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

Note: This post is a direct continuation of Part One. It is our most substantial post to date, to the extent a table of contents is in order. Accordingly, regardless of whether you make it through the body of the argument, please at the least check out the post summary and series conclusion. The conclusions we reach below not only further challenge permaculture’s foundational design understandings, but provide the context for where we’ll be heading next with this inquiry (testing the ideas developed here out on the ground).

The Dilemma

In Part One of this Two-Part series, we examined Darren J. Doherty’s designing/drawing in of a new whole-farm water and access system comprising a new driveway, drain and two dams:

In trying two different ways of simply describing what we saw, we got ourselves stuck on the horns of a dilemma.

On the one hand, we can take the standard permaculture approach and describe these actions as a process of assembling elements into a whole.

On the other hand, Christopher Alexander’s alternative way of describing this same thing – as in the exact same actions – as differentiating a whole into parts also appears to accurately capture what is actually going on.

The dilemma is that the two descriptions directly contradict one another – the one emphasising the assembly of parts or details into patterns, the other emphasising the differentiation of wholes or patterns into details.1

Resolving the Dilemma

This two-part series is part of a larger inquiry that started when we accepted Alexander’s challenge. Accepting this challenge means giving Alexander’s living process perspective2 serious attention towards any value it might offer permaculture.

In the interests of resolving this dilemma, in what follows we’ll take a closer look at the implications of four aspect of Alexander’s view for the standard permaculture approach to design.3

Four Integral Aspects of Alexander’s Approach to Living Design Process

The following sentence is one attempt to summarise Alexander’s alternative to permaculture’s core understanding of design:

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

We can tease this sentence into four distinct (if overlapping) emphases:

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

We have previously used this diagram to illustrate this approach (where the numbers represent the sensible sequence):


We will now consider each of these four aspects in turn, clarifying them using Alexander’s own words, then asking of each:

  • whether it is a true description of Darren’s design process
  • what if anything of value it might add to permaculture’s existing design process understandings
  • whether these discussions help us toward resolving our dilemma

The whole comes first…

In Alexander’s words:

…it is always the whole… which comes first. Everything else follows… (2002a, p. 87)

At each stage in its evolution the process – when a living one – always starts from the wholeness as it currently exists at that moment (2002b, p. 216)

…the response to the land… must be rooted, always in the whole, in the cultural and human whole and the land and the ecological and natural wholeness of that place which forms the context of our work (2002b, p. 344)

This contention is clear: all design process begins with a whole. A whole with a current state, as in a current configuration of parts.4

Do we see this happening inside Darren’s Process?

As observed in the previous post, Darren did indeed start his design process with a complex whole. This whole comprised the land in its current state and the clients in their current state. What we see in the video is Darren tuning into the site aspect of this whole and only then working toward its coherent reconfiguration in regenerative directions.


The whole of the landscape Darren started with – what he sometimes refers to as the “board on which the game is played.”

Does this add anything to the standard permaculture description?

As self-evident as starting with a whole seems, this point breaks tradition with how design is usually defined in the permaculture literature. There, as shown here, the elements or parts are said to come first, and only then assembled or integrated to form a whole, which comes second.5 Bill Mollison was very clear in this emphasis:

Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical parts (components) to achieve a whole. (The Designers’ Manual, 1988, p. 36)

While it might be argued that this is not what Mollison really meant to say, it is what he did say, and what he, and many others that followed him, have said repeatedly.6 The statement is clear – start with a variety of different parts and then integrate them into a whole. The parts come first, the integration comes second, and the whole comes third.

Henri Bortoft (1996) eloquently summarised this way of thinking:

We are accustomed to thinking of going from parts to whole in some sort of summative manner. We think of developing the whole, even of making the whole, on the practical basis of putting parts together and making them fit. In this conventional way of thinking, we see the whole as developing by ‘integration of parts.’ Such a way of seeing places the whole secondary to the parts, because it necessarily implies that the whole comes after the parts. It implies a linear sequence: first the parts, then the whole. The implication is that the whole always comes later than its parts (p. 9).7

Again, there is nothing controversial in the claim that this is an accurate characterisation of Mollison’s approach:

For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole. (Bill Mollison, The Designer’s Manual, 1988, p. 70)

Such statements aside, anyone who knows anything about permaculture design knows that it includes a thorough analysis of at least the site (if not also the clients) early on. It draws on a sophisticated suite of methods for tuning into relevant characteristics of the site as a pre-existing whole. This is presumably one of permaculture’s great strengths! Yet the point remains that the permaculture literature’s key definitions and descriptions of what design actually is omit or neglect reference to the whole coming first (in favour of stressing the elements and their assembly). Bizarrely, this prominent internal contradiction has not, to our knowledge, been previously recognised or discussed.

What does this Mean for our Dilemma?

Standard definitions of permaculture design are, at the very least, misleading about the fact the whole site being designed pre-exists any parts that are introduced. Yet at the same time, as we found in Part One, there is a more narrow sense in which the parts do indeed appear to precede the whole. In the case of Darren’s design process, for example, the new water-harvesting-transporting-storing system is a whole that was complete only after Darren had added the road, the drain and the two dams.

This realisation appears to resolve part of our dilemma – it is true that we start with a whole. Yet, in the process of adding parts, it is simultaneously true that we not only change the whole, meaning that in a real sense we create a new whole, as in a new version of the old whole, but that we also create new sub-wholes that were previously absent, such as the whole water system.

Alexander’s description thus focuses more broadly on the fuller picture of what is going on in a way consistent with, but not reducible to, permaculture’s narrower focus on certain sub-wholes.

With this promising start, let us move on to Alexander’s further claim that the whole…

…then gives birth to the parts…

In Alexander’s words:

…each part [e.g., the driveway] is given its specific form by its existence in the context of the larger whole [e.g., the farm] (1979, p. 369)

…the whole gives birth to its parts… (1979, p. 370)

In nature… the parts are induced by the whole and created by the whole. The whole is not created out of them. The flower is not made from petals. The petals are made from their role and position in the flower (2002a, pp. 86-87)

Alexander here contends that in a living process of design, parts arise in and from the context of the whole, where their resulting shape and layout responds to the context in which they find themselves.

Do we see this happening inside Darren’s Process?

Within Darren’s process, the form of the fencing,  driveway, and dams were all (tentatively) sketched in based on a feel for the reality of the whole site and the current configuration of its parts (pre-existing and new). The form of the driveway, for instance, while adding a new part, also grew out of the break-of-slope delineation that was already present. So again, this point seems common sense, and uncontroversial: The shape, size, orientation and so on of every part – whether paddock, tree belt, dam, emerged adaptively in response to the current state of the whole.

Does this add anything to the standard permaculture description?

Again, this appears to be a case of something any experienced permaculture designer would dismiss as a truism that nonetheless remains oddly absent from the core definitions of design in the permaculture literature.

There, the implication is that the whole is something that results from element assembly, not something that gives birth or gives rise to the actual form of the elements in the first place. The implication, if any, is that the parts give birth to the whole.

It thus does indeed does add something to the standard permaculture description.

What does this Mean for our Dilemma?

A couple of important points arise here.

The first has to do with where the parts come from. For while the location and form of the new dams, say, is determined by the context of the pre-existing whole landscape, it is not true that the landscape by itself ‘gave birth’ to the dams. It was involved in the birthing process, we can’t deny that, but to fully understand the genesis of the dams we have to enlarge our conception of the whole to include the clients. For it was the clients who requested the dams.8 As we saw Alexander stating earlier:

..the response to the land… must be rooted, always in the whole, in the cultural and human whole and the land and the ecological and natural wholeness of that place which forms the context of our work (2002b, p. 344)

If we enlarge the primary whole in question to include the clients and their culture, vision, etc, then it becomes true to say that the parts did arise from within this larger whole. But there is more going on here.

The second point is that there are key moments of transition inside Darren’s design process whereby the idea of a road, or drain, or dam gets transformed into an actual road, or drain, or dam. Let’s say that Darren in conversation with the clients establish their desire for a new driveway. At that point the driveway is a generic idea or concept, in that its actual location and form have not been determined. It is simply the possibility of a new driveway. At this stage it is pure potential. Only inside the process does it become this new driveway. Only inside the process does it take on form and become an actual, real, defined entity.9

You might say that the idea of the driveway was conceived by the clients, then actually birthed by and out of the landscape inside Darren’s design process.

The permaculture literature glosses over if not completely misses this distinction. There, the design process typically starts with a ‘wish list’ of desired elements:

The elements in a typical small farm might include: house, greenhouse, garden, chicken pens, water storage tank, compost pile, beehives, nursery area and potting shed, woodlot, dam, aquaculture pond, windbreak, barn, tool shed, woodpile, guest house, pasture, hedgerow, worm beds, and so on. These can be moved about, on paper, until they are working to best advantage (Mollison & Slay, 1992, p. 6)

As we have seen, whether a road, dam, chicken house, or fence, these ‘elements’ start as generic culturally appropriate desirables that the design process actualises or makes real. Jumping straight from a wishlist to talk about moving them about on paper (as in the common permaculture exercise of juggling cutout elements into optimal assemblies) can distract us from the fact that one of the jobs of the design process is to translate the generic ideas of these parts into actual components within the evolving whole being designed.


We saw in the Darren design example that the form of the driveway, drains and dams only came into existence inside the design process where they arise from and within the whole. It wouldn’t make sense there to talk about “moving them around on paper,” for such talk implies that they already have been given some sort of form.

To be clear, we are not denying the useful role such exercises can play within design process.10 It is just that until we appreciate the distinction between a generic potential part and an actual designed-in part, it is easy to mistakenly think of the elements on a wish list as already defined actual things or elements. From there it is hard to avoid the trap of construing the design task as assembling these prematurely defined elements. The process of design is then inevitably understood as the process of combining these elements where, if anything, the parts birth the whole.

Let’s now bring this discussion to bear on our focal dilemma. What does all this mean for the relative usefulness or accuracy of the two contrasting descriptions of what was going on as Darren designed in the driveway, drain, and dams?

In the Alexander-informed description, if we enlarge what we mean by the whole sufficiently, we have seen that it is indeed the case that the whole not only births the parts, but conceives them.

In the permaculture (element assembly) description, on the other hand, the idea of element assembly only makes sense if the form of the elements or parts are defined ahead of time.

The design task then becomes simply figuring out where these preformed elements will sit in relation to each other. When we tune into the distinction between the idea of each parts as a generic desirable and the actual part as a formed entity, however, the element-assembly approach, despite its superficial coherence, starts to become inherently problematic.

For as any experienced permaculture designer would surely attest, the point of the design process is to bring forth the parts (and hence their relations) within and from the whole, such that the parts honour, enhance and harmonise with the whole (in the very process of evolving the whole in desired directions). When we distort this reality with talk of pre-existing parts we merely drop in and assemble to create (or birth) the whole, we depart from not only the reality of what we want to do, but from the reality of what is actually going on.11

Let us now move on to consider Alexander’s view of how the whole births the parts, which is…

…by differentiating space…

In Alexander’s words:

every individual act of building [or in this case farm design & implementation] is a process in which space gets differentiated (1979, p. 365)

…a living process helps us achieve living structure by differentiating space… (2002b, p. 210)

Each pattern is an operator which differentiates space… (1979, p. 373)

Alexander talks of differentiating space rather than adding or integrating or assembling parts.12

Now the concept of differentiation presupposes some larger thing or whole that is being differentiated.

