What is Urban Permaculture ?
Urban permaculture means applying the values and directives to urban and suburban areas, with a simple goal in mind: providing for the needs of the people and taking care of Nature, at the same time.
From an ecological point of view, urban environments stand to benefit most from permaculture — trees, plants, birds, insects are all needed urgently in these man-made habitats, and the challenge is on us for finding techniques that can align with the rules and regulations of dense urban environments. As difficult as that might look on paper, this is where the need for sustainable systems that integrate the usage of water, structures and the hygiene requirement is the most urgent; many resources go to waste in the cities: organic waste, gray water, and rain water, and Permaculture offers solutions.
Why is doing Urban Permaculture an activity on its own ?
There has been a long-held assumption that agriculture and gardening are meant for the countryside, need specific conditions, and are not compatible with living in cities. But as Natural Sciences have made great progress in understanding how the soil and the greater ecosystems work, we can apply that knowledge with the purpose of creating Cultivated Ecologies at the heart of our hubs of activity.
There are plenty of advantages, not just drawbacks: permaculture is people-centered, information dense and intensive in terms of attention afforded. All three are available in the Urban setting, even abundant !
Get inspired by watching this site visit with Andrew Millison: https://youtu.be/rBaw3DDN-tg
- Applying Permaculture Design principles to more than just the space
This is probably the first layer of complexity: Permaculture principles don’t apply in the garden only; while the original intention of the founders of Permaculture was to develop a Permanent Agriculture, they soon realized that the depth of the matter actually asked for the development of Permanent Cultures.
Books such as RetroSuburbia , by David Holmgren, and The Permaculture City , by Toby Hemenway, have been written with the purpose of informing, educating and inspiring individuals and communities. Beyond any technical knowledge, please remember that Your journey starts from where you are.
Your skills, your needs and your vision lay the foundation for what can be built.
- Re-thinking the usage of space (design with permeable edges)
One of the most commonly used tools of Permaculture Design is zoning (Read more: zoning) we design from the centre outwards. Zone 0 is the home, and the annual garden is usually placed in Zone 1, with other relatively intensive systems in Zone 2, or at the edge of 1 and 2. In urban settings, it’s quite clear that you’re only afforded Zone 1, and even that is on the small side; but that doesn’t mean that your project is limited. In terms of resources availability, and the influence you exert on other spaces, you can look at zones 2, 3 and 4 as being other people’s property, and even public space.
While you won’t grow main crops on your neighbors’ property, you might find it useful to share excess fruit and vegetables, trade seeds and seedlings, or perform certain actions together.
The flow of resources between zones is also a flow of information: as Permaculture is also information intensive, you can ask for advice, share recipes and interact with others on a regular basis.
In Urban Permaculture, the edges between projects and spheres of influence will need rethinking, but this is already common in high-density spaces. It comes with the possibility of sharing responsibilities (watering, maintenance, harvest), the costs of materials and you might also make some friends along the way.
- Using appropriate tools:
What should be obvious by now is that Urban Permaculture is all about community engagement. In fact, nothing you ever do in Permaculture is about just one person; on the contrary, we’re designing permeable systems that take into consideration a wealth of needs, and also a wealth of resources.
What stacking functions means, in this case, is that every gesture or design action is an opportunity to multiply your impact on the project: if you take out the organic waste to the compost bin, you probably pass by the garden beds. On your way back, you can harvest some greens for a meal, smell the flowers, pick up the mail and maybe chat with a neighbour. While none of this is “compulsory”, these are opportunities to interact with the elements of the system; at the very least, you’ll be informed of the state of the garden.
More function stacking is possible, if you go outside your (comfort) zone; for example, buying groceries is an opportunity to interact with market gardeners (as they are experts at growing food). You can learn about what grows best in each season, how to store it, what recipes to use; on your way back home, you can learn about what other people in your borough might be doing or, on the contrary, you might notice that your neighborhood is a food desert.
In that case, action might be needed, but you don’t have to do it alone. This is an opportunity to look at ecological design in the broader sense: our parks, for example, can also be spaces for growing food, while inviting biodiversity back into our lives.
Read more about stacking functions.
- Aligning with the flow of the city: a different rhythm
As mentioned above, function stacking is synonymous with Urban Permaculture. The one part I love about working in the city is that you always have access to some type of free resource: organic waste, cardboard, woodchips, wood, metal and most importantly, know-how. Whether you’ll be able to use them depends on HOA’s, regulations by the city or by your neighborhood council; how you’ll be able to use them, depends entirely on you, your skills and your imagination.
Since the scale of any project is probably limited by access to space, it means you have to (re)distribute some of the resources to others around yourself. This demands that “invisible” structures such as non-profits, businesses, institutions and individuals work hand in hand, and with an open heart.
The flow I’ve mentioned is a physical one, dictated primarily by how physical resources are flowing in, but also translates into the flow of information, gravitating in the field of needs. Remember, everything that you want to design into a project has to attend to a need, either an individual one, or a collective one. Outside of this matrix, the resources need to flow in another direction, determined by the needs of other people, or of the ecosystem.
Many of the systems, functions and techniques I’ve referenced in this article are actually entirely dependent on human networks, fuelled by information and resource flow. This requires a considerate amount of planning, consulting, negotiating and compromising on behalf of all the parties involved.
The human skills needed for Urban Permaculture are quite basic: communication, collaboration, transparency, empathy and trust; but it’s the scale at which they are applied, and most importantly the ethics that guide us, that can help build Permanent Urban Cultures.
If Urban Permaculture is to reach its potential, the exosystemic functions that Nature relies upon need to be integrated into our Human-centric systems; we also need to understand that collaboration and competition are both required, for the interest of all.
In Urban and Social Permaculture, failure is part of the dynamics, and it should be accepted without judgment; it might mean that we have to go back to the drawing board. But Permaculture is an integrated design science that is implemented in increments. Even successful strategies need to evolve over time, as an expression of our true nature. Persistence and flexibility are two main ingredients, no matter what technique you are applying, and the goal remains simple: fulfilling our needs.
Continue reading: Social Permaculture.