students learning/understanding is differentiated slowly through practical application, observation over time and osmosis at dinner table conversations compared with the adding of educational elements (chapters/days/topics) rapidly at a conventional PDC? It would be good to see more opportunities for structured internships towards a deeper permaculture education.
Thanks you for sharing your rich conversation.
Completely agree Matt. In my experience most permaculture course and workshops are designed by choosing a bunch of modules or sessions, squishing them together, and hoping for the best. While there can be no substitute for slow, long, and fully adapted/adaptive to a particular learner, Adam Grubb and I have been most encouraged by the results of our attempts to design an intensive PDC using the whole-to-parts differentiation approach. Aside from everything else when the texture/configuration of the course results from the same sort of process the course is about, it gives the whole thing a lovely integrity in the sense of an integrated-ness between the medium and the message.
Could it be that both combining and dividing approaches to elaborating systems are useful? (Thanks for starting such an interesting discussion, and starting it so well, Dan)
And is there insight into the design process within the Cabrera’s ‘Systems Thinking Made Simple’ stream of thought?
It uses a ‘DSRP’ process guide: Distinction – System – Relationship – Perspective. : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DSRP
Thanks for the comment Brian and I look forward to checking out Cabrera’s approach which sounds a bit different from the standard definitions of systems theory as being about the emergent properties of interacting elements.
Thank you for this useful article. Christopher Alexander’s perspective can bring to the fore elements that contribute to the aesthetics of design. I have often felt that the permaculture sites that I have seen just aren’t beautiful. They may be functional but don’t thrill the soul. Alexander’s designs by contrast are beautiful by most people’s standards and this article has helped me understand why.
Thanks Ravi and indeed.
Thanks for the article – it invites a discernment & distinguishing process for us as designers which echoes the “differentiation” approach Alexander recommends.
Two groups of permaculture folks I know who are consciously working with Wholes instead of parts: 1) The firm I work with Terra Genesis International, and 2) More importantly, extensively, and comprehensively, The Regenesis Group & the Story of Place Institute.
A notable example from Regenesis is Joel Glanzberg’s work on Patternmind – http://patternmind.org/
Many thanks Ethan and I’m stoked/encouraged to hear about these two projects. Be good to connect with you to hear more about your work sometime.
I admit to feeling somewhat skeptical about this. What if the Alexander’s challenge is accepted by everyone, and it turns out that I’m no longer doing permaculture?
“Design through the differentiation of wholes”
Nice short way to put it… but despite Dan’s interpretations of Christopher Alexander (whom I’m yet to read, sorry), and recently an intensive course with Dave Jackie… I still don’t REALLY GET what this actually means in practice.
As you point out though, the challenge appears to come out of permaculture mimicking natural systems. I’d actually refute this as being important in the DEFINITION of permaculture, and here’s why:
A good permaculture design will have “Emergent Properties” of natural systems, but that doesn’t have to be because you designed in order to mimic natural systems… Maybe just by designing according to permaculture principles and ethics, these properties are inherent in the design.
In particular; what about permaculture in an urban environment? These are highly managed systems, almost always with some ongoing inputs (even if they are much reduced compared to conventional design); they may not exactly mimic nature, but that doesn’t mean that such designs aren’t “resilient and truly sustainable”.
Even David Holmgren didn’t design his property 30 years ago and then sit back and watch his nature mimicking system produce; no, he’s constantly intervening, tweaking and modifying the system in order to steer the tendency of nature to ‘go a bit wild’, into producing for human needs.
If permaculture is designing from whole’s in order to mimic nature (as being part of the definition), then I’d probably have to tell many clients that “sorry, what you want me to do isn’t permaculture”. And this risks pigeonholing pc into a philosophical space of design perfection that is almost never achieved, and certainly doesn’t feed the world.
To clarify something: I have no problem at all, and in fact cherish, having “differentiation of wholes, and mimicking nature” etc as being important principles that I should design to; but it doesn’t, IMO define permaculture. 🙂
Hey Goshen and thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think that a healthy, skeptical attitude is exactly what is in order here, and I feel safe in assuring you that there is no need to worry about the chance of everyone accepting Alexander’s challenge – I think that even a five percent take-up any time soon is probably wildly optimistic. As Alexander sometimes said though – give it a generation or two though and things might be different!