Consider the difference between the verb cut and the verb join. To cut requires something to cut! It requires a preexisting whole thing. To join, however, requires only a minimum of two separate (i.e., unjoined) parts. It requires no preexisting whole, and indeed if anything implies that the whole will come about as a result of the joining.

It is no different with the verbs differentiate and assemble. Alexander uses the word differentiation in the sense of making one thing into two (or more) things. To differentiate is to make distinct, to make different.13

But this is only the first part of this aspect of Alexander’s approach – the idea that the core act within design is differentiation. The second part is the nature of the stuff so differentiated – the stuff Alexander consistently refers to as space. Here, not only is the core act within a design process differentiation, the core thing being differentiated is space. This emphasis challenges the culturally persistent Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm in which design is primarily about fiddling with solid objects in a backdrop or container of empty space. Here is one statement in which Alexander tries to explain his issue with this deeply entrenched doctrine:

Each act of building [or designing], which differentiates a part of space, needs to be followed soon by further acts of building [or designing], which further differentiate the space to make it still more whole.

This is commonplace in nature: and indeed, it is just this which always manages to make the parts of nature whole.

Consider the leaves of a tree. At first sign it seems as though the leaves are solid, and the air between the leaves is merely space. But the air between the leaves is as much a part of nature as the leaves themselves: it takes on shape as strongly as the leaves themselves; and like the leaves, it is given its shape by the influences which work on it.

Each leaf has a shape which is determined by the need for strength, the growth of the material, and the flowing of the sap within the leaf. But the air between the two leaves is given its shape as definitely. If the leaves are too close together, the air between the leaves cannot act as a channel for the sunlight which the leaves need; and there may not be enough breeze there to ventilate the leaves; if the leaves are too far apart, the distribution of the leaves on the twigs and branches is inefficient, and the tree will not get enough sunlight to support it. Every part you look at is not only whole in itself, but is part of a larger whole, has wholes all around it, and is itself made up entirely of wholes.

This is essential to the way that nature works: and all of it is generated by the processes of successive differentiations, each one helping to fill gaps, and mend gaps in the whole (1979, pp. 482-483)

In Alexander’s view, space is not merely the backdrop of design – as hard as this can be to grasp from within the confines of the element-assembly (mechanistic) paradigm, it is the fundamental medium or stuff we are working with when designing landscapes. Indeed, in this view landscaping is one type of space-scaping.

Do we see this happening inside Darren’s Process?

As we saw in Part One, at each step in his design process, Darren is inserting differentiations into the three-dimensional fabric of the unfolding whole site. As he tentatively draws in the new driveway, for example, he is differentiating the paddock area above the new driveway from the paddock area below it. Zooming in, he is also modifying and hence differentiating the shape of the land the driveway flows through, as shown here:


So it is true to say that as the design process unfolds that space is being reshaped. The fabric of the landscape/spacescape is morphing:

In the process of differentiation… the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled (Alexander, 1979, p. 370)

Does this add anything to the standard permaculture description?

First, the idea of differentiating space as opposed to inserting and assembling elements carries certain advantages. For one, it helps avoid the common mistake in permaculture of imposing prematurely formed elements on a site without due attention to context. This is surely a lot more possible when you think about design as primarily a process of inserting and assembling elements.

As permaculturalists regularly decry, it is all too possible to insert and assemble inappropriate elements. Whether it’s a bad case of the hugelkultur hiccups, swale fever, herb spiral addiction, or mad chicken tractor disease, certain cliched elements get peppered about in a way that cripples the integrity of the design process and its ability to generate deeply appropriate design solutions.

If, like Alexander, you instead stress differentiation as the fundamental design act, then your first question is what are we differentiating here?14 Just as it is impossible to cut a piece of paper without paying attention to the piece of paper being cut, it is impossible to differentiate a space without paying attention to the space being differentiated. Here, inappropriately imposed cookie-cutter solutions take a hit simply in virtue of how we conceptualise what it is we are doing.

Second, Alexander’s emphasis on space as that which is differentiated informs a different and more inclusive perspective on what a part is. In the permaculture literature, parts or elements are almost exclusively conceptualised as physical objects. Again:

The elements in a typical small farm might include: house, greenhouse, garden, chicken pens, water storage tank, compost pile, beehives, nursery area and potting shed, woodlot, dam, aquaculture pond, windbreak, barn, tool shed, woodpile, guest house, pasture, hedgerow, worm beds, and so on (Mollison & Slay, 1992, p. 6)

As Alexander emphasises above in discussing the tree, for him the spaces between (and inside) the objects are equally functional and integral parts within the fabric of the whole. So as the driveway gets sketched in (or graded in for that matter) the driveway and the newly defined paddock space to the west (uphill) and to the east (downhill) are equally parts. Indeed, if anything Alexander emphasises the form of the empty spaces as more important than the physical objects.15 He stresses the importance of making the spaces between the objects what he calls “positive” and recommends visualising this space as if it were solid as part of the design process in order to bring its shape out into the open and to consciously make it flow, function & hence feel as well or good as possible.

Consider the drain. Firstly, the drain isn’t a physical object. The word element starts to seem a bit forced, a bit meagre. The drain is a reshaped stretch of earth – effectively a slightly off-contour scratch. Here’s a photo of the newly cut driveway & drain (to the left you can see Darren doing some finer-grained scratching with a keyline plow):

Yandoit New Driveway

Secondly, the concave shape of the drain, as in the profile and size of the space defined by the drain base, is what makes it work (or not). So here Alexander’s terminology seems to more usefully point out what matters, rather than speaking of the drain as an element which implies some bounded physical object or building block.16

In summary, this aspect of Alexander’s view adds two important perspectives to the standard permaculture approach.

First, stressing differentiation rather than assembly forces an engagement with the whole being differentiated that beginning permaculture designers are notorious for neglecting.17

Second, the idea of design as the differentiation or reconfiguration of space removes permaculture’s awkward and detrimental dichotomy between ‘elements’  as primary and the bits of space in between as secondary (where the resulting all-important shape of these in-between bits becomes accidental as in whatever is left over after the element-assembly game is done).

What does this Mean for our Dilemma?

The crux of the dilemma is the fact that on the surface of things the same act can be meaningfully described as both differentiation of a whole into parts and assembly of parts into a whole.

Though this inquiry is revealing serious shortcomings with the notion of design as element assembly, it is still true to say that looking at the designed system as a subwhole (comprising the road, drain and dams), we see a set of closely related parts. In this sense we see an assemblage. Now surely an assemblage implies some assembly. If design results in assemblages, and the way to get assemblages is to assemble, and to assemble you first need some parts to assemble, then what is all the fuss about, right? Isn’t it self-evident that design is thus a process of element assembly? Isn’t this an unquestionably true logical necessity?

Not so fast, says Alexander. Not so fast. For it turns out that differentiation can equally contribute to or create assemblages as interrelated configurations of parts. In his words:

It is important to grasp that each differentiation adds relationships and brings more interdependence among the centers [Alexander’s preferred word for parts]. Of course, as a result of the many adaptations, and the growing centers and properties, the structure slowly becomes thick with relationships. It is getting denser and denser all the time. And it is vital, for success, that the process is able to keep on cramming more and more relationships (2002b, p. 201)

Hang on a second, the way we cram in more relationships is not by assembling parts but by further differentiating the whole? This is Alexander’s contention. It is a contention supported whenever we actually observe the growth of an organism.

Consider for instance Alexander’s example of an unfolding embryo (see here). An embryo develops from a sequence of differentiations that begins with a single cell. The result is a complete human baby – a phenomenally complex assemblage comprising billions of functional relationships. Yet, unlike a car, a lego spaceship, or, if you follow the books, a permaculture-designed garden, it was not assembled. It was differentiated.

This is a startling conclusion. For it calls into question what at first appears an obvious way of reconciling the diametrically opposite approaches to design we are here investigating. In this apparent solution, we suppose that both approaches are equally critical co-partners inside sound design process. But now we’ve seen that unlike element-assembly, which we are finding problematic even on its own terms, differentiation works both when moving from whole-to-parts and moving from parts-to-whole. Further, even when we insist on talk of assembling elements within permaculture design, what we actually see is the differentiation of parts.

This realisation marks a pivotal juncture in our inquiry. Up till now we have been conflating differentiation with moving from a whole towards parts (as opposed to moving from parts toward a whole). What we have just discovered is that we can decouple the act of differentiation from any particular directional commitment (in the sense of moving either up or down in the resolution of our focus). 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.

We now see yet another reason for favouring differentiation over assembly as the core design act: it applies equally to moving from larger to smaller parts and from smaller to larger parts. Assembly, on the other hand, only works in the latter direction – you can’t assemble larger parts into smaller parts.

When we consider that assembly, unlike differentiation…

  • creates a false dichotomy between the elements assembled and the space between them.
  • is consistent with neglecting the whole space being designed such that in this view of design elements prematurely formed are routinely imposed (as opposed to finding their form as they come into being as parts of the designed space). Not just as a mistake for beginners who didn’t pay attention to their book or teacher, but as an inevitable side-effect of the underlying conceptualisation of what design is

….we start to realise that though it initially appeared to be an equally useful description of Darren’s design process, the element-assembly approach is ridden with inherent issues. These issues have persisted for over 40 years of conceptualising design as element-assembly. They show no sign of abating. It therefore appears this approach inevitably compromises sound design process and is thus overdue for a serious rethink.

…in a sensible sequence.

In Alexander’s words:

Unfolding, the essential feature of all living processes — which we may also call differentiation — comes about, and succeeds, because it always occurs in a certain kind of sequence. It goes step by step, we already know that. But it goes step by step in a certain order (2002a, p. 300)

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job (2002b, p. 317)

…the actual creation of the sequence… is one of the most crucial aspects of the design task (1979, pp. 382-383)

Do we see this happening inside Darren’s Process?

Affirmative. Darren is partial to a good sequence, as evidenced by the fact that the Regrarians Platform guiding his design process literally is a sequence. A default sequence adopted then adapted from P. A Yeomans’ Scale of Permanence:

  • Climate (including the personal and cultural climate) – which Darren calls the rules of the game
  • Geography – Which Darren summarises as the board on which the game is played
  • Water
  • Access
  • Forestry
  • Buildings
  • Fencing
  • Soils
  • Marketing (added by Darren)
  • Energy (added by Darren)

By and large, Darren moves from the top toward the bottom of this sequence, in general designing in dams, drains and driveways before considering the layout of tree systems, internal fencing, livestock and so on. This means that things that are relatively harder to influence and more permanent are, as a rule, considered before things that are relatively easy to influence and less permanent.

