I attended the London Permaculture Festival on Sunday 6th July. I listened to talks on DIY self-watering systems, container growing and aquaponics, made a bug hotel with my son, bought amazing plants and browsed the stalls. Among everything else I bumped into an old friend, permaculture teacher and designer Hedvig Murray. She had created a very handy Beginners Toolkit to Permaculture Design together with Irene Soler. This contains cards on the ethics, principles, design process and history of permaculture in an easily accessible form. I thought it would be interesting to use this and compare it to what I’ve learned of landscape architecture.
First, the ethics – very important for both landscape architects and permaculture designers. Permaculture ethics is often illustrated with a Venn diagram of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. The design should aim to meet all three in the middle. Earth Care and People Care are self-explanatory, but the Fair Share needs a bit of explaining. This is meant to reduce consumption to ensure fair distribution of resources both between people living now and with the future generations. This last one is what I have always struggled with in permaculture. It seems to be part of the first two already, and not a separate sphere of ethics. Anything that would achieve Earth Care and People Care would automatically have to achieve Fair Share. This is why I much prefer the ethics of landscape architecture as explained in Ecology, Community and Delight by Ian H. Thompson, the title of which was developed from ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ in The Elements of Architecture by Henry Wotton in 1624 (nowadays meaning useful, durable and beautiful). Thompson sees the values in landscape architecture stemming from three different fields: first from Ecology, (the equivalent of Earth Care), second from Community (the equivalent of People Care), and third from Delight (the aesthetic values). The three fields overlap in a Venn diagram similar to the permaculture ethics diagram, the best design taking all three factors into account. Many landscape architects emphasise two of these aspects in their work, resulting in ‘the ecological approach’, ‘natural aesthetics’ or functionalism. Permaculture seems to be closest to ‘the ecological approach’, largely ignoring aesthetics (unless it’s part of people’s needs in People Care).
The permaculture design principles are an extension of the ethics and are meant to guide your design. There’s two sets of principles created by the ‘fathers’ of permaculture, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Closest equivalent to these principles in (landscape) architecture is probably Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language.
1. Work with nature rather than against
2. The problem is the solution
3. Make the least change for the greatest possible effect
4. The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited
5. Each element performs many functions
6. Each important function is supported by many elements
7. Understand and use succession and evolution
8. Understand and use edge effects
9. Understand and use niches
10. Cycle energy, nutrients and resources
11. Everything gardens
12. Create small-scale intensive systems
1. Observe and interact
2. Catch and store energy
3. Obtain a yield
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
5. Use & value renewable resources and services
6. Produce no waste
7. Design from patterns to details
8. Integrate rather than segregate
9. Use small and slow solutions
10. Use and value diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal
12. Creatively use and respond to change
The design process itself is very similar to any design process, for example SADIM= survey, analyse, design, implement, maintain.
Permaculture emphasises the importance of designing by sector (for microclimate), and zone (by frequency of use and attention), always including an unmanaged zone 5 – the wild area, using the right tools (click here for more details).
The greatest difference to landscape architecture is that permaculture gardens and green spaces almost always aim to be productive in some way and provide for physical, not only aesthetic, needs.