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Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017: The First Day

July 5, 2017

Building on the previous post, in what follows I’ll continue a leisurely re-walk through the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April of 2017, pulling out and sharing key content as I go.1

Here was our draft programme:


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Introductions, housekeeping, course context
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – History of Design Frameworks
  • Session Three & Four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Ethics and Principles
  • Session Five (7-9pm) – Free-form social time


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Check in & recap, history and evolution of permaculture design process understandings
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – Segue into moving through permaculture design process in detail
  • Session Three & four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Reading Landscape
  • Session five (7-9pm) – Reading people


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Distilling, evaluating, synthesising observations
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – Moving toward concept design / patterning / overall strategy
  • Session Three & four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Melliodora walk and case study
  • Evening meal and then fire at Pear Tree


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – TBC
  • Session Two, Three & four (1 pm – 5pm) – Mayberry Woodend field trip

Day One

Session One – Introductory

Before we kicked off the first day, David, local permaculture teacher Beck LoweKeri Chiveralls from CQU and I checked in. Bec had come on board to both sit in and help facilitate the whole workshop and along with Keri (not to mention Su!) was an integral part of the event.

After opening the event, acknowledging country, getting to know each other, and such like, we started by articulating a whole-group shared intention. Here was the first draft:

Having warmly and happily connected with our peers, we’ve been inspired and re-energised by knowledge that provokes us into confident action

I won’t refer back to this but we revisited it throughout the course both to improve it and to continuously adapt our trajectory toward it. We also developed and wrote down several statements around what we wanted to be true along the way.

Session Two – Permaculture as Framework

It was now time to enter the flow of the course proper. We started at the most general level by looking at frameworks for understanding permaculture as a whole, and the place and significance of design process within such frameworks.

After co-originating permaculture with Bill Mollison, David shied away from the limelight. He continued to test and refine his skills and understandings for some years before re-entering the scene to:

…see what this permaculture movement was that Mollison had created through this process of bringing people together for two weeks and doing all sorts of stuff… and anyway it was pretty inspiring and I found myself drawn back into it. And when I started teaching on this permaculture design course in ‘90 they said ‘well you’re the co-originator – why don’t you teach principles’ and I thought ‘oh shit.’ …this lead to a ten year process of learning how to articulate principles that ended up being distilled in principles and pathways beyond sustainability…

…but I was always intensely aware in that period that this is not an adequate way of dealing with design – you can’t use these [principles] as direct tools very well or in a very concrete way to design – that these are deeper down in the foundations (David Holmgren, April 2017)

David then talked about how the ethics and principles fit within permaculture as a whole, sharing this framework diagram:

…the idea that where we might be wanting to go is the solution we’re after and often that’s very specific – in permaculture it turns out to be often unique – there is actually no other example which is exactly like what we need. But we’re working from universal conceptual foundations and ethics are the most fundamental layer. And then design principles sit above those, and these are really thinking tools for how we understand things… and then I used Mollison’s term which he uses in the Designer’s Manual – ‘design methods’ to say well there’s actually lots of different ways to design, but in a way I was thinking of that being both methods and process. Then for me beyond that strategies and concepts. For me strategies comes out of strategic planning, concepts comes out of architecture – the concept plan, bubble diagram, the general idea. And then as the design comes toward something more concrete, we have to get into the techniques and specifications. The difference between an architect’s bubble diagram and actual construction drawings.

But of course we need to remember that the architect relies on the fact a building industry exists that knows how to put up buildings and in a lot of cases with permaculture design we’re trying to do this process where there isn’t the equivalent of a building industry – that no one actually knows, in a technical detailed sense, how to do the thing we’re talking about.

And then hopefully we arrive at some design solution.

