Conclusion to Inquiry Circuit # 1

We have arrived at the end of Making Permaculture Stronger’s first investigation. Just scraped in before year’s end – yeah!

We’ll be calling these investigations inquiry circuits. Each inquiry circuit exists to serve our overall goal of introducing, investigating, and ideally doing something to strengthen weak links in permaculture as a design system.1

The focus of this initial circuit has been the popular practice of defining permaculture design as, above all else, a process of assembling elements into whole systems. Drawing on Christopher Alexander’s critique of this way of understanding design, we have (hopefully) clarified the issue, enjoyed thoughtful commentaries from many permaculture designers, and shared two experimental design processes teasing and testing out Alexander’s contention that nature-mimicking design is primarily a differentiating (as opposed to an assembling) process.

Time will tell, we suppose, but at the end of the day, we hope the effort/exercise has been of service to a stronger permaculture.

In this post, we’ll summarise each of the constituent posts of this inquiry, we’ll review reactions from the permaculture community, and we’ll bring this inquiry to a close.

Post One: Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture

This post looked at and gave examples of the permaculture literature’s tendency to define design as an assembling process, where a whole is built by joining parts (moving from details to pattern). It then shared Alexander’s critique of this approach, and his alternative view of nature-mimicking design as being better defined as a differentiating process, where a pre-existing whole is gradually transformed (moving from pattern to details).

This post garnered a fair bit of commentary and was republished both on and in the August 2016 issue of Permaculture Design Magazine.

Post Two: A Conversation with David Holmgren

In this post we shared excerpts from an email discussion with David Holmgren about the initial post. Welcoming “critique on the lack of design process” in permaculture, David acknowledged that, in his words…

  1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing
  2. nature works from pattern to details
  3. we need most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway

…simultaneously stressing that “it is also important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique,” suggesting that whole-to-parts and parts-to-whole modes of design might be construed as complementary but asymmetric aspects of a broader and more holistic understanding of design process including and valuing them both. Asymmetric in the sense that the overall direction is from patterns toward details, but where at times and as appropriate there is also a movement from details toward patterns.

Post Three: A Summary of Progress Made and Where to from Here

This post segued between identifying/clarifying/discussing the issue and our next goal of, amongst other things to:

  • hunt down, snare, and share any clear examples of differentiation-based approaches to design that already exist in the permaculture literature (whether in books or in other media)
  • come back to clarify the details of this differentiation-based approach.

At this stage, the goal of sharing some actual experiments in the design-as-differentiation approach was yet to occur to us. As an open-ended inquiry, we didn’t yet know where we’d end up or the exact steps we’d take in getting there.

Post Four: The Exceptional Case of Dave Jacke & Edible Forest Gardens

Here we showed how the ecological design process of Dave Jacke, developed from his own critique of design process in permaculture, is unique in the literature in bringing an authentic pattern-to-details, whole-to-parts flavour into the way he practices and communicates design. Here’s a representative quote (from Edible Forest Gardens Volume Two):

Once we have a solid scheme that resolves all the basic design issues, we work at a more detailed level. The detailed-design phase is where we take our chosen scheme and make it more exact, specifying the physical details in harmony with the big picture (p. 233)

Post Five: Christopher Alexander’s Challenge meets Darren J. Doherty’s Design Process – Part One of Two

In this post we looked closely at a sample design process of acclaimed permaculture farm designer Darren J. Doherty. Here’s one diagram of the resulting the design:

We tried to describe as accurately as possibly what Darren actually did in terms of the assembly/differentiation and whole/parts distinctions. In doing so we unearthed a conundrum:

On the one hand, we can use standard permaculture talk in its element-assembly sense to meaningfully describe what is going on [in Darren’s process]. On the other hand, Alexander appears to have a point, in the sense that despite the unfamiliarity of his language, everything he says in the above statements appears to be equally true of what is going on.

Post Six: Christopher Alexander’s Challenge meets Darren J. Doherty’s Design Process – Part Two of Two

In this post (this inquiry’s longest and most thorough) we attempted to resolve the conundrum by taking a closer look at the implications of four aspects of Alexander’s view as captured in this summary statement:

The whole comes first then gives birth to the parts by differentiating space in a sensible sequence.

After rather detailed inquiry with many twists and turns, we arrived at this conception of design (with the idea that it better captures what actually happens than the standard permaculture descriptions):

  • Starting with an existing configuration of a whole-space-comprising-a-configuration-of-already-differentiated-parts…
  • …further differentiating this whole…
  • …fluidly moving down, up, and sideways as necessary…
  • …both modifying what is there and conceiving (as potential) then introducing (as actual) new parts…
  • …that grow out of and hence harmonise with the whole…
  • …to support the evolution of that whole…
  • …as a rich network of interrelated parts…
  • …toward our desired outcomes of a resilient, abundant, human-supporting ecosystem (or whichever wording floats your boat).

