David Holmgren’s Journey with Permaculture Design Process – Part Two (e54)

Welcome back to Part Two of a conversation with permaculture co-originator David Holmgren. In which David continues sharing significant milestones from his many decades as a practicing permaculture designer.

Thanks to this project’s wonderful patrons, I was once again able to have the audio professionally transcribed. The text below then received significant edits for clarity from patron Jon Buttery (thanks Jon!), myself, and most importantly David. Thanks also to David for kindly sharing relevant photos that help bring the text to life.

Don’t miss Part One if you haven’t yet heard/read it, and given the quality of thinking David shares in this continuation, I hope you’ll leave a comment. I anticipate a follow up conversation with David exploring questions and reflections from your comments, so please make the most of the opportunity.

Finally, given this conversation again touches on the core skill of reading landscape, please check out and consider supporting the documentary film David, myself, and videographer Dave Meagher are currently endeavouring to bring into the world.

Starting Holmgren Design Services

Dan Palmer: All right. Well, here I am for the continuation of the discussion we started earlier. After a bit of a break, must have been, I don’t know, six weeks or something.   

David Holmgren: Yeah. It’s been a busy time. 

Dan Palmer: I’ll say! – a busy and very interesting time. It turned out the first recording was about an hour, and we got to the point where you’d started Holmgren Design Services, so that seems like a great place to start. You’d told us a lot about the project at your mother’s place in New South Wales and the learning you’d been doing from Hakai Tane about strategic planning, and then shrinking that down to apply to a site level. It’d be awesome to hear about the experience of moving into the space of permaculture design consultancy.   

David Holmgren:  In 1983 I started a business and registered a business name. There were lot of things that were going on in my life, which I can also correlate with things that were happening in the wider world: that led me to getting serious earning a living, personal relationships, and also living in the city. The consultancy work I did, was primarily advising and designing for people who were moving onto rural properties; what these days people call a ‘tree-change’.  

Consulting on a Central Victorian property in 2020 (as part of the Reading Landscape film project)

That work fell into sort of two broad types. One-day verbal onsite advisory, walking around the property and suggesting things with clients. Then there was a more limited number of clients where I was providing reports and plans that gave me the opportunity to reflect. There were a lot of constraints on how to make a viable business in that, especially if your work wasn’t focused on affluent people, but instead empowering people who were going to get out and do these things themselves, often starting from scratch, and often making big mistakes. My advice and design drew on a combination of my own experience as well as observing how others had tackled the back to land process over the previous decade. By then I also had a very strong commitment to Victoria and South Eastern Australia of landscapes and ecologies and design issues that I was familiar with in that territory.  

Dan Palmer: Was that where all or the majority of your professional work happened?   

David Holmgren: Yeah, it was. There was occasional work further-afield – certainly into the dry Mediterranean country in South Australia and into New South Wales, Sydney region, but most of it was in Victoria. 

Dan Palmer: Permaculture was a new thing so in a sense you were defining the industry or making it up as you went along.  

David Holmgren: Yeah. It was also a time of very strong backlash against alternative ideas. When I set up the business, I had mixed feelings about whether I would describe what I was doing as permaculture both from a strategic “How do I project this as a viable business?” and my own criticisms of what I’d seen in the movement. Some of those criticisms were around design process, some of it around ideology, but I still felt permaculture was the best framework for describing what I was doing.  Beyond people building a house, the most important things that new settlers did in starting on a fresh site were usually earthworks, and in Southern Australia, that almost always involved dams for water storage, issues of bushfire resistant design, where to put orchards, where to put gardens, what to do with larger areas of native bush, what to do about wildlife grazing – so many new issues for people coming from the city, often with some gardening experience but then moving out onto a larger landscape. The work involved an educative coach relationship, but having to do that within, at the time, a budget of a few hundred dollars.   

One-Day Consultancies

Dan Palmer: So a lot of it was you’d walk in and you’d walk out within a day: can you bring to mind an example just to sort of tell us how you spent that time?   

Capturing the process of checking out a contour map before a consultancy for the Reading Landscape documentary film project

David Holmgren: Well, as that work consolidated around a Melbourne base and then a few years later moving here to Central Victoria, I firstly had built a really good understanding of the landscapes. So people would ring me up and I’d work out where their property was and I’d get out the 1:25,000 contour map and “oh yeah, it’s there. It’s on the granite country”. So then I knew what the tree species would be. There was a lot I could find out about the land through a combination of prior information and then that rapid site assessment based on the reading landscape skills that I’d focused on for more than a decade previously. In some ways more important question was “who are these people and where they’re at?” and how to get a brief that reflected what the clients were on about and what do they wanted. I used to tell people that they were their land’s greatest asset and its greatest liability to emphasise I needed really to know about them. I didn’t need to be told so much about the land. 