Then David looked at what happens when a design solution isn’t working. Often in our culture we either give up or only adjust the techniques and specifications that we use. (e.g., trying a different species or seed source for the same species). More rarely we revisit the actual strategy/concept level (e.g., maybe a food forest just isn’t appropriate for the climate and geology). He then pointed out (to my delight) that even:

more occasionally we go back to what are the methods we’re using in design, where professionals mostly inherit these from their training, occasionally in their careers they go through a ‘holy shit – maybe we keep making the same mistakes – maybe there is something in the processes we’re using, the methods we’re using, that are actually not accurate’.

The framework diagram above describes an ideal sequence in what David characterised as a more masculine (outward looking, logical, linear, goal oriented) design pathway to design solutions. It illustrates an ideal patterns-to-details motion from fundamental ethics and principles through design methods resulting in high-level strategies and concepts that in turn lead into techniques and specifications ultimately delivering design solutions.

What I like most about the above diagram 2 are the two red dashed lines. The upper line gets across that most conscious planning and design these days rarely goes any deeper than revisiting the relevant techniques and specifications. One example that comes to mind is that when industrial agriculture runs into problems the first step is to go buy another product. Try a different ploughing technique. Have a higher dose of fertiliser specified.

But it is rare to go back to the level of strategy and concept, let alone our design methods and processes, let alone our fundamental principles and ethics (the lower dashed line)! A big part of why permaculture is radical is because it invites or challenges us to go that deep in redesigning the whole way we think, act and live relatively to the culturally entrenched norms of modern industrial society (and suggests this is required if we are to transition past a fossil fuel production peak).

But now consider a second diagram, which David construed as in some ways a critique of his own framework. This way of construing matters is more feminine in the sense that rather than stressing a sort of linear, general-to-specific sequence, it stresses the embeddedness of everyday life in larger cycles and flows, of being present to “living breathing daily actions” with a more diffuse awareness of a larger field that influences us. In the foreground for all of us are our daily routines of work and play, which we sometimes tweak, tune or do some maintenance on, and more rarely make decisions about changing. But all this exists in a larger context of seasonal and life patterns themselves nested within ecological, economic and cultural realities that we have extremely limited agency to affect (though this can change at times of cultural turnover when for example a small group of people can make or catalyse a significant cultural change).

Together, these diagrams prompted group discussion around on the one hand what conscious redesign looks like, and on the other, not forgetting that the world comes with constraints that we need to acknowledge and fit within. For me, I can see the thinking behind the first diagram having a let’s start from scratch feel, whereas in the second it is more about starting from where we already are, and weaving our way forward from there. It also reminds me of a point I sometimes find myself making toward the end of permaculture design certificate courses where I recommend moving gently in permaculture directions, being gentle with one’s new-found enthusiasm on family and friends, and asking not so much how am I going to fit my life into permaculture, but how is permaculture going to fit into my life?3

Moving on, David then spoke to his permaculture flower, which I’m sure anyone reading this will already be familiar with.

After giving participants time to share and digest this first round in pairs, I shared my permaculture tree take three, which I originally published here. I came up with this diagram toward my goal of clearly communicating the critical importance of design process in being the only thing that can get us from the situation-general ethics, principles, and other foundational aspects of permaculture to situation-specific solutions (layouts, strategies, techniques etc) that are authentically adapted to their unique situations while reflecting and delivering on the permaculture ethics and principles.

One point I emphasised (which isn’t yet clear in the diagram) is that the tree drops its leaves which then enrich the soil below as the break down – as in the successes and failures of the design solutions our design processes generate should continuously feed back into and enrich the foundational levels. In other words nothing in this diagram should stagnate, it should all be continuously alive and evolving.

We then explored this very tentative path-destination diagram I’d been mulling over and with David’s input had sketched up as a rough first draft for the workshop:

The ideas it explores are:

  • Key definitions of permaculture mention both aspects of an amazing place to be heading (nature mimicking systems providing for human needs locally) and a way of getting there (conscious design process). There is a destination, and there is a path to that destination.
  • Permaculture ethics and principles are injected into reality to the extent they inform and are manifested by the pathways or processes we use toward where we want to head (as per the permaculture tree take three)
  • As David pointed out, all this applies equally to industrial civilisation, in the sense that there is also a (very different) destination, an established pathway or set of processes toward that destination, and (very different) ethics and principles that inform and guide that process. David in an earlier session had mentioned “the idea that industrial modern society does actually have design principles. They are not taught, they are deeply culturally embedded, and they’re mostly dysfunctional for the world that we’re entering”
  • So permaculture is in some ways an exploration of what path we need to be on if we want a future worth having, along with the ethics and principles that define that path and help keep it on track.

