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An interview by Chelsea Green, publisher of Toby Hemenway’s new book The Permaculture City.
Chelsea Green: You are known for your bestselling book Gaia’s Garden, but The Permaculture City is more than about urban gardening, it is about applying permaculture principles to a wide variety of urban concepts. What sparked the interest in moving out of the garden right into a huge urban landscape?
Toby Hemenway: One thing I kept noticing, as did many other permaculturists, was that we could design and build these wonderfully productive and biologically healthy landscapes that would function beautifully, but they’d repeatedly be destroyed or compromised by social or economic factors. A great shared garden that was the hub of a community, like ones in South Central Los Angeles or Philadelphia, would be bulldozed for development, or a group of people would find houses in the same neighborhood and build a supportive, informal community and then, because that made the place so desirable, be gentrified out of their homes. So we can build great gardens and landscapes, but we can’t sustain them in a dysfunctional or unjust culture. If being sustainable was simply a matter of buying or building the right stuff, we’d have been there long ago. It’s the political and social side that is the hard part.
We’re developing the idea that because permaculture’s lessons apply so well in creating dynamic, healthy physical landscapes, they can probably do the same for cultural and social landscapes. That’s the hot and exciting edge of permaculture now, under the headings of social permaculture, financial permaculture, and urban permaculture. Now there are neighborhoods and communities all over the US, and all around the world, where these experiments are being done with great potential and success. As I researched the book I kept running across the same communities where these ideas were taking off, some of the work being called permaculture, some of it under other names but following the same principles. Seeing how much innovative and badly needed work toward sustainable systems was being done in cities and suburbs and wanting to see those ideas propagated was what motivated me to write the book.
CG: What are the 10 petals of your permaculture flower – in terms of the essential functions of
The Permaculture City?
TH: I think of each of the petals as a basic human need. The obvious starting points are the physical needs for any settlement or culture: food, shelter, water, energy, and waste treatment. But because we’re social animals, meeting those needs gets done in a cultural context, and that brings what we call the invisible structures—the needs that aren’t physical—into play. Those are the needs that must be met to live satisfying inner lives and to work well with other people. I think of those as being justice, spirituality, health, community, and livelihood. It’s important to remember that all those needs must be met at several levels. We meet them personally, that is, individually, but also in concert with those near us, meaning locally, and also regionally. That’s really the task in front of us, to learn to meet those needs in a sustainable way, at all three of those levels. And permaculture, besides helping us identify and parse those needs in a way that we then can manage them, also gives us a toolkit for meeting them. That’s really the heart of The Permaculture City— how good design can help us develop and use a toolkit for doing that.
CG: Are there communities in the US now that are getting this concept of integral and regenerative design better than others? If so, is there a key ingredient to getting started – is it an engaged community, climate zone, or is it something else entirely?
TH: When I was researching the book, I repeatedly came across the same communities as the places where multiple, innovative projects in regenerative urban design was going on. Oakland, Brooklyn, Detroit, Jamaica Plain near Boston, Pittsburg, and Portland, Oregon, among a few others, kept popping up at the top of nearly any search I did. One of the common elements in most, though not all of them, is that they are densely populated, recently or still impoverished or declining communities with serious economic or social problems. So they are, or were, places with a crying need for improvement and their residents were, out of sheer need, open to experimentation. The cities in that list are at different stages of regeneration. Some of them, like Detroit and Pittsburg, are at the early stages and are still affordable for the artists and countercultural types who drive this kind of renewal. Brooklyn is much farther along, ultra hip and heavily gentrified but still full of vigorous experimentation and new ideas. Portland is an outlier here, without the serious social problems of many of these cities but a magnet for young people, and Oregon has long been a place where the ethic is “You can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t bother me.” So that combination of youth and freedom to innovate today makes for lively social experiments.