Excellent article. I think Alexander’s concept is much closer to how permaculturists actually design, by starting with something that is already a whole and then differentiating and integrating additional factors into it. The issue is mostly that our language has not caught up to our practice–it has taken Western science close to 500 years to more accurately describe how science is actually done (Popper and Kuhn, for example). We thought it was done by the hypothetical-deductive process for centuries, as it is such a tidy model, but that turns out not to be how science is practiced at the bench and in the field. So I’m not surprised that permaculture is taking a few decades to figure out what we do in practice. Thinking in terms of relationships and organic wholes rather than collections of parts is foreign to our culture and not easy for anyone from Western culture to do. This article should speed that process. Now, if only someone would develop a methodology that shows how one can do what Alexander is suggesting, because Pattern Language and his other books still describe the process as design by accretion of parts, not as differentiation. Thanks, Dan, for the inspiration. I always enjoy revising my thinking to more accurately bring theory and practice into better congruency.
Thanks so much for your comment Toby. I really appreciate your open attitude here – in particular to the ongoing evolution in what we say we do when designing, what we actually do when designing, and the gradual and hopefully never-ending closing of any gap between the two. Your interpretation of Alexander’s writing as not leaving the mould he is critiquing (and developing an alternative to) fascinates me – so far I have found book two of Nature of Order his most compelling, complete and explicit outline of designing/creating from wholes to parts (or from wholes to more nuanced wholes might be a better description) via distinction – I’m curious (if admittedly somewhat skeptical!) to go back and see if it would even be possible to interpret what he says there from a parts-accretion or element-assembly view. But I could not agree more that someone needs to show how his method can be applied to permaculture design – any volunteers/takers out there? Some colleagues and I have made a tiny (but most promising!) start in this direction an we would love to widen the web of collaboration.
Thanks, Dan. And I’m decidedly grateful that you wrote that post. Most permaculturists are interested primarily in, to quote Jack Spirko, “getting shit done” and don’t spend much time thinking about the theory and other underpinnings. I’m glad to see when others are working on the theory and underlying ideas. Permaculture is still an epistemological mess; Mollison’s original principles, for all their brilliance, were a strange hodgepodge of advice, injunctions, observations, and guesswork, written in varying tenses and voices, and of several inconsistent logical types. I know Rene Slay cleaned up some of it for the “Intro to Pc” book, but there’s lots more to do. I’m fine with the highly empirical nature of permaculture—if it works, we don’t always have to know why or how—but a solid theoretical basis will help us avoid, among other things, dumb mistakes, and will go a long ways toward making permaculture a bit more credible with academics, elected officials, engineers, and those in other formal design fields. Like I said, a lot of people don’t care, but one of my favorite (and snarky) quotes is Heinrich Heine’s remark–if you will excuse the 19th-century sexist language: “Oh, you proud men of action! You are but the unconscious hod-carriers of the men of ideas.”
I look forward to browsing your blog a good bit more.
Thanks again Toby and right on. I’m not sure which is worse – doing severed from thinking or thinking severed from doing – yet unless the two move forward together as mutually-enriching partners within a single larger process of inquiry, design, creation, or whatever you want to call it, then real progress will always elude us and we’ll all of us (permaculturalists included) continue perpetuating destructive patterns right up to when we fall off the cliff pointing fingers at each other. I am hopeful that this project (Making Permaculture Stronger) will soon start evolving into a trusted platform for high-standard, peer-reviewed, collaborative inquiry into permaculture’s foundational understandings, the results of which will gradually weave themselves into the fields and gardens of action such that we become ever more effective at “getting shit done” in a way that steers us further and further toward life, wholeness, happiness, beauty and other such desirables, and where our unexamined theories tend less and less to shoot us in the foot. Permaculture is just another organism at a moment of choice all organisms are confronted with all the time: adapt, or die.
The thing about typical systems thinking, (ie thinking in terms of elements interacting within a space that acts as a kind of container) is that to me it suggests a world view whose fundamental and real characteristics are ones of individual objects, of separation and of boundaries. I don’t know that this is fundamental to systems thinking but it seems to me that it is characteristic of how people generally view the world and so it makes sense that outside of any sort of reflection or critical thinking we would just naturally impose upon systems this outlook.