As you’ll see in the video, Darren started differentiating the layout of tree systems and paddocks (not to mention many other details like tanks and pipes) earlier and in a more fluid and shifting sequence that I have shown here. But in general he did and does move from the mainframe ‘skeleton’ created by water and access systems to flesh it out with different kinds of tree systems, fence & gate layouts, and so on down through the scale. Here is a profile sketch showing some of the extra detail that unfolded around the drain/driveway system. One thing gave rise to other things, where the sequence was crucial.


Does this add anything to the standard permaculture description?

While some kind of sequence is implicit, if not explicit, in most presentations of permaculture design, a corollary of construing design as element assembly is a kind of detachment from any particular sequence, at least in terms of which parts are assembled first. Permaculture design methods such as random assembly encourage just that, and in practice a permaculture designer will often look about until a compelling reason for placing a particular element somewhere arises. That element in place, whatever elements make sense to plug in to that element are inserted, and so on.

This is a bit like playing lego but without the assembly instructions. One has a vague feeling for what one is after, grabs a piece, and goes from there. In this approach design starts with a list of parts and a board (landscape) to assemble them on. Although heuristics like water-access-structures-plants-animals (WASPA) or the scale of permanence are often given lip service18 and indeed used to some extent, the actual design process becomes a trial-and-error sequence of clicking or connecting everything together. The implicit assumption is that there are any number of different sequences or pathways to the goal of an assemblage of interconnected elements.

In contrast, Alexander emphasises that getting what he calls the sequence of unfolding right is imperative to an authentically organic, living or adaptive design process. In his differentiation-centric approach, each differentiation is also a transition within, and a transformation of, the evolution of the whole. Here, the parts just differentiated help define the new whole from which the next differentiation takes its leave. He argues that the key to the generative power of this approach is getting the sequence just right:

a structure is truly generated, and perceived as such, and perceived as having life, only when it has unfolded from a nice, beautiful sequence of differentiations — and this is perhaps the most important point of all. (2002b, p. 320)

The power and relaxedness that come from a proper sequence are immense (2002b, p. 322)

So while the idea of sequence perhaps itself adds nothing fundamental to permaculture that we haven’t already discussed, Alexander does add a much, much stronger emphasis on the idea of getting the sequence just right in a continuously adaptive process. Reading the permaculture literature you can easily get the impression that the exact sequence used in a particular process is a secondary concern. For Alexander, it is the crux of the matter.

What does this Mean for our Dilemma?

Designers like Darren (or Dave Jacke) are rare in explicitly discussing the importance of a sensible sequence.19

For our purposes here, however, we can summarise our discussion about this aspect of Alexander’s approach as a matter of relative emphasis. Like most of what Alexander has to say, there is more to it than this, but we can for now conclude that this aspect does not directly contradict anything inside permaculture’s foundational understandings of design that we haven’t already covered. Besides, teasing out the ramifications of what the core act of design is (be it assembly or differentiation) is already bordering on biting off more than we can chew. Best we leave further inquiry into the way in which repeated instances of this core act are sequenced for another time.


This post started with the dilemma we inherited from the last post: we can describe some of the same core acts we saw inside Darren J. Doherty’s design process as both the differentiation of a whole and the assembly of parts. This fact renders inadequate our prior conclusion that these two acts are complementary partners inside design process.

We then looked at four aspects of Alexander’s approach to living design process: The whole comes first – then gives birth to the parts – by differentiating space – in a sensible sequence.

In exploring these aspects toward resolving our dilemma, we saw serious cracks appearing in the element assembly view that has dominated permaculture for over 40 years.

Along the way we discovered that 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.

The view of design we are left with has a clear recommendation concerning the idea of design as assembly: Let it go.20 To try and recap all the nooks and crannies we’ve just explored, in its place we are left with a view of design something more like:21

  • 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 interelated parts…
  • …toward our desired outcomes of a resilient, abundant, human-supporting ecosystem (or whichever wording floats your boat).

Series Conclusion

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. (a recent comment on an early post in this inquiry by best-selling permaculture author Toby Hemenway)

Let us not mince words. We have exposed permaculture’s default approach to design as mistaken, misleading, contradictory, and counterproductive. We have explored the beginnings of an alternative approach more aligned with the reality of sound permaculture design process. This alternative approach, for which thanks are due to Christopher Alexander, promises superior service toward permaculture’s stated objectives than permaculture’s own currently dominant approach.

Thus ends this two-part series. We invite critical review, detailed questioning, and hearty discussion of these conclusions. We invite you to point out our inevitable wrong turns, mis-takes, weak links. But if the ideas developed here stand firm,22 we invite permaculture colleagues around the world to consider tentatively accepting them as part of a provisional pathway forward. This would be something to celebrate. This would be an example of collaboratively acknowledging and addressing our foundational weak links toward making permaculture stronger.


Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press, 1979.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book One: The Phenomenon of Life. Vol. 1 of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002a.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2 of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002b.
Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature : Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne, 1996.
Jacke, Dave, and Eric Toensmeier. Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Vol. 2. Chelsea Green, 2005.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.
Mollison, Bill, and Reny Mia Slay. Introduction to Permaculture. Tagari, 1988.
Whitefield, Patrick. Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain & Other Temperate Climates. Permanent Publications, 2004.


Huge thanks to James Andrews and Dave Hursthouse (Phoenix) for invaluable feedback on earlier drafts this post.


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


This post continues and deepens an inquiry into two contrasting understandings of design process.

Christopher Alexander challenges the standard permaculture view of design as a process of assembling pre-existing elements (or parts) into wholes. For Alexander, nature-mimicking or what he calls living design process differentiates pre-existing wholes into parts.

Ironically, Alexander’s approach is a better example of the well-known permaculture principle design from patterns to details than permaculture’s own default design approach, which contradicts it.

While accepting the validity of Alexander’s critique, and the need to develop better patterns-to-details design processes, David Holmgren1 cautions against construing the two approaches as mutually exclusive. Instead, he (tentatively) suggests 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.

Our last post revealed2 that while Dave Jacke’s ecological design process moves primarily from wholes toward parts ah la Christopher Alexander, it at times also uses a kind of element assembly (what Jacke calls guild-build). In this sense Jacke’s process embodies precisely the kind of asymmetric relation between the two approaches proposed by David Holmgren.

In this post, we seek further clarity about the distinction and relation between these two design modes, toward our larger goal of increasing the correspondence between our descriptions of design process and the reality of design processThanks to Darren J. Doherty, in today’s post we have a rich portion of design process reality to immerse in.

Darren J. Doherty and the Regrarians Platform

Having completed almost two thousand design consultancy projects, Darren J. Doherty is one of the best-known and respected permaculture-associated professional design consultants on the planet. With his Regrarians Platform, he has evolved a design process for generating mainframe farm layouts equally conducive to ecological regeneration and financially viable production systems. You can watch this video sharing where he is coming from if you’d like to learn more about his approach.3

Like Dave Jacke, Darren has evolved (and continues to evolve) his design process at two complementary levels:4

  • the Regrarians Platform as a general process which might be applied to any farm anywhere5
  • specific instances of applying the platform to a particular farm

Both levels are essential. On the one hand, the general process only has value to the extent it delivers the goods on the ground (when applied to a particular farm). On the other, without communicating the general process, anyone hoping to replicate it can only copy the shape it took on a particular farm (which might not work elsewhere).

Here we will examine one case of applying the platform both as a window into the process in general and as a bit of design process reality against which we can test our target distinction (differentiating wholes into parts vs assembling parts into wholes) and assess how useful it is or isn’t at making sense of what is going on.

In 2013 Darren completed a whole-farm design process for Yandoit Farm, a 140-acre farm in Victoria, Australia. After a some site visits and consultations with clients Michael and Lisa, Darren sketched up a draft concept design:

What follows is a sequence of sketches and comments representing key themes in the way Darren applied his design process to generate this design. Keep in mind that the exact order is not as important as the overall flow, and that as you’ll see in the clip, Darren moved up and down in resolution or scale and from theme to theme much more fluidly that the following diagrams can hope to portray.

Following on from our introductory comments, we will tune into the reality of what happened inside this process to assess a) the extent to which the two approaches (differentiation and assembly) are present and b) if so, the nature of their relationship.

Entering the Process

Early-on a fellow named Colin showed up with an expensive piece of polystyrene which he proceeded to shake vigorously then throw into the air…

…resulting in this basemap – with 50cm contour lines overlaid on a high resolution aerial photo contour lines (north is up). You can see the existing driveway leading from the top left to the homestead area about halfway down on the left. You can also see a creek running from bottom to top defining the right-hand or eastern boundary.


Darren first sketched in a perimeter fence line something like this (where the west, north and east boundaries were already fenced, and east boundary wasn’t):


If you watch the clip you’ll see that Darren tweaks the details as he goes. Take for instance what happens at 5m:20s, where he fluidly refines the details of the just-drawn main perimeter fence based on the location of a pre-existing (heritage-listed) water channel (or “race”):

This introduces a subtlety with respect to the two different design approaches we are exploring (the differentiation of wholes vs the assembly of parts) and trying to relate to practice. Here’s what happened:

  1. roughly sketch in a perimeter fence
  2. based on details of the property that are then noticed, modify the shape of the perimeter fence

Three Interesting Points

As simple as these two steps seem, they raise several interesting points as regards the relation between wholes and parts inside Darren’s design process.

In the first step, two parts (a foreground and a background) were distinguished: i.e., the perimeter fence was drawn in. The foreground part then became the focal whole for the next step (as the whole property being designed). Hang on a second – what was a moment ago a part is now suddenly a whole!

So the first interesting point is that the terms “part” and “whole,” as used here to try and describe aspects of Darren’s process, are relative. On reflection, this is true in general:6 all wholes are simultaneously parts, and all parts are simultaneously wholes.7 What is a part and what is a whole is relative to our frame of reference. So “wholes containing parts,” “larger wholes containing smaller wholes,” “bigger parts containing smaller parts,” and so on, are all different ways of saying the same thing. We are dealing with a nested patterning of part-wholes within part-wholes within part-wholes, all the way up, and all the way down. And it turns out that when we talk of moving from the whole toward parts or from parts toward the whole we are simply discussing two different directions of travel through the same nested hierarchy of part-wholes.8 None of this will be news to permaculturalists, given that permaculture is a variety of systems thinking used to working at multiple levels of resolution. But at this stage it is important to eliminate any possible confusion about how we are using the basic terms part and whole.

A second interesting point is that Darren is initially moving from a whole (the wider landscape) to a part (the property under consideration). As just discussed, this part then becomes the primary whole for the rest of the process. Straight away, however, Darren was moving from a part (within this new whole) that caught his attention (a pre-existing water channel) back up to the whole (defined by the perimeter fence), and tweaking that whole so as to better harmonise with that part. Here we start to appreciate the artificiality of any rigid separation of moving from wholes to parts and parts to wholes inside healthy design process. Both are ever present in fluid interplay. As David Holmgren has observed (see introduction), if we try and reduce design to one or the other, we are distorting reality. Our goal instead should be trying to better understand their relationship. In this particular case, tuning into a part (the water race) resulted in some tweaking of the whole.

