In this conversation, which follows on from the previous episode, explores Looby Macnamara’s design web. We dive into the topic of emergent design process, and in particular Looby’s design web approach to designing anything. I was pleasantly surprised to discover in my preparations for this chat that Looby is a co-traveller in the realm of design process innovation, earnestly striving via the design web to get free of traps such as:
Viewing design process as a linear sequence of steps
The logical fallacy of having “design” be one of the steps within the whole “design” process
Having observation as a step as if at some point you stop observing
Getting too prescriptive about the end state you are heading toward
Separating planning from action in ways that cripple the possibility of the best outcomes and discoveries
Getting paralysed by complexity
Getting stuck in one’s head
Mechanical (as opposed to biological and ecological) metaphors
Learn more about Looby’s work including books and courses at her Cultural Emergence site here. Also if you’re keen to have Looby support you / us in applying the design web to something in our own lives, make a comment below and if there is enough interest and enthusiasm we’ll make it so!
Here is the design web:
Here is a juicy quote I pulled out from Looby’s latest book Cultural Emergence:
The Design Web is a non-linear process with non-linear outcomes and possibilities. Emergent design reflects the flexibility and unexpectedness of Cultural Emergence. It allows for solutions to emerge that take the design in a new direction. It is organic, responsive, adaptive, fluid, flowing and dynamic. As the design emerges we continue to weave our way between the anchor points. An attitude of emergence enables us to flow and move with what is arising. It recognises that things are not always as they seem, there is more to discover and be revealed. The process is alchemical with surprises along the way.
Designing regenerative cultures is an ongoing process of emergence, not a permanent destination. We are designing for and with living systems that are organic, dynamic and unpredictable. We are setting direction and intentions. It is an invitation for change, rather than being exact or prescriptive.
For some years I’ve been itching to get permaculture designer, teacher and author Looby Macnamara on the show and that dream has finally come true. Not only that, we had such a lovely chat we’ve already booked in a second conversation, where Looby will take us through what she calls her permaculture design web.
I recently enjoyed the first of what I hope will be many lovely conversations with Takota Coen about permaculture’s potential. Takota is co-author of the new design process book Building Your Permaculture Property. In Takota’s words, we “talk about how a lack of a living, adaptive process is holding permaculture back from reaching its fullest potential, and what we can all do about it.” Here’s the youtube version, here’s Takota’s podcast where this chat was originally shared, and you can learn more about what I’m calling Living Design Process here. Enjoy and please do leave a comment sharing what you make of the stuff we explore!
Greetings all. In this episode I get to ask my friend and colleague Michael Wardle from Savour Soil Permaculture all kinds of questions about the history and current state of his work as a professional permaculture designer and educator. Lots of great perspectives and hard-earned learnings in this one – I look forward to seeing what you make of it in the comments!
Hey all. So I had the urge to surf along a little in the wake of the last episode, and reflect further on Carol Sanford’s Seven First Principles of Regeneration. Thus, in this episode I reflect on, unpack and further explore what Carol shared about the seven first principles and how they are enriching my own development.
My intention for the episode was:
I am continuing to explore Carol Sanford’s Seven First Principles of Regeneration…
in a way that supports listeners (and myself!) to better grasp and go experiment with them…
so that we realising together, any value they can bring to our lives, projects and the Making Permaculture Stronger journey.
Hope you enjoy and I look forward to hearing what you make of all this in the comments :-).
Further Reading, Watching, and Listening on Carol Sanford’s Seven First Principles of Regeneration
If, like me, you’re itching to dive deeper, I found this most helpful series of blog posts (and a separate series of short videos) where Carol clarifies:
Here’s a quote I really liked from the essence post:
Looking to existence, writing down our observations or collecting facts, will not reveal singularity. In order to sniff out essence, we must become trackers and look for it in the same way that native peoples follow the traces of animals who have passed by. Essence becomes apparent in the patterns that are specific to a person, those that reveal how they engage with the world, their purpose in life, the unique value they create as the result of their endeavors. The same is true for the essence of any natural system, community, or organization.
Welcome back to Part Two of a conversation with permaculture co-originator David Holmgren. In which David continues sharing significant milestones from his many decades as a practicing permaculture designer.
Thanks to this project’s wonderful patrons, I was once again able to have the audio professionally transcribed. The text below then received significant edits for clarity from patron Jon Buttery (thanks Jon!), myself, and most importantly David. Thanks also to David for kindly sharing relevant photos that help bring the text to life.
Don’t miss Part One if you haven’t yet heard/read it, and given the quality of thinking David shares in this continuation, I hope you’ll leave a comment. I anticipate a follow up conversation with David exploring questions and reflections from your comments, so please make the most of the opportunity.
Dan Palmer: All right. Well, here I am for the continuation of the discussion we started earlier. After a bit of a break, must have been, I don’t know, six weeks or something.
David Holmgren: Yeah. It’s been a busy time.
Dan Palmer: I’ll say! – a busy and very interesting time. It turned out the first recording was about an hour, and we got to the point where you’d started Holmgren Design Services, so that seems like a great place to start. You’d told us a lot about the project at your mother’s place in New South Wales and the learning you’d been doing from Hakai Tane about strategic planning, and then shrinking that down to apply to a site level. It’d be awesome to hear about the experience of moving into the space of permaculture design consultancy.
David Holmgren: In 1983 I started a business and registered a business name. There were lot of things that were going on in my life, which I can also correlate with things that were happening in the wider world: that led me to getting serious earning a living, personal relationships, and also living in the city. The consultancy work I did, was primarily advising and designing for people who were moving onto rural properties; what these days people call a ‘tree-change’.
That work fell into sort of two broad types. One-day verbal onsite advisory, walking around the property and suggesting things with clients. Then there was a more limited number of clients where I was providing reports and plans that gave me the opportunity to reflect. There were a lot of constraints on how to make a viable business in that, especially if your work wasn’t focused on affluent people, but instead empowering people who were going to get out and do these things themselves, often starting from scratch, and often making big mistakes. My advice and design drew on a combination of my own experience as well as observing how others had tackled the back to land process over the previous decade. By then I also had a very strong commitment to Victoria and South Eastern Australia of landscapes and ecologies and design issues that I was familiar with in that territory.
Dan Palmer: Was that where all or the majority of your professional work happened?
David Holmgren: Yeah, it was. There was occasional work further-afield – certainly into the dry Mediterranean country in South Australia and into New South Wales, Sydney region, but most of it was in Victoria.
Dan Palmer: Permaculture was a new thing so in a sense you were defining the industry or making it up as you went along.
David Holmgren: Yeah. It was also a time of very strong backlash against alternative ideas. When I set up the business, I had mixed feelings about whether I would describe what I was doing as permaculture both from a strategic “How do I project this as a viable business?” and my own criticisms of what I’d seen in the movement. Some of those criticisms were around design process, some of it around ideology, but I still felt permaculture was the best framework for describing what I was doing. Beyond people building a house, the most important things that new settlers did in starting on a fresh site were usually earthworks, and in Southern Australia, that almost always involved dams for water storage, issues of bushfire resistant design, where to put orchards, where to put gardens, what to do with larger areas of native bush, what to do about wildlife grazing – so many new issues for people coming from the city, often with some gardening experience but then moving out onto a larger landscape. The work involved an educative coach relationship, but having to do that within, at the time, a budget of a few hundred dollars.
Dan Palmer: So a lot of it was you’d walk in and you’d walk out within a day: can you bring to mind an example just to sort of tell us how you spent that time?
David Holmgren: Well, as that work consolidated around a Melbourne base and then a few years later moving here to Central Victoria, I firstly had built a really good understanding of the landscapes. So people would ring me up and I’d work out where their property was and I’d get out the 1:25,000 contour map and “oh yeah, it’s there. It’s on the granite country”. So then I knew what the tree species would be. There was a lot I could find out about the land through a combination of prior information and then that rapid site assessment based on the reading landscape skills that I’d focused on for more than a decade previously. In some ways more important question was “who are these people and where they’re at?” and how to get a brief that reflected what the clients were on about and what do they wanted. I used to tell people that they were their land’s greatest asset and its greatest liability to emphasise I needed really to know about them. I didn’t need to be told so much about the land.
Sometimes it would be different, for example when I was working on a farm where people might be multi-generation on the land, because then their knowledge of place was incredibly important. But in most of the work I could quickly see in just a short visit, things that even people who’d owned the land for a year or more didn’t understand about it. So finding out where the clients were coming from, with a couple, always emphasising the importance of both parties being present. Suggesting techniques like people taking notes and recording what’s said and encouraging people to have some sort of rudimentary sketch plan even if they didn’t have a base map of what was there. It was a lot easier working on open grazing land; much more complicated when you’re dealing with an old house with farmyards and bits of paddocks and all of those overlays of past actions: much, much more complex and difficult.