Sometimes it would be different, for example when I was working on a farm where people might be multi-generation on the land, because then their knowledge of place was incredibly important. But in most of the work I could quickly see in just a short visit, things that even people who’d owned the land for a year or more didn’t understand about it. So finding out where the clients were coming from, with a couple, always emphasising the importance of both parties being present. Suggesting techniques like people taking notes and recording what’s said and encouraging people to have some sort of rudimentary sketch plan even if they didn’t have a base map of what was there. It was a lot easier working on open grazing land; much more complicated when you’re dealing with an old house with farmyards and bits of paddocks and all of those overlays of past actions: much, much more complex and difficult.   

David and landowner Honor exploring an erosion gully in 2020

The ability to save people money, “yeah, this is the house site”, “yes or no to a dam there, road here, or orchard here”. I described it as helping people with the skeleton within which they might develop permaculture, that I wasn’t doing permaculture design in the landscape design sense. The degree to which I got down to specification – it was often with some critical plant infrastructure like shelter-belts and species. Sometimes a site assessment and advice carried over into supervision of earthworks because you could justify the cost when you’re spending maybe thousands of dollars in a few days with heavy machinery and especially if you’re doing house-site, road, dam, soil works like deep ripping for trees. You could justify being onsite, and do a whole lot more ad hoc design work with people as well through that process. If you had other labour onsite with doing handwork finishing up with earthworks then you could provide a lot of value to clients by multitasking. So there was at a lot of serendipitous sort of “oh well, we’ve got rock there or we can use that in this way” those things that you only necessarily discover as you start some process.  

Discerning Superficial and Deep Layers of a Site

Dan Palmer: Yeah, for sure. You know that whole approach excites me so much: when it actually starts and you’re crafting and making discoveries. Earlier when you were talking about it, it was harder when there was a lot of existing infrastructure; farmyards and old houses and stuff, so that was one of the abilities you were cultivating, the ability to sort of mentally delete superficial or things that could shift? 

David Holmgren: Yeah. That balance with what is worth saving, what is needed for frugality in energy and materials conservation, and respect for what exists because anything that exists has some value, and yet not being boxed in where “that’s where the fences are – they’re maybe rooms in the landscape”, but not necessarily. One of the things I used to say to people is that it’s fine to leave a fence in the landscape that’s in the wrong position, if it’s a decent fence for the time being, but to plant rows of trees along it would lock it into the landscape for maybe 100 years. So that dance of how much you work around those things, how much you can see what is underneath, independent of the things that have been overlaid.   

So I spent quite a lot of energy, I suppose, ignoring the things that have been put on the landscape. But I remember a particular consultancy on a 10-acre property on the slopes of Mount Buninyong in Ballarat. This was at the time that I was also doing broadacre research that led to Trees on the Treeless Plains in the mid-‘80s, and this property was basically two square paddocks surrounded by stone walls on steep slopes. Being on steep slopes you’re just automatically looking at everything in terms of contours, but there were these stonewalls that were 120 years old or so and the top paddock had been ploughed in the past up and down the slope for potato growing . The soil had moved and filled to the top of the stonewall, so there was a terrace across the land. Then there were Blackwoods growing out of these stone walls that might have been 50 years old. Here I am trying to impose my contour pattern and it was there that I realised “oh no, this like an old English field landscape with square drains”, what people have done on the land in recent times is so changed and embedded in it, that it’s actually…that rectilinear pattern, we should work with in this case”. 

Once I did that everything just fell into place.  A lot of the things that we are so committed to , like ‘working with water on the contour,’ didn’t necessarily apply on soils so permeable to water and resistant to erosion. There was nowhere to put dams but the deep free draining soil was perfect for deep rooted unirrigated trees. It was an example of that more unusual sites where what people have done since white settlement has actually not just degraded the land but has added something in the land of enduring value. Of course we can see lots of places where there’s a middle path, where we are saying “no, that’s really, that’s an asset, that’s a beautiful thing that can be incorporated”. 

Being dismissive of the past was something I noticed, new owners often do. People often fall in love with a place and then especially if it’s a place with a house and assets, and then they start being really disparaging about what previous owners. “We’ve got to change or…” 

Dan Palmer: “We’ve got to put our stamp on this place.” 

David Holmgren: Yeah.

Using the Land Systems Approach

David Holmgren: With those brief onsite advisory visits I developed the ability to at least mentally use the land systems stuff I’d learnt from Hakai Tane. But it was mostly when doing reports for larger farms where that came the fore; actually mapping the land to see how we could work with those patterns in a context of mostly grazing land use and where we are going to be adding trees into that landscape.

Dan Palmer: I remember walking – I think it was Yandoit farm – and you were explaining that a little, some of the different factors that you’d used to distinguish different land units. 

