Permaculture and the Landscape Architect
There may be no discernable difference today between many ecologically progressive Landscape Architects and those who consider themselves permaculturalists. Both disciplines are designing sustainable landscapes that are responding to the strained conditions of our environment and material resources, and creating new paradigms of land use, to benefit present and future generations of life. This article seeks to articulate ways in which permaculture design principles may differ from and inform the field of Landscape Architecture.
I am an outsider to this field, who now finds himself working as a designer and draftsman in a Landscape Architecture office, T. Barnabas Kane & Associates located in the arid mountain town of Prescott, Arizona. I came to the fascinating art of land design through my studies of Permaculture, and it’s apparent that there are a lot of lessons to be learned and shared by both disciplines.
Permaculture has become a major buzz-word throughout the design world, as all gazes are shifting toward green. This is because the permaculture design system, founded by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s, has demonstrated innate wisdom and enduring designs around the globe. Permaculture is a system of land use planning and a design protocol for creating human habitations that embody three ethical foundations: care of the Earth, care of people, and the reinvestment of surplus to support those ethics.
There are permaculture courses offered throughout the world in a diversity of climates with skilled instructors. Each course has it’s own variation on the curriculum, with the foundation being the “Permaculture Designer’s Manual” by Bill Mollison. I first studied permaculture as a student of Prescott College in 1996 with the Sonoran Permaculture Guild based in Tucson, Arizona. We stayed at the Dancing Rocks Permaculture Community and completed 72 hours of instruction which constitutes the basic design course, earning a permaculture designer certificate. The course included lectures with several different teachers, exercises, hands-on building projects and a final group design project with a lot of feedback from the instructors. The subjects varied from animal husbandry to design methodology to solar energy to community design, and everything in between.
The basic course was an intensive introduction, and as time went on I studied deeply on my own. One and a half years later I completed a month long Advanced Permaculture Course with Tim Murphy in southern Arizona, again as a student at Prescott College. By this time I was hooked, and realized that the map I had been seeking I found in the principles of permaculture, with numerous examples of projects worldwide that were changing the way people live.
In the Zones
My first opportunity to intensively practice permaculture was when I was hired to manage the farm at Arcosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s experimental city near Cordes Junction in the Arizona desert 70 miles north of Phoenix. The farm is an educational component of Arcosanti as well as a food producer for the residents and café. I was also expected to also be a teacher and encouraged to experiment and improve the farm how I saw fit.
Permaculture Design works with zones, where the elements of the design that require the most amount of care are placed closest to the core of the site, to maximize efficiency of circulation. As you move away from the core, the functional elements require less and less care, transitioning eventually into undisturbed wilderness. The permaculture zone model encourages functional integration rather than segregation, creating relationships between elements of the design that are mutually beneficial to each other.
What I found when I arrived at Arcosanti was a fragmented design, with weedy gardens separated from hungry chickens, away from orchards, and far from fields. So I spent my efforts creating a functional core. I brought the chickens close to the garden and within the orchard, where they helped to control pests, weed, and fertilize. I wrapped the chicken run around the main garden, and then planted a windbreak around the chicken run comprised of chicken forage and beneficial insect attracting plants. The garden became circled by a chicken moat, which was circled by a food and shade-producing windbreak, which was surrounded by a growing forest of fruit trees and herbs. The chickens could be concentrated directly in the garden when it wasn’t cropped, or forage in the adjacent orchard. The chickens were put to work, and the amount of maintenance and watering required by the garden was greatly reduced, creating a functional “zone 1” core and freeing up time to move into the peach orchard and cropped fields that lay within a larger planted windbreak, with the unmanaged Agua Fria River valley beyond.
From Arcosanti, I went back to Prescott to begin installing permaculture designs. I obtained my landscape contractors license and established Millison Ecological Inc., a design-build company. My designs often included rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling, and edible landscaping in an organic forest garden pattern. I installed a two-and-a-half-year, $1 million project including a permaculture forest garden orchard, and then a terraced vineyard, all on very steep slopes in Jerome, Arizona. I always made sure that my clients could harvest plenty of food, water, and materials throughout the landscapes. I set these food systems up in a way that they would be super-charged during rain events, and receive the benefits of companion planting with nitrogen fixers, living mulch, and insectary plants. I worked closely with clients to meet their needs for sustenance and the level of maintenance and interaction that they wanted in their landscape. Often the design would evolve through the construction process, as more ideas between the client and I took shape. Often I returned again and again to work on other areas of the property, following a loose and evolving pattern for it. Some designs I installed are now 10 years old, and thriving with little care or irrigation in this harsh, dry environment.