…concluding that, among many other things:

differentiation not only fares a lot better as a coherent description of what is actually going on, but that differentiation more meaningfully describes the movement in design not only from a whole to parts, but from parts back up toward the whole.


Sure, we can’t get started without a whole, but we can then differentiate the tiniest part and move up from there if we like, to differentiate a larger part that includes this smaller part. Or we can drill down still further inside this tiny part and differentiate a part still tinier. Or, as a third option, we can move sideways, and differentiate a part or parts next to or overlapping this tiny part we initially differentiated.

Post Seven: Testing a Different(iation) Approach to Permaculture Design Process – Part One: Introductory

Prompted by the late, great Toby Hemenway’s comment that…

…if only someone would develop a methodology that shows how one can do what Alexander is suggesting…

…we introduced our intention to next share some experimental examples. Time for the rubber (design theory) to hit the road (design practice).

Post Eight: Testing a Different(iation) Approach to Permaculture Design Process – Part Two: An Example

Here we shared one simple differentiation-based example of the process arriving at this design:

Post Nine: Testing a Different(iation) Approach to Permaculture Design Process – Part Three: Another Example

Here we shared an even simpler example of the process arriving at this design:

Comments & Reactions

Starting out, we had no idea whether anyone would be interested in or see any relevance in all this. We’ve accordingly been delighted at the rich range of conversation, commentary, and feedback received. A primary goal of the making permaculture stronger project is sparking robust and constructive conversation and collaboration around permaculture’s weak links. So far, so good!

Summary of Different Reactions

To keep things simple, we could say that our fellow permaculturalist’s reactions to this inquiry have fallen into three main camps:

  1. Appreciative – “This is a useful/helpful distinction/direction/inquiry adding value and clarity to existing descriptions of what we do when designing – let’s explore this more” (e.g., David Holmgren, Toby Hemenway, Dave Jacke, Ben Falk)
  2. Neutral – “Hmm, this is kind of interesting but I’m not sure there is really an issue here?” (e.g., Robyn Francis, Rosemary Morrow)
  3. Dismissive – “This whole inquiry is deluded / flawed” (Peter Light)

Consider some representative examples of each.

Appreciative – “This is a useful/helpful distinction – let’s explore this more”

Maybe about 75% of the comments / reactions, both off and online, have fallen into this camp. Aside from discussions with David Holmgren and Dave Jacke, parts of which have been shared along the way, here are some additional examples:

A comment from Kate Pospisil:

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!

From (the late) Toby Hemenway:

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.

From Will Hooker:

I am a landscape architect and taught small scale landscape design in a department of horticulture for 35 years. In the mid 90’s I became concerned about where our world (specifically led by our design professions) was headed, and in searching for answer, I found the ‘umbrella’ of permaculture. I became certified in 1994, began teaching and introductory Pc course at my university in 1997, and in 1999-2000, I took a year-long sabbatical study leave to travel around the world in an effort to better learn what permaculture was really all about. In the course of my travels, I visited eleven nations, around 250 separate sites, out of which around half were pure permaculturally designed residences and institutions. Of the 125 Pc places, I counted only five of them as being what I considered to be beautiful/inspiring. As one practitioner I visited (who happened to have one of the five beautiful sites) stated, “Permaculture aesthetics suck!” Unfortunately, I have had to agree.

For years, I rationalized this as relating to new permaculture converts moving too quickly – these folks got excited about permaculture, dropped everything in their lives, bought a piece of land, and immediately built a shelter, planted a garden, put in fruit trees/water catchment/herb spirals/etc., and all in a very abbreviated time frame. Their designs/arrangements were/are not thoughtful or inspired, but simply a result of an attitude that said, “Let’s get this done quickly because we have to live here as well as live off the land.” I now think that your’s and Alexander’s discussions give a deeper meaning to what is behind poor permaculture design.

I think part of the problem is that a typical PDC does not adequately prepare its graduates to actually do good design. Having been a teacher of design for decades (where I used Christopher Alexander’s books as texts), it became clear to me that even an intensive 2-4 years of studying a set of courses covering the basics of reading and designing the land is not sufficient to create good designers. It takes a good deal of experience, and on one’s own land, that it best learned by going slow. Mollison’s and Holmgren’s advice, i.e., “Start at your doorstep,” rings very true. Unfortunately this can often lead to aggregation rather than differentiation, even for the best designers among us.

I am gathering a group of local permaculture and landscape designers whom I trust to continue a conversation on permaculture design based initially on your’s and Alexander’s articles. I believe that it is critically important that permacuture designs become beautiful. I agree with Toby Hemenway in that we are a young discipline, and that it will take time and the evolution of our teaching in making permaculture design beautiful, inspiring, and to borrow Alexander’s word from “A Timeless Way of Building,” alive.

From a comment by Benjamin Taylor:

…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 simpler 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?