David Holmgren: Yeah. It’s a subtle thing and in some ways it’s an art. It is sometimes possible to say “okay, this is that land type, that’s recognised in the mapping databases”. It can sometimes be a relatively simple distinction (between say poorly drained and well drained land). But sometimes, yes, like Yandoit farm, the patterns are quite complex and they don’t just reflect contours. It’s the geology and movement of water through the underlying landscape. The hidden things that are shaping it as much as the surface form.

Trees on the Treeless Plains

David Holmgren: I mentioned the work with Trees on the Treeless Plains which was initially a consultancy for Project BranchOut, an NGO that was the precursor to the Landcare groups in Central Victoria; in fact one of the origin points of the Australian Landcare movement. 

I had this consultancy to look at re-vegetation strategies on the volcanic landscapes which are the most intensively farmed, mostly treeless, highest value agricultural land in Central Victoria. In the process of that research I went down every road you could drive down on the volcanic landscapes and went through a whole new phase of reading the landscape and up-skilling in being able to identify over 100 species of planted trees in the landscape.  I used those observations to inform template designs for different landforms and different farm situations that involve tree fodder systems, shelterbelt design, farm forestry. This became the design manual Trees on the Treeless Plains, which was initially 100 copies made as part of the consultancy process for distribution to local landcare groups and then later in ‘90s we published it as a sort of permaculture design manual in disguise. 

Shelterbelt planted 1988 by Bruce Valance as part of the Project Branchout Bicentential Revegetation Project in the Captains Ck catchment Blampeid Central Vic

Dan Palmer: Yeah, great book. One that, as far as I know, is underappreciated. 

David Holmgren: Yeah. Well, of course it was part of what we were doing also with publishing of case studies rather than books about permaculture in general.  Of course there’s a dearth of case study design because, there’s only a limited number of potential buyers who’ll think it’s relevant to them. But TOTP did throw me back into a greater amount of work with conventional farmers and in that context I was the tree guy, designing tree systems rather than it being identified as the co-originator of permaculture. But of course I was always bringing that permaculture design lens to the farm revegetation context. 

Maps and Disconnection from Land

Dan Palmer: I also remember when you looked at the contour map before walking around Yandoit Farm, just looking at the contour map – it was a simple example of that prior work with reading landscape. You could tell from the contours what the geology was and if it drops off that steeply and that pattern after the flat, it’s basalt and so on. And it seems like a lot of the value you were able to offer in these shorter consults as well as the whole farm stuff, was things you learned because of that past experience were no brainers. You could see instantly and say “well, a dam won’t hold water there, it has to be somewhere over here.” I remember Mollison once talking about how he would drive down someone’s driveway and by the time he arrived at the house he had a whole lot of clarity around suggestions.  

David Holmgren: Yeah. A lot of what I could offer was because clients were so disconnected from land. It was different when people had a long familiarity with place and especially if that was multigenerational.  Then different sort of cultural issues that are more to the fore. “Oh yeah, down that paddock, along that fence line, you’re into real wet pug there but up here a tractor would never get bogged in the winter”. So you’ve got knowledge that would take me some time going out and looking at that landscape in detail, walking it. Someone’s got that whole pattern of knowledge deeply embedded. So those are quite sort of different situations and what you can offer in those situations is different.   

Specialisation

David Holmgren: So there is a degree of specialisation there – my specialisation was really in tree systems and in earthworks design. Whereas on a lot of small rural properties, it was interesting that after building a house, the most complex project people would attempt is setting up an irrigation system and there wasn’t really a trade that did that. You had plumbers at one end of the spectrum and then you had irrigation engineers and there was no one who designed and built small property irrigation systems and they can be quite technically complicated. So that was another area that I moved into because there was no one doing that. In the same way that when I set up Holmgren Design, I decided I wasn’t going to do house design, even though I was as much an ecological builder as an ecological farmer. In fact, I’d already at that stage had worked on building projects and designed and built a passive solar house on the South Coast of New South Wales.   

Developing Melliodora

David, Oliver and Friend in early days of Melliodora house build

Then in those early years, of course we were developing Melliodora after buying the land in ’85. And so it was was really that biggest application of property design and implementation, building on what we’d done with my mother’s rural property – now in a much more compact context on a one-hectare property. Again, earthworks, reuse and movement of soil, house design, irrigation systems, tree systems, all of the interlocked critical paths became the focus of my design process. The greatest amount of design work I did on any project is really Melliodora and I always saw it as being an demonstration of my design work. I didn’t want to be one of those architects who lived in a heritage house rather than a house that they had designed. But I used to say to people “I can help you with the skeleton framework within which you might develop permaculture but I can’t do what we have done here because you could never afford it (the time and the continuous engagement that was possible here)”.