The ability to save people money, “yeah, this is the house site”, “yes or no to a dam there, road here, or orchard here”. I described it as helping people with the skeleton within which they might develop permaculture, that I wasn’t doing permaculture design in the landscape design sense. The degree to which I got down to specification – it was often with some critical plant infrastructure like shelter-belts and species. Sometimes a site assessment and advice carried over into supervision of earthworks because you could justify the cost when you’re spending maybe thousands of dollars in a few days with heavy machinery and especially if you’re doing house-site, road, dam, soil works like deep ripping for trees. You could justify being onsite, and do a whole lot more ad hoc design work with people as well through that process. If you had other labour onsite with doing handwork finishing up with earthworks then you could provide a lot of value to clients by multitasking. So there was at a lot of serendipitous sort of “oh well, we’ve got rock there or we can use that in this way” those things that you only necessarily discover as you start some process.
Discerning Superficial and Deep Layers of a Site
Dan Palmer: Yeah, for sure. You know that whole approach excites me so much: when it actually starts and you’re crafting and making discoveries. Earlier when you were talking about it, it was harder when there was a lot of existing infrastructure; farmyards and old houses and stuff, so that was one of the abilities you were cultivating, the ability to sort of mentally delete superficial or things that could shift?
David Holmgren: Yeah. That balance with what is worth saving, what is needed for frugality in energy and materials conservation, and respect for what exists because anything that exists has some value, and yet not being boxed in where “that’s where the fences are – they’re maybe rooms in the landscape”, but not necessarily. One of the things I used to say to people is that it’s fine to leave a fence in the landscape that’s in the wrong position, if it’s a decent fence for the time being, but to plant rows of trees along it would lock it into the landscape for maybe 100 years. So that dance of how much you work around those things, how much you can see what is underneath, independent of the things that have been overlaid.
So I spent quite a lot of energy, I suppose, ignoring the things that have been put on the landscape. But I remember a particular consultancy on a 10-acre property on the slopes of Mount Buninyong in Ballarat. This was at the time that I was also doing broadacre research that led to Trees on the Treeless Plains in the mid-‘80s, and this property was basically two square paddocks surrounded by stone walls on steep slopes. Being on steep slopes you’re just automatically looking at everything in terms of contours, but there were these stonewalls that were 120 years old or so and the top paddock had been ploughed in the past up and down the slope for potato growing . The soil had moved and filled to the top of the stonewall, so there was a terrace across the land. Then there were Blackwoods growing out of these stone walls that might have been 50 years old. Here I am trying to impose my contour pattern and it was there that I realised “oh no, this like an old English field landscape with square drains”, what people have done on the land in recent times is so changed and embedded in it, that it’s actually…that rectilinear pattern, we should work with in this case”.
Once I did that everything just fell into place. A lot of the things that we are so committed to , like ‘working with water on the contour,’ didn’t necessarily apply on soils so permeable to water and resistant to erosion. There was nowhere to put dams but the deep free draining soil was perfect for deep rooted unirrigated trees. It was an example of that more unusual sites where what people have done since white settlement has actually not just degraded the land but has added something in the land of enduring value. Of course we can see lots of places where there’s a middle path, where we are saying “no, that’s really, that’s an asset, that’s a beautiful thing that can be incorporated”.
Being dismissive of the past was something I noticed, new owners often do. People often fall in love with a place and then especially if it’s a place with a house and assets, and then they start being really disparaging about what previous owners. “We’ve got to change or…”
Dan Palmer: “We’ve got to put our stamp on this place.”
David Holmgren: Yeah.
Using the Land Systems Approach
David Holmgren: With those brief onsite advisory visits I developed the ability to at least mentally use the land systems stuff I’d learnt from Hakai Tane. But it was mostly when doing reports for larger farms where that came the fore; actually mapping the land to see how we could work with those patterns in a context of mostly grazing land use and where we are going to be adding trees into that landscape.
Dan Palmer: I remember walking – I think it was Yandoit farm – and you were explaining that a little, some of the different factors that you’d used to distinguish different land units.
David Holmgren: Yeah. It’s a subtle thing and in some ways it’s an art. It is sometimes possible to say “okay, this is that land type, that’s recognised in the mapping databases”. It can sometimes be a relatively simple distinction (between say poorly drained and well drained land). But sometimes, yes, like Yandoit farm, the patterns are quite complex and they don’t just reflect contours. It’s the geology and movement of water through the underlying landscape. The hidden things that are shaping it as much as the surface form.
Trees on the Treeless Plains
David Holmgren: I mentioned the work with Trees on the Treeless Plains which was initially a consultancy for Project BranchOut, an NGO that was the precursor to the Landcare groups in Central Victoria; in fact one of the origin points of the Australian Landcare movement.
I had this consultancy to look at re-vegetation strategies on the volcanic landscapes which are the most intensively farmed, mostly treeless, highest value agricultural land in Central Victoria. In the process of that research I went down every road you could drive down on the volcanic landscapes and went through a whole new phase of reading the landscape and up-skilling in being able to identify over 100 species of planted trees in the landscape. I used those observations to inform template designs for different landforms and different farm situations that involve tree fodder systems, shelterbelt design, farm forestry. This became the design manual Trees on the Treeless Plains, which was initially 100 copies made as part of the consultancy process for distribution to local landcare groups and then later in ‘90s we published it as a sort of permaculture design manual in disguise.
Dan Palmer: Yeah, great book. One that, as far as I know, is underappreciated.
David Holmgren: Yeah. Well, of course it was part of what we were doing also with publishing of case studies rather than books about permaculture in general. Of course there’s a dearth of case study design because, there’s only a limited number of potential buyers who’ll think it’s relevant to them. But TOTP did throw me back into a greater amount of work with conventional farmers and in that context I was the tree guy, designing tree systems rather than it being identified as the co-originator of permaculture. But of course I was always bringing that permaculture design lens to the farm revegetation context.
Maps and Disconnection from Land
Dan Palmer: I also remember when you looked at the contour map before walking around Yandoit Farm, just looking at the contour map – it was a simple example of that prior work with reading landscape. You could tell from the contours what the geology was and if it drops off that steeply and that pattern after the flat, it’s basalt and so on. And it seems like a lot of the value you were able to offer in these shorter consults as well as the whole farm stuff, was things you learned because of that past experience were no brainers. You could see instantly and say “well, a dam won’t hold water there, it has to be somewhere over here.” I remember Mollison once talking about how he would drive down someone’s driveway and by the time he arrived at the house he had a whole lot of clarity around suggestions.
David Holmgren: Yeah. A lot of what I could offer was because clients were so disconnected from land. It was different when people had a long familiarity with place and especially if that was multigenerational. Then different sort of cultural issues that are more to the fore. “Oh yeah, down that paddock, along that fence line, you’re into real wet pug there but up here a tractor would never get bogged in the winter”. So you’ve got knowledge that would take me some time going out and looking at that landscape in detail, walking it. Someone’s got that whole pattern of knowledge deeply embedded. So those are quite sort of different situations and what you can offer in those situations is different.
David Holmgren: So there is a degree of specialisation there – my specialisation was really in tree systems and in earthworks design. Whereas on a lot of small rural properties, it was interesting that after building a house, the most complex project people would attempt is setting up an irrigation system and there wasn’t really a trade that did that. You had plumbers at one end of the spectrum and then you had irrigation engineers and there was no one who designed and built small property irrigation systems and they can be quite technically complicated. So that was another area that I moved into because there was no one doing that. In the same way that when I set up Holmgren Design, I decided I wasn’t going to do house design, even though I was as much an ecological builder as an ecological farmer. In fact, I’d already at that stage had worked on building projects and designed and built a passive solar house on the South Coast of New South Wales.
Then in those early years, of course we were developing Melliodora after buying the land in ’85. And so it was was really that biggest application of property design and implementation, building on what we’d done with my mother’s rural property – now in a much more compact context on a one-hectare property. Again, earthworks, reuse and movement of soil, house design, irrigation systems, tree systems, all of the interlocked critical paths became the focus of my design process. The greatest amount of design work I did on any project is really Melliodora and I always saw it as being an demonstration of my design work. I didn’t want to be one of those architects who lived in a heritage house rather than a house that they had designed. But I used to say to people “I can help you with the skeleton framework within which you might develop permaculture but I can’t do what we have done here because you could never afford it (the time and the continuous engagement that was possible here)”.
Dan Palmer: I guess not to mention that to take what you’ve done here and give it to someone else is not going to be the greatest fit. All those details really have to come out of individual engagement and reflect the people and the place and all the particular aspects of it.
