Permaculture as a Design Discipline
By Graham Bell
The attractions of an ethic of environmental design are manifold. A key reason for this is that good environmental design is a connected discipline. We don’t seek ‘iconic’ buildings, with their implicit isolation, like a picture framed upon a wall to be admired only for itself, but a built environment which integrates into a whole range of needs and outputs.
When I first came across permaculture some twenty five years ago I was enthused by its essential applicability. It is something that touches on all of things that most interested me in my striving to see how we could make the world a ‘better place’. It is also rooted in ‘can do’ attitudes – how to make the best of the resources we have. Its original basis was in ‘permanent agriculture’ – the provision of food and other essentials. As the discipline grew it became apparent it needed to be about the management of the whole human environment. It begs the questions:
What do we really need and how can we get it?
How can we minimise usage (and therefore demand)?
How can we minimise wastage (and therefore pollution?
And how can we connect our human endeavours together with regard to these in ways which limit the amount of work we have to do?
Today permaculture continues to evolve in the hands of those hundreds of thousands of people who have embraced it, not so much as the answer, but as the questions we need to ask to arrive at answers tailored to individual time, place, resources and culture.
Put simply it is a design system. Some obvious examples. By solar aspecting a building and adjusting glass areas, overhanging roof areas and the quality and u-value of materials in the construction process we can make buildings which harvest free heating supplies in cool weather and shade and airflow in the heat. When we do this we are observing (learning from) natural energy flows in the landscape and then getting them to work for us (saving energy cost). It’s just intelligent design.
As a concept that allows you to think of all the other energy flows which we can build into our designed environment. Food, water and access are early necessities. What building is incapable of being a food production zone? None. Even in urban public space it’s easy to do. Why plant flowering cherries when you can have fruiting ones (which also, obviously, flower). ‘But people will eat the fruit’ complain the park authorities. Yes, that’s the point.
An off-the-contour swale which intercepts rainwater run-off can also be a pathway. As a water harvesting mechanism it can also provide growing areas for water-hungry plants (e.g. squashes) in its banks. Or it can supply a pond. Which can support fish. We can build food forests in which we live which are largely self-managing. It’s just about thinking things through. You don’t have a slug problem in a garden, you have a duck shortage. And ducks are another useful output. Every problem contains its own solution.
All sound too obvious? Well it’s just common sense, but sense that isn’t common enough. As long as we build housing schemes on the random suburb / maximum income per hectare plan we won’t solar aspect buildings, and we won’t make the environmental and cost gains of passive solar. If the drive for Scotland’s healthy diet is so important wouldn’t free fruit trees in our public spaces (including school playgrounds) be a great investment, whilst also contributing to carbon capture. Too much like hard work? Scarcely. Look at the exemplary models of Grounds for Learning for inspiration on that last one. Espouse the visionary techniques of Tony Gibson’s Planning for Real and design and build communities that serve people’s real needs and vision.
In an article this length we can do no more than touch on the potential. To realise that offering you need to do some work (low work systems always require a little work to establish them).
Step one: connect in to the permaculture network to harvest as many great ideas and fellow travellers as you could wish for in a lifetime.