 

Dan Palmer: I guess not to mention that to take what you’ve done here and give it to someone else is not going to be the greatest fit. All those details really have to come out of individual engagement and reflect the people and the place and all the particular aspects of it. 

David Holmgren: But there was in doing things here: a lot at the beginning was actually applying what I was doing professionally and using it. Here we had detailed contour information because the whole town had just been sewered and so there were publicly available mapping systems. And I was able to do a lot of stuff on paper in great detail to the confusion of the local earthmoving contractor who’d never looked at a contour plan. But also having that ability to, and that need to, throw the plan away (not literally) but discovering “ah, there is reef rock” that we assumed a D7 bulldozer can move, “oh no, it can’t”, “oh does that mean a 20-ton excavator with a jackhammer or do we actually change the design?”. And that was a creative sort of response to the situation that I was prepared to do, in spite of having done very, very detailed work in that way. So it was also that further training, like doing small boreholes to see actually what the full profile is before the bulldozer comes and digs the dam. So I was still in that process of learning and gaining that expertise, that I was then applying further afield. 

Sharing the Melliodora story on an Advanced Design course

Design and Implementation with the Commonground Community

Dan Palmer: So you started Holmgren Design Services, you were doing advisory and design work for others and then you started Melliodora and continued to consult as well. 

David Holmgren: Yes. And the key project that I did immediately after doing the earthworks in ’86 here at Melliodora was the Commonground community, which was over at Seymour on very fragile erosion-prone landscapes. I can remember, not quite reading them the Riot Act, but explaining that what they were doing, (in building this large community with a lot of people who would come with vehicles and all these buildings), was a massive impact on a landscape that had only ever had a few sheep walk across it. The landscape actually had tunnel erosion on it, just from cycles of overgrazing and rapid populations, and what we were going to do with earthworks and all of the use and intensity was a massively greater impact. Just because they had environmental sensibilities didn’t by itself ameliorate those impacts. Another learning at Commonground was working with many machines simultaneously and having to gain the respect of old-timer rural contractors and “who’s the young upstart from the city who has designed this, he’s not even an engineer”.

Commonground dam, gardens and main building (Wedge) 2008 major design project 1985-88

That was a key project, a milestone for me.  It involved working with an architect,  in a sort of a group design process and construction. The project was large enough to allow me to be to be there physically doing soil raking, directing other people, thinking further about the design. Consulting with the machine operators and creatively responding. For example building a major dam spillway and discovering a massive gravel deposit that we then harvested with elevating scrapers to provide the road material for what’s been a major access road in through that property that has had so much traffic over all those years since. So I think that was really a special project too because there were many different people involved in that community over the years who brought different skillsets and experiences, all building on the foundations we laid in those early years.

Epiphanies and Surprises

Dan Palmer: I’m curious: you’ve explained that for a long time you had already had a distaste of any rigid split between designing and implementing, and you’d learned the strategic planning with Hakai. So from when you started designing professionally, what changed or what did you learn over time? Like, part of what I’m hearing is that you were able to take on more and more complex projects but was there any kind of breakthroughs? I’m not getting that so far, it was more of a gaining more skill and mastery in the same kind of basic process approach or were there chapters or evolutions or epiphanies along the way? 

David Holmgren: Well, certainly that property at Mount Buninyong that I’ve described was one of those that “I can accept what’s been done on the land”. There were urban projects as well. But there was, a developing conservatism in what I was prepared to recommend, recognising that there’s a difference between being an innovator-experimenter, especially in fields like tree-crop systems and aquaculture, for which there wasn’t established standard practice. So being more cautious about what one would recommend people do was part of the the learnings.  But there was also being surprised in what some clients managed to achieve.  I had a case here in the local area of doing a one-day advisory and I looked at this property and I said, “There are so many dam sites on this property. It could be this amazing aquaculture system of all these dams down this valley and this could go here”. I thought “oh yeah another couple of people from the city.” That couple actually implemented all of those ideas and beyond, and it became very significant in our local community here, running a permaculture nursery for many years, called Forever Growing.

Forever Growing Glenlyon  early years 1997

They became leading figures in spreading permaculture and their place was quite extraordinary. So a case of underestimating what human potential or commitment or interests can do as well, so that there needed to a balance both ways between humility and low expectations on the one hand and an openness to unseen potential.   

How Much Design Work?

Dan Palmer: So during this period of working in professional design – and I take it that over time your focus has moved slowly more and more to publishing and speaking education, but during that period how much design work were you doing? Was it full-time?  

David Holmgren: Yeah. It was only equivalent of a one-third time job. In the early years, there was pretty much a three-way split in what one would consider a working life, between doing things ourselves primarily here at Melliodora, me as gardener, builder (the household economy which involved design constantly, but that wasn’t professional or for money. And that one-third of my time was writing, speaking, teaching, and contributing to the emerging permaculture movement and voluntary work, a lot of which didn’t involve design quite so much. Some of that did, but it was certainly not paid. And yeah, one-third was actually professional work and most of that was design work. So that meant I didn’t do a huge number of consultancies, and especially the ones that involved extensive reports and plans were often just a few a year.   

