Introducing Phase Two of Making Permaculture Stronger: Recapping Phase One (and its problems)

Making Permaculture Stronger is about to cross a pivotal threshold in its evolution as a project.

Let me explain…

This project launched three and a half years ago with the intention to be…

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


The best way I know of strengthening something is to identify weak links and then to direct energy toward making them less weak.

An early requirement for the project was to create a framework for thinking about all the different aspects of permaculture. Some way of holding the whole so that weak links could be honed in on and strengthened…

Permaculture Tree (take three)

Remember this? I sure do. I still find it helpful way of mapping out how all permaculture’s different aspects sit in relation to one another. I introduced my original illustration here and what follows is a new (draft) version beautifully illustrated by my friend and permaculture illustrator Brenna Quinlan.

Note – the arrows leaving and entering the tree represent permaculture bringing foundational understandings in from outside and creating solutions that go out to become part of other approaches or the culture in general (as isolated things)

To recap the main idea:

  • permaculture has general foundational aspects that are universal in their relevance (roots)
  • permaculture has specific solutions (design configurations, strategies, and techniques) that are appropriate in some situations and not in others (limbs, branches and leaves)
  • the only thing that can get you from the foundations to the appropriate solutions for a given situation is sound design process (trunk)

I can’t resist sharing two further aspects of the tree before I move on, given I just rediscovered Brenna’s lovely sketches of them. First, here’s a view from above where you might recognise something familiar. Second, the cyclic patterns of movement I’m using the tree to highlight are an instance of the pattern Bill Mollison called the core model.1

Brenna Quinlan’s sketches of two additional aspects of the Permaculture Tree (Take Three)

The Original Plan

Having created the original tree diagram, I hatched a cunning plan for the future of Making Permaculture Stronger. I was going to complete, and indeed have completed, a few inquiries myself. Each was to start with something permaculture seemed to have got wrong in terms of design process and end with some better alternative to it. I went so far as to prepare the below plan. I was going to put this out there once I had the ball rolling (as in about now). A diagram to set the parameters to invite others to come play this same game over and over. Together we were going to remedy permaculture’s issues, one strengthened weak link at a time..

My early masterplan for Making Permaculture Stronger

Why I started with the Trunk

I spent a few posts explaining why I chose to start my weak-link work in the region of the tree’s trunk, as in design process. I described the apparent lack of a deep, coherent, shared, widely used understanding of sound design process in permaculture as a foundational weak link. Foundational in the sense that all sorts of other littler weak links flowed from it. Foundational in the sense of a Type One Error.

Here is how I originally diagramed it, noting that “the image I get is of a huge oak tree teetering on a feeble little stem”:

The First Two Inquiries (and where they led me)

I then started the first of two epic, in-depth inquiries where I honed in on problematic aspects of the shared understandings of permaculture design process that were available in the literature. In that sense I identified design process as a weak link then went looking for little weak links within the big weak link that were presumably making the big weak link weak! I dove deep into two of them…

From Assembling Elements to Differentiating Whole Systems

I have such fond memories of the opening post of the first inquiry, which drew on the work of Christopher Alexander to identify an initial problem: the common permaculture understanding that design is a process of assembling or combining parts or elements into whole systems.

In doing so I shared Alexander’s alternative suggestion that systems and landscapes with the character of nature are achieved by a process of differentiating wholes into parts. The post stirred up a lot of fantastic commentary and dialogue. It was a great experience and so gratifying to have the interested attention and appreciation of colleagues (including the likes of David Holmgren, Dave Jacke and Toby Hemenway). If that particular post hadn’t been so well received I wonder if the project would have even continued.

In any case, it did, going on to look into this issue in some depth, where ten posts later it had arrived at a different conception of design that was not only articulated theoretically but applied and documented in two practical design project examples (see here and here). So I guess on its own terms the inquiry achieved its intent. It started with a problem or limitation and ended with way of approaching design that resolved or avoided the problem. The dialogue this inquiry catalysed also helped me arrive at a new take on the whole matter that was a pivotal stepping stone toward the more recent work on designing via transformation.

From Detailed Up-Front Design through Concept Designing to Generating

In Making Permaculture Stronger’s second inquiry I honed in on the dominance of up-front master planning in the permaculture design literature. I first showed the seemingly universal consensus that “in a sound permaculture design process one completes a detailed design before starting the implementation of that design.”

I then pointed out how problematic this idea is in light of permaculture’s aspiration to create nature-mimicking systems. As in the first inquiry, I ended up, in striking contrast to the standard permaculture mantra of:

  • observe (people and place or whatever)
  • concept design
  • detailed design
  • implement
  • evaluate/tweak

…with either a hybrid (or concept designing) approach or the fully-fledged generating approach2 where you:

  • Immerse in the overall context of the design
  • Decide on what high-level features or aspects to tackle first
  • Rapidly generate then iteratively test or prototype a first step until something feels solid and relatively certain
  • Adaptively implement that step
  • Re-immerse in the new reality of the just-transformed whole

Again, I started with a perceived problem and arrived at some alternate understandings that appeared to resolve the problem.

Generative Transformation

I had no idea that after these two inquiries what would emerge next is the chart I then developed. This chart brought the outcomes of both inquiries together into one place where any design process could now sit in one of nine different spaces. To me, the most important outcome of the whole project so far is a fairly clear initial articulation of the space called generative transformation. I have argued that generative transformation is permaculture’s home turf.


Aside from a few other bits and bobs (including the podcast and videos) this pretty much sums up the entire journey so far.

In the next post, I’ll share why and how I’ve come to realise that it is time to let go of this whole idea of finding and strengthening weak links. Before, in the post after that, sharing in the post after that the alternate approach Making Permaculture Stronger will be taking from here on in.


  1. Hat tip to Jascha Rohr and Sonja Hörster here
  2. again inspired by Christopher Alexander


  1. Good on you Dan, I’m looking forward to following along as you divine the essence of permaculture! (Does that mean looking at the roots? Or taking it back to the acorn?)

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