Building on the previous post, in this post I continue a leisurely re-walk through the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April of 2017.

Day Two

Session One – David Holmgren’s Permaculture design Process Journey

We started the second day with an exploration of David’s journeys with permaculture design process.

In the lead up to the course I had taken notes from David and then refined this timeline diagram:

I found it intensely fascinating to hear David’s stories and adventures with design process over the years. Here is some of what stood out for me.

Reading Landscape is a keystone skill in permaculture design

David emphasised his early appreciation of the critical importance of cultivating our ability to read landscape. Refining and attempting to share this skill, you might even say, forms the backbone of David’s permaculture design process journey.

Haikai Tane’s huge significance in David’s journey

Haikai is a mysterious, wizard-like character that David describes as his second mentor after Mollison. Interestingly, David learned design process from Tane, not Mollison (or, ironically from his earlier studies of ‘environmental design’). For David, Bill was at heart an ecologist rather than a designer.

Haikai introduced David to strategic planning and the land systems approach, which they collaboratively refined into a joint approach to permaculture farm-scale development projects.

Strategic Planning

In a nutshell, strategic planning (which contrasts with master planning) comes from the military and emphasises the ongoing process of planning over the idea of creating then following a plan. In Trees on the Treeless Plains (1994/2006), David put it this way:

There is a role for input from a large range of professionals including landscape designers, but it is the landholder who must become the lead planner. Only the landholder can consider and balance all the strategic, technical and practical elements which make a whole farm and develop a plan which can grow and change over time.

General Eisenhower once said “plans are useless but planning is essential”. In other words, planning is a process rather than bits of paper, or put another way, strategic planning rather than master planning.

Master planning, (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which is a copy of what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems such as cities. Many attempts at farm planning by consultants, including soil conservation officers and landscape architects, have tended to be master plans which encourage the notion of a final state for the landscape and farm. It might be noted that the final state for everything is death.

In strategic planning, the emphasis is on processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most importantly, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (p. 21)1

Land Systems

The land systems approach emphasises reading or tuning deeply into the patterns of pre-existing differentiations in the landscape (based on ecological and geo-spatial information in a way similar to how indigenous cultures map land) and then basing subsequent design moves on these patterns.

Bringing Strategic Planning and Land Systems together

Haikai and David’s approach to integrating strategic planning and land systems mapping in the context of whole-farm design is summarised in this diagram, where part of the point is that you are working on all four streams simultaneously:

David crash-tested and refined this approach over the course of long-term, in-depth projects (his mum’s place as documented in Permaculture in the BushMelliodoraFryers Forest ecovillage) as well as a lot of shorter consultancies (usually one day) in the period 1983-1994.

Now David explained that something interested happened with strategic planning over time which is that it entered the universities and so on. In becoming institutionalised it became sterilised and impotent and effectively just another variation on a ‘waterfall’ or step-by-step linear process.2 In David’s words it became “degraded into a formula.” This was one of the reasons that David quit teaching design process on PDCs in the late eighties (he has only very recently started again).

Limitations of Site Planning Approach

David also covered his critique of permaculture becoming over-reliant on the site planning approach which (with its zones & sectors) is useful for small scale nucleated development, but falls short when imposed on larger and more complex sites (where David finds land systems mapping and strategic planning are much more helpful).

Iteratively retrofitting our way into and through an uncertain future

Toward the end of this session David made this insightful comment which combined some of the flavours of the emerging approach to permaculture design process we’d already started hinting at, with what he considers an imminent global financial crisis. The beginning of this clip was cut off, but I think he was sharing his intention to pick up on (the recording started here):

