The word ‘permaculture’ might very well conjure up visions of quietly rebellious groups of malcontents, disillusioned with modern life – retreating back to the land and a simpler state of being, as they leave the rest of humanity to its endless and pointless consumerism.
Whilst there is some veracity to this vision of a ‘hippie lifestyle’, originally popularized in the 1970‘s, modern-day permaculture seeks to move far beyond this initial view.
Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the term permaculture, or ‘permanent agriculture’ as it was originally known, in their seminal book “Permaculture One“, first published in 1978. Faced with the un-sustainability of a global system based on immoderate growth, Mollison and Holmgren studied farming practices that closely followed nature’s patterns of growth and renewal.
Utilizing methods of pre-industrial land use and indigenous knowledge from cultures around the world, the authors posited a ‘groundbreaking design system that managed to combine ecology, human communities and agriculture into one cohesive whole’ (The Ultimate Guide to Natural Farming and Sustainable Living: Nicole Faires).
Here are some of their key concepts:
- a close connection and working relationship between systems
- using closed loops of non fossil fuel energy and materials
- small-scale land management, leaving room for wilderness areas and polycultures that support natural biodiversity.
Since then, permaculture has expanded to include energy-efficient building and water recycling, as well as economic and social structures, developing into a full-scale manner of living that is also an antidote to social isolation.
An Ecological Basis — Design That Mimics & Works With Nature
In permaculture, a deep understanding of our environment and context is key. Acute observation dictates the best areas for each plant – and animal – depending on whether they need more dry, wet, warm or cool conditions. Following the contours of the land, building in natural windbreaks, creating areas of shade, enhancing sunlight and installing appropriate irrigation allows the aspiring permaculturist to effectively manage small areas of land.
‘Urban permaculture takes what we have learned in the garden and applies it to a much broader range of human experience. We’re not just gardening plants, but people, neighbourhoods, and even cultures.’ ~ Toby Hemenway, The Permaculture City.
The result? An abundance of produce managed with an economic use of labour, whilst enhancing biodiversity and creating minimal, to zero, waste.
Typically, the term ‘permaculture’ still causes many of us to imagine rural environments, and many examples of this successful and productive land management have long been practiced, for instance, with terracing in countries such as China, Vietnam and Japan.
However, given the increasingly vast amounts of people living in towns and cities, the definition is beginning to change. Employing the same discipline of acute observation mentioned earlier, we can enhance life in cities not just from a food angle, but from the very way we interact with our surroundings.
By creating a communal habitat that nourishes, rather than detracts, from the experience of living in a city — with its too often inherent waste and disconnection — “there is a promise of regenerating communities and landscapes and possibly mitigating global warming.” (Sustainable Revolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide ~ Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox). As we’ll see in the next section, it is successfully being applied to dense urban centres.
With this in mind, let’s look at four incredible visions of what permaculture could look like in the future:
An ambitious proposal to ‘bloom’ the Botanic Center in Brussels consists of dressing the building facade with seasonal, biodiverse, carbon dioxide absorbing vegetation. Designed to be energy-efficient, optimizing natural light and ventilation and with the potential to integrate urban gardens, the center is envisioned as a model of sustainable construction.
Artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser became famous for his visionary architecture, which expressed his belief that everything is interconnected. In Vienna’s 3rd district the Hundertwasser, designed with architect Josef Krawina, successfully integrated nature and architecture.
Hundertwasser believed that if land was cleared for a building, nature should be given back that area. Roof gardens provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other insects, aid with climate regulation, clean air and purify water run-off. ‘Tree tenants’ occupy the building and an avoidance of straight lines achieves a ‘natural’ feel. The building has also become a significant tourist attraction, potentially increasing revenue to the area.
For a truly futuristic look at permaculture, check out the extraordinary plans for a ‘vertical village’ posited for Jaypee, New Delhi. Designed to be entirely self-sufficient and to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and temperatures, the vision is one of soaring, plant festooned, living, working and growing spaces.
The same French architectural team behind so many of the ‘eco-city’ projects for the future have truly ambitious plans for an established city rich in architectural history: Paris itself. The plan for this vision of a ‘smart city’ is to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions the city produces by 2050.
Respecting the character and history of each district, the idea is to ‘bring the purifying effects of rural life into the city and encourage residents to involve themselves in cultivating a sustainable lifestyle’.
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Perhaps Mollison put it best when he said: ‘permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor’.
The inspiring permaculture projects above offer a viable, sustainable, self-regulating and environmentally sensitive way of living lightly on the earth. In the process, our precious and shrinking wild areas can be left to thrive. After all, nature does just fine without us.
The Permaculture City: Toby Hemenway
Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: Sepp Holzer
Edible Cities: Judith Anger, Immo Fiebrig, Martin Schnyder
Natural Farming and Sustainable Living: Nicole Faires
Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability: David Holmgren