Nested Communities of Permaculture Design (E32)

Here we are. Hovering on the cusp of Phase Two of this project. Toward the end of 2019, we set the scene by way of chopping down a certain tree. We then disappeared for a while.1 We took a breath. We pondered. We came back. It is time to start navigating the path ahead, starting right here, right now.

Before we take an actual step, however, let us metamorphose into birds and catch an updraft to consider relevant patterns from up high. In other words, we’ll zoom out to get a sense of some of the things we’d like to make true of our subsequent steps forward.

Toward this end, I ask you to bear with me as I explore a fresh framework for thinking about different ways of relating to permaculture as design.

This arose after a previous framework led me to the question of “what is a community of practice, anyway?” Looking up that phrase led me first to the distinction between a community of practice and a community of interest and second to the related notion of a community of inquiry. Together, these three then came together in my mind to generate a further framework.2

Communities of Interest, Practice and Inquiry

There is a group of folk in the world that are interested in permaculture design.

Within this group there are folk who are not only interested in but who practice permaculture design.

Within this practicing group there are in turn folk who consciously inquire into permaculture design. Who do research and experiments and make the results available to other inquirers as well as those practicing without inquiring or interested without practicing.

I’m not fussed about the exact lines of differentiation between these three nested layers. The lines can remain somewhat fuzzy so long as you agree that it is possible to draw the lines.3

The point is that it is possible to be interested in permaculture design without practicing it, and it is possible to practice permaculture design without (consciously and explicitly) inquiring into the way of designing that you have learned to use and are using. None of these are good or bad, better or worse. They are options.


Let us move from the idea of groups or sets to groups that have internal connectivity, whether online, offline, or both. Here, we move from groups to communities. As I’m guessing any permaculturalist knows, communities are where it’s at.

From here on as I develop this diagram I am always talking about communities, not just sets of individuals.

I personally am part of a large community of folk interested in permaculture design, a smallish community of colleagues who go beyond interest to practice permaculture design, and a tiny community of colleagues who go beyond practice to consciously inquire into permaculture design.4

Overall Ratios, Flows, Blockages and Orbits

We can now consider the overall flows, ratios, blockages and orbits between and within the three kinds of communities. Along the way I’ll start laying out what this means for Phase Two of this project.

Flows and Ratios

The above diagrams are not to scale, and numbers of people within each of these three nested community types obviously fluctuate.

As far as flows go, the way folk become permaculture design practitioners is via interest. The way folk become researchers or inquirers, surely, is as a result of questions that arise within their practice. Where, ideally at least, the findings then move back out through the other communities, and in some cases even out into the beyond-permaculture community and culture.5 Indeed permaculture itself was birthed from a two-person community of intense interest then practice and inquiry that lasted a couple of years and catalysed huge waves of interest and in some cases practice in others.

The following diagram captures this sense of overall flows in a very simplified, limited way. The black arrows represent people transitioning into communities at each of the three levels, and the grey lines the inquirer’s findings then shared in an outward direction. Presumably more findings are shared with (and are relevant to) practitioners, some subset of these are then shared with those in communities of interest, and some further subset of these may end up being shared with the wider world (indeed some of them may end up catalysing folk to get interested in the first place).

In the inward direction, as indicated by the differing arrow sizes, more people get interested than end up practising and a similar reduction occurs as we move from practice to inquiry.

Now there are presumably some desirable ratios between the respective numbers of folk in the three levels that when departed from too much reduce the health of permaculture as a whole. Clearly at any moment there are many more people, perhaps two or three orders of magnitude more, interested in permaculture design than practicing it. Something like the same reduction probably occurs in the move from practicing to inquiring (as in inquiring and practising and interested).

My sense is that if there is not some certain minimum amount of inquiry happening that is folding back to enrich the communities of practice (and indirectly interest) that those communities are more likely to lose their way.6 And where if the amount of actual practice relative to interest is too low it becomes a situation like a pig-owners club I once read about that quietly disbanded when they discovered that not one member actually owned a pig!

Making Permaculture Stronger is not explicitly focused on increasing the numbers of people interested in permaculture design. I am glad that many people and projects are, and indeed the things I do focus on are utterly dependent on their important work. Part of this work is being in position such that when external circumstances (climate shocks, disease shocks, economic shocks, energy shocks, etc) compel more and more members of the general public to look beyond denial, despair, anger and protesting against, escapism, isolationism, survivalism etc. There permaculture awaits, offering a profoundly different way forward. A way focused on designing ourselves back into our local ecosystems and our local ecosystems back into us in a way that boosts community resilience and the health of the whole. Here, it is essential that introductory information, courses and books about permaculture are readily accessible. Indeed, if there were not already many growing communities of interest in permaculture design, this project couldn’t exist.