What is interesting (and I find inspiring) about a wholistic permaculture worldview is that it implies a world view where the whole is fundamental and where elements and behaviors between elements are expressions of that whole (in the sense that ocean waves are expressions of water and has the character of being both water and waves). They can be seen then as the visible aspects of the whole. The whole communicating with itself or to rework what someone has already commented upon the whole dancing with itself.
Some thoughts on the definition of permaculture
Permaculture is a way of engaging with the whole. Of communicating with the whole.
Permaculture is a way for the whole to reinvent and explore itself
Permaculture is an exploration. A reinvention. An engagement. A means of communication. A means of expressing the whole. A means of continuously re-imagining the whole.
Okay that’s enough. Thank you for allowing the space to dwell on these matters.
Thanks for your beautiful comment Jeffrey – I love the way you think/write about this stuff!
From A bit more contexton
Hey Tamara, it is really interesting to hear about your experience with spermaculture in Australia.. I’m a female permaculture professional designer and teacher here in NZ, and was at that hui (convergence) Dan mentioned… you got me thinking about this in the NZ context.
I’m not totally sure, but we don’t seem to have that problem in Aotearoa NZ …. When I started my permaculture journey about 2002, so many of NZ’s leading permies were women: Miriam Tyler, Trish Allen, Kay Baxter, Robina McCurdy, Sabine Druekler, Jo Pearsall, oh dear now I’m worried I’ll leave someone obvious out!
Occasionally I do wonder whether women are less likely to put their hands up to run sessions at our national hui, and whether the hui organising teams unwittingly are less likely to ask women to.
Anyway, I’m interested to hear what other kiwi women feel about this…
Hmmm, I’m a professional fulltime designer (of the PC variety). My brain is starting to hurt while I think about how I actually go about “design”. Some thoughts of mine….just rolling off, without too much editing…
The ethics are pretty unhelpful (just a reminder or pointer to something really). However, it is essential to have a good grounding in ecological, cultural (!), financial literacy, etc.
Several years after I completed my PDC, I trained with Haikai Tane, and he challenged permaculture soundly, dismissing it as a social network for urban folk… He also challenged some of the ecological literacy that is delivered in permaculture. Haikai’s work is grounded in watershed ecology and cultural biases around water and landscape.
The easy example is to compare the pastoral cultures (esp England, USA, Australia, NZ) with forest/gardener/fisher cultures (I’m familiar with asia, think rice paddies nestled in terraced treecrop landscapes, although it is done all over the planet). These 2 broad cultures have completely different ways of looking at, managing, and living in landscapes. I grew up as a 4th generation dairy farmer, and I can’t say strongly enough how much we in the pastoral cultural paradigm are blinded & limited by our culture. And of course permies the world around are blinded by their own culture… as Holmgren/Mollison et al are and were too, and permaculture reflects this cultural bias very heavily…
Working with Haikai has had a significant impact on my own professional practice and design process (in fact I virtually threw everything out and started again from scratch!).
I’m often concerned to see “Water” taught several modules into, or towards the end of a (modular) PDC. To me, watershed ecology is fundamental to the overall design process, so I always teach it within the first 3 days (when I’m the course coordinator that is)…
So anyway, water (and its attendant cultural blindness) is one of my own personal biases in permaculture design (probably everyone has one). And I get the feeling from reading permaculture websites all over the world that watershed processes and cultural biases are poorly understood and poorly taught in PDCs too.
Is it just me or are the principles not really that useful?!?! I may be opening myself to a huge load of criticism here…. the only principle I consciously use in my professional practice is “design from patterns to detail”. Maybe it is just that most of them are so obvious that I use them but don’t even think about it anymore. But there are some in there that really, I ignore – some of them I even find annoying.
