Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

Permaculture case study, part 1 - bird's-eye view

2014-02-16 00:00:00 Erik Lee

Permaculture is a big part of civilization's future. It's also a very complex topic, and could easily consume lifetimes of study. Permaculture design touches ecology, physics, biology, complex adaptive systems, and a dozen other fields. Fortunately, it obeys the Pareto principle, so you can do a pretty good job without being a master of any of them.

In order to make the concept more clear to anybody out there who's unfamiliar with it, I am going to put up a series of articles here that go through one design I'm working on in great detail, explaining why and how all of the steps are being taken where they are. Read on to get a bird's eye view of where we're headed:

What are we doing here?

The whole point of permaculture design is to engineer an ecosystem so that it is self-sustaining and it provides for the needs of the people it's supporting. In this way, it's very much a technology, where instead of inanimate components with defined behaviors, we're using living things with somewhat understood behaviors. We're going to put them together in subtle ways, just like we'd put little bits of matter together in a specific way in order to make a capacitor or a circuit board. The systems we build are not the same as the ones you find in nature, but they're designed on the same principles so that they can function as natural systems do.

The steps I lay out below proceed approximately in order, but you should understand that it will always be necessary to bounce back and forth between them as the design progresses. New ideas will require new research, which will lead to other design elements, and things will generally evolve until you just decide to stop and go with what you have. Think of this roadmap as a guide to the most common stops on the way, rather than a strictly ordered path.

Step one: understand

Our first step is always going to be getting an understanding of the situation we're working with. We'll need to know a lot of things about the people the design is going to support (are they vegetarians, how much elbow grease do they want to be applying, etc). We'll need to understand the physical properties of the site - soils, climate, hydrology, native plant life, surrounding systems, etc. We'll need to get a sense for the intermittent dangers, like floods, storms, and fires, so that we can design in protection.

Every site will be different, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes in more subtle ways, so it's going to be hard to skimp on this step. If we apply too much from past experience without checking up on it, we may end up with some very costly mistakes (oops, tried to dig a pond where the bedrock is only 7 feet down...).

Step two: mainframe elements

After we understand what we're working with we can start laying out the major features. These are things that are mostly dictated by the land itself, like water features and roads. There are certain places in a landscape that support things like dams and swales, and other places where you're better off with swales (I'll explain what those are in a bit) and gabions. Our job here is to use our understanding of the climate, topology, and geology of the area to figure out how we can do as much as possible to make water stick around on the property as long as possible. Water is the number one requirement for life as we know it, and the more times we use it the better off we'll be.

Roads, and to some extent buildings, are also largely dictated by the shape of the land and the placement of the water features. There are some clear guidelines for how to situate things so that you cut down on risk from catastrophic events, and we'll always have in mind that we want to minimize the amount of work it takes to get things done around the place (that means we don't want to have to walk back and forth all the way across the property five times every day).

Step three: centers of activity

After we've defined where the buildings, roads, and water features will be, we'll have a good idea of where people will be spending the majority of their time. There will likely be a home site, some working buildings, and some broader areas dedicated to living elements. This is where we really start to think about function stacking and workflows, because people are going to tend to orbit around a few centers of activity.

In permaculture, this process is called zone and sector analysis, and the purpose is to make sure that we're sorting the environment around each center of activity so that it's as efficient as possible for the people who use it. For example, around the home you would want to make sure that the kitchen garden, piped water, and a cleaning shed are all within a walk of just a few seconds of the back door, and that somebody with a wheelbarrow can get around as needed for harvesting and dealing with bulky materials. The same kind of analysis applies to something like a chicken house, where you want to make sure that you can easily do all of your chicken-related activities right in that spot, without the risk of walking out there and realizing you forgot to grab the water bucket from the barn, then having to trek around for half an hour getting your stuff together. Placement is critical for any activity, but especially critical for something that happens every single day.

The complexity and density of the various orbits around these centers of activity is going to be highest right next to the center, and decrease rapidly as you get farther out. This is because it's easy to spend time in the middle, but the required effort grows rapidly as you get out farther. Put the complex stuff close to hand, and the stuff that can take care of itself can be farther away.

Step four: Living systems

This is where we get into the productive elements in the system. Trees, shrubs, fungi, animals, and many others. We'll have guidelines from the last step regarding what level of care is possible in each area of the site, so we can now move on to assembling the ecosystems themselves.

Our basic premise here will be that we can enlist the help of other living things in keeping our own workload down, if we recognize how things happen in natural systems. How does a forest manage its own fertility? With a diverse collection of plants, each of which can accumulate and transform nutrients in various ways before feeding them back to the soil as biomass fall. We know we can harvest nitrogen from the air using leguminous plants (including trees), and we know that we can build humus by including species that can be either chopped and dropped in place, or that will fall and decay on their own. In the same way, we can figure out all of the basic roles that need to be filled in our system, and jam them full of plants that have useful side products. For example, the sea buckthorn plant is a nitrogen-fixing shrub, but it also yields gigantic crops of highly nutritious berries every year. By including it as a fertility source, we get both the benefit of its nitrogen-fixing behavior and the food crop, not to mention that it makes an excellent addition to a livestock containment hedge because of its thorns. I'll go into detail about this species assembly in the following articles.

As we go farther from the centers of activity, our systems become less managed and closer to wild systems. We have areas for grazing ruminant animals, intermingled with mast-bearing trees and seasonal fruit trees. At the far reaches of the property, we have things like firewood and lumber coppices, and at the extreme extents (usually) we'll have a section dedicated to wildlife, where we will have very little influence.

Final step: Refinements and extra touches

After we've gone through that whole process, we'll have a mostly functional design. However, there's much more that can be done. I think of it kind of like the problem of packing nuts into a jar. If you've ever done that, you know that it's pretty much a multi-step process. First, you fill the jar with nuts. Then you shake them down, and put another couple of handfuls in. After a few iterations of that, you can rest assured that you've done a pretty good job getting as much as possible into the jar.

A permaculture design is similar, with the exception that you'll never actually be done. The design, in the end, is just a map. It can never contain all of the detail of the actual, physical site. So as you put the design into practice you will notice little optimizations, and sometimes big changes, that will make it even better. Even after it's all done, the design will continue evolving as the living elements grow, mature, and die over long time periods. For this reason, it's important to always design with change in mind - no living system is static. Evolution is ubiquitous, and it's the final design principle we'll cover in this series.

I'm excited to be bringing this to you. I hope it unmasks permaculture in a way that no other approach could. There's some truth to the worn-out cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I think that a design is worth a thousand pictures.

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