David Holmgren: But there was in doing things here: a lot at the beginning was actually applying what I was doing professionally and using it. Here we had detailed contour information because the whole town had just been sewered and so there were publicly available mapping systems. And I was able to do a lot of stuff on paper in great detail to the confusion of the local earthmoving contractor who’d never looked at a contour plan. But also having that ability to, and that need to, throw the plan away (not literally) but discovering “ah, there is reef rock” that we assumed a D7 bulldozer can move, “oh no, it can’t”, “oh does that mean a 20-ton excavator with a jackhammer or do we actually change the design?”. And that was a creative sort of response to the situation that I was prepared to do, in spite of having done very, very detailed work in that way. So it was also that further training, like doing small boreholes to see actually what the full profile is before the bulldozer comes and digs the dam. So I was still in that process of learning and gaining that expertise, that I was then applying further afield.
Design and Implementation with the Commonground Community
Dan Palmer: So you started Holmgren Design Services, you were doing advisory and design work for others and then you started Melliodora and continued to consult as well.
David Holmgren: Yes. And the key project that I did immediately after doing the earthworks in ’86 here at Melliodora was the Commonground community, which was over at Seymour on very fragile erosion-prone landscapes. I can remember, not quite reading them the Riot Act, but explaining that what they were doing, (in building this large community with a lot of people who would come with vehicles and all these buildings), was a massive impact on a landscape that had only ever had a few sheep walk across it. The landscape actually had tunnel erosion on it, just from cycles of overgrazing and rapid populations, and what we were going to do with earthworks and all of the use and intensity was a massively greater impact. Just because they had environmental sensibilities didn’t by itself ameliorate those impacts. Another learning at Commonground was working with many machines simultaneously and having to gain the respect of old-timer rural contractors and “who’s the young upstart from the city who has designed this, he’s not even an engineer”.
That was a key project, a milestone for me. It involved working with an architect, in a sort of a group design process and construction. The project was large enough to allow me to be to be there physically doing soil raking, directing other people, thinking further about the design. Consulting with the machine operators and creatively responding. For example building a major dam spillway and discovering a massive gravel deposit that we then harvested with elevating scrapers to provide the road material for what’s been a major access road in through that property that has had so much traffic over all those years since. So I think that was really a special project too because there were many different people involved in that community over the years who brought different skillsets and experiences, all building on the foundations we laid in those early years.
Epiphanies and Surprises
Dan Palmer: I’m curious: you’ve explained that for a long time you had already had a distaste of any rigid split between designing and implementing, and you’d learned the strategic planning with Hakai. So from when you started designing professionally, what changed or what did you learn over time? Like, part of what I’m hearing is that you were able to take on more and more complex projects but was there any kind of breakthroughs? I’m not getting that so far, it was more of a gaining more skill and mastery in the same kind of basic process approach or were there chapters or evolutions or epiphanies along the way?
David Holmgren: Well, certainly that property at Mount Buninyong that I’ve described was one of those that “I can accept what’s been done on the land”. There were urban projects as well. But there was, a developing conservatism in what I was prepared to recommend, recognising that there’s a difference between being an innovator-experimenter, especially in fields like tree-crop systems and aquaculture, for which there wasn’t established standard practice. So being more cautious about what one would recommend people do was part of the the learnings. But there was also being surprised in what some clients managed to achieve. I had a case here in the local area of doing a one-day advisory and I looked at this property and I said, “There are so many dam sites on this property. It could be this amazing aquaculture system of all these dams down this valley and this could go here”. I thought “oh yeah another couple of people from the city.” That couple actually implemented all of those ideas and beyond, and it became very significant in our local community here, running a permaculture nursery for many years, called Forever Growing.
They became leading figures in spreading permaculture and their place was quite extraordinary. So a case of underestimating what human potential or commitment or interests can do as well, so that there needed to a balance both ways between humility and low expectations on the one hand and an openness to unseen potential.
How Much Design Work?
Dan Palmer: So during this period of working in professional design – and I take it that over time your focus has moved slowly more and more to publishing and speaking education, but during that period how much design work were you doing? Was it full-time?
David Holmgren: Yeah. It was only equivalent of a one-third time job. In the early years, there was pretty much a three-way split in what one would consider a working life, between doing things ourselves primarily here at Melliodora, me as gardener, builder (the household economy which involved design constantly, but that wasn’t professional or for money. And that one-third of my time was writing, speaking, teaching, and contributing to the emerging permaculture movement and voluntary work, a lot of which didn’t involve design quite so much. Some of that did, but it was certainly not paid. And yeah, one-third was actually professional work and most of that was design work. So that meant I didn’t do a huge number of consultancies, and especially the ones that involved extensive reports and plans were often just a few a year.
Dan Palmer: So over the time you might have done what? What’s the ballpark? 50, 70, 100?
David Holmgren: Good question, because a lot of those onsite advisory ones, I don’t have documentation – they’re just a sheet in a file and some notes or something. Yeah, I haven’t looked at that but it probably only would’ve been 30 of those a year at the peak. There were larger consultancy projects including at Ceres City Farm in the late ‘80s, a 10-year strategy plan. And then in the ‘90s, a sort of retrofit of animal systems at the long-established Collingwood Children’s Farm. There were consultancies for Catchment Authorities and things that mostly built on the Trees on the Treeless Plains work.
Teaching Permaculture Design
David Holmgren: Then, in the late ‘80s, I was doing a little bit more teaching about permaculture and of course I was getting understandings of how permaculture design was being taught in permaculture design courses.
My observation of that, was of people drawing from what they’d learnt from Mollison. Remembering that I didn’t think he was so much a designer, more an ecologist, though he articulated, especially in the Designer’s Manual, quite a lot of interesting concepts around design and design process. But there certainly wasn’t a clear design process in permaculture teaching. Many teachers were drawing on landscape design, architecture – to a very limited extent planning, but mostly landscape architecture an gardening design methods together with permaculture ideas. In 1990, I think it was, I agreed to contribute, for the first time, in teaching on a Permaculture Design Course. This was the start of that journey of discovering the lineage of that first decade of design course teaching. I taught with some of the more experienced permaculture teachers and saw how people were teaching permaculture ethics and design principles and process .
That work on ethics and design principles work eventually led to the book Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability a decade later, but I knew there was this huge jump between fundamental design principles and design process. I felt I had a stab at trying to teach that on permaculture design courses in the ‘90s, especially ones that we ran. But some people’s reaction to that, was that what I was teaching was advanced permaculture design. The main distinction I was trying to introduce apart from the land system stuff for understand the underlying patterns of the land, was the difference between the methods that are appropriate to large scale Landscape design versus Site design. I was characterising what people were learning as permaculture design as Site Design, in the sense that architects and landscape architects thought about it in some limited context – the place where one is putting a building and the influences that are affecting that spot. Whereas once you looked at broadacre farms or intentional community design, that is across landscape, those Site design methodologies broke down. They had real limitations.
I was trying to introduce landscape design and site design as different design methods. Of course, a lot of the work I’ve done as a consultant actually informed how to do those site design processes and recognising the process by which, “what comes before what?” and what has to all be done simultaneously and then what can fall out from that process and be left till later. So I was introducing a lot of the learnings I had from the process of doing professional design. But I was also at the same time on permaculture design courses de-emphasising the vaguely ridiculous idea, that these courses were a training for people to be professional designers. Instead I was suggesting that design is a literacy that we use in our lives. So whether that’s designing your own garden or reviewing your living circumstances and working out how maybe things can be rearranged or change direction in some way, and being able to use design thinking in that way. So a lot of that was sort of stepping back and looking at it in more fundamental design principles, rather than “here, we’re going to design landscapes for people”.
Dan Palmer: Did your work impact other teachers? Do you feel that made any kind of difference to what you’d seen previously and some of your concerns with what was being taught as design process on PDCs?
David Holmgren: Yeah. I think it did with the people I worked with, but again like consultancy I was into fairly “slow and small” solutions. We didn’t do massive numbers of those courses. In the ‘90s we did one a year and we developed a team that we were working with. But I think a lot of that influence really didn’t come about till after publication of Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability and also doing a lot more teaching both around Australia and internationally. So it was really a slow feed-in and small influences.
Dan Palmer: You were saying with the design principles, with which you have had a massive impact on permaculture as a whole around the world, that they were a kind of stepping back from how you might go “what process you might use to design this particular place.” Do you have a perspective on how that gap is being bridged? Are people taking the principles and able to kind of translate those into different contexts from designing your own backyard to designing your life to …?
Fryer’s Forest Ecovillage
David Holmgren: Yes, well I think that’s a very important story of how that has emerged more recently and I could talk further about that, but there was, for me, a major step in between. What also was happening in the ‘90s was the development of the Fryers Forest eco-village and that was again design and implementation but in the role of being a developer and project management and bringing together all of those skills that I’d developed, but also working in a team of people. So that really in some ways brought me face to face with all of the regulatory structures in a more detailed way that I’d avoided like the plague through most of my design work, because I really wanted to work in that free creative area of the things that didn’t require regulation. To some extent, it’s one of the reasons I also got out of design work, because a lot of those things like earthworks, dams, and everything have become much more regulated.