When I think about my own design process, I go from
-reading the landscape… to
-my understanding of Ecological Literacy and applying patterns that heal watersheds, recharge aquifers, and make them potentially super-productive…. to
-matching crops/treecrops/landuse to the appropriate “habitat” in the landscape (Ok that is just another pattern really) …. to
-ensuring that nutrients (wastewater, animal housing) support the crops/treecrops that will appreciate it the most… (another pattern) to
-sensible stuff like shelterbelts, paths, etc (don’t ask me more about how I design that stuff …. it is just well…. being sensible!) (but mostly it is about patterns)
-and beyond that, how we interact with the landscape (ie garden etc) is a very personal thing, and I’d rather leave that up to the client…. but mostly they want more detail, so I give it my best shot, whilst thinking they are probably going to change it a dozen times and they are wasting their money paying me to “design” it. (must jump in here and say that they are almost always delighted with the end design 🙂 )
I’m shocked (!) to see greywater re-use and bio-intensive growing grouped together as strategies! I see “greywater re-use” as on a par with “growing food”. They are both key responses (patterns) to ecological literacy/function, whereas bio-intensive growing is a technique in my mind, as are greywater reedbeds ….
Yawn … I must be a patterns person, although the occasional technique comes along that piques my interest.
So here is my own pyramid: (admittedly it is really just applicable to land-based design)
Design Process (recognising the patterns in the landscape and then applying patterns
that respond to the landscape and fulfil the function required)
E t h i c s
Maybe I’m not a real permaculturalist…
If you got the the end of all that, you are a determined person 🙂
Thanks for sharing Kama and it turns out I’m a determined person ;-). I appreciate you taking the time to put your understanding of your current design process into words and look forward to chatting more when I see you at the design process thingo next month.
Oh good, I like your tree…… the pyramid was terrible 🙂
Wasn’t it! – yay for progress! ;-).
Nice one Dan,
I strongly agree that “Dave Jacke has contributed the most comprehensive, conscious and clear treatment of sound design process yet seen in the permaculture literature. ”
When he presented his design process to us in 2103 (when we were hosting him for a series of courses in Australia) it fundamentally changed how we taught design. For the last three years (8 PDCs) Dave’s design process has formed the core of the Milkwood course.
I’d like to see more permaculture teachers embrace it.
Thanks Nick and ditto!
Because of these posts I came to revisit C. Alexander and that led me to The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth which I’ve been enjoying. Now I know almost nothing regarding permaculture, farming, and homesteading, but one thing that seemed obvious to me, which relates to this post (and others), is how immersive this process needs to be in order to be done properly. Lots of talking, lots of listening, lots of exploring, lots of investigation by and between designer-clients-land-plants-habitats-animals-etc.
In this context, I see a designer as someone whose job is to not only see through some kind of development with regard to some parcel of land but some kind of development regarding the people living on this land. To literally bring them to the point that they will takeover the the design process. That they become the designers. I think it might even be argued that this is their key purpose.
The other part that seemed obvious to me is that everything C. Alexander proposes is adamantly opposed to how we do things currently.
Well put Jeffrey and I couldn’t agree more with all you say here.
Great post Dan
If Permaculture is a ‘design science’ used exclusively by humans to design their environment(s) in accordance with nature through systems thinking, then is the weak link then not the manifestation and cognition on which the design ‘thought process’ occurs (the operating systems of our minds)? Your original pyramid highlights that permaculture’s foundation is (by necessity) built on an holistic (ecological) world-view, which given that ‘views’ or mental models of the world can only be ‘constructed’ within the minds of humans (that is relevant to permaculture anyway), then I would argue that faulty or weak ‘design’ processes are perhaps a result of faulty, incomplete or dualistic world views in the mind of the designer. The ‘design process’ is then perhaps faulty from the beginning – as our mental models of the world unintentionally influence the design ‘view’. As you pointed out in your PhD quoting Laing “the initial way we see a thing determines all of our subsequent dealings with it”…. My contention as a practicing psychologist would be that most of us struggle to exclude the lifetime of dualistic thinking and self-centred views we are dogmatically trained in from birth from from our design processes…. they subconsciously sneak into the design in differing degrees dependent on how ‘consciously’ we attempt to exclude them… I think more naturalistic design processes will help the ‘purity’ of our designs improve, however perhaps the best provider of feedback on the ‘success’ of our design is nature itself – through principle one – observe and interact. Perhaps it will be our children’s children who (hopefully) grow up knowing no other model of design than those based on ecological/natural systems thinking that will be the ‘pure permaculturalists’… and by then maybe we won’t need the term permaculture – it will just be called ‘normal’…
Greetings Mark and thanks for an insightful comment. I think you are right on and that ultimately if design process is going deliver the goods (in the sense of helping create a future with a future) that it can’t happen without us collectively breathing into a new story in the worldview sense, part of which is letting go of separation and the narrow conception of self as this separate bounded object looking out for number one. As you say we’re talking a multi-generation transition here!