Another key feature of most of those places is the strong sense of neighborhood. Many of those cities are not monolithic but are made up of named neighborhoods that each identify as a unique place. Portland, for example, has about 95 distinct neighborhoods, each with its own neighborhood association that has access to city government. So cities like that are more like clusters of a hundred or so villages of five to ten thousand people rather than a homogeneous conurbation. And any systems thinker knows that when you put a set of loosely connected, dynamic elements together, such as all those neighborhoods, novel properties emerge. That’s a big part of what makes up a healthy, thriving city.
CG: You note that the perceived self-sufficiency of rural and suburban living may be more illusory than fact – why is that?
TH: A century or so ago, many rural towns and families were relatively self sufficient, providing much of their food and other needs from their own land or from near the community. And I think we still hold that as a vision of rural life. But the reality today is that very few rural people, only about four to six percent, make their living from their land, and most of those are raising a cash or commodity product that they sell for money to buy the other things they need. The other 95% of ruralites have jobs just like city people, and most of them commute long distances to those jobs, farther than most suburbanites and certainly farther than city people. Very few suburbanites are anything approaching self sufficient. (I don’t consider telecommuting to be self sufficiency!) In the culture of the developed world, we’re all interconnected; the goods and services we use are so sophisticated and require such specialization to provide that almost no one can function in that culture without specializing and letting others produce most of their needs. That’s one of the reasons that this book focuses so much on community and on learning to work with others. I did the back-to-the-land self-reliance thing, and, while it was rewarding, it got very lonely and was extremely hard, monotonous work. Our lives are much richer when we share meeting our needs with others. Finding where we fit into the larger community gives us a sense of purpose and also makes us valuable to others, and that’s the basis of true security, much more so than going it alone and trying to do everything yourself.
CG: How does the permaculture approach apply to work and livelihood? How should we be re-imagining what our supports look like to live more simply and holistically?
TH: A permaculture principle that applies to livelihood is that each important function should be done in several ways. In other words, it should have backups and redundancy. Fifty years ago, a person might have a single career their whole life and could rely on an employer’s steady support. Not today. I’ve changed careers at least four times, which is pretty typical. And no job is very secure these days. So developing multiple skill sets, and even multiple income streams, is a key element to a secure livelihood. Also, identifying the needs of your community—what we call “doing the assessment step” in permaculture design—will help you find which skills you have or can develop that will be valued by your community. Being of value to others is what provides real security. If you’re just trying to take care of yourself, trying to meet only your own needs, there’s only one person caring for you, and that leaves you vulnerable. If you can help meet the needs of a group of people, then those people are reliant on you. Then you’ve got a lot more people taking care of you. Once you become a valuable member of a community, the community can help you through the inevitable slack times much better than you could do it on your own.
Another important piece is to develop a strong claim on your own livelihood. By that I mean, if you are in a middle tier of a large hierarchy, you don’t have a strong claim on your job. Someone else is hiring and firing you. My suspicion is that, as we enter the era of declining energy abundance, those middle levels are going to be the first to disappear; only abundant energy can support such high levels of complexity, an idea that I develop in the book. And that’s already happening—those middle-tier jobs are shaking out. That’s part of why we’re seeing such a boom in entrepreneurship: people want a strong claim on their own livelihood, rather than having someone else dictate whether they have an income or not. And that’s another idea I develop in the book, how we can create ways, including but not limited to entrepreneurship, to gain strong claims to livelihoods that are meaningful and rewarding.
CG: You started off in Seattle, moved to rural Oregon, and then to Portland, and you now live in the Bay Area. How did this follow your own evolution in terms of using permaculture design principles to guide your own daily life and choosing where to live – rural versus urban?