With reference to this new framework, I can now start honing in on what Making Permaculture Stronger is about as it moves forward. Where I’m clear a core focus is participating in and supporting the existence and health of communities of permaculture design practice and inquiry in service of permaculture’s overall health and evolution. Reflecting on this, I am particularly interested in helping to increase the practice side of the interest:practice ratio as high as it wants to go. Once practice is up in a healthy place then the same approach can be taken to upping the number of folk engaged in communities of inquiry.

Which brings us directly to certain systemic dynamics that are blocking key flows that I see as highly desirable. Namely what is happening where the question marks are in this diagram:

Blockages and Orbits

Interest to Practice

It is a lot easier to become interested in permaculture design than it is to start practicing it.

Let me back that claim up.

People regularly tell me they are interested in permaculture design but struggling to find a path from interest into practice. “Tell them to go do a PDC,” you say. Thing is, they all already have at least one PDC, sometimes several. Completing a PDC does not get you across the line. A PDC generally takes you from interested to more interested. The domain of practice still eludes you. As Jason Gerhardt put it, you get shot out of a PDC into a void as large as the whole world. As Ben Haggard put it, you leave this energy-building conversion experience to confront the sheer disjunct between the energy and approach you just experienced and the reality of your everyday life and social circles.

I attempt to catch these facts in the framework diagram by making the line between the outside world and communities of interest faint and dashed (i.e., highly permeable) and the line between interest and practice solid. Now I’ll explain the various aspects of the situation that I’ve represented in the diagram. Maybe for fun you can try and decipher yourself first?

So the thick black line is folk initially entering communities of interest in permaculture design. After cruising along and perhaps deepening their interest a little, some of them continue being interested, some of them leave to pursue the next thing that has come along (in some cases to later return), some of them do a PDC. The PDC arrow shows a deepening of interest and a bringing up against the cusp of the transition into practice. However as I shared above many people while keen to start practicing get deflected back into the orbit of interest. Some make a second or third attempt by doing a second or third PDC over time. Where of course some get through, as shown. But not that many, as best I can tell. Often those that break through are either already designers of some kind, or are hard-headed and determined enough to just keep charging at the boundary till it yields.

Anyways, supporting interested folk to start practicing permaculture design within a community of practice is henceforth a core focus of Making Permaculture Stronger. In the below diagram I show this by helping make at least a section of the boundary between the two more permeable and friendly to navigate. I have no question that this will increase the numbers of folk making it through.

I also want to be clear I hold no assumption that everyone will want in. It is totally legitimate to do a PDC then not continue to practice permaculture design. I’m talking about serving the folk that come out of a PDC wanting or called to start practicing, without any expectation of anyone else.

I also want to acknowledge the great and many permaculture inquirers out there who are already doing exactly this fine work of helping folk across the line – kudos to you, please reach out and share your learnings with me, and let’s continue to up our game together!

My currently active interventions in this space are:

  • hosting a six-weekly gathering of project supporters where we’re developing our permaculture design skills together
  • writing a book sharing the first Phase of this project in an accessible way focused on actual design practice
  • writing another book clearly showing how what I’m calling Living Design Process works on the ground

Practice to Inquiry

Another category of folk who are semi-regularly in touch have already been practicing permaculture design at a professional level for several or even five or ten years. They have made it through the membrane between interest and practice in their own unique way. However they now find themselves bumping up against certain systemic issues we’ve heard so many of my podcast guests (and myself) mention:

  • Clients not able to receive / understand designs
  • Designs getting second guessed
  • Designs never being implemented
  • Designed systems failing to co-evolve once implemented
  • General sense of disillusionment with the whole design approach they’ve been taught and are trying to make work
  • Sense that a different, better, more inclusive and successful way forward is possible, yet are unsure about how to make some of these new flavours work within their existing business or value-exchange model

One way I think about this is that it is all very well and good to make it across the line and to really truly start practising permaculture design. What we generally don’t realise until many years later is that there is this massive rut we almost inevitably fall into. It is a rut that leads to the complaints above. It is the rut of practicing permaculture design using the default design process paradigm of our wider culture. The rut is made from ideas including:

