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.

Screen Shot 2016-04-23 at 7.09.04 am

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).

Good folk already Making Permaculture Stronger

Here I list known (to me) practitioners of permaculture actively doing the work of making permaculture stronger by at the least assessing & articulating weak links, and in most cases then doing something to address the weak links thus identified.

Obviously it is important to recognise and celebrate folk already doing a great job of this stuff, particularly given that in future I’ll be standing on some of their shoulders and generally bouncing off many of them.

To be clear about the criteria for making it on to this list, these folk are genuinely sympathetic to permaculture, and they are coming from a place of honestly reflecting then earnestly addressing gaps, issues, or weaknesses within permaculture. Where the attitude or intent is to make permaculture better. But where part of the process of doing so is being openly critical about at least one central aspect of permaculture. They are actively sharing their work along these lines with the world. I also just happen to know about them.

I should also be clear that most of these folk are not working in the specific target area of Making Permaculture Stronger (with the exception of Dave Jacke, David Holmgren, and Darren J Doherty) which is design process thinking and practice. I mention them here therefore due to aligned intent in their approach to other aspects of permaculture, where the intent/attitude is at least half the story.

I should finally mention that I have excluded folk working to make the way permaculture is taught stronger. This is such important work but I have decided to exclude it for now in that it feels like opening a can or worms larger than I can currently handle or do justice to (but I do remain open to suggestion). It feels like it should almost be a whole other project in itself. Making Permaculture Education Stronger anyone? This project’s focus is permaculture design process and here I include folk going outside that focus, but who are still working on the substance or content of permaculture as opposed to how it is taught (acknowledging that the two blend into each other in practice). But I want to think more about this and invite any clarity you (yes you there) might bring me.

Please submit suggested additions to our contact page.

I’m slightly embarrassed they are all men so please to make any suggestions of women doing this work (who in my personal experience in terms of making permaculture stronger by addressing weak links are working in improving how the content is taught – Rosemary Morrow being a significant mentor of mine on this front and Robyn Clayfield another significant contributor) would be very much appreciated.

David Holmgren / Holmgren Design Services

I find it incredibly refreshing to find that one of the most outspoken critics of so many aspects of permaculture is one of the co-originators. I’m not going to try and compile a list of David’s published work in this vein here (in a way almost all he has written since permaculture’s inception is a contender) but intend to to so as a separate post in future. I have enjoyed many great conversations about permaculture design and whatnot with David over the years, and one of many things I respect about his approach is that he has no attachment to being right and is ready to critically consider & revise any and all views or approaches, including those he holds himself.

Rafter Sass Ferguson / Liberation Ecology

Rafter is doing some fantastic work and perhaps more than anyone I’m aware of is actively, and sympathetically, getting real about many of permaculture’s shortcomings and doing something about a lot of them. His epic article Permaculture for agroecology: design, movement, practice, and worldview. A review is very worth checking out as is his more recent Grassroots engagement with transition to sustainability: diversity and modes of participation in the international permaculture movement.

The Institute for Participatory Design

I don’t know much about these folk apart from this brilliant article.

Dave Jacke / Edible Forest Gardens

Dave Jacke was the lead author (backed up by Eric Toensmeier) of the two volume Edible Forest Gardens which is hard to deny the status of a classic original contribution to the permaculture literature. In addition to his synthesis and practical application of modern understandings of forest ecology (in Volume I), Dave has explicitly critiqued the lack of emphasis on sound design process within permaculture and made an impressive contribution to doing something about it (in Volume II). Again, we’ll be focusing in on details of Jacke’s work in this latter area in due course – given it is so relevant to Making Permaculture Stronger’s mandate. As fate would have it I enjoyed a fantastic conversation about this stuff with Mr Jacke a few days ago and was delighted to have his interest in this project and his affirmation of its relevance and importance.

Joel Glanzburg / Pattern Mind

Joel is bringing many unique flavours of deep holism and systems thinking to permaculture – see this open letter to the permaculture community he wrote.