I can remember the time when The Day Dam, a one megalitre dam built with a D7 bulldozer and cost $1,000 to build, turned into a $2,000 dam because it now needed an engineer to sign off on a whole lot of very basic paperwork, and that doubled the cost of building those dams. The ways in which regulatory structures work both to keep minimum standards at some sort of reasonable level, but also chop off all of the creativity that can happen in any field, certainly in architecture and landscape design. Farming was one of the areas where there was still until recently an enormous amount of freedom, both for better or worse for farmers to do whatever they want with the land. So that was sort of a creative free space. But in developing an eco-village with planning approval and all of those sorts of things, that became a much bigger part of what I was doing. But it was also the opportunity to see how the passions about sustainable forestry worked, in a design sense and a community engagement sense, and how people would learn and adopt some aspects that might be beyond what they were familiar with.
This issue I spoke of previously, whether you can actually raise some design idea that people might think is a great idea but they actually don’t know anything about it – and the chances of that becoming a reality are often very, very low. In some ways I used to say that as a professional consultant, all you can do for clients is confirm something that they might already half-know themselves. If you’re trying to introduce something that is completely foreign, it’s almost certainly not going to work.
Design Principles and Design Process in a Time of Crisis
I suppose in going back to design principles, I was really stepping back from that process of ‘what we’re doing’ to ‘why are we doing it’ and asking the more fundamental questions of why: the issues of diversity, why are small and slow solutions generally better than big and fast ones, and why do we need to be so obsessed with creating storages in the landscapes; storages of water, storages of biomass, rather than things just relying on throughput. Looking at those basic system design principles that we could see in natural systems, and we could see underpinned all traditional cultures of place in the use of land resources, but were contradicted in the modern industrial world. I saw a lot of people going about things quite creatively and exploring all sorts of ideas and even using quite creative design methods, but those deeper questions seemed to me more fundamental building blocks. Of course, the deepest ones of all are the ethical foundations. I really focused on that a lot but was intensely aware that those principles inevitably are abstractions, just generalisations, and they don’t tell you much about how do we get to that holy grail of some desirable outcome. But I certainly saw I couldn’t tackle all those things simultaneously.
Dan Palmer: Yeah. Yeah. And do you see that as a gap that’s yet to be filled or …?
David Holmgren: I think that’s a process that’s still emerging in different ways and I would definitely see your own work with Making Permaculture Strongeras a major contribution in that direction. I think there are many factors that work to drive us in two different directions simultaneously. One is: “why are we here?”, what are the really fundamental questions of going back to the basics and focusing on that. The other, with chaotic rapid unfolding change of circumstances, almost a sense of appearing to abrogate design or planning or any forethought and just responding to what’s coming over the hill at us. So we’re sort of pulled in a sense away from that solid space of some confident thinking ahead, planning ahead, knowing what’s going to happen and that does make it difficult to grasp for a lot of people, how design applies.
Dan Palmer: Such a fundamental issue. It’s something I scratch my head over a lot as things get more uncertain. We’re in a position now with COVID and everything where the buffer we have as a culture is pretty thin right now. So should another shock come down the line… We’re in a position where I don’t know if the ideal is that we’d have a deep enough working literacy of design principles and processes, so that we could ramp it up and default to that when shit gets crazy. As opposed to what probably will happen, or is happening, which is people are just going to reach into the grab bag and “oh, we’ll try this solution, we’ll try this solution, we’ll try this solution”.
Retrosuburbia and Continuous Incremental Design
David Holmgren: Yeah. I think that’s exemplified to some extent by the shift after the involvement with Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability and the teaching that came out of that. The lineage of work that lead to RetroSuburbia, recognising that humanity was rolling into multiple civilisational-scale crises. The most notable that people can understand is climate change, but resource depletion and all of the other ones that are linked to all of these issues, including of course pandemics and financial system instabilities and breakdown, and many, many others. As these processes unfold it was really clear to me even in the ‘90s when I was teaching on design courses, that how we retrofit and adapt where people already live is going to be far more important than building new state-of-the-art eco-villages or creating the world anew: whether that’s grand visions of gleaming green cities or the landscape reformed, it’s no longer just pastoral landscapes, it’s all of these amazing permaculture systems.
No, no, that’s not going to happen directly in that way – because those processes to the extent they will happen will be happening in a context of chaotic, if not collapse, breakdown and change of systems that we’ve directly or indirectly relied on. So that adaption in situ and retrofitting what we already have was clearly more important in a strategic sense and also of what is realistic for people to do and what is effective. Because most Australians live in the suburbs, retrofitting those suburbs was a priority. So that notion of moving from clean slate design to every site has a history, every site has something there, and recognising the good and the bad and the complex layers of that – where we are just a participant, tweaking or adding to what already exists; that shift in thinking was also strategic – in the sense of it bypassed a lot of the regulatory impediments because it’s not big new developments. So sometimes it can be done under the radar and the consequences of mistakes are far less than in grand projects.
The grand projects, yes, they can achieve great things that it’s hard to replicate in other contexts, but they also are where the big mistakes happen. I think that was part of my strategic thinking of how to deal with ongoing design in a context of crisis and chaotic change. Then, the emphasis in RetroSuburbia on three fields of action: the Built, the Biological, and the Behavioural, recognising that there’s limitations to changing biological systems; you can’t fast-track the growing seasons. And the built environment; well, we might not have the wealth or the capacity to knock it down and start again. Those limitations don’t apply to behavioural systems and this contradiction between “is people’s behaviour individually and collectively, the hardest thing to change?” or is it the easiest thing to change? It’s of course, both but increasingly moving to recognition that we can change the world mostly by changing ourselves, because that’s the most flexible system.
It’s wrong to project that sort of view of change, adaptation, and design for, say people living on the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh relying on what they can produce on the farm and remittances from family working in the Middle East, to say “you need to be more creative or change your behaviour”. Whereas in affluent Western countries there’s so much fat in the system, there’s so many opportunities for that creative adaption, that a lot of my focus of design has moved back into the people side of things and how we facilitate that in a context of rapid and unpredictable change.
Dan Palmer: Yeah. Reminds of our mutual colleague Joel Meadows’ refrain about how often we default to a green solution or we design a better house or get more solar panels, when so much of this is around human behaviour and management and the huge scope there to massively reduce consumption and that side of it.
David Holmgren: Yeah. If you can take behaviour out of the good/bad model judgment of right/wrong, and see it as a design problem and be able to stand back and look at one’s situation and treat inappropriate behaviours as a worn-out pair of shoes, or shoes that no longer fit, or were badly designed – that we can get another behaviour that fits the situation. In that sense, I think design thinking can help so much in breaking down a lot of those moral, emotional blocking points that happen when we try and look at behavioural change.
Dan Palmer: I honestly hadn’t appreciated the strategic brilliance of the approach in RetroSuburbia. How it’s landed for me now – it’s supporting people to get things happening in the context where they need to do something, and along the way discerning these different fields of the built, biological & behavioural. Because they are retrofitting what’s already there, like you’re saying, it reduces the scope for huge mistakes. It also forces you to pay attention to what’s already there because it’s there and you’re changing it. It avoids regulatory issues and as you start to move along, you are in a design process. So it’s almost like…
David Holmgren: …continuous design….
Dan Palmer: Yeah. By its very nature, it’s a healthy process that’s not a linear, copied and pasted from landscape architecture approach. It’s like a brilliant doorway into the space of that widespread design literacy as a core capacity that you talk about.
David Holmgren: I think it also helps deal with one of the problems of copying. As we know, every design situation is different and requires a response to that situation. But the template and pattern of suburbia across whole suburbs and landscapes, and especially where there’s similar street layout and houses of similar age, there is that simpler act by which people do things; “oh look, they did that there, we can copy that”. And there’s more chance in those landscapes of that copying actually working whereas in a lot of rural contexts and a lot of more complex organisational contexts, it’s very hard for those copies to work. We recognise that a lot of people do things that way, and we all know as designers, that that’s not necessarily the best, and the idea of how can we uniquely respond to a situation is important, but people are into the baby steps of design. If we recognise design is a human literacy that potentially represents some degree of evolutionary transformation, at least at the scale of literacy and numeracy. Then that original vision I had in Environmental Design school, that our role is, not as expert designers, but people a little bit further down the track, to enable everyone to see themselves as designers and to find that power in the process, which is still I think, a struggle for so many people.
Intuitive Design, Emergent Design, and Working with What’s There
Dan Palmer: Yeah. It is exciting. I’ve mentioned to you I’m taking a lot of inspiration from Carol Sanford lately, and I’d already sort of shifted from me being a design expert to me being a design process facilitator. With some of the stuff I’ve been learning from her, I’m moving from facilitation to being an educator and being a resource, like returning people back to their own lives and their own situations as a source of developing design process literacy.