Obtain a Yield
Permaculture design principles are based around the notion of energy descent, where industrial society will need to drastically reduce energy consumption in order to sustain a stable climate and support life on Earth. One way we can downshift our energy consumption is by producing as much of what we need to survive as close to where we need it as possible. This means that any design that we are using resources to install should produce a yield wherever possible. Yields can be diverse, including food, animal fodder, clean water, building materials, fiber, and medicine. Those same plants that provide a material yield can also yield shade, wind protection, fire protection, flood control, water purification, screening, and so on.
This is one area where we may find a difference between permaculture and ecologically oriented landscape architecture: Permaculture’s directive to obtain a yield from a landscape. In the “Permaculture Designer’s Manual”, Bill Mollison defines permaculture as “harmonious integration of landscape and people, providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.” In the permaculture perspective of what a sustainable human society looks like, the means for our survival are close at hand, and mass transport of goods over long distances is minimized. This highlights the importance of productive landscapes that produce a yield: our local land base must provide for our needs.
The problems associated with long distance importation of food and fuel are surfacing, as swiftly rising costs of basic necessities make the headlines. The energy/food/water/population crunch has been in the sites of permaculture designers since it’s inception. Creating local sources of sustenance while maintaining a thriving and protected natural environment is the key. We must work to restore the land within the existing human footprint to maximize yields without encroaching on functional natural systems.
The word permaculture is a combination of permanent and agriculture, or permanent culture. So the permaculturist studies natural systems and traditional sustainable agriculture. Nature produces no waste, nor does she bring in fertilizer from afar. Nature has developed self-sustaining abundant ecosystems in every corner of the planet without pollution.
Permaculture design looks to the forest and the prairie to see how they work, and how they were managed by indigenous people. The beneficial patterns and interactions that are observed in nature are then mimicked throughout a landscape design, so it embodies the same diversity and resilience of a natural system. This is taught as the way for humans to achieve harmony with nature and create a permanent culture that can endure the infinite variability of nature and climate.
The Problem is the Solution
Permaculturists always state that “the problem is the solution”, and Tucson’s stormwater drainage “problem” now feeds a growing forest garden from it’s 12” of annual precipitation. This is happening with the help of Brad Lancaster, dedicated permaculturist and author of “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands” (Volumes 1, 2 & 3). Brad harvests more than 100,000 gallons of water annually on a 1/8 acre lot and surrounding public right-of-way, using water-harvesting earthworks such as sunken mulched basins and collection into a cistern. He harvests runoff from the roads to grow mesquite trees and other edible natives that shade the asphalt and provide wildlife habitat. Mesquite beans can be ground into flour, as indigenous people have done, and Brad has initiated a community effort to use this hardy food crop with his organization, Desert Harvesters.
Lancaster is not only establishing neighborhood food security, but is also addressing the urban heat island effect. The Mesquite orchard keeps his house and vicinity 10 degrees cooler than bare surrounding streets. This cooling effect will increase as the trees continue to grow to their mature size, with increasing food yields as well. The Mesquite also provides pollen for Lancaster’s bee hive, and wood to heat his house. The local water table is growing to the benefit of all the plantings. It is an investment with continually rising returns.
Ecologically progressive Landscape Architects and permaculturists are closing the water loops in design, by retaining all rainwater on-site and reusing waste-water. Closing water, food, and energy loops is part of any permaculture design with the guiding principle: to catch and store energy.