Darren J. Doherty / Regrarians

After working in permaculture design for many years Darren has developed a fresh approach to farm-scale design process. One prompt for this has been his identifying a dearth of quality design process thinking in permaculture, and an integrative approach bringing useful stuff from outside permaculture into his professional consultancy and teaching work. Darren is most recently calling his approach the Regrarians Platform. In this vid he gives the flavour though it has developed a lot since then. I should mention that Darren has been a significant mentor of mine and is nowadays a close friend & colleague – I hope these facts don’t bias me against the rigorous critical analysis of his work should the time come for such (something I know Darren openly welcomes and takes on board where valid points are made – this is one reason he’s a leader in the field).

Tim Winton / Pattern Dynamics

Tim doesn’t fly under the permaculture banner these days, but he has in the past practiced, written and thought a lot about this stuff and has expressed an interest in being part of Making Permaculture Stronger which I am very happy about. This article of Tim’s is well worth a read and includes the line (in reference to the integral approach he uses): “Now, I can see the strengths of permaculture more clearly and I am more effective at working through its weaknesses..”

Chris Smaje / Small Farm Future

Chris is a rather sharp cookie who has written a lot of thought provoking stuff to do with, among other things, widely held assumptions (dare I say holy cows) within permaculture. This review of Mark Shepard’s book Restoration Agriculture is one example that captures his vibe nicely, but the ultimate in terms of overlap with the focus of Making Permaculture Stronger has got to be this post (along with the comments) on what he calls Permaculture Design Course Syndrome. A highly recommend discussion to check out. I should mention that Chris is probably the least sympathetic to permaculture on this list. But his work is nonetheless extremely relevant to Making Permaculture Stronger.

Peter Harper

I don’t know much about Peter Harper apart from he is a distinguished fellow at the Schumacher Institute, he coined the term “alternative technology,” he wrote this article in 2003 (PDF) which is of clear relevance, and he is a colleague of David Holmgren’s. From what I do know I like the cut of his gib though.

Rob Scott

Rob wrote an article in 2010 entitled A Critical Review of Permaculture in the United States focusing mostly on permaculture’s general disconnection to solid research.

A bit more context

So I feel that the scene is about set, and that I can nearly launch into some of the substance, the content I have in mind to get the ball rolling here. But first with this post let me scene set just a little more.

In March last year, a little over a year ago, I found myself at an Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Penguin, North-Eastern Tasmania.

Several significant things happened over the several days of the event that were formative in the sense of helping set in motion a sequence, one outcome of which has been this project.

The first thing was during Bob Brown’s opening speech. Great speech, by the way. Great speech from a great man. In effect a rousing urge to environmental activism. One comment was that “the stupid are cocksure, whereas the intelligent are self-doubting.” Anyways, toward the end he said something like “if you lot were running the country, we’d be fine. But unfortunately, you’re not.”

Now of course he was being nice, flattering the crowd, giving permaculture the thumbs up, and all that. But the thought that hit me at this statement was along the lines of “my god, let’s be honest here, if this lot were running the country, we’d be [let’s just keep it clean and say not so fine]” So that was one thing. I’ll get into why I had this thought in due course.

The second thing that happened was that I led a session called “critical self-reflection in permaculture.” Maybe 30 people came along including several elders of Australian permaculture, which I was delighted with. I played the thing by ear and introduced the concept of a weak link analysis, introduced a few of my pet weak links in permaculture, calibrated against the group, and then invited others to submit theirs. I won’t get into the details now, though, but what the heck, I will share this list that came out of the session (we will come back to a lot of these items in more detail in future posts):

  • Neglect of design process
  • Lack of post-PDC pathways
  • Dearth of evidence
  • Lack of stress/focus on implementation and management
  • Permaculture design course evaluation & evolution
  • Conscious decision making/leadership/management skills
  • Doing everything ourselves
  • False confidence
  • Closed shop vibes
  • Permaculture of the inner landscape (this from Professor Stuart Hill)

Details aside the main point is that my feeling from the vibe of the session along with feedback afterwards was that the approach I was suggested resonated with the group. Which was encouraging. I remember actually joking about starting a website like this, not expecting myself to actually do so over a year later.