  • design is fundamentally a mechanical process of assembling elements into whole systems
  • permaculture design is a process of inserting objects into empty space
  • design is primary a noun as in a professional-looking picture that is drawn by a qualified expert then handed over to the ‘clients’
  • the way to create something is first to finish a rationally considered detailed design only then to implement it
  • permaculture design practice is about becoming a designer who does designs for others
  • what ‘clients’ say they want is what they want
  • other have already figured out permaculture design process so we can just run with what they said
  • along with many other ideas we need not crack open right now…

Which as I write this gets me reflecting. I feel that some folk have to escape the rut and deepen their practice and make it into a community of inquiry to generate fresh understandings from outside of the rut that then become ladders or frames folk still in the rut can use to get out or clamber clean over it. Where everyone involved supports each-other to stay the heck away from the rut and when they (almost inevitably) start falling back in…

Makes me think that part of Making Permaculture Stronger’s interest is calling attention to the rut, growing living bridges right over it, and in the process making the line between communities of practice and inquiry more permeable also:

My current experiments in this space of supporting existing designers (including myself) to transform, deepen and grow their practice in community are:

  • Continuing to record interviews with experienced designers and hear about their rut-escaping/hopping adventures
  • Starting a series of podcast episodes where I work one-on-one to support existing designers to transform, deepen and grow their practice. Flick me a message if this sounds like a bit of you and you want to get in line.

Part of my emerging intention here is to help create, consolidate and strengthen global and local communities of practicing permaculture designers who are consciously deepening their practice and building unprecedented levels of shared permaculture design process literacy. I mean what the heck – you’re only young once, right?

Other Foci Emerging from this Exercise

In addition to supporting interested parties to get practicing and practicing parties to deepen their practice, here are two more places I’ll be focusing attention as integral parts of Phase Two:

Consciously supporting the development of communities of inquiry

My main way of doing this is this blog and podcast and all the conversations happening inside and around them. This feels like it is growing and I’m excited for that. I feel like the main thing is co-creating more spaces and places to support each other’s inquiries and sharings. An annual or bi-annual distributed online gathering? Who knows! One clear inclination I have here is to partner with or at least contribute more to existing forums such as the excellent Permaculture Design Magazine.

Within community of inquiry, co-developing process understandings aligned with Permaculture’s originating impulse

Now I’ve gone and chopped the tree down, alongside the above things I’ll be focusing on, I want to support myself and others to develop and share process experiments and understandings that grow from and resonate with permaculture’s core. With what Ben Haggard referred to as permaculture’s original creative impulse. Part of this is starting to share more and more about what I’m calling Living Design Process, which is one humble attempt at just that. I am also motivated to continue exploring more of the riches the regenerative living systems thinking approach of Carol Sanford and the Regenesis crew have to offer permaculture. In particular to increasingly use Living Systems Frameworks to non-judgmentally lift our game as permaculture designers.

Wrapping Up

Okay, that gives you a head up on what is happening from here, toward Making Permaculture Stronger’s current purpose:

Making Permaculture Stronger inspires creative exploration and dialogue around permaculture design, in a way that develops our ability to think and act creatively as a community, to enable permaculture practitioners to effect the large scale systemic change we need.

Thank you, bless you, and catch you amidst the fun times ahead!


  1. I’d say “and waited for the heat to die down” if it wasn’t for the fact there was no heat…
  2. Where the job of this framework is to generate further questions, which will no doubt generate further frameworks, and so on, indefinitely, hopefully taking us to deeper and more useful places as we go. The main thing is to remember to let a framework go once it has done its job, lest it becomes superfluous baggage that blocks further progress.
  3. For you types that like a drop of clarity, that said, wrap your chops around these two statements from the Wikipedia entry on Communities of Practice: “The purpose of the Community of Interest is to provide a place where people who share a common interest can go and exchange information, ask questions, and express their opinions about the topic. The purpose of a Community of Practice is to provide a way for practitioners to share tips and best practices, ask questions of their colleagues, and provide support for each other.”
  4. In truth I’m part of more than one community at least at the practice and inquiry levels but this is already complex enough so I’ll not go there right now…
  5. Yep, for the information of those of you that live in a permaculture bubble, turns out there are still some folk not into permaculture yet :-)
  6. As an aside I see this as similar to how if the ratio of people teaching permaculture design to people practicing permaculture design falls too far in either direction, the health of the whole is compromised.