…the process that Dan’s talking about, this sort of iterative process where we are going in steps and seeing what happens next, a more organic process, and also to highlight that a lot of what we are doing is not working with blank slate planning – that we’re actually retrofitting something that already exists, and that it’s actually a different paradigm when you say everything already is a whole place, it all has a history, there’s no such thing as starting from scratch anyway. But on top of that, the point we’re at in history, when this property bubble bursts, and historically it’s right on the verge, this year, next year, it doesn’t matter. This is not just for this country, but for the globe. In financial-economic terms this is unprecedented in the 5000-year history of money, and it’s certainly unprecedented in the 300-year history of modern central banking. That will change everything and because it is financial, it’s not like climate change or peak oil, it can change very very fast. And so we’re moving into a world where this idea that development occurs and buildings go up… and people are moving capital from here to there, that will just grind to a halt. And people will be left with where they are and what is available and what is possible. And so it doesn’t actually take away from the learnings from planning and design, but how we actually apply them will be quite different (David Holmgren, 2017)

Session Two – Dan’s Permaculture design Process Journey

It was a nice day so for the next session we grabbed a cuppa then headed up to the school oval and found ourselves a nice spot to gather. There was something magic about that particular spot and the energy at this moment on the course which many people commented on afterward.

As you’ll hear in the below clip from this actual session, some of what I shared was how, a few years ago I reached a fork in the path of my personal journey with permaculture design.

So what was the fork? Well, I’d come to realise that permaculture has some pretty deep issues, and that my previous strategy of merely putting band-aids over the symptoms (or ‘cracks’) was not enough.

As I was preparing the above video I happened to read this line in Otto Scharmer’s (2016, second edition) book Theory U, which helped me make sense of the ‘cracks’ I talk about in the video:

Those thresholds, or doorways, usually begin to appear when our conventional ways of operating no longer work, when we hit a wall. We have to drop our old tools and redirect our attention to the field that is unfolding around and within us. It’s as if a crack appears in our reality; suddenly the crack is right there, in your face. The you have a choice: you can patch the crack, or you can stop: drop your tools, attend to the crack that is opening in front of you, tune into the crack, and redirect your attention to it. Then, go with the flow. The capacity to see the crack–to stop and look at it closely, is a key discipline of our time (p. 111).

Details aside, I realised that that permaculture’s rapid horizontal spread at the surface was not being balanced or complemented by a deepening at its core. Further, if this pattern continued, I felt that permaculture’s incredible relevance to the future would likely not be realised. Hence the flavour of many of my most recent projects, including Making Permaculture Stronger.

Florent’s amazing sketch of this session.

One of Keri’s photos of the session (that’s Florent holding his chin to the right)

Design Process

Moving from my story to focus in on design process proper, we used a very recent update of the VEG process diagram as one coherent process example:3

I then shared a few gateways I’ve found into systems thinking / holistic observation. One I’ll save for another time, but the other fed nicely into the following session on reading landscape and involves a different take on the word aspect.

Aspecting, inspecting & side-specting

Years ago the American philosopher John Dewey had alerted me to how the word aspect can be used as a verb as well as a noun.4

Since then I have come to personally understand and use aspecting as a mode of observation that contrasts with inspecting. If inspecting is observing or looking at something by focusing in on its component parts, aspecting is seeing something as part of a larger system. When we inspect we move from whole towards parts. When we aspect we move from part toward whole.

Inspecting has become our culturally default way of seeing the world. We tend to approach things by ‘breaking them down’, identifying those parts, then looking at how they fit together.

It was actually watching David read landscape in the past that helped me realise that a huge part of permaculture is sort of reclaiming aspecting as a legitimate and indeed an essential part of healthy, holistic observation.

An example of what I’m talking about: one day a few years back, David lead Michael Jackson of Yandoit Farm and I on a seven-hour reading-the-landscape walk that left my spinal cord quivering with information overload for several days afterward. David’s ability to read landscape, particularly in his native habitat (he lives just around the corner), is mind-blowing and takes you from the tiniest gum nut or stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago all within a couple of minutes. It is like one second, you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air ballon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-lined riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre-deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends. I’d better move on. My spinal cord is starting to quiver again.

I realised how David so deeply unpacks a landscape: the key is that he uses his observational skills in a constant iteration between inspecting and aspecting. Both are critical, and I’m pretty sure from my own experience that you can’t do both at once, at least not consciously.