Dan Palmer: So over the time you might have done what? What’s the ballpark? 50, 70, 100?   

David Holmgren: Good question, because a lot of those onsite advisory ones, I don’t have documentation – they’re just a sheet in a file and some notes or something. Yeah, I haven’t looked at that but it probably only would’ve been 30 of those a year at the peak. There were larger consultancy projects including at Ceres City Farm in the late ‘80s, a 10-year strategy plan.  And then in the ‘90s, a sort of retrofit of animal systems at the long-established Collingwood Children’s Farm.  There were consultancies for Catchment Authorities and things that mostly built on the Trees on the Treeless Plains work. 

Teaching Permaculture Design

David Holmgren: Then, in the late ‘80s, I was doing a little bit more teaching about permaculture and of course I was getting understandings of how permaculture design was being taught in permaculture design courses.   

My observation of that, was of people drawing from what they’d learnt from Mollison. Remembering that I didn’t think he was so much a designer, more an ecologist, though he articulated, especially in the Designer’s Manual, quite a lot of interesting concepts around design and design process. But there certainly wasn’t a clear design process in permaculture teaching. Many teachers were drawing on landscape design, architecture – to a very limited extent planning, but mostly landscape architecture an gardening design methods together with permaculture ideas. In 1990, I think it was, I agreed to contribute, for the first time, in teaching on a Permaculture Design Course. This was the start of that journey of discovering the lineage of that first decade of design course teaching. I taught with some of the more experienced permaculture teachers and saw how people were teaching permaculture ethics and design principles and process .   

Teaching Keyline and Natural Sequence on Food Forest PDC 2006

That work on ethics and design principles work eventually led to the book Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability a decade later, but I knew there was this huge jump between fundamental design principles and design process. I felt I had a stab at trying to teach that on permaculture design courses in the ‘90s, especially ones that we ran. But some people’s reaction to that, was that what I was teaching was advanced permaculture design. The main distinction I was trying to introduce apart from the land system stuff for understand the underlying patterns of the land, was the difference between the methods that are appropriate to large scale Landscape design versus Site design. I was characterising what people were learning as permaculture design as Site Design, in the sense that architects and landscape architects thought about it in some limited context – the place where one is putting a building and the influences that are affecting that spot. Whereas once you looked at broadacre farms or intentional community design, that is across landscape, those Site design methodologies broke down. They had real limitations.   

I was trying to introduce landscape design and site design as different design methods.  Of course, a lot of the work I’ve done as a consultant actually informed how to do those site design processes and recognising the process by which, “what comes before what?” and what has to all be done simultaneously and then what can fall out from that process and be left till later. So I was introducing a lot of the learnings I had from the process of doing professional design. But I was also at the same time on permaculture design courses de-emphasising the vaguely ridiculous idea, that these courses were a training for people to be professional designers. Instead I was suggesting that design is a literacy that we use in our lives. So whether that’s designing your own garden or reviewing your living circumstances and working out how maybe things can be rearranged or change direction in some way, and being able to use design thinking in that way. So a lot of that was sort of stepping back and looking at it in more fundamental design principles, rather than “here, we’re going to design landscapes for people”.   

Dan Palmer: Did your work impact other teachers? Do you feel that made any kind of difference to what you’d seen previously and some of your concerns with what was being taught as design process on PDCs?   

Reading Landscape tour Rockingham 2016 – taken by Oliver Holmgren

David Holmgren: Yeah. I think it did with the people I worked with, but again like consultancy I was into fairly “slow and small” solutions. We didn’t do massive numbers of those courses. In the ‘90s we did one a year and we developed a team that we were working with. But I think a lot of that influence really didn’t come about till after publication of Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability and also doing a lot more teaching both around Australia and internationally. So it was really a slow feed-in and small influences.   

Dan Palmer: You were saying with the design principles, with which you have had a massive impact on permaculture as a whole around the world, that they were a kind of stepping back from how you might go “what process you might use to design this particular place.” Do you have a perspective on how that gap is being bridged? Are people taking the principles and able to kind of translate those into different contexts from designing your own backyard to designing your life to …? 

Fryer’s Forest Ecovillage

David Holmgren: Yes, well I think that’s a very important story of how that has emerged more recently and I could talk further about that, but there was, for me, a major step in between. What also was happening in the ‘90s was the development of the Fryers Forest eco-village and that was again design and implementation but in the role of being a developer and project management and bringing together all of those skills that I’d developed, but also working in a team of people. So that really in some ways brought me face to face with all of the regulatory structures in a more detailed way that I’d avoided like the plague through most of my design work, because I really wanted to work in that free creative area of the things that didn’t require regulation. To some extent, it’s one of the reasons I also got out of design work, because a lot of those things like earthworks, dams, and everything have become much more regulated. 