I see it as a chicken and egg thing in the sense that the worldview/story stuff only matters/makes a difference to the extent it informs the way we actually are in shaping (and being shaped by) the world, and that it will only change via a fluidly iterative process where the action of designing/creating/modifying and the process of consciously untangling ourselves from no-longer appropriate mental models (and developing appropriate ones) will co-evolve together or not at all.
But I certainly agree that conscious, collaborative inquiry into the holistic worldview without which permaculture don’t make no sense is as (if not more) important than looking into design process itself. In the end I see it as all the same thing I suppose. That said diving right into the world view stuff has got to be a bit intimidating in its scale and scope! Anyone game to leap into to that abyss will have my full moral support ;-).
It would be wonderful indeed for permaculture and related approaches to eventually become redundant.
Finally, you are the first person in my life (apart from my examiners) to mention having read something from my PhD! I had completely forgotten it even existed and I actually went back and went through that article and was surprised to find all the common threads with this latest project so thanks for the timely reminder.
Wow, interesting, I never realised that permaculturists thought of design as simply an assembly of elements, so I’m in shock. Much of what you’ve put forward here resonates with what I’ve always taught and practiced as design process, “From Patterns to Details”. First get the big picture patterns in context – starting from bioregion and neighbourhood (geo-physical & social patterns, I’ve developed my own ESM tool for this), and clarify the strategic plan (vision, aims, objective, values). Then the patterning more immediate external influences (sector analysis) and mapping the patterns within the site itself (site analysis). Here I find Ian McHarg’s exclusion overlay process particularly useful as a tool for mapping the ‘higher order’ ecological needs of the site (I call this “listening to the land”) plus other restraints (buffer zones, legislative, planning), which then provides a context to move into conceptual bubble planning, functional analysis, flow patterns & analysis, which lead into spacial patterns and relationship between systems (zonation), then last, but not least the placement and patterning of the individual elements as the design details. Assembling or patterning the relationship of the elements always come last and within the context of the big-picture patterns.
Thanks for dropping by Robyn and sorry for the shock ;-). That’s a lovely concise description of your authentically holistic patterns-to-details design process and I have long respected your leadership in terms of injecting a degree of substance into permaculture design process that can otherwise be lacking. Won’t you please write a book about this? At the least at some point I’d love to talk with you about developing a more detailed outline of your approach, along with a case study of at least one of your projects (I’d love part of this project to become profiling the design processes of permaculture’s most experienced designers for others to compare, share, and learn from). Or at the least interview you for a podcast about how your design process has evolved over time and where is at now. Anyways all in good time and cheers and thanks for everything you’ve done and are doing in this space.
Dan, fantastic stuff! I’m really enjoying the new project and am proud to see the direction you are taking it!
As for the topic, differentiation requires the designer to be so much more patient and attuned than assembly. It is no surprise we want to ‘solve’ the problem by assembling parts rather than tease out and toy with the whole.
Thanks Chris and right on!
I’m with you that differentiation leads to strong design. Two questions stem from that – which hopefully will be considered in due course:
a) Where do breakthroughs come from / How are new responses to patterns conceived?
This could be where design by assembly can be an effective way to come up with new responses to patterns – see to Dave’s comment about “guild build”.
b) How do we, as designers, observe and respond to changes to patterns at a given site or climate?
Without maintenance, it could be that people start designing such that Pattern A always leads to Design Element A, which is no better than details to patterns!