It was quite recently that I realised sometimes you are not going upwards in scale from a part toward the whole or wholes that part is part of (aspecting), or going downward in scale from a whole toward its parts (inspecting). Quite often you simply go sideways in scale, as in the scale stays the same and you take in similarly scaled wholes (or part-wholes, or holons) adjacent to what you were just looking at. An example would be look from tree to tree along a riparian strip. I call this sidespecting.

So, as we observe and interact, on the one had we move constantly between inspecting, sidespecting and aspecting. Constantly.

Observe, Hypothesise. Repeat.

In addition to inspecting, sidespecting and aspecting, whenever we read landscape (or anything else), we move constantly from direct observations to hypotheses about what we are observing. David later put in this way:

you can see reading landscape involves hypotheses, guesses, question marks all the time – much more than it involves answers (David Holmgren, 2017)

Here is a simple example from a design consultancy I did several days ago. As you can see from the aerial photo there is a perplexing tessellation-like pattern going on in the paddocks.

I directly observed this and was instantly theorising about what it might be and what might cause it. This process then continued on site as shown in this video:


Reading Landscape

We spent the afternoon on reading landscape with David. The bulk of it was taking a stroll in one of four groups where the goal was to:

  • Observe (using all senses if possible)
  • Be aware of feelings and emotions that arise but avoid dwelling on judgements about good and bad
  • Look for signs of water flow, wind or fire,
  • Use road cuttings & earthworks that show the soil and geology.
  • Look for signs of recent or past human activity including land management
  • Where possible identify rock types, plants, animal dropping, bird calls etc
  • Take samples and/or photographs where appropriate
  • Look for signs of hidden, subtle or past;
    • natural and seasonal processes
    • animal and human activity (including design and management)

Meandering down into Dr’s Gully

Those clear signs of past events in the landscape fade over time from hours through to centuries and millennia. But in a sense all of the things that have happened in a place are still there. And that’s of course what indigenous and spiritual perspectives say anyway, that it’s all still here. (David Holmgren, 2017)

Reading People

That evening I led a session on reading people after dinner, sharing the approach I’ve developed drawing on holistic management decision making, Dave Jacke’s goals articulation process, and my own experience with what works best.

I guess the take home point was that I find it crucial to spend some good time here and to go deeper than initial replies to fathom at least something of the essence (distinctiveness) of my clients in helping them articulate what it is they really want. The process at this stage results in both a true north for the project and a list of the different main areas or activities that will support that vision.

I explored the parallels with reading landscape in that you are not only iterating between inspecting, aspecting, and sidespecting as you get to know your clients, but you are iterating between what you observe or feel and guesses about what this is indicating, which you then test with further questions and so on. As you immerse in the parts of the clients being shared with you, you slowly build up an increasingly complete and coherent picture of the whole. This process is integral to sound design process and has traditionally not been a strong point in permaculture.

Here is an example of the (actively used and evolving) context created by the crew at Mayberry Woodend. This both defines the big-picture true north of the project, and translates it down into the actions enabling traction toward that true north and future resource base those actions depend on (learn more about this approach here). We were lucky to have Tom and Menno from Mayberry come and sit in for this session and share the people-reading process I was talking about from the receiving end.

So concluded the second day. In the next post we’ll review Day Three.


Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994 (republished as Ebook 2006).

Scharmer, C. Otto. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. 2nd ed. BK, 2016.


  1. Or during the session when discussing the context in which strategic planning originated: “You have to make these major decisions, and yet you don’t know all the facts, you’re not in control of the situation, and you have to adjust”
  2. See this post for discussion of waterfall models
  3. For the record, I’ll be sharing the details of this update in an upcoming post as part of the current inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture. Also, if you think you are familiar with this diagram, look again.
  4. I only just looked up its etymology though where I found that it comes from the Latin aspectus which in turn comes from aspicere which means to look at