I can remember the time when The Day Dam, a one megalitre dam built with a D7 bulldozer and cost $1,000 to build, turned into a $2,000 dam because it now needed an engineer to sign off on a whole lot of very basic paperwork, and that doubled the cost of building those dams. The ways in which regulatory structures work both to keep minimum standards at some sort of reasonable level, but also chop off all of the creativity that can happen in any field, certainly in architecture and landscape design. Farming was one of the areas where there was still until recently an enormous amount of freedom, both for better or worse for farmers to do whatever they want with the land. So that was sort of a creative free space. But in developing an eco-village with planning approval and all of those sorts of things, that became a much bigger part of what I was doing. But it was also the opportunity to see how the passions about sustainable forestry worked, in a design sense and a community engagement sense, and how people would learn and adopt some aspects that might be beyond what they were familiar with.   

This issue I spoke of previously, whether you can actually raise some design idea that people might think is a great idea but they actually don’t know anything about it – and the chances of that becoming a reality are often very, very low. In some ways I used to say that as a professional consultant, all you can do for clients is confirm something that they might already half-know themselves. If you’re trying to introduce something that is completely foreign, it’s almost certainly not going to work. 

Design Principles and Design Process in a Time of Crisis

I suppose in going back to design principles, I was really stepping back from that process of ‘what we’re doing’ to ‘why are we doing it’ and asking the more fundamental questions of why: the issues of diversity, why are small and slow solutions generally better than big and fast ones, and why do we need to be so obsessed with creating storages in the landscapes; storages of water, storages of biomass, rather than things just relying on throughput. Looking at those basic system design principles that we could see in natural systems, and we could see underpinned all traditional cultures of place in the use of land resources, but were contradicted in the modern industrial world. I saw a lot of people going about things quite creatively and exploring all sorts of ideas and even using quite creative design methods, but those deeper questions seemed to me more fundamental building blocks. Of course, the deepest ones of all are the ethical foundations. I really focused on that a lot but was intensely aware that those principles inevitably are abstractions, just generalisations, and they don’t tell you much about how do we get to that holy grail of some desirable outcome. But I certainly saw I couldn’t tackle all those things simultaneously.   

Holmgren’s 12 Design Principles

Dan Palmer: Yeah. Yeah. And do you see that as a gap that’s yet to be filled or …?   

David Holmgren: I think that’s a process that’s still emerging in different ways and I would definitely see your own work with Making Permaculture Stronger as a major contribution in that direction. I think there are many factors that work to drive us in two different directions simultaneously. One is: “why are we here?”, what are the really fundamental questions of going back to the basics and focusing on that. The other, with chaotic rapid unfolding change of circumstances, almost a sense of appearing to abrogate design or planning or any forethought and just responding to what’s coming over the hill at us. So we’re sort of pulled in a sense away from that solid space of some confident thinking ahead, planning ahead, knowing what’s going to happen and that does make it difficult to grasp for a lot of people, how design applies. 

Dan Palmer: Such a fundamental issue. It’s something I scratch my head over a lot as things get more uncertain. We’re in a position now with COVID and everything where the buffer we have as a culture is pretty thin right now. So should another shock come down the line… We’re in a position where I don’t know if the ideal is that we’d have a deep enough working literacy of design principles and processes, so that we could ramp it up and default to that when shit gets crazy. As opposed to what probably will happen, or is happening, which is people are just going to reach into the grab bag and “oh, we’ll try this solution, we’ll try this solution, we’ll try this solution”.   

Retrosuburbia and Continuous Incremental Design

David Holmgren: Yeah. I think that’s exemplified to some extent by the shift after the involvement with Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability and the teaching that came out of that. The lineage of work that lead to RetroSuburbia, recognising that humanity was rolling into multiple civilisational-scale crises. The most notable that people can understand is climate change, but resource depletion and all of the other ones that are linked to all of these issues, including of course pandemics and financial system instabilities and breakdown, and many, many others. As these processes unfold it was really clear to me even in the ‘90s when I was teaching on design courses, that how we retrofit and adapt where people already live is going to be far more important than building new state-of-the-art eco-villages or creating the world anew: whether that’s grand visions of gleaming green cities or the landscape reformed, it’s no longer just pastoral landscapes, it’s all of these amazing permaculture systems.   