David Holmgren: Yeah. I think there are obviously so many sources that need to be brought in, and recognising the influences of those, to contribute to permaculture design. It’s interesting, with your recognition of the role of Christopher Alexander. For me, RetroSuburbia was written as a pattern language, or a series of stepping stone towards a pattern language, of Retrosuburbia, where we can see those recurring solutions to recurring tensions or dilemmas that are faced. I think many different ideas around the process of design can contribute to the strengths of permaculture. But for myself, in the work on this property at Melliodora, I’m also being drawn back into a direct intuitive process, where I’m wandering in the landscape and inspired to do something. Sometimes, things have actually been effectively emerging for years if not decades, and then suddenly I just act.
I’ve just had that experience in the last two days, working building leaky weirs in our public stream-course with a 60-hectare catchment behind it; a creek that’s had (in 2010 towards 100,000 tons of water come through it in 48 hours). Physically building something with my hands, from what’s in the place, that needs to survive that sort of force and power, and achieve things, in relation to a progressively drying climate, of rehydrating the landscape. So that process for me has involved more and more working with the absolute unique things that are in that place and where things lie and how they might be adjusted. That have also involved the social crossover with neighbours and talking to them about what they’re doing on their land, and literally resources, trees that need to come down for house construction that might become the bridge that they’ll be able to walk over across the creek. This sort of emergent serendipity that doesn’t really look like design at all and I think that is an interesting process. To some degree, it’s the freedom to play rather than work, but the degree to which that is a product of being a constant designer, rather than just running around randomly doing things that have completely unthought-out consequences.
Dan Palmer: Yeah, that’s right. It’s such an interesting one. I’ve made that distinction between a generative process, generatively transforming spaces, vs winging it with random haphazard things. Sometimes people can get a bit fuzzy on the distinction, but it’s amazing to learn of your journey and there were times when the processes, you could describe them as more kind of rational and hard and get the design right first, to something that’s a lot softer and more intuitive and emergent and consultative or integrative in terms of the community. But of course, it’s not like that’s the antithesis of a more structured approach. It benefits from it.
David Holmgren: Yeah. I mean, I do go back to that statement that’s attributed to Eisenhower about planning being essential but plans are useless. And I think that’s nice because it comes from someone who is so hard-nosed – out of the military – and constantly toying with the work to understand and have vision to see what is not, to imagine and the force to be able to project and direct that and at the same time being open and vulnerable and participating as just a participant in a process. Where of course those things appear to be complete contradictions of one another and maybe that’s why the dance of design is so difficult in some ways because it plays with all of those.
Dan Palmer: Okay, David. Well, this has been an incredible chance to hear about your experience with permaculture design process over the decades. As we bring this to a close, it’d be wonderful to hear any closing thoughts or reflections from you.
David Holmgren: Yeah. Well, I think, not just because we’re in a pandemic at the moment, but because it’s the culmination of expectations from the beginnings of permaculture about a world of unfolding crisis, and that is the context for design now, that the ability to imagine a place, a situation emerging to something different to what we see now, is of course fundamental to design. It’s also the source of hope, not in a naïve sense of fantasy, but without the power of imagination that depends, as Wendell Berry said, of affection for something and imagining it growing or transforming or evolving, then it’s not possible to be effective designers. Designers do require imagination and that that’s one of the greatest resources that design and especially permaculture can contribute in this time of chaotic change. And I think that can be seen in the sort of friendly adaptable achievable changes that we’ve talked about in RetroSuburbia and in my Aussie Street story of showing how this happens in my imaginary street.
Or more dramatically in the novel that we have just published by Linda Woodrow called 470 which is a ‘cli-fi’ climate change science fiction but has permaculture all threaded through it and showing how people adapt and change what they have, when those crises hit.
In some ways, it brings design as actually central in responding to crises rather than it being a peripheral luxury. It’s actually the great strength that we can bring to situations of unprecedented surprise. I think in small but diverse ways that’s being shown up with the pandemic too, whether that’s household changing what they do and businesses changing what they do, moving from management and focus on just repeating cycles to know “oh, we have to go back to the drawing board, we have to redesign something, we have to retrofit something”, that this is now the continuous action we’ll be engaged with and that it can be incredibly empowering.
Dan Palmer: And you see part of permaculture’s potential as being able to resource others in terms of moving into that.
David Holmgren: Well, I think permaculture is still one of the strongest lineages in doing that from ad hoc unfunded development projects in third world villages, where people are scratching together from what’s around that can be used for some basic function; to creatively thinking ahead thinking about other contexts. Because so much in permaculture, for so many decades, has been ignoring the current signals in the economy of how to do something that’s proper and effective and saying, “Yeah, but how will this work in a world of less? How will this work in a climate-changed world?” Without having those answers, that discipline to be always thinking about the future, always thinking about emergent possibilities both good and bad or however we characterise them. I think permaculture can contribute a great deal to that process.
Dan Palmer: Beautiful. David Holmgren, thank you very much.
The Full Interview Transcript (Edited for flow and readability)
Dan Palmer (DP):Welcome to the next episode of the Making Permaculture Stronger podcast. I’m super excited today. I’ve travelled about half an hour up the road and I’m sitting at a permaculture demonstration property and home called Melliodora. Sitting next to me is David Holmgren.
David Holmgren (DH): Good to welcome you here.
DP: I’m very excited to be here with this microphone between us and to have this opportunity to have you share the story of your journey with permaculture design process over the decades.
DH: Yeah, and that’s something we’ve worked on together in courses: our personal journeys with that. Certainly through those courses, working together has elicited and uncovered different aspects of me understanding my own journey.
DH: Thinking about design process through the lens of childhood experiences, I was always a constructor/builder, making cubbies, constructing things and yet never had any family role models for that. My father wasn’t particularly practical with tools, and yet I was always in whatever workshop there was in our suburban home as a young child. So making things, imagining things which don’t exist, and then bringing them to life was definitely part of my childhood experience.
I don’t know, particularly, why in my last years of high school I had some vague notion that I might enrol in West Australian University in architecture. But I left to travel around Australia instead because I was hitchhiking mad in 1973. And in that process, I came across a lot of different ideas to do with the counter culture and alternative ways of living.
Studying Environmental Design in Tasmania
Most significantly, I came across a course in Tasmania in Hobart called Environmental Design and I met some of the enrolled students. I’d realised by that stage that I was not cut out to do any sort of conventional university course. I was too radical and free in my thinking and wasn’t wanting to be constrained within any discipline or accounting for things through exam processes.
DP: What age were you?
DH: I was 18 at that time, and this course in Environmental Design really attracted me. Undergraduate students, who were doing the generalist degree in environmental design, were sometimes working on projects with postgraduate students who were specialising in architecture, landscape architecture or urban planning at the post graduate level.
There was no fixed curriculum. There was no fixed timetable. Half the staff budget was for visiting lecturers and outside professionals. There was a self assessment process at the end of each semester, which then led to a major study at the end of the three year generalist degree. There was the same self assessment process for the postgraduate level. So you got up to the finishing line, and then had to show your results, and that was to a panel that included outside professionals that you had a say in choosing.
DP: Suitably radical.
DH: I believe it was the most radical experiment in tertiary education in Australia’s history. Set up by visionary Hobart architect, Barry McNeil, who saw that there was no point teaching design professionals a specific set of skills, because the world was changing so fast that by the time they came to practice, those skills could be irrelevant and that you had to teach them more how to problem solve, how to think, and that they would find and develop the skills that were relevant that way.
So that’s what led me back to Tasmania the following year to enrol in Environmental Design. As part of that first year, I explored a lot of different subjects. I was actually doing the backyard self sufficiency thing in a rented house and was documenting the organic gardens, the compost making, baking bread at home, all of that self reliance (that I would call retrosuburbia now) in a rented house was actually part of my study project.
I was also involved in projects with postgraduate Planning students, working with urban conservation activist groups, trying to stop high rise development in the historic Battery Point precinct. Setting up a shop front information for the community to explain planning law and plot ratios of how big you can build a building for how much open space and all of those sorts of things.
So I ranged across quite a diverse interest area, and I met a lot of people that came to environmental design, if you like, as refugees from all the design courses around Australia. So it gathered all the radicals at a time when most people went to university in the state where they lived. Whereas more than half of the students in Environmental Design were from outside of Tasmania. And of course, the whole interest in ecology was a huge focus and the crossover between ecology and design.
DP: That was a theme of the graduate school?
DH: Well, it was something that was identified as a huge area of interest of so many students. And at that time, so much so that they felt they needed to have an ecologist, actually on the staff, because most of the staff were designers (landscape architects, architects, engineers and planners). As an undergraduate student I was on the selection panel for the person who ended up becoming my supervisor in the course. So it was a context where I came across a lot of radical ideas in design.
