I think Alexander’s concept is much closer to how permaculturists actually design, by starting with something that is already a whole and then differentiating and integrating additional factors into it. The issue is mostly that our language has not caught up to our practice… …I’m not surprised that permaculture is taking a few decades to figure out what we do in practice. Thinking in terms of relationships and organic wholes rather than collections of parts is foreign to our culture and not easy for anyone from Western culture to do. … Now, if only someone would develop a methodology that shows how one can do what Alexander is suggesting… (a recent comment on an earlier post in this inquiry by best-selling permaculture author Toby Hemenway)

With this post we enter the home straight of our first inquiry circuit into a weak link in conventional definitions and understandings of permaculture design process. This weak link is the simple idea, deeply entrenched in permaculture and in our culture at large, that design is a process of assembling elements into wholes.

We have shared Christopher Alexander’s challenge to this idea, along with the differentiation-based approach he favours. We have benefited from David Holmgren’s perspective on the matter and seen Alexander’s alternative approach at large in the work of celebrated permaculture designer Dave Jacke. We have found that while on the surface of things both approaches made sense of Darren J. Doherty’s design process, that on examination the element-assembly interpretation falls apart, leaving us with the suggestion that sound design instead:

  • Starts with an existing configuration of a whole-space-comprising-a-configuration-of-already-differentiated-parts…
  • …further differentiates this whole…
  • …fluidly moving down, up, and sideways as necessary…
  • …both modifying what is there and conceiving (as potential) then introducing (as actual) new parts…
  • …that grow out of and hence harmonise with the whole…
  • …to support the evolution of that whole…
  • …as a rich network of interrelated parts…
  • …toward our desired outcomes of a resilient, abundant, human-supporting ecosystem (or whichever wording floats your boat / is appropriate to what you’re designing).

Given the discrepancy between all this and how permaculture designers usually write, talk and think about design, there has been a surprising (and encouraging) amount of support for the conclusions we’re reached so far. It seems the time is ripe for the critical and constructive revisiting of permaculture’s foundational ideas.

Yet the conclusions we have reached so far carry a challenge of their own. To repeat part of Toby Hemenway’s comment…

Now, if only someone would develop a methodology that shows how one can do what Alexander is suggesting…

Well said Toby – it is high time for the rubber (the ideas we have been exploring) to hit the road (actual design process). Let us not forget here that Dave Jacke’s ecological design process is an impressive example of exactly this. But we would like Dave to have some company, and see many, many more documented examples of permaculture design grounded in the differentiation of wholes.

Toward that end, in the two posts to follow, we’ll share two simple experiences of taking a differentiation-based approach to permaculture design process.