Another interesting point this leads to is the blatantly obvious fact that the site as a whole already has parts (including the water channel). In other words, the design process does not start with a clean slate or ’empty container.’ It starts with a whole area comprising a current configuration of parts. Now obviously it wouldn’t be much of a design process if these parts were left exactly as they were and nothing new was added. At the same time, it wouldn’t be much of a permaculture design process if the nature and configuration of any pre-existing parts wasn’t appreciated and taken into consideration (whether or not those parts end up being retained, modified, or removed). So whatever else is true of the process, it must simultaneously honour the whole and its existing configuration of parts as well as modifying this configuration and almost certainly introducing new parts to it.9

Keeping these three interesting (presumably uncontroversial) points in mind – let us move on.

Delineating the Break-of-Slope

Moving on with his process10 Darren draws in what he calls a break-of-slope delineation based on the site topography, the location of the existing entranceway to the farm, and the location of the farm homestead. This delineation defines the approximate position of a new drain and driveway weaving through the middle of the property:


To help visualise this break-of-slope delineation, which here takes the form of what Darren calls an in sloped gradient catchment road, here is a profile sketch:


Now in conjunction with drawing in this drain/driveway (herein abbreviated to just driveway), Darren provisionally identifies two dam sites.


Even though Darren is just getting started, this is more than enough new content to hit pause for a moment and consider these last few steps in terms of the assembly vs differentiation approaches.

Different Descriptions of the Same Thing

In the conventional language of permaculture design, we might describe what just happened as follows:

with close attention to the contours, Darren next added the driveway element, re-patterning the connection between the property entry and the homestead. He then linked the driveway and drain so they functioned to passively harvest and direct water to two new dams. Darren masterfully assembled all these elements into a functional whole pattern, stressing its draft status, where the details would be finalised in the act of marking out on site.11

At first glance this statement appears uncontroversial, using familiar language to accurately describe what we have just seen happening.

However, our focus here is the critical re-evaluation of our received ways of understanding and describing what we do when designing. In particular, in light of Christopher Alexander’s challenge, we want to try out his suggested alternative way of understanding what is happening. See if it has anything worth incorporating or taking on board before we dismiss it and get on with business as usual.

Let us first refresh ourselves with Alexander’s slightly unusual alternative way of speaking about these matters:

Within this process, every individual act of building [or in this case farm design & implementation] is a process in which space gets differentiated. It is not a process of addition, in which pre-formed parts are combined to create a whole: but a process of unfolding, like the evolution of an embryo, in which the whole precedes its parts, and actually gives birth to them, by splitting.

In the process of differentiation, the whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole, and the parts, come into being simultaneously. (1979, p. 365 & 370)


Merely additive processes (like the assembly of an erector set from fixed components that are arranged and rearranged) never lead to complex adaptation, or to profound complex structure.

The key to complex adaptation in a generated structure lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole” (2002, p. 197)

Acknowledging the unfamiliarity of this language (in particular the word “differentiation” has to be close to non-existent in the permaculture literature),12 is there any truth or value in this alternative way of describing what is happening?

Is there a sense in which, as he draws in the new driveway, Darren is differentiating space, in the sense of changing some of its shape, and in doing so dividing or distinguishing the whole property into parts?

In a straight-forward sense the act of drawing in this driveway certainly results in two, or more accurately three new parts: the part to the left, or above, the part to the right, or below, and the part in between, as in the actual driveway.13

Further, it seems we cannot meaningfully deny that in laying out the driveway Darren created what Alexander calls a “crinkle” in the space – a modification or fold in the three-dimensional cloth of the whole landscape.14

It is also true, as Alexander proposes is true in general, that the configuration of the driveway and two new dams arise in response to the pre-existing reality of the site as a whole. In other words, the whole of the site came before and defined the context in which the driveway and dams arose. In this sense again Darren is literally dividing or differentiating the whole, in the sense of creating new parts within and from it. The details and configuration of the parts are arising in response to the details and configuration of the whole farm. Though it is certainly changing, the whole is not arising in the sense of coming into existence only after parts have been assembled.

A Dilemma

If we are honest with ourselves, we have a conundrum. Indeed, we find ourselves impaled on the two horns of a rather perplexing dilemma.

On the one hand, we can use standard permaculture talk in its element-assembly sense to meaningfully describe what is going on. 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.

This conundrum resists the resolution discussed in the introduction – the idea that moving from whole to parts via differentiation and moving from parts to a whole via assembly are two different but complementary actions within sound permaculture design process. For in this case we are not talking about two actions. In the case of drawing in the driveway, for instance, we have just seen that we can describe this same and single action in these two seemingly opposite ways.

We can say that at this moment in his design process, as he drew in the driveway, Darren was adding a part. It is true! He literally added a new driveway! Yes, he wrapped it into the reality of the site as he went. But the point stands – it wasn’t there before, and now it is there.15 Then, after he added the dams, he had assembled the essential parts or ingredients of a mainframe water harvesting whole system – with a catchment road surface connecting to a receiving and transporting drain connecting to receiving and storing dams. In this sense he has assembled a whole. Who in their right mind could deny this almost embarrassingly obvious description of what happened?

Yet it appears equally true to say, that in that very same act of drawing in the driveway, Darren was simultaneously changing the shape of the existing landscape and making it different, or differentiating it. Further, based on the outcome of this differentiation, he made two further differentiations in the form of the two dams. As depressions in the landscape, these are literally modifications of (or crinkles in) the shape of the land (currently in the mind but when implemented in the ground itself). And both the driveway and the dams came into being and in a sense were thus birthed from within the fabric of the whole farm, which preexisted and then inherited them.

Hence the dilemma. Rather than talking about the relationship between adding or assembling parts and differentiating a whole space as two different types of activities within a design process, we have just discovered that they can be apparently equally meaningful ways of describing the very same activity!

So where on earth do we go from here? How to make sense of this unexpected and confusing turn of events?

Is Alexander’s way of talking about this just a fancy way of saying what all permaculturalists already know? Is there really any need to change standard and pleasantly familiar ways of talking about permaculture design as element assembly? Do we accept one view and discard the other, maybe split into two opposing and quibbling camps? Do we think of them as like the equally valid ways you can describe light as a wave or particle? Do we try and create a middle-ground way or compromise that captures the best of both?

Conclusion, Another Diagram, and Until Next Time

While we take a break and muse on a strategy for steering this inquiry to some kind of meaningful conclusion (in Part Two), we leave you with a final diagram. Skipping much of the process that got him there, this diagram shows a later iteration16 of the whole-farm layout Darren ultimately generated.

The diagram highlights an overall patterning of areas to remain grassed paddocks and areas to be put into different kinds of forestry systems (you can also see the perimeter fencing, driveway, drain, dam, homestead envelope, and other considerations in the background):


Here we have a complex organic whole in which a generic overall procedure or process has been applied to generate a unique layout relevant to the realities of these people and this landscape.

In our next post (Parts Two of this two-part series) we’ll continue exploring the extent to which Christopher Alexander’s challenge might (or might not) help us more adequately describe the details of processes like this, and of sound permaculture design process in general. In particular, we’ll hope to shed more light on at least one resolution of the dilemma we have arrived at.

Meantime, we remain open to your feedback, guidance and advice as to next steps, as well as any mistakes or wrong turns we have made here that we can address next time. Thanks for your interest and support, and see you in Part Two.

Appendix: a Video and a few Photos of Darren’s Design Being Implemented

A clip showing some during and after shots of the main earthworks phase:

Darren’s working draft design sketch:


Darren measuring up the planned driveway with a bendy ruler as part of costing the earthworks:


Michael, Darren and earthmover Graeme marking out with laser level:


Tweaking the main dam details in situ (they’d be under water if they were standing there today!):



Alexander, Christopher. The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press, 1979.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.
Grabow, Stephen. Christopher Alexander: The Search for a New Paradigm in Architecture. Oriel Press, 1983.
Jacke, Dave, and Eric Toensmeier. Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Chelsea Green, 2005.
Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. Penguin Group, 1967.
Mars, Ross. The Basics of Permaculture Design. Permanent Publications, 1996/2006.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.


I thank Darren J. Doherty and James Andrews for their feedback on an initial draft of this post.


The Exceptional Case of Dave Jacke & Edible Forest Gardens

Note: This post is a follow-on from Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture

Chapters Three and Four of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier’s Edible Forest Gardens Volume Two (2005) contain what is likely the permaculture literature’s most systematic and comprehensive presentation of sound design process.

Interestingly, the design process described therein (which Jacke prefers to call ecological rather than permaculture design process) almost completely avoids permaculture’s dominant view of design as a process of element assembly.

Not only is the presentation light on talk of element-assembly, it is remarkably consistent with Christopher Alexander’s differentiation-based approach to design.

While this is rare in the permaculture design literature, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. For one, earlier in the volume Jacke1 develops the beginnings of an impressive “pattern-language-in-process” for edible forest garden design. This effort is inspired directly by his reading of Alexander’s books The Timeless Way of Building (1979) and A Pattern Language (1977). For another, he writes:

[Christopher] Alexander expresses a deep philosophical viewpoint and a specific method of design we find compelling. Our task is not to explain that viewpoint or those methods here” (Edible Forest Gardens, Volume Two, p. 63)

Finally, he recently shared (in private conversation) that Alexander’s Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964) was a pivotal influence on the development of his thinking around what he calls the goals articulation phase of sound design process.2

So it is not surprising, therefore, that you will struggle to find Jacke discussing design in the sense of element assembly. Consider some typical wordings:

The first stage of the design phase is the formation of the design concept. The design concept is the ‘big idea’ or organizing notion of the whole design for our site. Our goals statement tells us our mission, and our base map and site analysis and assessment tell us the context within which we will achieve that mission. The design concept defines our vision for achieving that mission in that specific context in its most essential or fundamental aspect. Ideally, all the design details flow from this vision and harmonise with it, support it, and manifest it” (p. 233)

“Schematic design expands the seed of the design concept to see how it manifests in somewhat greater detail…” (p. 233)

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,)

“Resolve the basic patterns and large-scale issues first” (p. 249)

“…plant placement is one of the last kinds of design choices we make, because it is one of the most detailed decisions” (p. 249)

“Get the big picture right, then work into the more detailed issues” (p. 249)

“…don’t get caught up in detailed design until you’ve settled on the best scheme at a larger scale” (p. 250)

These statements contrast with the quotations previously shared from Bill Mollison’s The Permaculture Designer’s Manual (1988), Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein’s Practical Permaculture (2015) and Toby Hemenway’s The Permaculture City (2015). There any talk about design process is dominated by a diversity of ways of saying that design is a process of starting with elements then assembling them into wholes.

