Applying Permaculture Design

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Anyone who has tried to describe to someone what ‘Permaculture Design’ is will know that it can be surprisingly difficult. So when trying to apply permaculture design principles we need to be sure that we know where we’re trying to get to, and how we plan to get there. This is where ‘frameworks’ for the design process can be really useful. Frameworks are like stepping stones which we can follow to take us through the process from beginning to end while helping to remind us of our main objectives, and the guiding principles we are committed to.



The ‘Action Learning Cycle’ is a simple cyclical framework which illustrates how we can achieve the best outcomes – by continuously learning and improving.





Based on the same premise Patrick illustrated the design process like this:


The importance of observation or the ‘receptive’ phase cannot be over stated, as this is when we gather all the information with which to make our design decisions. Oversights at this stage can lead to significant errors which could affect the integrity of the whole design. It can be difficult to resist the temptation to start designing immediately. We will undoubtedly have a multitude of judgements, ideas, intuitions and desires from the outset, but in order to create a truly effective design we must do our best to keep such thoughts at bay – or perhaps confined to a notebook, until we have fully observed every relevant aspect of our design subject. It could be that our immediate thoughts about something are very astute and relevant, and that an intuitive feeling about where something should go, or how it should work is in fact very sensible. However, until we can see every piece of the jigsaw puzzle we can’t be sure where the pieces fit, so it’s safer to follow a clear and rigorous process. Processes and frameworks can also help to prevent us from feeling overwhelmed by complex situations. Most situations have a level of complexity which taken as a whole can feel unfathomable. Breaking things in to steps can make things feel more manageable.

What separates permaculture design from other kinds of design is very much about ethics and principles. The ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares are the foundations upon which the design principles rest. There have been many interpretations of these principles, in fact the two original founders David Holmgren and Bill Mollison each created their own lists. These can be helpful to keep us on track in terms of our overall aims, and we can use them to check the decisions we’ve made as a form of evaluation. However, it’s difficult to distil the principles in this way, and lists can be a confusing and convoluted. I prefer to focus on a general approach and attitude which embodies the principles and creates a holistic designer.

The following excerpt from Patrick’s book The Earth Care Manual shows how he characterised the permaculture design approach:

Des Meth 1

Think like a System

When creating a design we need to think like a system. We humans are very good at looking at the different elements within a system, but not seeing the relationships which connect them. The diagram below shows how human habitats are currently designed following a period of unlimited fossil fuel consumption, and what we are aiming for in permaculture design.


The red arrows are the inputs and outputs of each element (the block shapes). By this I mean the energy and resources which go in to (eg. electricity, time, skills, feed) and come out of them (eg: food, earnings, materials, etc). Currently the inputs and outputs of elements tend to be addressed independently, and the human is considered separate, managing it all from the outside. In permaculture we realise that we are very much part of the system as we are reliant upon it for our survival

Permaculture was originally inspired by ecology – observing nature. Nature comprises of systems within systems. Boundaries between these systems are largely conceptual, as none of them could exist without the others within them and surrounding them. Everything really is connected, and it is the nature of the connections which is important. When we mimic nature by creating dynamic systems based upon diversity and beneficial relationships we can move closer to creating self-sustaining, resource building environments, and away from energy intensive, resource depleting environments.

Not only are we aiming to increase the level of outputs of our system while reducing the level of inputs (ie. Use less energy, increase yields) but by understanding the concept of systems we can make the outputs of one element become the inputs of another. Therefore the relative location of each part of the design is crucial in relation to the location of every other part. In the wonderful Tale of Two Chickens we see how our current systems create many unwanted outputs which could be made use of. If not made use of these outputs become a problem to dealt with – a pollutant. While pollutants require energy to manage and cause environmental damage, the inputs of the system are being met with yet more energy and environmental destruction. We’ll stop there on the negativity and simply acknowledge that we clever humans can do better than this and that’s why we are practicing permaculture! So one of the questions I ask myself when designing is: How can I do it better? How can we reduce waste and increase efficiency and abundance.

We also need to remember that the design site is continuously evolving as illustrated in the excerpt from the Earth Care Manual. Mollison coined the phrase Multi-dimensional Design to describe not only the use of space (the many layers of a forest garden compared with a field of wheat for example) but the use of time. A ‘finished design’ is only a snapshot in time, so the design process will continue as the site develops and the designers/occupiers periodically re-evaluate their aims, needs, wants, resources, etc. If you were designing a forest garden on a grassy paddock for example you would be designing the succession from grassland to emerging woodland. This won’t happen immediately, so the stages in between will need to be planned. How will you make best use of the space around the trees in the time they take to reach maturity? Dealing with the aspect of time gives another opportunity for creativity and dynamic uses of resources.

As a teacher I am constantly impressed by the solutions that students come up with for the particular challenges of their design projects. But I am most delighted by the pleasure they get from thinking holistically – it’s the difference between thinking outside the box and refusing to get into the box in the first place!

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