Seeing our Communities as Thriving Ecosystems: A Permaculture Approach to Community Planning

March 24, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
Image RemovedOur communities are dynamic ecosystems composed of natural resources, brick and mortar infrastructure, and complex social systems that we constantly alter through human actions. And yet the majority of these local actions degrade our ecosystems rather than support and regenerate our shared resources. Considering the fact that the quality of our own health is linked to the health of our shared ecosystem it seems like time for a new approach. There are also countless other benefits to taking a whole system approach in our communities that will lead to greater resilience at the community level.
The current trend in most communities includes land use changes that tend to reduce ecosystem services, fracture the natural systems in our communities, decrease habitat and biodiversity, and increase our need for energy and food from away while exporting money and leaving us more vulnerable to external forces. What if we changed our approach? Land use change should be leveraged to provide opportunity to the property owner while ensuring that the new activity contributes to the larger ecosystem services in the community. Each action could be used to boost the resilience of the community instead of constantly eroding it so it is more fragile.
This will take change agents, which planners are, to incorporate a clear framework for ecosystem design into our existing regulatory and non-regulatory systems at the local level. Comprehensive plans, land use regulations, and other non-regulatory initiatives each provide opportunities for this holistic approach. The framework we suggest and are trying to bring to the planning profession is Permaculture. The Permaculture movement and its corresponding design practice began in Australia in the 1970s inspired by ecology, indigenous understanding and practice, and the natural farming movement. At its heart Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecologies.
The multi-disciplinary approach advocated for in Permaculture design is an excellent fit for the comprehensive planning efforts communities undertake, and also works well at the site scale where most land use changes take place. The fact that Permaculture is scalable and can be used as a design framework for rural and urban locations in any geographic or cultural context makes it very desirable.  The resulting designs stack the many site level needs (structures, parking, landscaping, stormwater management, habitat, energy, etc.) using a systems approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of all of the site elements, the geographic and cultural context, and the needs of the owner.
To date Permaculture has been adopted mostly by property owners, residential landscape designers, and farmers but this is changing quickly.  As the movement has matured and the literature on Permaculture has exploded here in the United States it seems as if the time has come to incorporate what we can at the community scale. There is a clear need to share this design system with community planners while connecting planning staff and planning commission members with existing permaculture practitioners and designers in their area.
The other reason you may just be hearing about Permaculture through this article, or have heard of it but struggle to define it, is because the knowledge transfer happens mostly through Permaculture Design Courses that follow an internationally agreed upon curriculum that includes a minimum of seventy-two hours of course time. These are long courses, and until recently they were offered most often in a two week format. Now they are being offered in many locations around the country using alternative weekend formats that are much more accessible.
To bring this framework to planners we are collaborating with APA’s Sustainable Communities Division and other groups to offer Permaculture workshops for professional planners. These will mostly include day long and multi-day introductory courses eligible for certificate maintenance credit through the AICP.  If you or your APA Chapter is interested in hosting a similar event please feel free to contact us!
In our work as planners we need to identify effective frameworks for guiding change while removing potential barriers that prevent us from creating the robust and resilient systems our communities deserve. Please join us as we explore how Permaculture can be fill this role and aid those of us in the planning profession in our work. 

Contact information: Steve Whitman, AICP,


Steve Whitman

Steve Whitman is a planner with Jeffrey H. Taylor & Associates in New Hampshire. His work is focused largely on community planning and sustainability issues. Whitman is a certified permaculture teacher, and he is also an adjunct faculty member at Plymouth State University and Colby Sawyer College.

Tags: building resilient communities, permaculture