Dan, great article! I think Alexander’s work certainly needs to be taken far more seriously by permaculture practitioners. By and large in the permaculture field, the pattern language concept has been borrowed from Alexander as an insufficient substitute for designing from wholeness. I think one key differentiation that we need to make in order to practice Alexander’s wholeness is WE have to become as whole as nature itself. This is the work of not thinking like nature, but thinking as nature. I think it was Penny Livingston who said, we are nature working, as opposed to Mollison’s work with nature. I want to second the work of Joel Glanzberg and Regenesis Group. Since I started teaching with Joel several years ago he radically shifted how I view my work, permaculture, and life in general, and continues to. He is writing a book called Pattern Mind. In an early draft of the book Joel describes the PDC primarily as an educational tool to achieve a greater wholeness of mind over anything else. I’d say that has been missing in a lot of PDC’s, permaculture literature, and discussions. Lastly, I often wonder whether permaculturists are notoriously bad at describing their work well because at some point words just go in circles and can’t quite describe the truth of the experience of designing in wholeness, which I’ll suggest is a different state of mind than our normal discursive, logical, form grasping mind. It’s like trying to describe states of meditation. They are to be experienced, not described. As Toby said in his comment, I agree that many permaculturists are practicing that different-state-of-mind-kind-of-design, but can’t quite put it in the right words. Keep writing, Dan. It’s great to see this level of inquiry.
Thanks so much for your comment Jason. I’m stoked you mention Joel Glanzberg and Regensis for as fate would have it, it seems I’ll be spending several days with Joel and Bill Read who are visiting my area in NZ in two months! I have a feeling that encounter will prompt some major breakthroughs in my approach to all this. But everything you say resonates and I appreciate your affirmation – I am just getting started here and cannot say how excited I am about where this is all heading.
Dan, very thoughtful article. Having thought about your piece I was prompted to suggest a simple perhaps alternative view.
In my mind permaculture design as with other styles will involve the assembly of elements. Every act of complexification involves this at some level. A gene assembles a protein from amino acids, a molecule is assembled from elemental atoms, atoms from sub-atomic particles etc et ad nauseam.
What I think differentiates different schools of designs are the principles that shape the connection between elements. In permaculture I can see a set of principles to which the design conforms and give it a ‘Permie’ feel. For example, are the outputs of the system also inputs to another system? Does this ‘cycle operate as locally as possible. Are functions stacked? Does the process reduce energy expenditure to a minimum? Can you view the problem as a solution etc.
It may be possible to avoid the debate above re ‘PC design’ by looking merely at the extent to which a design conforms as closely as possible to the permaculture principles rather than discussing the nuance of different authors language re elements and relationships.
I think the issue for us is that natural design seems ‘principled’ but it may only be vis-a-vis the laws of thermodynamics, selective reproductive advantage and parsimony. Much of the rest is more value laden than is common in ‘nature’.
The other point I would make is that design as a human pursuit is fundamentally different to design as a natural evolutionary process. Evolution (except for the religious fundamentalists). Evolution does not require consciousness, is not purposive and is a seriously slow process with a very high error rate. Conscious design as undertaken by the human species is almost the antithesis of that. Bio mimicry and the copy of ‘nature’ is fraught for us poor humans as it can only ever be done within the constraints of our current understanding of nature which can only ever be partial and, unfortunately, rapidly changing. Just think how our understanding of nature and our relationship to it has changed over the last 500 years – a mere blink in the evolutionary time scale.
Thanks for your equally thoughtful comment Drew – I really appreciate you sharing these reflections for myself and others to reflect on. One quick observation is that you start by stating your preference for the element-assembly (mechanistic) paradigm, which you consider self-evident. Alexander starts with a preference for a different paradigm, based on a totally different set of assumptions about the nature of reality. This is not to suggest that either paradigm is right or wrong, just that they are different, and it is not really a fruitful strategy to reduce one to the other and only then contrast them.
This is wonderful thinking, which I first found on the discus site, so note my comments there on your two essays relating to the making of wholeness.
Note I’m requesting there that I might be able to reprint your series in our ENVIRONMENTAL & ARCHITECTURAL PHENOMENOLOGY. We regularly cover work on Alexander and what we call “the phenomenology of understanding and making wholeness.”
Again, thanks for your thoughtfulness
Kansas State University
Hey there David and lovely to hear from and of you! I feel I’m sort of fumbling forward with understanding and trying to accessibly articulate these matters, where affirming comments such as yours help motivate me to keep fumbling. That said I’m most exited about what lies ahead and I’m dearly grateful for Alexander’s so brightly lighting the way.
I’ll go check out your other comments now and reply to them too. I’m open to the reprint idea though also open to the possibility that a revised or even fresh piece or series might be more appropriate depending on the context.