No, no, that’s not going to happen directly in that way – because those processes to the extent they will happen will be happening in a context of chaotic, if not collapse, breakdown and change of systems that we’ve directly or indirectly relied on. So that adaption in situ and retrofitting what we already have was clearly more important in a strategic sense and also of what is realistic for people to do and what is effective. Because most Australians live in the suburbs, retrofitting those suburbs was a priority. So that notion of moving from clean slate design to every site has a history, every site has something there, and recognising the good and the bad and the complex layers of that – where we are just a participant,  tweaking or adding to what already exists; that shift in thinking was also strategic – in the sense of it bypassed a lot of the regulatory impediments because it’s not big new developments. So sometimes it can be done under the radar and the consequences of mistakes are far less than in grand projects.   

The grand projects, yes, they can achieve great things that it’s hard to replicate in other contexts, but they also are where the big mistakes happen. I think that was part of my strategic thinking of how to deal with ongoing design in a context of crisis and chaotic change. Then, the emphasis in RetroSuburbia on three fields of action: the Built, the Biological, and the Behavioural, recognising that there’s limitations to changing biological systems; you can’t fast-track the growing seasons. And the built environment; well, we might not have the wealth or the capacity to knock it down and start again. Those limitations don’t apply to behavioural systems and this contradiction between “is people’s behaviour individually and collectively, the hardest thing to change?” or is it the easiest thing to change? It’s of course, both but increasingly moving to recognition that we can change the world mostly by changing ourselves, because that’s the most flexible system.   

It’s wrong to project that sort of view of change, adaptation, and design for, say people living on the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh relying on what they can produce on the farm and remittances from family working in the Middle East, to say “you need to be more creative or change your behaviour”. Whereas in affluent Western countries there’s so much fat in the system, there’s so many opportunities for that creative adaption, that a lot of my focus of design has moved back into the people side of things and how we facilitate that in a context of rapid and unpredictable change. 

Dan Palmer: Yeah. Reminds of our mutual colleague Joel Meadows’ refrain about how often we default to a green solution or we design a better house or get more solar panels, when so much of this is around human behaviour and management and the huge scope there to massively reduce consumption and that side of it. 

David Holmgren: Yeah. If you can take behaviour out of the good/bad model judgment of right/wrong, and see it as a design problem and be able to stand back and look at one’s situation and treat inappropriate behaviours as a worn-out pair of shoes, or shoes that no longer fit, or were badly designed – that we can get another behaviour that fits the situation. In that sense, I think design thinking can help so much in breaking down a lot of those moral, emotional blocking points that happen when we try and look at behavioural change. 

Dan Palmer: I honestly hadn’t appreciated the strategic brilliance of the approach in RetroSuburbia. How it’s landed for me now – it’s supporting people to get things happening in the context where they need to do something, and along the way discerning these different fields of the built, biological & behavioural. Because they are retrofitting what’s already there, like you’re saying, it reduces the scope for huge mistakes. It also forces you to pay attention to what’s already there because it’s there and you’re changing it. It avoids regulatory issues and as you start to move along, you are in a design process. So it’s almost like…   

David Holmgren: continuous design…. 

Dan Palmer: Yeah. By its very nature, it’s a healthy process that’s not a linear, copied and pasted from landscape architecture approach. It’s like a brilliant doorway into the space of that widespread design literacy as a core capacity that you talk about. 

David Holmgren: I think it also helps deal with one of the problems of copying. As we know, every design situation is different and requires a response to that situation. But the template and pattern of suburbia across whole suburbs and landscapes, and especially where there’s similar street layout and houses of similar age, there is that simpler act by which people do things; “oh look, they did that there, we can copy that”. And there’s more chance in those landscapes of that copying actually working whereas in a lot of rural contexts and a lot of more complex organisational contexts, it’s very hard for those copies to work. We recognise that a lot of people do things that way, and we all know as designers, that that’s not necessarily the best, and the idea of how can we uniquely respond to a situation is important, but people are into the baby steps of design. If we recognise design is a human literacy that potentially represents some degree of evolutionary transformation, at least at the scale of literacy and numeracy. Then that original vision I had in Environmental Design school, that our role is, not as expert designers, but people a little bit further down the track, to enable everyone to see themselves as designers and to find that power in the process, which is still I think, a struggle for so many people.   

Intuitive Design, Emergent Design, and Working with What’s There

Dan Palmer: Yeah. It is exciting. I’ve mentioned to you I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Carol Sanford lately, and I’d already sort of shifted from me being a design expert to me being a design process facilitator. With some of the stuff I’ve been learning from her, I’m moving from facilitation to being an educator and being a resource, like returning people back to their own lives and their own situations as a source of developing design process literacy.   

David Holmgren: Yeah. I think there are obviously so many sources that need to be brought in, and recognising the influences of those, to contribute to permaculture design. It’s interesting, with your recognition of the role of Christopher Alexander. For me, RetroSuburbia was written as a pattern language, or a series of stepping stone towards a pattern language, of Retrosuburbia, where we can see those recurring solutions to recurring tensions or dilemmas that are faced. I think many different ideas around the process of design can contribute to the strengths of permaculture. But for myself, in the work on this property at Melliodora, I’m also being drawn back into a direct intuitive process, where I’m wandering in the landscape and inspired to do something. Sometimes, things have actually been effectively emerging for years if not decades, and then suddenly I just act. 