The final thing that happened was not only an aspect of the convergence but of the two-day advanced permaculture design course I led directly afterwards. With two able assistants and 19 lovely participants, we had a special few days. But where I’m getting to was that I was deeply struck by the number of folk, often younger, sometimes not, that had permaculture design certificates and were earnest, and intelligent, and wanting to take it further, often with a component of professional design work.

These three things (becoming aware of my own perception that the permaculture movement generally doesn’t have its shit together in a lot of basic ways, a positive reception to the topic of critical self-reflection in permaculture, and tuning into a huge wave of interest in taking permaculture design work to a higher level) affected me quite deeply, and are part of how I came to be the me that is having a go at setting this whole thing up.

So, yes, just wanted to acknowledge the contribution of that convergence toward getting this whole thing, whatever it is, exactly, off the ground. Thanks, convergence!

Over and out.

Setting a vision & some themes/rules of play for this project

I thought I’d put a little more thought into articulating the space in which I would like to see this project exist. First, here’s a draft statement of purpose or reason for existing:

Making Permaculture Stronger is a space where permaculture practitioners come together with a spirit of strengthening the design system aspect of permaculture by clarifying its weaknesses and coordinating efforts to address them.

Here are several things I would like to be true of the way in which this purpose is delivered upon:

  • Making Permaculture Stronger is about slowing down, taking stock, and sharing with honesty about where we are at
  • This sharing happens with a positive focus on improving permaculture. We are interested in clarifying what is problematic only to the extent it will assist our subsequent efforts, or the efforts of others, to make it less problematic.
  • Making Permaculture Stronger is a collaborative project open to anyone for whom the project/effort resonates and who is happy to operate within the context of these parameters (i.e., this list)
  • To participate in this project is to give permission for the administrators/s to make any required decisions according to their judgement of whether a decision accords with the above stated purpose and this list
  • All sharings and communication on Making Permaculture Stronger are focused on patterns, trends, gaps, and so on in permaculture and are not focused on the perceived failings of particular individuals.

Okay, that’s it for now. For anyone interested in this approach to defining an approach to something, it comes from something called holistic management decision making, and you can see an article I wrote explaining it here.

Weak Link Analysis – What is it?

I should say a little more about the overall approach that defines making permaculture stronger as a project. I am calling it a weak-link analysis of permaculture in permaculture’s design system sense. It amounts to one way of approaching the way we design the way we practice permaculture design. It is very simple:

  1. Coordinate the identification of weak links in the sense of factors limiting or constraining permaculture as a design system. This is something like a scanning or auditing process.
  2. Assess, coordinate and if necessary initiate efforts to address those weak links

The inevitable result of following these two steps repeatedly is that permaculture gets stronger. I am becoming concerned with the amount of effort in permaculture that goes towards sharing what is already strong. This work is important, but when it takes up the entire stage, then the equally if not more important task of tuning into and strengthening what is not already strong (or was once strong but has become weak) gets neglected.

It is like a bodybuilder who in proudly building and sharing their magnificent biceps, abs, and calves neglects other muscles that are in very poor shape. The result is a funny looking figure that when push comes to shove, and they attempt useful work, they not only have serious deficiencies, they are very likely to injure themselves, and come out of the whole situation with a bruised body and a bruised ego. I fear that if we are honest with ourselves, permaculture in its design system sense is a currently funny looking figure. I get the feeling I’m not alone.

Weak-link analysis is a kind of quiet background capacity building effort that ultimately gives the set proclaiming permaculture’s strengths (myself included) more to share.

I think permaculture design has more than enough good stuff going on to maintain morale sufficiently for the odd excursion into the stuff that isn’t so good (where the whole point is trying to then make it good!).

The First Post

About six months back I had a dream in which I was talking to my friend and colleague Adam Grubb. I was telling him I had some things I wanted to get off my chest with respect to the topic of permaculture, and that I was thinking about doing so via a website called Dan’s Permaculture Ramblings. We looked at each other in the mutual realisation that this was not a good name for a website. So I said, “well, what about Making Permaculture Stronger?”

That is as much as I can remember from the dream. But the next day, wide-awake, I happened to be talking to Adam on the phone and so I told him about the dream. He liked the idea of the website – under the latter name suggestion – and said he’d contribute. I rather liked it too, so after our call I registed the url. That evening I wrote this very first post. And now I’m getting around to posting it.