Brad Lancaster also played a role in the design of Milagro Cohousing, a community of 28 homes developed with permaculture principles, in Tucson. Two rows of adjoined homes face south for winter solar gain, forming a canyon-like landscape between. This area collects the roof runoff from the structures into cisterns and a series of interconnected mulched planting basins or bioswales that teem with fruiting and flowering trees, shrubs, and herbs. These landscaped microbasins also double as the site’s multi-functional flood control system. The productive exotic plantings thrive in the canyon oasis where pedestrian traffic is concentrated, while the area outside the enclosure is a native Sonoran Desert preserve. The residents may harvest cultivated food plants within the enclosure and native food plants without. The structures are built of locally-made adobe brick. Waste water is treated on site using a constructed wetland, then pumped subsurface through the common landscape to supplement the harvested rainwater. As a result, no potable water is needed for landscape use, while 30 to 50 percent of potable water is used for landscape irrigation by conventional developments of a similar size.
The Feedback Loop and Evolving Design
Permaculture by nature is a grass roots movement for ecological and social change. Therefore it is a bottom-up more than top-down endeavor. The Permaculture movement advocates that a swarm of individuals changing personal habits through design can adapt to new conditions much more effectively than a large beurocratic organization or governmental body. The Permaculture movement seeks to educate and empower individuals and communities to take control of their sustenance and manage their resources in a sustainable way. The standard process in landscape architecture is where a client hires a designer and comes out with a finished plan. Permaculture principles dictate that every plan is subject to changes based upon a continual feedback loop of further observation.
Just as thoughtful observation and a thorough site assessment should yield a harmonious design, continued observation and response to system feedback should evolve and perfect the design over time. This means that clients or designers or both need to be involved over time, and the initial design should be considered a first step in the long life of an evolving project.
The success of this process is evident at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum located in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sixteen years worth of living design evolution has shown why the evolving landscape with a continual feedback loop is a crucial element of a permaculture design.
The original 1992 site design was a group effort, led by Anne Nelson, a Landscape Architect familiar with permaculture, with the museum’s directors. There were initial budgetary constraints and the design needed to be built in phases. As time went on and children interacted with the landscape, the design on paper was shelved and became a living design that interacted with the way the children played on the site. Over time and with a tremendous amount of community involvement and contributions, the area has become an evolving landscape, changing year to year with the cultural changes reflected in the children’s play. As Jason Scott the garden manager expressed:” Some years the kids just need more wildness than others”.
The Earthworks Outdoor Learning Landscape at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum is a high-profile public permaculture site that gets an enormous amount of use. More than 70,000 children visit the bountiful one-acre landscape of meandering paths, ponds, and interactive exhibits each year. The landscape absorbs runoff from the museum’s 25,000 square-foot parking lot, where it soaks through swales and basins defining the landform and planting areas. A 10,000 gallon cistern harvests water from the 6,000 square-foot roof of the museum for gravity-fed irrigation. Children explore endlessly in this biodiverse, productive, and habitat-enhancing oasis. A greenhouse sunken into the earth and interspersed vegetable gardens make this site a magical landscape in which children play and learn.
Anne Nelson has said it was a good thing that no single person had power over the idea because the space needed time to adapt. Many of the original designs put down on paper never came to fruition. Fresh ideas built from observations and experiences of children in the space created a deeper design than could have ever been conceptualized initially.
A Permaculturist is by nature interdisciplinary, because permaculture design includes so many different elements, from landscape and gardening to home design, animal husbandry, transportation, forestry, education, social networking and more. The permaculture movement seeks to train individuals to creatively respond to their environments and climate change in a graceful and productive way. Landscape Architects are in a good position to have a beneficial influence as permaculturalists. In designs produced and ways those designs come about and are organized, installed and improved over time.
For a landscape architect who wants to learn more about permaculture, there are multiple avenues. There are basic design courses that bestow a certificate as a permaculture designer. Courses are available in every climate and in urban, suburban and rural settings. There are multiple on-line resources for finding the appropriate course and there are advanced courses, teacher training, and many workshops in particular elements of a system; bee keeping, natural building or agroforestry for example. Resources include books, magazines, articles, and web pages. There may be landscapes developed through permaculture principles in your area.
Ways that a landscape architect may integrate permaculture into design practice are plentiful, from plant choices to client interviews, water systems, construction administration and follow up observations. The integration of permaculture principles into landscape architecture is a fertile field. The forms can be as diverse and abundant as a forest. As time goes on and landscapes are fully recognized for their necessity to survival, the permaculturist landscape architect will play an important role in guiding the transition. Future generations will thank us for our foresight.