Jacke is clearly coming from a different place with respect to what what sound design actually is. A place resonating effortlessly with statements from Alexander such as:

The form will grow gradually as you go through the sequence, beginning as something very loose and amorphous, gradually becoming more and more complicated, more refined and more differentiated. (A Pattern Language, 1977, p. 463)

In effect, as you build each pattern into the design, you will experience a single gestalt that is gradually becoming more and more coherent (A Pattern Language, 1977, p. 464)

Or, using the words pattern and details:

At every level, certain broad patterns get laid down: and the details are squeezed into position to conform to the structure of these broader patterns. Of course, under these circumstances, the details are always slightly different, since they get distorted as they are squeezed into the larger structure already laid down. In a design of this type, one naturally senses that the global patterns are more important than the details, because they dominate the design. Each pattern is given the importance and control over the whole which it deserves in the hierarchy of patterns (A Timeless Way of Building, 1979, p. 384)

Interestingly, Jacke doesn’t talk explicitly about design as a process of sequential differentiation as does Alexander. Nonetheless, his approach is fully consistent with this viewpoint. Jacke is consciously moving from wholes-to-parts, from patterns to details.

You can see this visually in the following three progressively more detailed design examples from Edible Forest Gardens (all sketched by Dave Jacke and appearing on pages 261, 263, & 270, respectively):

Design Example Sketch Habitat Bubble Diagram sketch by Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens

Design Example Sketch Schematic Design Example by Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens

Detailed Design Example Sketch by Dave Jacke from Edible Forest Gardens

These diagrams are adapted from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume II by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier (October 2005) and are reprinted with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.

These diagrams exemplify design when practiced as a process of successively more detailed differentiation. Of starting with wholes and working toward parts. There is no feeling of bringing in and connecting together elements. There is a feeling of the progressive unfolding or discovery of the design.


Dave Jacke has contributed the most comprehensive, conscious and clear treatment of sound design process yet seen in the permaculture literature. His ecological design process moves primarily from patterns towards details via the sequential differentiation of wholes into parts. This resonates with and indeed was to some degree inspired by the writings of Christopher Alexander (among other influences – see the postscript below).

In a recent conversation, David Holmgren emphasised the importance of creating design processes that respect and mimic the way in which nature works from patterns to details. To date (as previously discussed) most writing about permaculture design has been hindered by the culturally dominant, problematic, and self-contradictory belief that conscious design starts with details (or parts) and works toward patterns (or wholes).

A notable exception, Dave Jacke’s work deserves respect and attention as an example of a genuinely ecological design process, and almost certainly the deepest application of Christopher Alexander’s ideas within the permaculture literature to date.


Thanks to Dave for his permission to share some of his own (privately emailed) words arising firstly from his response to the post this post follows on from…

I have to say, though, that upon reading the latest post I wonder how much I actually do inhabit the paradigm of Alexander.  I have bought into the typical PC design paradigm significantly, too.  I don’t think I am immune to that perspective.  I actually think I combine both.  Not sure what I think about that—is that an advantage or not?

When I design polycultures I most often use the “guild build” process where I am literally assembling plants that may never have grown together before and trying to create functional wholes.  … However, the architectural design process of identifying a habitat bubble and differentiating it into patches and then articulating that into patch designs is very clearly aligned with Alexander’s approach.  And goals articulation is itself a process of acknowledging and attempting to articulate and differentiate the structure of the clients as a whole, in a way, as is site A&A.  I think of the design phase as relating those two streams (client and site) to see what patterns emerge from the relationship, which feels aligned with Alexander’s approach also.  So it’s all an interesting reflection process to hear how you see it and how I fit into it.
and secondly from his response to a draft of today’s post (where I asked if he was happy with my presentation of his approach before publishing):

You are convincing me that I am more embedded in Alexander’s perspective than I thought I was!  🙂  Interesting to have me quoted back at myself and have that effect my self-understanding!  But I would say that Alexander influenced this reality within myself, as did Walt Cudnohufsky and Don Walker at the Conway School of Landscape Design, AND, perhaps most importantly, my own inner body mind drive/yearning for a sense of wholeness in myself and the world, which is what led me to engage with permaculture in the first place.  And also has led me to step away from permaculture per se, by that name, a number of times in my career, because I have gotten fed up with the old paradigm that still runs through much of the movement and culture and practice and literature of permaculture.  In any case, writing EFG was part of my long struggle to integrate what I valued from Alexander’s work, with the approach of Ian McHarg (which was my initial introduction to conscious ecological design via Design With Nature), with what I learned at CSLD, and with what felt native to my own inner design process.  In fact, since EFG has been published and I have been teaching all over the place the last 11 years, I have even more fully integrated all of this and can now see many implications of conscious ecological design process for the growth and development of human beings generally and myself in particular, and how the deep fundaments of conscious ecological design processes connect directly to solving what I see as the fundamental problems underlying the current cultural crises we face as a species.  More on that sometime.  It goes far and deep and wide, though, I’ll tell you what, and I know I have only begun to plumb the depths and reaches of this interrelationship… I think that starting [the] quest for improving permaculture in the realm of design process is a brilliant place to start, because so much flows from that.  So much.

and subsequently…
I just should add that a key influence was also Marty Naumann, my undergraduate professor of ecology at Simons Rock Early College. He was a follower of  Odum–we used Odom’s textbook in my ecology classes. Marty taught systems ecology he did not teach reductionist ecology. He too had an intuitive grasp of holism. He and I resonated very well together. I didn’t learn ecological design from him but I learned ecology from him and it rose up in me as I was reading your posts back-and-forth with Mr. Holmgren that I need to include him as one of my significant influences in developing my design process.


Alexander, C. (1964). Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard.
Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press.
Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). Practical Permaculture. Timberpress.
Hemenway, T. (2015). The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green.
Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible Forest Gardens V2 (Vol. 2). Chelsea Green.
Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari.


A Summary of Progress Made and Where to from Here

Two posts back we clarified and documented permaculture’s core understanding of design as a process of assembling elements into wholes.

We also shared Christopher Alexander’s critique of this understanding, based on the observation that natural systems result from natural processes where the whole exists before the parts and forms the substrate only within or from which the parts emerge or unfold.

This lead into Alexander’s argument that genuinely organic or nature-mimicking design is more accurately defined as a process of differentiating wholes into parts.

Here are the diagrams we used to illustrate the difference:



The post ended by construing Alexander’s critique, along with his alternative understanding of design, as a challenge to permaculture designers, myself included.

The following and most recent post then shared excerpts from an email conversation with David Holmgren where, among other things, David agreed:1

1. there is a huge cultural bias towards details to pattern understanding and designing2

2. nature works from pattern to details3

3. we need [to put] most effort into creating design processes that effectively achieve this second pathway4

In this statement, one of permaculture’s co-originators and most highly regarded thought leaders endorses the validity, relevance and importance of Christopher Alexander’s neglected challenge to permaculture.

Assuming we’d like to accept this challenge, what would some sensible next steps look like? Here are some thoughts, in this order:

  • We 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)
  • We come back to clarify the details of this differentiation-based approach. Go a bit deeper into what it is and what it isn’t
  • We then make a first attempt at articulating the core or essence of what all sound permaculture design process has in common.5 We will start by asking what the distinct design approaches reviewed have in common. But my larger goal will be to push whatever we come up with all the way – to fathom what, if anything, all sound permaculture design process shares.
  • At this point we will summarise any progress, and having completed Making Permaculture Stronger‘s first ever full inquiry circuit, we’ll be ready to commence inquiries into other weak links (such as permaculture’s underpinnings in things like ethics, systems thinking & design principles).6 But let us see how things unfold. This is a big, juicy undertaking, and there is no reason to rush things.

This whole thing is about working towards a stronger permaculture by collaboratively identifying and addressing weak links.  It has been argued previously that a prime place to start the weak-link auditing process is with permaculture’s neglect of design process. We then discovered and are now focusing on issues with permaculture’s element-assembly view of design process. But all the while, as that specific journey unfolds, toward a currently unknown destination, we are are firming up some rules of play anyone can subsequently choose to use in tackling any of permaculture’s weak links they like.

Right then. More than enough of a segue. Without further ado, let us give a big warm welcome to the wonderful work of Dave Jacke.


A Conversation with David Holmgren

This post shares excerpts from recent email conversation between David Holmgren and Dan Palmer. The conversation grew from David’s reflections on a draft of the previous post. Making Permaculture Stronger thanks David for his long-standing commitment to critical self-reflection in permaculture, and for the renewed confidence this gives us in permaculture’s ability to adapt, grow, and thus stay relevant to an uncertain future. What follows has been abridged and edited for readability (note – it was given an additional edit on June 10, 2016). 

April 20, 2016.

Dear Dave,

I will in the next few weeks publish the attached post – if you had an inclination to check it out and give me your first impressions or feedback please do so.

My best,


April 20, 2016.


I just had a quick read through. Looks good to me.

Just one point about the quote from PP&PBS1 defining permaculture. You have made the same mistake that many have in quoting that  definition as mine when I say its not mine.2

It came directly out of the Mollison lineage and was being widely used by teachers in the 1990s.  Must be bad communication by me because lots of others do the same.

It doesn’t change your basic points and my failure to identify the parts assembly process as flawed even though I got close to it. It may be interesting to have a closer look at the text with that lens because design process was for me the big hole, if you will excuse the pun, that I felt between principles on the one hand and strategies and techniques on the other. And I didn’t go back to Alexander to look for it.

Look forward to hearing the response

David Holmgren

April 20, 2016.

Thanks so much Dave,

When you say you got close to identifying the parts-assembly approach as flawed I know what you mean! I went through a lot of your book looking for evidence that you had or hadn’t made a clear commitment one way or the other, and I could find nothing conclusive (if anything I got the impression you favoured whole-to-parts). The start of I think integrate not segregate came closest to element-assembly talk but it could still be read from either perspective.

Thanks again, will indeed keep you posted, and deeply appreciate your openness to conversation about this.

Dan Palmer

April 20, 2016.


Maybe “got close to identifying” is not a precise description of what is captured in the text. I fully understood from both [Hakai] Tane and [Howard] Odum and I articulated that understanding had to be top down (holistic).   Bottom up was recognising ourselves as small players in the system rather than masters of all the bits (Principle 4). Integrate can be understood either way but the stitching back together broken threads resulting from fragmentation is recognising the damaged whole that needs to be healed. I think the text supports that I was definitely leaning towards wholes to parts.

It might be more correct to say that I failed to articulate the simplicity of the differentiated wholes vs assembled parts distinction in applying the principles.

It is a bit similar to my failure to identify resilience as a system property that all the principles contribute to (rather than a principle in itself). It is mentioned in some principles as an outcome.3


April 20, 2016.


I totally agree as to how this distinction of the two approaches is itself not an either-or thing. Parts-to-whole assembly will always have its place and role. It just tends to dominate. I think that because it wasn’t super or over-the-top explicit in your book (whilst unquestionably strongly present but from memory spread out across chapters (something I’ll have to confirm when rereading)), readers can (consciously or unconsciously) default to the cultural norm of mechanistic interpretation. I find it surreal when permaculture authors refer approvingly to Alexanders work (i.e., to his explicit critiques of element-assembly thinking), and then a few sentences later proceed calmly with the element-assembly approach – seemingly oblivious to any contradiction. Behold the all-pervasiveness of the mechanistic meme!