So, let me give a feel for what I intend this website to be about, and my motivation for bringing it into existence.

I have been studying and practicing permaculture for a little over ten years. Over this time I have seen permaculture become a lot more mainstream in both Australia, where I have lived for most of the last ten years, and New Zealand, where I am now based. Along the way I helped start the now global permablitz movement, a well-respected permaculture design, implementation and education company, and several overseas permaculture projects in India and Africa. I’ve taught or co-taught perhaps a dozen permaculture design certificate courses, read and written a lot about permaculture, and learned from many senior designers and teachers within permaculture and in related fields.

In the last year I have started running what I call Advanced Permaculture Design courses, in which I get to work with folks that already have some training and experience in permaculture (and want to take it to the next level). I also continue to design, with several hundred professional design projects behind me (most in collaboration with Adam), and three currently on the go.

Obviously, given after ten years I’m still at it, I like it. There is no two ways about it. I’m a fan, and if I had to come up with a short, snappy description of my profession I’d probably say permaculture designer and educator.

That said, as well as being an insider to the permaculture movement, scene, whatever you want to call it, I am also a critic. Though my journey with permaculture is relatively young, I have been around long enough to be able to proclaim, with confidence, that permaculture well and truly needs a good injection of critical self-reflection. From within.

Why? In order to make it stronger. You see I not only like permaculture, I’d like to see it get stronger. I’d like to see permaculture become more and more mainstream, but in a way where it is a shape to offer solid, holistic solutions in a world flying headlong over a cliff where shit is about to get even more out of control.

The best way I know of strengthening something is to identify weak links and then to direct energy toward making them less weak. This approach seems blindly obvious to me, and yet for some odd reason seems to me not to be a significant part of the culture of permaculture. In so much permaculture literature, education, presentation, online media, and so on, the focus is on links that are already strong, and in some cases on making them even stronger. I would like to contribute to the bucking of that trend.

Yes, permaculture is amazing. Gobsmackingly relevant. Awe-inspiringly solution-packed. But let’s be honest about the fact it sucks at some things, that it lacks or neglects other things, that it has had an embarrassing amount of failures & causalities. Furthermore, if it barrels on oblivious to all this, then when push comes to shove, at the very moment when it needs to shine and get its gallop on, one or more of these neglected gaps or weak spots will see it fall flat on its face, or at the least, failing to shine as brightly as it might have.

Now no one really knows what permaculture is, really, in the sense that it is not only continuing to evolve, but that it is a lot of different things all at once. My interest here is not in defining permaculture. Go figure out what permaculture is some place else, then come back here and see if what this site has to say about it rings true for you. As Bill Mollison often proclaimed on my first permaculture course ten years ago, “google it.”

I will say this though. However permaculture is understood or defined, there is something fundamental to all permaculture that involves design. Conscious design. Functional design. Integrative design. Holistic design. Ethical design. Principled design. Permaculture is almost always defined, in part, as a particularly flavoured design system, approach, or method.

It is this aspect of permaculture that I am interested in making stronger. Permaculture as design. I declare that it is this aspect of permaculture that this project is about strengthening. The rest, I believe, will follow.

I don’t know how this site will evolve. Perhaps I won’t even get around to uploading this post. Perhaps I will, and then two friends will see the site before it sinks into obscurity. I’m not fussed. The main thing is that I’ll have a chance to get those things I hinted at earlier off my chest, post-by-sweet-cathartic-post, in a way that develops and sharpens my thinking about them.

Beyond that, I am starting to get some inklings about how wonderful this project could be as a collaboration amongst permaculture practitioners for whom it resonates. Together we’d get clear firstly on identifying what permaculture design’s weak links are, and secondly on finding out what, who, where or if anything is being done about it (and possibly even coordinate efforts to do something about it ourselves – imagine that!).

So, there it, is, post numero uno. I will post again as the urge takes me, and at some point I’ll let others know the site exists, and perhaps figure out ways of enticing others to start contributing. Maybe I’ll pester a few senior colleagues for their two-cents worth. And from there we’ll just have to see what happens, won’t we!

A good day to you.