First of all I want to add my thanks to the many thanks popping up on this mammothly bodacious blog so far. I’m only a recent PDC grad and this is really helping to refine what I learned in the course. So thank you.
It seems to me that the great benefit of starting with the whole and facilitating its differentiation into parts is that you keep sight of the whole throughout the process. The obvious risk of element-assembly is that you lose sight of the whole as you focus in on the parts. Someone might object to this and say “Hey you simpleton, just by focusing in on the elements doesn’t mean I can’t look back to the whole every now and then to make sure things are all clickin’ together nicely”.
But, once the elements have been formulated there is the risk that the designer simplifies the whole landscape to be the elements he/she has envisioned. Put another way, you miss the spaces between the elements that aren’t part of a direct relationship. Anything that isn’t elements and their relationships becomes a little blurry and out-of-focus.
As Taj wrote too in an earlier thread, by thinking that parts and relationships are all that makes up the whole, we may miss the more subtle yet extraordinary aspects of the landscape, like its impact (and continuity with) our inner landscape, to name one.
I was discussing this with my partner who’s a holistic health practitioner to see how she (and another naturopaths) handle this whole/parts directional conundrum. She said their basic approach is to start with whole, then move into parts, and situate them within the whole again. When a patient/client first comes in, the whole is the first priority of the practitioner. What is their first impression? What is their skin colour like? Is their hand warm when we shake it? Do they grip firmly or kind of just flop limply? What is their posture like? How do they project their voice? etc.
Then they give time to the patient/client to talk about why it is they have come there and to learn a little about them. And only after that, does the naturopath start to look into patterns and particular bodily systems in greater detail. At the end of that process, they represent the parts graphically, draw connections between details and then take an overall sense of what is happening across the entire bodymind. From whole to parts to whole. My partner said, which I thought was pretty sage, that by starting off with the whole, it’s simplier to envelop the parts back into the whole at the end, as you’ve retain a sense of what it was like in the first place.
Another interesting point I picked up was that she – and I think most naturopaths – has a philosophy of what the whole is, to make it easier to actually envision the whole in the first place. In her field, the body has a living intelligence, the vital force, that constantly acts within the body’s systems to overcome obstacles, vitalise the body and address imbalances. Therefore, reflecting back to how these changes aid and abet the particular person’s vital force and its unique challenges, supports keeping this reference point of the whole to look back to.
This made me wonder whether there would be such a reference point for permaculture? And even if there was, would this help keeping the whole in sight or hinder it by superimposing an idea on the whole which would be better kept clear and undefined? If I had to have a swing at what that would be for permaculture it would go something like this: each landscape is constantly adapting to the unique forms, forces of play, energy and resources that is within its domain. The land is doing something based on what it has and what it is exposed to. Therefore the land has direction and has movement – could we almost say it has a plan. As permaculture designers on the land we are tuning into what the land is doing, or what happens on the land – on this unique space that is nowhere else – and working with the direction it is already taking, the forces that are already at play. We dance with the land leading. So perhaps our reference point to the whole is: are we moving with the natural intelligence and forces of this land?
I thank you for your pleasantly profound comment Benjamin. Uncannily, you cut to the chase of several matters I’m grappling with in my next (in progress) post. Things like the issue of missing the space between the elements, the deep insight to be gleaned from what your partner shared (wow!), the idea of tuning not only into the site but its trajectory or plans for its future. I’m delighted to see you speaking so clearly about these fundamentally important and all too long neglected matters. Please keep commenting and please keep stealing my thunder. Actually if you could do it a little earlier it will save me a lot of grappling – and I can simply quote you ;-).
Thanks Dan for this fantastic work and the discussions thus far. I have been grappling with these ideas about design and permaculture for a long time. As a landscape architect I think I have always designed by differentiation of the whole. I see the process as the relationships and the connections that exist first. At the macro scale initially and then into more detail. This is why I often comment that a bubble diagram is not a concept plan, but a tool in the design process. I have also always found the terminology of permaculture (words like ‘elements’ and terms like ‘functional analysis’) a bit foreign and difficult to connect with how I design. Words and language are important so I think your inkling has legs!
Thanks so much Kate and that’s helpful to hear how the differentiation-centric approach aligns with your actual experience of designing. The more I explore this stuff, the more I agree it has legs. Legs, arms, the whole beautiful lot!