My very best,

Dan Palmer

April 27, 2016.


I was pleased to see you acknowledge different ways of seeing and designing may have merit because although I agree that

  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

it is also important not to deny any utility in what we seek to critique.

At one level you could say that what we are critiquing is simply classic left brain modes of understanding articulation and design while seeking to illuminate and value, suppressed right brain modes. As with most of the design principles Small and Slow, Integrate rather than Segregate, Renewable rather than non renewable, Diversity, Edge vs field, Design from Patterns to Details is seeking to redress a gross and deep cultural imbalance.

As I pointed out in Small and Slow Solutions, the ideal balance is not necessarily equal but asymmetric with Big and Fast being in the minority compared with necessarily prevailing Small and Slow Solutions. Maybe it is the same with the two modes of understanding and design.

If my reference to right and left brain is correct, we don’t want to completely ignore the value of analytical understandings and building block approaches to creating solutions.

In our current culture at least, those who understand and design in the Alexander mode often have great difficulty in both articulating and conveying a workable method that others can follow. For example Brookman’ s limited reading of Alexander (Pattern Language) years ago led him to think, maybe some great results from the master but beyond some friendly park benches, have others managed to copy the method.

Gyn Jones talking about the genius of Peter Andrews unable to communicate how to see and think like a catchment, let alone how to design the powerful interventions that rehydrate landscapes.  Even Haikai Tane’s mastery of words and enticing emotions can fail to translate the method to others. Is the reductionist mode inherently easier to communicate and spread or is it that we have lost the means to communicate and spread the wholistic approach?

If there is, at least some value in design from details to patterns, then it maybe that some failures of permaculture may be due to a lack of rigour in even teaching how to assemble parts in ways that are likely to self organise into living systems.  In this sense, your critique on the lack of design process maybe more fundamental than the need to position permaculture on the wholistic side of the divide.  While this choice maybe a no brainer, in practice it doesn’t ensure that permaculture wont burn out as  ideological mumbo jumbo that achieves little of value.

In the Melliodora book I made an attempt to convey the design process as I understood it at the time and on tours of Melliodora since I explain how the garden shed/ chook/ barn complex was a classic example of Alexander’s organic differentiation.  But my thought now is that slow process was only possible because of the opportunities created by logical pre planning and interventionist design that had in turn followed a wholistic landscape reading and strategic decision making process of house site selection that had reductionist and wholistic aspects.

In Self Regulate and Accept Feedback I described different modes of “power” in the  world but I think there  may have been little traction with those ideas because of the phobia about power. If I had used the word “design” instead, then maybe that would have struck a cord. Whether my lineage from Top Down Thinking & Design to Bottom up Thinking & Top Down Design and on into the new mode Top Down Thinking and Bottom up Design is useful in this context is something I would like to further discuss.

Through another frame, our critique could be highlighting the importance of the feminine and pointing to the problems of the masculine modes of thinking, design and action. I have no problem with the idea that the masculine need to be guided by feminine wisdom, but saying masculine ways have no place would obviously be going too far.



May 2, 2016

Thanks again Dave,

I totally get the point re not denying any utility in what we seek to critique. All attempts/approaches/theories etc etc are true but partial in that they all capture something of use but that they can all be improved.

At some level what making permaculture stronger is about for me is striving to be aware of one’s options when designing and choosing consciously rather than defaulting unconsciously to the culturally dominant approach. From there it only makes sense to seek clarity about the most appropriate/useful ways in which different approaches/views etc can relate to each other as complementary aspects of a larger process.

As regards the challenge of conveying Alexander’s approach in way others can apply, Alexander himself acknowledged the failure of the pattern language project to help others design wholistically and well in his terms. As he put it:

When I first wrote the pattern language… I assumed that people would soon start using it to make more beautiful buildings. It seemed to me that what my colleagues and I wrote together was common sense, and would follow from the directness and strength of the patterns.

But I was wrong. Oddly, many buildings were designed by people using the pattern language which were not coherent. Rather, they incorporated patterns, but within overall building forms which were typical of the architectural fashions of that time (1970s). This gave the buildings, often, a funky, ungainly look…

…it was vital, at that time [when A Pattern Language was being written] to focus on the objective nature of the patterns required for comfort (and life) in human surroundings and to find ways of making this content visible and usable. The task of doing this was so urgent, and so massive, that my collaborators and I spent six or seven years, merely accumulating material to undertake this task – and in so doing neglected the equally important task of finding publicly accessible ways in which the actual geometric form of buildings could be unfolded, successfully, from the patterns (Alexander, 2002, p. 458)

In other words he realised that he needed to give people a process in which the patterns could play their part properly (rather than becoming blocks in yet another game of element-assembly). Hence his magnum opus The Nature of Order (that not a permaculturalist I know has read). Maybe it is the mystical flavours that seem to accompany wholism that put folk off, ironically even when Alexander is detailing practical processes for building buildings based in his own documented experience!

I think because reductionism resonates so seamlessly with the dominant worldview it has become easier to grasp. But I believe that genuinely wholistic design (that accommodates reductionism as a tool where needed) is possible to convey and make more common.

My very best,

Dan Palmer


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (2002). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life (Vol. 2). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Melliodora.


Christopher Alexander’s Neglected Challenge to Permaculture

Consider the opening statements of what are possibly the two most prominent definitions of permaculture:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems (Bill Mollison, 1988, p. ix)

A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in Permaculture One, is “Consciously designed landscapes, which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (cited by David Holmgren, 2002, p. xix)1

These two statements share three key parts. One is the goal of systems or landscapes that have the character of nature in the sense they replicate, mimic, and in a very real sense actually are natural ecosystems. The second is that these target systems produce for human needs. The third is moving toward this goal via conscious design.2

Let us focus in on this last part – conscious design. As the key method or process given for approaching its desired destination, you would expect permaculture to contain a clear definition of what conscious design is.

By and large the permaculture design literature defines design as a process of combining elements into systems. The wording changes, but the core idea remains that:

  1. the elements exist prior to their connection, and
  2. the crux of design is joining, assembling, or integrating these elements (into systems, patterns or wholes delivering on the permaculture principles).

Perusing the seminal literature, I first find this core idea clearly in Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988, note that I have added all bold text in this entire post to emphasis particularly relevant words and phrases):

Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical parts (components) to achieve a whole. (p. 36)

“It is in the arrangement of parts that design has its being and function…” (p. 36)

“Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which seeks to benefit life in all its forms.” (p. 36)

“The design [is] ‘a beneficial assembly of components…” (p. 37)

“For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.” (p. 70)3

This core idea has been accepted and repeated right up to the most recent books on permaculture design. In their Practical Permaculture (2015), Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein share prevailing permaculture understandings of the words element and system. In defining these words and their relations, they explain:

“In its simplest form, a system is a bunch of parts (elements) arranged such that their relationship to one another (their function) allows some sort of job to get done or goal to be accomplished (purpose). For instance, a bicycle is a simple system composed of a bunch of elements (handlebars, chain, wheels and so forth) put together in such a way (handlebars connected to frame, frame connected to wheels) that they function to accomplish the purpose of transportation. We can see the same concept when looking at the parts of the human body. A pile of organs sitting on a table does not make a person. However, when those organs relate to each other in just the right way and each performs its functions, we are the result.

When all the elements of a system come together in the right way, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and emergent properties appear” (p. 18)

Later in the book, they apply this interpretation of systems thinking to permaculture design process:

“The permaculture design process is about assembling components… into mutually beneficial relationships. Elements can be placed in a number of different arrangements, but the connections made between them is what builds systems that work effectively” (p. 59)

“Every element in your design should be analysed in order to figure out the best relative location to create beneficial relationships with other elements” (p. 92)

“The placement of elements in relationship to each other is critical to creating a functional permaculture design” (p. 99)

Let us consider one more example. In The Permaculture City (2015), acclaimed permaculture author Toby Hemenway explains that permaculture “offers a set of design principles for creating useful relationships that guide us in formulating our plans, and a host of connection-building design methods that help us decide which techniques to use to implement those plans” (p. 23). As he explains, “permaculture, not surprisingly, leans heavily on methods that focus on creating relationships among the parts of a design” (p. 31). He then fleshes out four of these methods, “each a powerful method for doing what is at the heart of permaculture design: creating connections and relationships among the parts of a design…” (p. 31). Here are his one-sentence summaries of these four methods (pp. 33-44):

“Highest use tells us how to connect design elements or activities in time by linking their functions or uses in a sequence. It tells us what to do first.”

“Needs and resources analysis tells us how to connect the parts of a design to one another.”

“The zone system organizes the parts of the design in relation to the user or center of use.”

“Sector analysis organizes design elements into useful relationships with outside influences that we cannot directly affect.”

The above quotes are representative of almost all published treatments of permaculture design. I think it is fair to say, then, that they are therefore representative of how permaculture designers in general talk about (and thus think, teach, and practice) design.

We can put this core understanding into a table. We have just seen evidence that the permaculture design literature generates sentences about what design is via the formula of selecting an item from each of these three columns and stringing them together:

start with then them to form a
elements assemble whole
parts connect system
components integrate pattern
things relate assembly
join plan
arrange design
place relationship
create relationships between

Integrating elements into patterns, connecting components into whole systems, organising parts into relationship, and so on, are all different expressions of permaculture’s unambiguously dominant understanding of what permaculture design is.

Christopher Alexander’s Challenge

Christopher Alexander is a radical architect, builder and writer widely known and respected by permaculture practitioners. Indeed, Alexander’s work is referenced in high esteem by the authors of the three books just cited.

A core theme in the 14 plus books Alexander has published over the last half-century is a critique of the idea of design as element assembly. Here are two representative excerpts from earlier and later in his career:

“Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts” (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

…then, 33 years later:

“To grasp the nature of the subtle structure [of wholeness] fully, we must learn to avoid the danger of trying to see [wholes]4 made up of parts. Present-day conventional wisdom (perhaps Cartesian and mechanistic in origin) tells us that everything is made of parts. In particular, people believe today that every whole is made of parts. The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole, in short, the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a [whole] is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.

I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different.” (Alexander, 2002a, p. 86)

Now consider this statement, which starts to clarify what he means by quite different:

“This [approach to design] is a differentiating process.

It views design as a sequence of acts of complexification; structure is injected into the whole by operating on the whole and crinkling it, not by adding little parts to one another. In the process of differentiation, the whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole, and the parts, come into being simultaneously.

The image of the differentiating process is the growth of an embryo.

It starts as a single cell. The cell grows into a ball of cells. Then, through a series of differentiations, each building on the last, the structure becomes more and more complex, until a finished human being is formed.

The first thing that happens is that this ball gets an inside, a middle layer, and an outside: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, which will later turn into skeleton, flesh, and skin, respectively.


Then this ball of cells with three layers gets an axis. The axis is laid down in the endoderm, and will become the spine of the finished person.


Then this ball, with an axis, gets a head at one end.


Later, the secondary structures, eyes, limbs, develop in relation to the spinal axis and the head.