But I still felt quite the outsider. I can remember a particular seminar that was about the design of the Australian backyard. People within the department were basically decrying how terrible backyards and front gardens were designed and how pathetic and hopeless it was people doing it themselves.
I can remember being really outraged and getting up and on my soapbox and saying, look, this is one of the last things that Australians still do for themselves – they design and create their own gardens and backyard spaces.
Hardly any of them build their houses anymore. Are we a radical design school, intending to extend design literacy and design capability as a universal literacy, or are we about commandeering and colonising another space? Taking something else off people and professionalising it.
So I have a strong memory of that, being part of my early thinking about design, that design was sort of a literacy that should be universal.
DP: It’s exciting for me to hear permaculture bells going off, because there’s already that pre existing overlap between ecology and design. Then when you bring the flavour of being in control of your own design processes and designing your own spaces, you were well on that trajectory already.
It doesn’t sound like it was that kind of school where they said “here’s the design process you’re going to use the rest of your careers.” Were you getting a feel for a kind of approach to design or process at that stage or was it still quite open?
DH: Yeah, it was very free and open, and I suppose within the design professions, environmental design was either regarded as the best course in Australia because it involved outside professionals. You had to do the postgraduate degree part time and have a job in the field before joining the professional association. So there was a huge amount of practical reality that was encouraging to design professionals. Other design professionals regarded it as the worst course in Australia because people weren’t required to actually sit at a drawing board or learn any particular thing, classic principles of architectural design, or anything.
I remember being aware of quite a strong interest in Ian McHarg’s ideas. There were also others that involved designing in perhaps a different way, like George McRobie, colleague of EF Schumacher, famous for of course, writing the book Small is Beautiful, which was published just a year before I started Environmental Design.
George was there for six months teaching the whole intermediate technology notion of designing an appropriate technology suitable to scale especially for developing countries rather than just imposing large scale systems that were inappropriate to context. So there was certainly different design contexts and also design processes, but certainly there was no clear didactic direction. The whole thing was a chaotic exploration.
DP: You said you were documenting what you were doing in the rental with the compost making and everything. Were you also paying attention at that stage to the process side of things?
DH: Not so much, I think I was to some extent quite outcome oriented. But yeah, definitely grappling with that process of how you record and evolve ideas on paper, rather than just literally starting something with your hands, which is how a lot of people do things in the most rudimentary design process. So, definitely that thinking through and documenting ideas and then implementing those, but I suppose with limited awareness of the process.
It was in that first year that my interest really gravitated around food production and more broadly, agriculture, as humanity’s prime way for providing for its needs. And looking at that crossover between, if you like, landscape architecture primarily as a profession, and ecology, and how that applied to agriculture. I could see the overlap between two but not between the three.
I saw overlap between ecology and agriculture in agro-ecology ideas and organics. Although organic farming began in the 1930s, it was really incorporating early ecological ideas in its reaction against industrial farming. So I could see crossover of any two of them. But I couldn’t see anywhere where all three were brought together.
So agro-ecology, for example, didn’t seem to have much of a design focus. Certainly not a physical landscape layout, how the things relate in space. It was mostly concerned with agronomy, husbandry, those processes.
There was some crossover between landscape architecture and agriculture but really as cosmetic design overlay in some particular affluent parts. Or the conservation of agriculture in a larger sense, like McCarg’s work to protect agricultural land from inappropriate development and prevent conflicts of different types of land use; the whole zoning idea. But that was treating agriculture as a system with some sort of planning design overlay but design was not actually involved in the essence of agriculture itself.
DP: And the overlap between design or landscape architecture and ecology?
DH: Yeah, well, for example, one of my teachers in the course who I had a strong connection with was Phil Simons. She was one of the first landscape architects in Australia to use, in quite a few of her designs, local indigenous species. So we had debates and discussions about native versus exotic in those years. She was one of the pioneers of that sort of thinking; how can landscape designer create spaces that can support the diversity of nature and especially indigenous species.
DP: Well, that’s great. I haven’t heard it quite that way before, it’s so clear. And you had yourself a very juicy question. Or a space of how would these things overlap that obviously influenced the course of the rest of your life.
Meeting Bill Mollison
DH: It was at that sort of pivotal time that I met Bill Mollison, and he didn’t strike me as a designer, and I don’t think I was looking for that.
I suppose I’d already come to a view that a lot of biological science was highly reductionist and, in fact, even within ecology, there was this tension between reductionist approaches, which would be regarded as mainstream approaches to science, and the more holistic.
So I was very much looking for that and then I met Bill Mollison through chance. He was at a seminar in Environmental Design. He wasn’t running it. He was just someone who made some comments that I thought were really interesting. I went to speak to him afterwards and realised oh, this person thinks ecologically. Holistically.
Through chance he invited me to come to his place and I was looking for somewhere to live and I was also a bit disabled because I had a broken collarbone as a result of motorbike accident. So I suppose it was also him taking in a homeless waif.
We began a discussion about what I might focus on in second year of Environmental Design. At the time, he was a lecturer in the psychology faculty, a senior tutor actually. The connection with design was really not through him at all. Particularly, as I worked with him, I didn’t see him primarily as a designer. He was an amazing polymath, a genius, and primarily an ecological thinker.
DP: And was he lecturing in psychology at the same school?
DH: No, at the older tertiary institution, the University of Tasmania. I was at the new College of Advanced Education, as it was then called where the Environmental Design School was.
DP: And you were saying you had this hankering for a more holistic approach to ecology and he was an example of that. So were you learning a lot from him early on, soaking that up?
DH: Enormously. Our relationship was very much student and mentor.
Co-originating the Permaculture Concept
DH: The seed of the permaculture idea came in a discussion towards the end of ’74 in Bill asking me, knowing how free Environmental Design was, “so what are you going to work on next year? What are you going to look at?” I said, “you know that I’m interested in this crossover between these three things that don’t seem to cross over at all.”
DH: When I put that to Mollison, that’s what I want to work on, of course, he always had a million ideas and he said, “Okay, well how about this for an idea. If in most places on the planet, nature creates some sort of forest as an optimal ecosystem response to climate and geology and landscape to optimise production and diversity from a sort of an ecological point of view, why does agriculture, if not look like a forest literally, function like a forest? For example why is it not dominated by perennial plants? Why is it dominated by annual plants?”
I said, ‘That is perfect, it’s a design question, but it’s fundamentally looking at the design that nature creates, and why don’t we appear to be using that in our prime activity on the planet, agriculture by which we feed ourselves.’
I regard that discussion as the seed of the permaculture concept.
So I started sort of working on the permaculture ideas, when I started the next year in ’75. And it basically consumed all my time, full time. The staff were concerned that I wasn’t doing anything else. But I was free to do that. Mollison and I were developing a permaculture garden at his property on the fringes of Hobart, two and a quarter acre semi rural property about the same size as this place Melliodora.
It had forest on it, and he had owned it for some time and he’d defended it and saved it from the great ’67 bushfires not many years before I was there. There were neighbours and other people in that area who were developing self reliance as part of what we were on about at that time.
A lot of the interest initially was around what you would call economic botany, the exploration of useful plants, the components from which we might, build a permaculture system. Obviously perennial plants and especially trees. So there were a lot of elements that weren’t primarily design process in that.
Even though I was a bit separated from and critical of a lot of what I saw in the design professions and even in environmental design, and I was off on this other tack, with Mollison as my mentor who I did not see really as a designer, so I see the design side of permaculture, in a way came more through me, through the lineage of environmental design and the radical ideas of design that were part of that school.
DP: Wow, so 1974 was a hell of a year!
DH: Yeah. Two years after the Club of Rome Limits to Growth report, one year after the first oil crisis that precipitated the Western world into the first economic recession since WWII.
Of course, 1972 was also the election of the Whitlam government in Australia after 23 years of conservative government, and a whole huge cultural explosion of different ideas and different possibilities, which led to the great constitutional crisis of 1975. And it was the end of the long running war in Vietnam and eventually with the American defeat in Vietnam although Australia pulled our troops out in ’72.
So there was a huge social, economic and political turmoil at that time and an openness, certainly in academia, to new radical ideas. Environmental design as that radical school ran from 1970 to 1980. And then it was basically emasculated, turned back into a conventional design course and moved from its Hobart base to Launceston. So it’s very emblematic of the ’70s.
DP: You got your timing right!
DH: Yeah, the timing for permaculture, generally the huge interest in ecology and related ideas in science. For example, the embodied energy concept; How we use energy as a measure of human systems. In 1979 I went to the ANSAS conference in Hobart and there were five papers on net energy analysis of agricultural systems. Move forward a decade, there would have been none of that.