TH: I met my wife in Seattle in 1990 when I was working in biotech and she was at Microsoft. We both soon realized that our lives, stressful and busy, had strayed far from giving us what we desired in life. I had just discovered permaculture, and at that time, it was being applied mainly on large, rural properties. So we bailed on city life and moved to ten acres in southern Oregon. In retrospect, being such a newbie to permaculture, the move was a hasty decision that wasn’t well grounded in permaculture principles: our property didn’t have good water or soil, for example. But I believed firmly that by using permaculture design, I could make up for that. And we did, to a large extent. So it was a trial by fire and I made a lot of mistakes. One thing I learned, very much the hard way, was that each time I violated a permaculture principle, it didn’t work out well. Because we had a lot of land, I planted far more fruit trees than I needed—I didn’t do a good assessment of my needs, I just wanted it all—and put them far from the house. So I wasn’t following the principles of start small and start at your doorstep. And once all my other systems started producing, those trees got neglected and suffered.
I also was trying to run a large homestead by myself, not following the principle of “each function should be supported in multiple ways.” And the land itself didn’t really want to be a food forest; the soil and microclimate were much more suited to being conifer forest. Thus I wasn’t working with nature but against it. In spite of all those mistakes, the land became very productive and diverse, and we accomplished a lot—pretty much everything we had gone there to do. That’s when we realized we were driving everywhere and burning tons of fuel and other resources to sustain this supposedly sustainable lifestyle, and we were lonely. So we moved to Portland and were amazed at how much our resource consumption shrank. I was still able to grow a huge amount of food in a 6000-square foot yard, but we didn’t need to drive long distances to have a social or cultural life. That brought us back in tune with the principle of relative location: placing the things you use the most near where you spend your time. Thus I really learned the power of permaculture’s principles by breaking most of them and being taught by that why they were worth following.
CG: Author Sandor Ellix Katz likes to talk about sauerkraut as his gateway fermentation – what is the analogous gateway for urban permaculture? Is it the home garden and food?
TH: Most people come to permaculture through the garden gate, because once you start gardening, it’s hard not to notice that the garden is tied into a much larger web of natural processes going on there—the life in the soil, the relation between healthy soil and nutritious food, the link between plant diversity and a vigorous population of beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife, the rhythms of life, and the cycling of wastes into soil and then food and back again.
That makes the garden a natural place for ecological awareness to grow. And although many permaculturists remain focused on food and gardening, a growing number are also connecting what goes on in the garden to the larger human world as well. You find that where you have extra food, you have friends, so it connects you to other people. You might get into seed saving, and make more social connections when you trade favorite varieties with other gardeners, as well as seeing a historical connection as you appreciate all the work that went into breeding the seeds you use. You start to notice places where healthy food isn’t available, and that brings awareness of social justice. You notice that not everyone has access to land, that archaic zoning laws prohibit urban agriculture, that having wildflowers in your front yard violates codes or covenants. Gardening anywhere can connect you to nature, but gardening in a city or town is a natural route for many people to become aware of how our social patterns have disconnected us both from nature and from our communities. It turns out that the solutions we learn in the garden, solutions based on ecological principles, apply in the human world as well. And that’s the core lesson of urban permaculture.
CG: In a note that you admit will tweak “foodies” everywhere, you mention that food growing is not an essential role of cities, but rather a bonus. Why is that?
TH: Cities evolved as places for people to gather for trade, for security, and to do collective projects that small groups couldn’t manage, such as building temples and public monuments. Producing significant amounts of food, whether for contemporary cities and villages or for the most ancient places that could be called cities, was always done on the outskirts, on more rural land. If you think about it, a city isn’t a good place to grow food: Food is inexpensive compared to many other goods, while land and labor in cities is costly. Urban soil is often toxic, water must be imported, and what open land there is will always be under pressure from development. The high-calorie and protein crops that are the basis of most diets—grains, legumes, meat, and dairy—require lots of land, while most of what can be grown practically in cities is high-value but low-calorie crops such as vegetables. I didn’t enjoy being driven to the conclusion that food production isn’t an inherent function of a city, but I think it’s true. However, there are many good reasons to grow what food we can in cities. It fosters a connection to the living world, it educates urbanites about where food comes from, it can bring modest amounts of fresh food into food deserts, and it can pull communities and neighbors together at gardens and markets. But growing food is not why we build cities.