The Permaculture City by Toby Henemway

To those like myself who did not know what permaculture was before coming across this book I will give a quick summary. Permaculture principles include both natural and human ecosystems. While it tends to be thought of as a system for designing gardens, it can be applied to a range of human activities that are both physical and non-physical. The permaculture flower is composed of ten human needs: water, shelter, waste, health, spirit, community, justice, livelihood, food, and energy. The flower, and the cities it represents, function properly when the relationships and connections between the parts is considered. Most strategies look at the sum of the parts only and loose the valuable connections that underlay the system.

Early on, the author states the three essential functions of cities are commerce, community and security. They are gathering places offering security to conduct trade. Trade can be commerce or ideas. A healthy city is one that generates ideas which the author says is high in more dense cities. A striking statistic was that "a city fifty times larger than another generated 150 times more ideas." 

The author identified numerous lists for each concept contained within permaculture. There are ten core principles for ecological design, four principles based on attitude, four levels in the design process, and ten types of design methods. All this information is hard to distill, however the author does a good job of providing examples for each. Many of the design methods are familiar to planners: observation, data overlay, and flow diagrams. Four new concepts discussed in depth include highest use, needs and resources analysis, zone analysis, and sector analysis.

Highest use places elements and processes in an efficient sequence in time. Needs and resources analysis connects the elements to each other, while zones arranges elements in elegant relationship with the user or center of activity. Finally sectors align design elements in strategic relationship with outside influences, such as the effect sun or wind has on a design. The most applicable to planning is the zones arrangement, often demonstrated in concentric rings with the center being the most important element to the user or project.

The author delved into the Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) model which includes autonomous agents that respond to changes via feedback and form self-organizing, self-maintaining assemblages that display emergent priorities. He demonstrated this function in the form of a plant, then applied it to a city. The hope for CAS in cities is to set up a minimum number of guidelines and let the autonomous agents (people, neighborhoods, social groups) explore the possibilities that emerge. If successful they will self-organize and evolve to create vibrant solutions. A successful living community will rarely need police because they will have created their own "watchful, caring eyes."

The author discusses historic development patterns and their affect on society today. America is a unique country because of two key pieces of legislation, the 1785 National Land Ordinance and the Homestead Act of 1862. The former imposed a grid of ownership across the west and the latter created a unique settlement pattern where individual families were given land in exchange for settling and improving it. This individualistic system of developing the west was different than the normal development pattern of most countries which grew slowly outward from existing cities as land was needed.

Despite this pattern of development, we have learned to rely on others for our every day needs. Our food shed as demonstrated by the book is quite vast. Most of us probably have 1-2 methods of meeting our food needs: the chain grocery store and possibly a home garden. The author creates a system of 5 zones which can meet our food needs: your garden, neighbors/community gardens, farmers' markets/CSA (community supported agriculture), independent groceries with regional focus, and lastly (and to be sparsely relied on) chain supermarkets. I confess to using only three of these, sometimes a fourth and spending a lot of time in zone 5, the chain supermarket. Seeing the zone's laid out proved the authors point, that by using permaculture strategies you can change your habits to become more sustainable.

The author wraps up the book with a focus on consumption on spending. He says "monetization has come at the loss of community. We hire help and entertainment instead of doing it for free with the people in our lives, those people who once took care of us and with whom we shared, made, and did things.” He demonstrates this in the use of social capital, the relationships and connections we make with other people. When we do a favor for someone we know, they feel obligated to return the favor and a cycle begins. This creates a system of interaction that strengthens our connections to others. 

When used in a business, this non-zero-sum game is achieved through collaboration which creates "solutions that multiply resources, develop ideas, and build synergies that are impossible to achieve alone.” Developing design cohorts that allow small businesses to feed off each other and share expenses creates these synergies and advanced ideas. 

An important concept to keep in mind is that complex systems, those that we operate within daily, are not rigid gear like structures. They are dynamic, living entities with people and communities connected through relationships. One final quote that has resonated with me is “space in cities is too precious and too full of potential not to use well, by and for the people who live there.”