So there was a huge interest in all sorts of things that included design process. I mean, just as an example of that first year I was there, during that project I worked on with the Battery Point urban conservation. There was another project, working as consultants to the State Department of Planning as to how to do, for the first time, a strategic plan for Hobart with community consultation. Because up to that point, planning had just been engineers and staff, deciding where I imagine freeways are going to be built in new urban expansion and whatever. So those ideas of people being involved in design process in things that affect them at that social level was, of course, part of that period.
DP: Would you say that period, or that pivotal conversation about what you’re going to do with your project the next year was a kind of a moment? And did that culminate with Permaculture One?
DH: Well, I think in a lot of ways for me that did culminate in the publication of Permaculture One in 1978. And the huge interest that there was at the time. For Mollison, that was a stepping stone to moving out of the university, giving up his tenured position, and going to spruik permaculture to the world. Not just through the counter culture and the first areas of interest but more broadly and with huge popularisation. Whereas I felt at that time, not quite a fraud, but I didn’t have the broad base of experience that Mollison had in some areas and also being a generation older than me apart from anything else.
So my interest was in building my practical skills. In ’76, I completed the Environmental Design degree and I didn’t go back to do the postgraduate degree because I was actually at that stage, so sick of or beyond wanting to think about things academically and I wanted to do things with my hands.
Initially, a lot of that was already happening as gardening, forestry, ecological hunting, but also I had a big role in building and I built a big timber barn on a property that Mollison and I and others had bought to develop as a permaculture place.
I worked as an offsider with a friend of mine who was a builder my own age who ran his own building business. We were doing quite complex building projects and learning by doing.
I didn’t like the idea of design, in whatever field, disconnected from the practice of, implementation. That separation wasn’t really viable, and that is apart from it’s class implications that there’s the designers and plodders who implemented. I didn’t respect any of that sort of idea.
I was much more interested in doing stuff and building a skill base. But in that process, I suppose beginning about ’76, I was starting to build a skill base for advising other people. I had a self directed apprenticeship really, working on other people’s projects, some paid, some voluntary, doing the odd design consultancy.
That led to my mother in her middle age, out of the blue, buying a 180 acre rural bush property on the far south coast of New South Wales. And I thought, “I need to go and help her get set up and build a proper passive solar house and get gravity feed water supply systems and appropriate fencing so she can have gardens and be fire safe and implement all those ideas.”
Meeting Haikai Tane
DH: I’d been working at that stage continuously from when I left Environmental Design and graduated at the end of ’76 to ’79. In those three years, I’d worked in lots of different ways. But I’d also discovered my second mentor in New Zealand, Haikai Tane, who in a way I regard as my second mentor in permaculture.
I met Haikai at the Down to Earth festival organised by ex Deputy Prime Minister Jim Cairns, as part of the countercultural movement in Australia, the Down to Earth movement. I’d been there at that festival where there was this huge interest in permaculture. I hadn’t seen Bill for quite a while and we ran up a workshop under a big shady tree with about 150 people.
I met Haikai after that workshop and we wandered around this thousand acre grazing property (near Bredbo on the Monaro) exploring things and he made a comment about something that Mollison had said that just made me sit up. He said, “Mollison mentioned that this degraded grazing land needed gorse spread over it,” (which is of coarse a noxious weed), to improve the land damaged by all the sheep overgrazing. Typically confrontational comment, yeah. And Haikai said, “I’m not sure that I agree with Mollison about gorse.” And I thought “this is going to be a conventional argument about invasive exotic species.” He said, “I think Briar Rose is a more appropriate species for this.” Which is of course, another spiny noxious weed. And I thought, who is this guy? What does he know?
Reading Landscape with the Land Systems Approach
DH: We spent a whole lot of time looking around that landscape and Haikai’s knowledge in reading the landscape just fascinated me and we spent days together. He invited me back to New Zealand to help set up permaculture in New Zealand, the Permaculture Association of New Zealand.
He was already a member of the Farm Forestry Association of New Zealand, the Soil Association (the national organic organisation) and the Tree Crops Association. He was actually trained in Law, Planning and Geography, had studied at ANU and knew the Monero country very well, had worked in British Columbia, but had really adopted New Zealand as not just home but spiritual home almost. Then taken a name which was Japanese and Maori, but he was originally Australian. Again, much older than me, but not as many years difference as with Mollison.
In working with Haikai in New Zealand in 1979, and then again in 1984, he taught me a lot about the Land Systems approach to understanding land. He’d actually done the Land Systems study of that high dry cold grazing country of the South Island for the New Zealand government Lands Department.
Mapping all of the land in a way that integrates the geology, the topography, the climate, and what he called the biophysical resources of soils, plants and animals that express those underlying energetic and geologic forces. And that was the basis of what we would call sustainable land use. You had to have everything mapped on to those patterns, both at a large scale, but also down at a fine scale.
DP: I know you learned a lot of holistic ecology with Mollison and I know you moved around the country a lot. So what was the difference in reading landscape? Was it kind of like going deeper or was it in different direction?
DH: Look, I was already in that process of reading landscape in the early research for permaculture. Because I would go and visit old forest arboreta and abandoned gardens, places where people have done stuff, and then nature had sort of taken over. I found those much more interesting from a permaculture point of view, to give instruction of the intersection between humans doing stuff and nature doing stuff; than going to some pristine wilderness. So I was already developing those skills and a lot of that was about ID, what is this tree? where is it growing? Why is it there? Those sorts of things.
So when I met Haikai, his mastery of all that, and especially a deeper understanding of soil, not in the sense of the agronomist’s focus on the condition of the A1 horizon, the topsoil, but understanding the regolith, that deep structure underneath that often determines the moisture availability and possibilities of deep nutrient mining, and different geological strata that would produce quite different ecosystems, and had quite different potential to be developed and quite different vulnerabilities to land degradation processes.
DP: Is that an actual word, regolith?
DH: Yeah, that’s describing the material underneath from which soils emerge whether that’s the bedrock or deep deposits of alluvial material. And in New Zealand, the newness of the country compared with Australia made all of those reading landscape skills, so much sharper, so much easier to see. Whereas in Australia a lot of the processes are so subtle, so ancient, it’s harder to see them.
The constraints of freehold land tenure for permaculture
DH: Haikai also convinced me that the permaculture vision of broad acre integrated land uses of agriculture, horticulture, aquaculture, beekeeping, forestry, all of these things being integrated, couldn’t come about under our freehold land tenure system.
So that understanding, from land law and from history of our ancestors before modern land title and the enclosures of the commons and all of those issues I learnt that the way we own and control land is actually a huge factor in how it could be designed. So, it was drawing me into understanding those sort of cultural institutional forces that shape design.
DH: I suppose the most important learning with Haikai was moving away from the master plan idea; design it on paper and then implement it. Which is always a bit problematic when that methodology was taken from designing the built environment and trying to master plan a garden or landscape, because you’re dealing with biological entities that change and complexities of soil you don’t fully understand. In urban planning where cities are so big and complex master plans are similarly problematic. You could say, of course, that Christopher Alexander was very strongly critiquing master planning within architecture too, that it doesn’t really work. I was sort of vaguely aware of that critique, because Alexander was one of the thinkers influencing people in Environmental Design. But because my focus was more biological, I didn’t pick up so much on his work.
Haikai really introduced the framework of strategic planning, which had become a tool used by urban planners, but it came out of the military, as he explained it. Military planners had to act with limited knowledge and where they didn’t control all the factors and that idea of having frameworks of action, but you don’t really know how that is going to express itself in final design form. We started applying strategic design process to what we call tree crop agriculture; how do you not just have grazing animals around a landscape or annual crops, but these permanent, long lived structures of tree crop. Like me Haikai was a tree crop nut; he was obsessed with trees. So the application of that sort of design process was very much part of learning from working with him.
DP: This is really fascinating and you were saying earlier even before Haikai, you had a sense it wasn’t viable to have a separation between in some cases, white collar design and blue collar implementation. That was already an irk.
DH: Very early on.
DP: So that was already there and Haikai really helped you go deeper into this?
DH: Yeah, because he was very practical, hands on, as well as working in high level consultancy, to Government and business. He had a consultancy job working for the state government of New South Wales to review the Sydney basin regional plan, the whole of the Sydney metropolitan area. It had become a political hot potato internally, and they decided, unusually in those years, to get an outside consultant, and he somehow got the job. But in the process, he went and lived in five different locations around Sydney, always traveled with taxi drivers and explored the multiple cities and spaces that Sydney really was, rather than the myopic view, as he said, of the planners sitting in the tower overlooking Hyde Park. They had a view of the city and the suburbs, whereas he said Parramatta was already the the largest retailing centre in Australia. He identified as 21 centres in Sydney that had city level function. So he was an iconoclast in many different ways within the planning profession, but he was also a beekeeper and a totally hands on person. You know, so, that practical doing, as well as design and thinking.