  1. Oh thank you Dan,
    I finally got my head around what you mean by ‘nested’ and it’s awesome. My brain wants to pop it into a three dimensional model with all kinds of nodes and connections but I believe that the two dimensional model is the best way to understand the concept. No doubt you have already considered the various ven diagrams of associated communities: Those interested in design but not aware of permaculture, those whose culture or predisposition sees them living in a way that is completely aligned to permaculture although they are unfamiliar with the concept or even the word, and so on. I also think there is significant leverage in aligned communities of practice and enquiry. As an example, I have had students with a strong background in horticulture, bush regeneration and even corporate sustainability who readily transfer all of that knowledge and experience into a permaculture framework and accelerate their progression to becoming part of a community of enquiry.
    I enjoyed your reflections upon the PDC and make the observation that the extent to which people translate the learning to practice has much to do with the curriculum and the quality of the teaching. There is often a strong focus on the bodies of knowledge that inform design (climate, topography, soil etc) rather than a strong focus on ACTUAL designing, and for me this has been the difference between those that remain in a community of interest and those that shift to practice. I have them complete their first design (a courtyard garden) by day three and share each phase of the design process with each other throughout the course. We cover the bodies of knowledge by having students read the text in their own time (we are using Rowe) and then discussing the relevance of the content to design in a seminar format when we come back together. This gives us much more time for actual designing. I teach the design patterns as universally applicable to any design task and we use learning games to demonstrate this. Once students understand the model they can integrate it into their lives. As a consequence, design tasks have included zone 0, bush regeneration practice, school and community gardens, a motor mechanic business, a restaurant business, a catering business, a market gardening business and a social enterprise involving the local university. These are not theoretical. The design work has actually occurred and the redesigned contexts continue to demonstrate a capacity to rebuild the ecological health of the planet while providing for human needs. As the design spiral continues to be applied their capacity to do both with grow.
    I have also found that our part time model operating in the alternative economy, where students ‘pay’ for their course with hours helping in the garden, sees a much stronger translation from theory to practice. I attribute this to hour-for-hour hands on experience. This is consistent with best practice in adult education which reminds us that what adults don’t apply within around three months of learning will be lost. I agree with your observation about many people doing a PDC, or several, and remaining within the community of interest and feel this may be due to the two-week full-time format as it is commonly taught. We are also teaching locally and building a learning community that continue to support each other as they implement their designs. It’s made a big difference. Having seen each other’s work during the course it’s both a reinforcement of that learning and an incentive to act. Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. To change the outcome, redesign the system. I started with a stated goal of “more permaculture on the ground”, having made the same observations as you about the PDC not necessarily translating to changes in behaviour.
    The other mechanism we have developed for getting things happening on the ground is our coaching model, Permacoach. We’re seeing people from both the community of interest and the community of practice asking for our support. The challenge has been to pitch the support at the right level. This service is also useful for those that have been ‘shot out of a PDC’ because it provides them with ongoing support and encouragement.
    I was planning on presenting our model at the APC to support others that are part of the communities of practice and enquiry, but sadly COVID-19 put a stop to that. Hopefully I’ll still be around next year. I called the presentation “A case study: How we permacultured our permaculture” because essentially that’s all we did: A small group of us within the community of enquiry applied the permaculture design model to our practice and redesigned it. I encourage others to do the same. The list we developed as part of our ‘site analysis’ had much in common with yours. It’s early days, but all signs point to the redesigned model having better outcomes. For me, the single greatest difference is the extent to which students move from interest to practice BEFORE the PDC concludes, and the extent to which they remain part of that community post PDC. So far that’s tracking at 100%. I anticipate that at some point we’ll see someone that just doesn’t respond to our teaching and I hope to be able to adapt the model to meet their needs if/when that happens.
    So thank you, once again, for another brilliant post. It’s helped me to clarify my thinking and reminded me that part of good designing is reapplying the spiral. Now is a good time to do that with all this time on my hands. To what extent can I move what we are doing into closer alignment with the ethics and principles? There are always opportunities for growth and improvement, if only because change is constant and the model must adapt or become redundant (but also because growth and improvement are fun and deeply satisfying).
    Finally, I make the observation that your nested model looks like the rings of a tree. You really did cut it down! 🙂

    1. Thanks Meg and all great observations / descriptions of how you’re making sense of and navigating these realities (and totally re the different venn diagrams this could complex into – had to hold myself back!).”Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets” – what a great line and as for “Hopefully I’ll still be around next year” what the heck does that mean? Permaculture needs you to still be around so you still be around, dammit!

  2. I so enjoy watching and learning from this process you are in Dan. I mentioned the book “Mastery” by George Leonard in a previous comment. To me it looks like you (we?) are in the process outlined by Leonard (and others) as progressing through predictable steps/phases leading to the unconscious competence point ie: mastery. I can identify this as a heuristic process where we are co-developing our understanding of the field while advancing the field itself.

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