Neutral – “This is interesting but I’m not sure there is really an issue here”

Maybe 20% of the feedback and reactions we’ve had have been along these lines. Here are some examples:

Australian permaculture elder and distinguished permaculture designer Robyn Francis:

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.

From a (September, 2016) email correspondence with renowned permaculture elder and educator Rosemary Morrow:

I am very interested in your thinking.  I am not at all sure that the two approaches don’t end up with the same result.

We also acknowledge this interesting response by Anthony Briggs, where he argues that the element-assembly and pattern-to-details approaches both have their merits and it would be a mistake to exclude either form your toolbox.

Dismissive – “This whole inquiry is deluded / flawed”

Although rare (less than 5% – just one person that we know of so far) an interesting reaction is that of dismissing the premise/worth of the whole inquiry.

Peter Light published a rebuttal to this post in the November 2016 edition of Permaculture Design Magazine entitled No Challenge,2 where he concluded:

…I find no difference in permaculture’s approach to design and Christopher Alexander’s, and conclude that any imagined differences have arisen because of an incomplete and imprecise reading of both; a failure to make distinctions between different uses of the word “whole” and different stages of the design process; a lack of differentiation between components every time they are mentioned; a false understanding of how permaculture design starts; and a confusion between the process and the finished product.

Though we were rather astonished to find someone who has read both permaculture and Alexander saying in print that “I find no difference in permaculture’s approach to design and Christopher Alexander’s…” we were most grateful for Peter taking the time to articulate and share his thoughts and getting his thinking out on the table.3 In particular, Peter stresses the lack of a clean-cut split between…

…two separate stages of design work: the on-ground implementation of a design, in the first case; and the formulation of a design in head and on paper, in the second case.

…as a fatal flaw in our analysis. Ironically, our next inquiry circuit will target this very assumption that design (“in head and on paper”) and implementation (“on-ground”) are separate things as itself a flawed or weak link to be strengthened.

In any case, we thank Peter and all commentators for taking the time to get involved in this conversation. Whether the ultimate response to such exercises in internal self-reflection and constructive self-criticism is to:

  • increase one’s faith in current understandings of permaculture design (possibly becoming clearer about those understandings in the process)


  • to prompt the evolution and strengthening of these understandings

Then as far as we’re concerned the exercise is well worth while.


Though it is time to wrap this inquiry up and move right on along, we have thoroughly enjoyed the process, have learned a lot along the way, and have come out of it with a transformed understanding of design process that we’re finding incredibly helpful in our own design practice.

All in all, we have accepted (both intellectually and in practically applying) Christopher Alexander’s proposal that to generate nature-mimicking systems we must first mimic the processes nature uses to generate those systems. Specifically, Alexander has claimed that the progressive, sequential differentiation of a pre-existing whole is one key aspect of such processes, where the whole and its parts dance forward together and each step adaptively enhances and grows out of what is already there.

This is not necessarily to deny the utility of the conventional permaculture emphasis on design as a process of assembling parts. But it is to expose this emphasis as problematically partial and limiting, especially when we come to try and talk about, write or teach what is actually happening inside sound permaculture design process.4

Our inquiry has validated the substance of Alexander’s challenge, culminating in the detailed, step-by-step documentation of two real, successful design processes explicitly guided by a differentiating process.

At the very least, emphasising nature-mimicking design as (primarily) a differentiating process:

  • Is a literal description of an important part of what is happening inside nature’s self-creation processes  and hence any nature-mimicking design processes
  • Makes it much harder if not impossible to impose ideas (be they herb spirals, swales, or whatever) from outside (a widely acknowledged and chronic issue in much permaculture design and implementation projects)
  • Is highly relevant to an energy-descent future, where due to energy constraints, we will be forced to move away from a “create a blank slate then add parts” mentality back to differentiating, reconfiguring, transforming the already existing whole-and-its-parts.5
  • In our experience / experiments, supports a smooth, easily sharable process generating design configurations highly attuned and adapted to people and place.

Let us close by stressing that this has been an inquiry toward improved accuracy in our descriptions of what we do when we do permaculture design well. Take it home one more time Toby Hemenway:

The issue is mostly that our language has not caught up to our practice…

…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.

On that note, we thank you for coming along on the ride with us (including those of you just quietly reading without commenting). A happy new year to you, and if you’re inclined to stay tuned we look forward to taking making permaculture stronger forward into fresh territory come 2017.

  1. See here for more of a breakdown of this approach
  2. Unfortunately we only learned about this after the fact so didn’t have the chance to acknowledge Peter’s efforts and reply at the time
  3. We have asked Peter for permission to republish his entire comment here, and will do so if we receive it – his article includes an eloquent and helpful description of permaculture design process.
  4. You can check out a more recent update in our thinking about the differentiation-assembly distinction here.
  5. Thanks to David Holmgren for sharing this insight in a personal conversation (November, 2016)

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