Yeah, so he was a big influence on my whole design process. In 1979 he encouraged me to get a camera and record what I see in the landscape. So he really put me on that lifelong journey of reading landscape. And that certainly also began how I applied that in my consultancy work. And then, in trying to design in ways that is sensitive to, not just the form of the land, but the actual different types of land – recognising that first. So using that Land Systems approach, which had mainly been used at a macro scale, bringing it down to a much smaller scale of permaculture sites to decide where are the changes in land and understanding those first and mapping those before you start carving up the land into its uses or allocating it to different things.
Permaculture in the Bush
DP: So you’re well on truly into the domain of design process here, where a key part of it has to be deeply immersing in what’s already there, what’s happening, what are the land units.
DH: The first really big project in applying that was my mother’s property on the south coast of New South Wales. Because it was 180 acres of forest. There were 12 different eucalyptus species, three gullies, a boundary to a permanent creek, and two different geologies. As I analysed it, in a case study booklet that we produced on it called Permaculture In The Bush, it had three different Land Systems.
I used that macro, stand back, look at the big patterns first, before going down into the details. Looking across the landscape and saying, okay, where are potential house sites identifying five of those and and then checking them against different criteria. So I started using ways of scoring things to come to a complex decision making way, rather than getting locked into single factor design which saw a lot of those sort of processes.
It was also interesting as a design process for me, because I had the contour maps, and I had photographs my mother had taken, and I had her to interrogate, but I actually didn’t get to the property for six months into the project. I was in Tasmania and then we were back in Western Australia, selling the family home.
When we finally arrived at the land and drove down this bush track, I already knew what was around the corner from just going over contour maps, and trying to get another bit of information. It was squeezing more information out of it. So it was a very weird sort of experience, but a very useful one in terms of design process to explore something that closely through indirect means and then set up camp.
That very process of thinking ‘No, don’t make any assumptions. You’ve got a whole lot of stuff in your head. None of it means anything at the moment.’ The primary process of setting up a basic camp. And the first lesson about, ‘don’t set it up on the best spot! Because that could be where you’re actually going to develop.’
There was also a huge number of practical learnings there in directing earthworks and timber milling, directing other people’s work in building a passive solar house. I had worked a lot in that side and I was actually really passionate about passive solar design. So ironically, that project was also quite a consolidation for me, in practitioner terms, as an ecological builder, more than an ecological farmer. It took me many years to sit and look back and say, ‘Well, actually, I’ve been more of a builder and more of my design work has involved a lot of the nonliving elements, the infrastructure, the earthworks and water supply systems and fencing and all that infrastructure as well as with building. And that knowledge base from the practical arts of woodworking and the processing of timber from tree to saw milling, drying, processing using timber was a greater development of skill in that area than I did with horticulture, let alone animal husbandry.
DP: That’s fascinating. You were already very hands on with building and stuff. But to then be working with contractors as well which is another step and working indirectly through them and collaborating.
DH: Well, it was mostly friends working at mates rates, jack of all trades. So it was the beginning of that sort of, artisanal building process and definitely doing a lot of thinking things through and planning on paper, and then being prepared to change the design.
Of course, when you are actually doing something yourself that you have gone to huge efforts to put on paper, but you see yourself as a learner, and you are at the receiving end, it’s very clear that you will change the design. Whereas when it is separated, and there is someone invested with the authority of being the designer, and this person, the builder or someone further down the chain is experiencing the disconnect between the design and reality, there’s a power relationship, a whole lot of investment that it’s hard to bring that through unless of course those designers very deliberately working in that way.
DP: Yeah, it’s almost always like in that model, when there’s a clash between reality and design, the native inclination is to try and make design win. Which of course, it ultimately cannot do.
Setting up Holmgren Design Services (HDS)
DP: I’d be really keen to hear about your transition into professional design consultancy. Is that an appropriate thing to tell us about next?
DH: Yeah, because, that project on the south coast in New South Wales was really the final or most important project that really led to me setting up Holmgren Design Services as a registered business in 1983. It was just a couple of years after completing the initial phase of development of the property with my mother. Also the documentation that I took to the first permaculture convergence in 1984, of a case study of that property.
I presented two papers at the convergence. One was on reading landscape, to the young permaculture movement where there had already been four years of people having done a permaculture design course, rushing out enthusiastically trying to design the world, and not necessarily making a very good job of that.
I was introducing the idea that skill in reading landscape is one of the core skills for a permaculture design. As a consultant having to come onto a site where people don’t necessarily have a deep multi-generational historic connection with the land, where there’s not necessarily good mapping of soils or even topography, even decent contour maps and having to advise on key design decisions and needing to be able to read a lot of things very quickly in the landscape.
So there was that and there was the case study because I saw that the ‘talk to do ratio’ in the permaculture movement, felt to me quite high.
DP: The talk to do ratio?
DH: Yeah, that’s what Haikai called it. He talked about how the ‘talk to do ratio’ was higher in Australia than New Zealand. Much higher in America.
DH: So the case study documentation of places that had been permaculture designed, and then implemented, rather than just places where people were saying, “oh, here is something that illustrates permaculture ideas. Great. That’s really good.” But was permaculture thinking actually influencing how that came about? Because that’s that next test of the concept, can people use these ideas to actually end up creating more appropriate systems that reflect permaculture ethics and design principles?
So then to document that design process and how that was implemented.I saw it as important on an ethical level, of being guinea pigs, of trying out your ideas yourself. And so that was all happening around that same time. And in ’84, I also went back to New Zealand and worked with Haikai again, and through the New Zealand Tree Crops Association working on how did these ideas apply to actually implementing the transformation of pastoral landscapes into multi purpose tree crop dominated landscapes?
LSD, Intuition, and “A Case for the Coin”
DP: You’ve talked to me in the past about how you grew up in a very free thinking, rational, intellectual household and you’ve told me a few stories over the years about how during your time with Haikai where he’d give you spontaneous lectures about Lao Tzu and bring a sort of Eastern mysticism flavour. Did that have any impact or bearing on or relevance to design process?
DH: Yeah, well, actually, that reminds me of a story. I suppose I’d see myself growing up as a super rationalist. Even as a child, I would wake up and not remember any of my dreams, probably because the dream world was, like just too inconsistent with reality. There were a few things that broke down that process. The primary one was the experience of LSD made it clear to me there were more things in the human mind that could possibly be comprehended through simple sort of reductionist methods.
Another marker in that was certainly working with Haikai, setting up the site for these workshops over Easter in 1979, on a high country grazing property. We were designing the site “where are people going to park?” “where was the camp kitchen going to be?” “where was the sauna by the stream?”; just designing a small festival space.
Both of us as designers were running through all the factors, circulation here or what if its wet weather, etcetera. Anyway, we got to a bit of a stumbling point where there was one option over here and another there. We’d run through a few of the factors and Haikai said, “This is a case for the coin,” and pulls out a coin and he flips it. I was flabbergasted at this idea that you could actually make a decision, a design decision, based on the flip of a coin.
And then he gave me this lecture on the I Ching and a whole lot of ideas in Eastern mysticism about firstly connecting to a deeper level of your feelings about what is the right thing to do and part of it is your own reaction to this chance decision. But also that you uncover a different way of accessing part of your understanding. So that was one of the stepping stones in that breakdown of that super rationalist control.
Another one was when I was working with my mother, on developing the property, the early stages of the design, and we were refining where the house site was going to be on this 180 acres and looking at gravity feed, water supply, dam site options, all sorts of different factors. The chosen site was fairly thick regrowth logged over bush site. So it involved clearing quite a lot of trees and a lot of thick regrowth.
I’ve been working through with my inclinometer looking at tree heights and because you’re talking about forest trees that were 35 meters tall, and how are we going to make the clearing, minimising impact with retention of trees that we wanted to keep and get full sun access into the passive solar building, and full winter sun access to gardens.
I was trying to do that through thick young regrowth and big emergent trees. I was using the inclinometer measuring sun angles across tree canopies, working backwards and forwards over a period of more than a week. In the meantime, my mother had wandered in and found an old box that had been left with some rubbish and she stood it up, saying, “I reckon the house should be about here.” And as I worked around, I ended up coming back to where the box was. Now it may have been completely dumb luck, but it was interesting that rational evidence based process somehow connecting with something that came completely intuitively.
Continuing our recent focus, this episode shares a lively chat with my friend and fellow decision-making innovator Javan Bernakevitch. For several years we’ve been catching up regularly to talk shop and explore what’s alive for us with respect to our shared interest in values-based or holistic decision making. This time we hit record to explore the difference between procedures with steps and processes with principles. How clear are you on the difference? Take a listen to find out!
Find more episodes on Holistic Decision Making here
Learn more about Javan’s excellent work here and watch his Facing Fire film here