I’ve just had that experience in the last two days, working building leaky weirs in our public stream-course with a 60-hectare catchment behind it; a creek that’s had (in 2010 towards 100,000 tons of water come through it in 48 hours). Physically building something with my hands, from what’s in the place, that needs to survive that sort of force and power, and achieve things, in relation to a progressively drying climate, of rehydrating the landscape. So that process for me has involved more and more working with the absolute unique things that are in that place and where things lie and how they might be adjusted. That have also involved the social crossover with neighbours and talking to them about what they’re doing on their land, and literally resources, trees that need to come down for house construction that might become the bridge that they’ll be able to walk over across the creek. This sort of emergent serendipity that doesn’t really look like design at all and I think that is an interesting process. To some degree, it’s the freedom to play rather than work, but the degree to which that is a product of being a constant designer, rather than just running around randomly doing things that have completely unthought-out consequences. 

Dan Palmer: Yeah, that’s right. It’s such an interesting one. I’ve made that distinction between a generative process, generatively transforming spaces, vs winging it with random haphazard things. Sometimes people can get a bit fuzzy on the distinction, but it’s amazing to learn of your journey and there were times when the processes, you could describe them as more kind of rational and hard and get the design right first, to something that’s a lot softer and more intuitive and emergent and consultative or integrative in terms of the community. But of course, it’s not like that’s the antithesis of a more structured approach. It benefits from it.   

David Holmgren: Yeah. I mean, I do go back to that statement that’s attributed to Eisenhower about planning being essential but plans are useless. And I think that’s nice because it comes from someone who is so hard-nosed – out of the military – and constantly toying with the work to understand and have vision to see what is not, to imagine and the force to be able to project and direct that and at the same time being open and vulnerable and participating as just a participant in a process. Where of course those things appear to be complete contradictions of one another and maybe that’s why the dance of design is so difficult in some ways because it plays with all of those.   

Closing Reflections

Dan Palmer: Okay, David. Well, this has been an incredible chance to hear about your experience with permaculture design process over the decades. As we bring this to a close, it’d be wonderful to hear any closing thoughts or reflections from you. 

David Holmgren: Yeah. Well, I think, not just because we’re in a pandemic at the moment, but because it’s the culmination of expectations from the beginnings of permaculture about a world of unfolding crisis, and that is the context for design now, that the ability to imagine a place, a situation emerging to something different to what we see now, is of course fundamental to design. It’s also the source of hope, not in a naïve sense of fantasy, but without the power of imagination that depends, as Wendell Berry said, of affection for something and imagining it growing or transforming or evolving, then it’s not possible to be effective designers. Designers do require imagination and that that’s one of the greatest resources that design and especially permaculture can contribute in this time of chaotic change. And I think that can be seen in the sort of friendly adaptable achievable changes that we’ve talked about in RetroSuburbia and in my Aussie Street story of showing how this happens in my imaginary street.

David presenting Aussie St in Perth WA August 2019 (photographer Stephen Oram)

Or more dramatically in the novel that we have just published by Linda Woodrow called 470 which is a ‘cli-fi’ climate change science fiction but has permaculture all threaded through it and showing how people adapt and change what they have, when those crises hit.   

In some ways, it brings design as actually central in responding to crises rather than it being a peripheral luxury. It’s actually the great strength that we can bring to situations of unprecedented surprise. I think in small but diverse ways that’s being shown up with the pandemic too, whether that’s household changing what they do and businesses changing what they do, moving from management and focus on just repeating cycles to know “oh, we have to go back to the drawing board, we have to redesign something, we have to retrofit something”, that this is now the continuous action we’ll be engaged with and that it can be incredibly empowering. 

Dan Palmer: And you see part of permaculture’s potential as being able to resource others in terms of moving into that.   

David Holmgren: Well, I think permaculture is still one of the strongest lineages in doing that from ad hoc unfunded development projects in third world villages, where people are scratching together from what’s around that can be used for some basic function; to creatively thinking ahead thinking about other contexts. Because so much in permaculture, for so many decades, has been ignoring the current signals in the economy of how to do something that’s proper and effective and saying, “Yeah, but how will this work in a world of less? How will this work in a climate-changed world?” Without having those answers, that discipline to be always thinking about the future, always thinking about emergent possibilities both good and bad or however we characterise them. I think permaculture can contribute a great deal to that process.   

Dan Palmer: Beautiful. David Holmgren, thank you very much.   

David Holmgren: You’re welcome.

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