And so on. At every stage of development, new structure is laid down, on the basis of the structure which has been laid down so far. The process of development is, in essence, a sequence of operations, each one of which differentiates the structure which has been laid down by the previous operations” (Alexander, 1979, p. 370-371)

So how might this apply in practice to a given design process? As Alexander then explains:

“At the beginning of a design process, you may have an idea that the open space should be ‘more or less over here,’ and the building ‘more or less over there.’ Neither the pattern for ‘open space’ nor the pattern for ‘building’ is very precisely defined at this stage. They are like two clouds, whose size is imprecise, and with imprecise edges. It is not even perfectly certain, at this stage, that the cloud called ‘open space’ will be entirely open—nor that the cloud called building will be entirely roofed. What is happening, is that you place these two clouds, roughly, at this stage of the design, with the full understanding that the design is accurate only to within the order of magnitude of the clouds themselves, and that all kinds of details which are smaller in scale, may be changed later.

Later in the process, you may be placing the ‘entrance’ to the building. Again, the pattern which you call the entrance is a cloudy volume, about the right size, clear enough so that you can pin point its location, with respect to other larger clouds, and to show its relations to the things next to it, but no more exact than that.

And, yet another stage in the design process, you may place a column. This column has a height, and a rough size—but again, at the time you place it first, it has little more. Later, you make the column more exact, by placing the edges of the column, its reinforcing bars, its foundation, and so on.

Whenever we want to make one of these vague cloudy patterns more precise, we do it by placing other smaller patterns, which define its edge and interior.

Each pattern is an operator which differentiates space: that is it creates distinctions where no distinction was before (Alexander, 1979, p. 372-373)

I find it curious that permaculture authors (including those cited above) don’t acknowledge Alexander’s critique of their core understanding of design,5 not to mention his extensively documented and detailed attempts to flesh out and apply his alternative understanding.6

Don’t these seem like worthwhile ideas to explore and try out? The idea of design as a differentiating process? The idea of design as a program or sequence of injecting structure into a whole, moving from larger wholes toward smaller wholes? The idea that each smaller whole is placed, shaped, oriented and sized according to its relation to the wholes it sits within, and the wholes that surround it and overlap with it? Indeed, how else are we supposed to design from patterns to details?7

Same End, Different Means

As it happens, Alexander’s approach and the permaculture approach agree on the end they are aiming for. Compare Alexander’s…

“…it is important that we, as a people on Earth, learn to create our towns, buildings and landscapes so that they too – like nature – are living structures, and that so our artificial world is then a nature-like system” (Alexander, 2002b, p. xvi)

…with the two definitions of permaculture this article started with.

While permaculture focuses more on the agricultural productivity of such systems and Alexander more on the built environment8, there is a common striving toward landscapes or systems with deep natural character (i.e., that “mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature” in the statement from Holmgren, or that are “living structures” in Alexander’s).

Going further, both Alexander and permaculture share the contention that we can only approach such systems through a process of conscious design.

The two approaches part company, however, when it comes to specifying the essence of this process – the means to the end.

For permaculture, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are to be achieved by a process of assembling or combining parts or elements into whole systems:9


For Alexander, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are achieved by a process of differentiating wholes into parts, as inspired by the process by which an organism comes into existence:10


Summary & Conclusion

Permaculturalists have formulated principles and patterns intended to capture key aspects of healthy natural ecosystems. They have then attempted to mimic these principles and patterns in the systems they design.

Details aside, a common theme to how design is defined in the permaculture literature is as a process of element assembly.

This is a process of starting with parts then creating wholes by addition.

Christopher Alexander argues that if we want to mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, we must understand and copy the patterns and relationships inside the process by which nature produces these patterns. We need to mimic the means as well as the ends.

He then proposes that the key to nature-mimicking design process is differentiation:

“The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole” (Alexander, 2002b, p. 197)

This is a process of starting with wholes then creating parts by differentiation.

This radically different understanding of what sound design process is challenges a core idea in permaculture.

I encourage permaculturalists (including myself) to wholeheartedly accept this challenge. Let us engage with it, understand it, discuss it, try it out, reach some sort of clarity on what we make of it, and whether we see any value in it.

Further, let us not forget that this challenge comes not from someone totally outside or foreign to permaculture. A small portion of Alexander’s thought and writing has already infused and enriched permaculture. Yet somehow we have missed perhaps the most important thing he has to offer us. In other words, we have barely started the important work of exploring and assimilating the riches he has to offer. I for one can’t wait to see where his thinking takes us next.

In conclusion, permaculture is defined as a process of consciously designing agriculturally productive, nature-mimicking landscapes. Conscious design implies consciously questioning our understandings of what design is, and where necessary, making improvements. In Alexander’s work, we find somebody we already like showing us a way forward.

See the next post for David Holmgren’s reaction to this post.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (2002a). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book One: The Phenomenon of Life (Vol. 1). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Alexander, C. (2002b). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life (Vol. 2). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). Practical Permaculture. Timberpress.
Hemenway, T. (2015). The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green.
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Melliodora.
Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari.


I thank David Holmgren, Dave Jacke, Rosemary Morrow, and James Andrews for their supportive and insightful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.


Weak Link Analysis Revisited, the Permaculture Tree (take three), and a Confession.

Here I want go deeper into the idea of identifying and addressing weak links toward making permaculture stronger. This idea is the seed of this entire project. Best we are as clear as we can be about what it is and what it is not.

Before we start, however, I want to make a confession.

I am a recovering academic.

There. I’ve said it.

I have been clean as a whistle for over ten years now. Honest.

Practicing permaculture has been critical to my recovery. From the clouds of high abstraction I have been threading myself back into reality one sweet design process at a time. One barrow load of soil, one grafted tree, one pond, or drain, or driveway. Chicken therapy has been invaluable and one time I had a most productive session with a duck. We bonded over soup.

But I feel a serious relapse coming on.

I ask for your support in helping me through this bout of wrangling trains of thoughts into sequences of sentences.

In my next post I’m even going to have footnotes and a consistently formatted list of references, for crying out loud!

Trust me, I know how risky this is.

But it is a risk I’m prepared to take.


Because I believe and I feel, in my heart of hearts, that at this juncture a dose of theory will add real value to Making Permaculture Stronger (MPS).

I feel it is important that the starting assumptions of MPS are publicly shared and critiqued and discussed up front by at least some of us.

But I also appreciate that this stuff is not for everyone, and that many of you will be more interested in what’s in the pipeline in terms of practical permaculture applications. If so, all good and see you down the line!

If, per chance you are in to this setting-the-foundations-of-the-approach business, then equally all good, and please don’t hold back in your constructive commentaries and offers of collaboration in getting what I think is this important and timely work off to the best possible start.

I also encourage you to let me know when enough wrangling has been done for one sitting and it is time to come back down to the sweet brown earth and see what difference the ideas we develop together make on the ground – the only place it counts.

Okay, enough pretext. Confess. Check. Now then, let us ease into this one hopefully clear and digestible step at a time:

1. Along with many others, I want to help make permaculture stronger.

2. The best way I know to make something stronger is to identify and strengthen its weakest link. Until it stops being the weakest link at which point you move on to the new weakest link. And so on.

3. Before you can identify a weak link you must identify a link. In other words, to identify permaculture’s currently weakest link, you must first have a feel for permaculture’s links, period. Then, once the links are on the table, you can inquire into whether they are weak, neutral, strong, or otherwise.

4. Permaculture’s key links, aspects, areas, stepping stones, or whatever you want to call them, exist as a pattern of dependencies, where some are more superficial in the sense that they depend on and follow from others, which are thus deeper in the sense of earlier and more foundational.

5. It would be premature and counterproductive to try and create too detailed of a map of these links and dependencies, or nodes and connections. What we need to keep moving is a preliminary, tentative, provisional map we can agree on as a evolving draft and then put to work trying out the weak link approach to see if it is worth the effort. If it yields fruit, then great – we can go back, revisit, refine, and try out different ways of going about mapping things.

6. By way of a starting point, in my previous post I suggested one broad pattern, map, or way of chunking and thinking about permaculture’s key bits:

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 7.09.04 am

7. Since then, mostly as a result of conversations and thoughts I’ve been having about this stuff, I find myself moving toward using the analogy of a tree to bring this map, and the key things I want it to emphasise, into a more workable form:


The idea is that growing up from a foundation in ecological/pattern literacy, systems thinking, a wholistic approach or worldview, the three core ethics, fundamental assumptions, the seminal definitions of permaculture, and the design principles (all these being general foundations that apply everywhere & always) permaculture travels via sound design process to sound and situation-specific design configurations or patterns along with their component strategies and techniques (all three being in the specific solutions category). In this diagram, sound design process is the tree trunk. If you’re a bit of water or mineral in the roots and you’re heading for the leaves, you got to go through the truck, capiche?

Put another way, this way of mapping things appeals to me in that it makes it unmistakably clear that design process has a uniquely critical role in translating permaculture’s beginnings and foundations into the on-the-ground solutions it is reputedly renowned for. As established in two previous posts, it is the only valid pathway from the general to the specific.

Please do comment on any major flaws you see in this organising heuristic, but at the same time please tolerate any minor issues and humour me while I run with this as a guide into seeking out and then attempting to strengthen weak links in permaculture. Starting with my very next post.

8. Okay, moving right along. I hope this new diagram makes it obvious that it makes more sense to find and tackle any links that are weak in the root and trunk regions first, as opposed to heading straight for the canopy where we are effectively dabbling in the amelioration of symptoms. Addressing foundational weak links will then in theory flow through and address or remove the weak links that depend on it and follow from them. This is leverage at work and it just makes sense. It is using a systems approach to improve a systems approach.

9. If we can agree it makes most sense to start below the canopy, then we still have some options. I’m looking forward to considering all permaculture’s foundations in due course. If we want permaculture to be as strong and challenge-ready as it possibly can be, I don’t see why we should leave any stone unturned, or for that matter any turn unstoned. But right now my gut feeling is that the foundations are not critically weak (what is your feeling?).

Not so with the trunk. Not so with sound permaculture design process. Whether it is a weak link because our core understandings of it are flawed, or whether it is simply suffering from neglect, there is no doubt that something is wrong here. Indeed the image I get is of a huge oak tree teetering on a feeble little stem. A stem with an open wound succumbing to a fungal infection or something. A stem about to topple because it is too thin to support the enormous and growing canopy above it.


Continuing only to strengthen and grow more limbs, branches, twigs, leaves and so on in this scenario is just not that clever. Not when the trunk is weak and crying out for attention, for sap flow, for healing growth.

An Example

Take the endless debate and quibbling about permaculture’s weak link of cookie cutter solutions whereby certain strategies and techniques are inappropriately imposed left, right and centre. Whether it is debating the relative merits of this strategy or that technique. Whether it’s commissioning research on whether this strategy or that technique is appropriate in temperate climates. Or whatever (funny, I just can’t bring myself to mention any of these cliches I’m alluding to. We all know what they are, right?).

Applying the foregoing logic we ask is there an underlying weak link responsible for this issue? I believe there is. I believe this entire issue is a more superficial flow-on effect of the deeper weak link of a lack of appreciation for, agreement on, and widespread use of, sound design process. For the only sure indicator as to the appropriateness of this strategy or that technique in a given context is: does it come out of the application of a sound design process?

The tantalising implication is that if we could address the underlying root (or in this in this case trunk  ;-)) cause then the more superficial issue would disappear in a puff of sound process. Not only would permaculture be stronger, but many of us would have freed up resources to focus our energies where it counts (the next foundational weak link), rather than distracting each other with more counter-productive quibbling about prematurely imposed solutions.


Imagine if together, as a growing community, we collaboratively direct energy at addressing the logically prior and more foundational weak links first. Just like we most effectively address erosion by starting right at the top of the catchment.

I cannot describe the excitement I feel at where the global permaculture movement would be a year from now if we were to get stuck into this together.

In my next post, I’m going to make a start. Hope to see you again then.

Postscript – Four Things

Thing One – after this map arose for me this morning (and what I thought would be a ten-minute sketching session turned into a two-hour sketching session!) I googled “permaculture tree” and was delighted to be reminded of the diagrams under the same name in Mollison & Holmgren’s Permaculture One (1978 – hence Take One) and Mollison & Slay’s Introduction to Permaculture (1991, hence Take Two). Both share some similarities with my sketch and with each other, but all three differ in important ways too, as I’ll likely touch on in future posts. But I was stoked to rediscover (or unconsciously repeat as I had seen both diagrams before) that the founders have already been wandering through similar parts of the landscape of ideas about this stuff.

Thing Two – Something I was pleasantly surprised to realise as I was sketching is that you can see Holmgren’s (2002) Permaculture Flower as a top-down view of my profile sketch of the the tree. The spiral, the domains, two of the foundations (ethics & design principles) – it’s the same thing from a different angle! Here, check it out (reprinted with about-to-be-requested permission from

Thing Three – I want to make it clear that the sketch The Permaculture Tree (Take Three) I’ve developed for this post is true but oh so very partial. I created it to support a line of thought and to try and provide a rationale for where this project is headed next. Please don’t take it too seriously! In particular the tree analogy is only useful to a point – I’m sure that if we were to rigorously map the dependencies amongst permaculture’s nodal ideas we’d end up with a semi-lattice rather than a tree.

Thing Four – Thanks to James Andrews, Adam Grubb, and Amanda Cuyler for their supportive feedback on a draft of this post. They identified some weak links and thereby helped make the post stronger.

Adding a Layer to the Design Framework

In response to my recent post A Proposed Weak Link: Neglect of Design Process: Part One, which prompted a delightful assortment of comments (thanks all!), Dave Jacke made a comment that about a day after reading sparked something in me and suggested an improvement to the pyramid I unveiled there. Here it is with the addition of what I am realising is something that is there, and that is all important, whether we like it or not and whether we’re conscious of it or not – an underlying worldview.

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I want to think (and feel) about this more (is only about an hour old as an idea), but one thing I would love to hear from you at this stage – and from all of you – whatever the nature of your relation to permaculture, and the time you’ve been part of it, is what the holistic worldview underpinning the rest of permaculture actually is, in essence (what can you manage in two or three sentences, for example – I think the shorter the better at this stage for the ease of comparison, but of course take all the space you think you need).

David Holmgren uses the phrase systems thinking in a similar way (Indeed his best-known definition of permaculture starts “I see permaculture as the use of systems thinking…), but I’m feeling that holistic worldview is the better phrasing here (which I’m sure he uses too – any volunteers up for scanning his book to find out? And what about Mollison? Etc.), something I’d also appreciate your views on. Indeed, stepping back a little, I’d also appreciate your reaction to the idea of adding this layer to the framework.

So, to clarify the nature of the comment I’m inviting and encouraging you to make:

  1. Your reaction/thoughts to this addition and where it sits
  2. Your reaction/thoughts to the choice of words holistic worldview and anything different you’d prefer
  3. Your succinct understanding of what the holistic worldview underlying permaculture, and without which permaculture don’t make no sense, actually is, in essence. What are the core points of difference with the conventional worldview underlying modern culture?

Thank you so much! I’m excited to find out where this conversation will lead us.

A Proposed Weak Link: Neglect of Design Process: Part Two

Prefix: This post gets to the same point as the previous one in a different way. Just getting crystal clear on the nature of this weak link in permaculture in its design system sense before we start exploring attempts to address this weak link in future posts. Now then, let’s get on with this post:

The word design is both a verb and a noun, a process and a thing. The process of designing (verb) results in a design (noun). In my opinion, the power of permaculture design has been compromised, crippled even, by an unacknowledged over-emphasis on design as a noun, thing, or end and a corresponding neglect of design as a verb, process, or means.

All that can generate a sound permaculture design is a process of designing, or as it is more commonly referred to, a design process. A design process is a program or sequence of foci & actions from which a design emerges. Regardless of other details, this process must involve a tuning into people and place in a way that, moving from vague to specific, and from patterns to details, reveals an appropriate design bringing people and place together within a flowing, functional, fine-feeling whole.

The ability to generate sound designs is the same as the ability to engage in a sound design process. There is no way around this. No thing can be created without a prior process of creating. It would seem obvious, therefore, that the details of the process are as (if not more) important than the details of what a particular process resulted in at some point in the past.

It is not just that to focus on the designed, and for that matter on the implemented, can distract us from tuning into, discussing, evolving and sharing the process of design that gets us there. It is that this focus can become a disastrous substitute when folk start attempting to replicate a design (i.e., the spatial configurations along with particular strategies and techniques), which are not as appropriate in another setting. This happens rather than attempting to learn and replicate the design process, which, if sound, can generate a solution that is appropriate in whatever setting it is applied to.

As I survey the permaculture design literature, attend talks, see the work of beginning designers, I see a huge coverage firstly of implemented designs (look at this garden I designed & implemented, this farm I designed & implemented etc) and secondly of finished designs (look at my beautiful design diagrams). What I do not see, except in isolated and scarce silos, is coverage of the design process responsible. Then when I do probe and tease evidence of this process out, I am generally not impressed with what I see.

To talk plainly, what I see is most often mistake-ridden and full of imposed ideas that to some degree are being inappropriately forced on the site/client. Yes, yes, I know you want to see an example, and that will happen in future posts. For now I’m just trying to say it like it is and open the conversation, with the ultimate aim of showing this stuff up more by seeking out and exposing sound process more than pointing the finger at the unsound.

I don’t see this general lack of quality as a weakness or deficiency of the designers involved (though of course there is always the chance that is an additional complicating factor!). I see it as a weakness in the attention that has been given to the collaborative development of permacultural understandings of what sound design process is. What it looks like. Where it starts. Where it ends. The bits in between.

The coverage of this stuff in most introductory permaculture books and courses is abysmal, and after ten years in the game I am starting to appreciate what is possible in terms of what sound design process can generate. It takes my breath away. As I once heard Dave Jacke say on a podcast, permaculture design has so far taken baby steps. Just wait until we start to properly walk!

But first we need to agree that we are just getting started, that we have work to do. Then we can start to nut out ways of collaborating in moving this core aspect of permaculture forward.

A Proposed Weak Link: Neglect of Design Process: Part One

Here I want to propose a first weak link of permaculture in its design system sense. This weak link is the neglect of design process in permaculture literature, education, and media.

In teaching permaculture design, my colleagues and I (primarily Adam Grubb) rely on two main diagrams. The first we introduce is a permaculture design framework, the second a permaculture design process. Here I’ll share the framework diagram as I find it brings into focus the weak link we are to discuss here.

I should acknowledge Bob Corker and David Holmgren before proceeding, as both have shared alternative versions of this pyramid with me in the past and got us started with it. I find it a powerful teaching tool and am grateful to the both of them for putting me onto it. Bob Corker, I recall, was using a version that he attributed to Max Lindegger and Leigh Davison.

Anyways, let’s first consider the base of the pyramid, which is the place for the most foundational influences on permaculture design: ethics. Whether you go with earthcare, people care and fair share, or some other wording, the idea is that all permaculture design in all contexts honours these ethics.Permaculture Design Framework - Ethics

Now let us process to the next level, which sit on top of the ethics, but are still universally applicable: permaculture design principles. Again, no matter which list or hybrid list of principles floats your boat, the idea is that these principles apply to all permaculture design, everywhere. It always makes sense to design from patterns to details. It always makes sense to use edge effect, or to catch and store energy. These principles, like the ethics below them, are context-independent.

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Now let’s jump up to the very top of the pyramid – the most context-dependent content you might learn on a permaculture course or in a permaculture book. These are techniques – specific actions or processes used to achieve things. Examples are double digging or grey water reed beds.

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What sits a level more general than techniques? These are strategies, which are more general than techniques but more specific than ethics and design principles, being once again context-dependent. Examples are biointensive gardening or greywater reuse. Once you have a strategy you can move to consider which techniques are appropriate to implement that strategy in a given context. Strategies are like the rubber, you might say, and techniques the road.

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So this is all well and good and I can’t imagine a permaculturalist who would have an issue with the overall gist of this framework. But here’s the rub. The key to successful, achievable, appropriate, relevant strategies and techniques is the extent to which they are grounded in the ethics and design principles. But you can’t just jump from one to the other and hope for the best. You can’t go straight from ethics and principles to strategies and techniques. It does not and cannot work.

Yet this is the impression one takes away from many permaculture design courses and books. It is the impression I took away from my first permaculture design course. What it forces is hit and miss design, where you try and replicate this strategy or that technique, like your teacher said, while also trying to keep the ethics and principles in mind.

What is missing, of course, is design process – the only thing that can get you from the universal ethics and design principles to the specific strategies and techniques appropriate to a given context.

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In my experience, permaculture education & literature has tended to distribute the focus something like this:

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Ethics are touched on, design principles are covered in some depth (sometimes patterns are covered in here somewhere too), design process is glossed over (covering design methods, by the way, is very different from covering design process – which is another discussion for another time), then the rest is all strategies and lots of techniques – whichever the teacher or author happens to like most.

Where I feel that in contexts such as a permaculture design course something more like this would be so much more appropriate and effective in terms of empowering participants to go out and use sound design process to get to appropriate strategies and techniques.Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 9.56.03 am

Here ethics and principles are still covered in some depth. There is much less time spent on strategies and techniques with the core focus being on how all these things feed into (ethics and principles) or are generated by (strategies and techniques) sound design process.

Before closing and until next time, I should mention that this is not a previously unrecognised weakness in permaculture. Various folk have been tuning into it and some of them doing something about it (the initials DJ and DJD come to mind ;-)). I will be not only writing about my take on much of this work, but inviting many of these folk into this conversation/project.

That said, we still have a heck of a long way to go. It is clear to me that permaculture in general continues to suffer from chronic and systemic design process illiteracy. Until we acknowledge the widespread neglect of design process, it will be hard to galvanise steps toward literacy, which is foundational to making permaculture stronger.

Endnote: See part two of this two-post set here (in which I get to the same point a different way).