Conscious vs Intuitive Design (and a story about a coin)

I was very grateful that at this point someone4 asked a question about the use of the phrase “conscious design” in the diagram (and I guess in permaculture more generally) and what this meant for the role of the intuitive, creative, imaginative subconscious in design. David’s answer was well worth me taking a moment to transcribe it from the video footage:

The issue of conscious design and whether that incorporates intuitive aspects, for me coming from a background of growing up as a child of what I call a super rationalist, and that being very much in line with the culture around me, the process of starting to include intuitive aspects in your own design process has been quite a long one.

I’ve been very sceptical of when people say “the property just felt perfectly right for me” – yeah it was spring and a lovely sunny day and you could feel the warmth – that what people sometimes talk about as intuition is actually a superficial emotional reptilian brain response in some situations, which is a deep part of our survival (and in some ways better guides us than this bloody over-thinking top bit).

So I’m critiquing what people sometimes call intuition but there is another level up where we are somehow integrating or distilling so many things that we can’t hold and deal with it in a rational way and getting some higher intuition and higher designing capacity that I believe really exists, but it’s very hard to say that’s what that is in any situation, and much less to be able to give a recipe for it.

I remember one story of relevance. When I was working with Haikai Tane in New Zealand, where he was really my main teacher in design process. There we were, two designers laying out a site for the first workshops run by permaculture in New Zealand in 1979, laying out the site in this remote rural valley. We went through all of these different things (‘that can go there’, ‘this can go there’) and then we got to this blockage where it was this big decision pathway – should that be there or there, and it critically affected everything else on the site (I can’t even remember what the thing was), and he said “oh this is a case for the coin” and he pulls out a coin, and throws it up, and I’m flabbergasted – this is just like ridiculous…

…and then he gave me a long lecture on the I Ching and partially how our response to the decision we made tells us a lot for a start about where we were actually more deeply feeling about that blockage, and also that maybe there are processes by which intuition bypasses some of those things that might cause blockages – they are definitely there, but to allow the space for those to emerge, and to be able to distinguish from those other things that are just more superficial emotions, that are valid in themselves, but I wouldn’t call those things intuition

Surfing the Sweet Spot

In the ensuing discussions David made another important point about the dangers of the two extremes of either:

  • ploughing (ahem) ahead blind to issues with the overriding conceptual framework we’ve imbibed from our culture (where you end up being an unwitting endorser and enforcer of the status quo) and
  • trying to unpack and completely rework our conceptual framework, where nothing gets done

Where the key is yes, maintain a self-aware, self-critical attitude to our guiding assumptions and frameworks, but stay active, and retrofit as you go forward. I mentioned here the idea about repairing the ship, plank by plank, on the open sea, getting across the idea that it is impossible to take off our conceptual framework as if they are a pair of glasses and casually choose a new pair. Bootstrapping bit-by-bit is the only way forward.

Another side to this is the agile programming concept that unless you are constantly putting your theories and ideas to test in the world of practical action, you lack the feedback critical to be sure they are any good, and can spend a bunch of wasted energy marching toward a dead end.

Session Three – Ethics

The rest of the day we spent exploring the permaculture ethics and principles. For the ethics David had breakout groups discussing several questions then coming back to share with the group as a whole. The questions were “to what extent do we as permaculturalists:

  • Lack a deep understanding of our ethical framework?
  • are confused with ethical dilemmas that arise from that framework? and/or
  • know what is ethical but fail to behave according to our ethics?

Here are three slides for the three ethics David shared each with a little supporting caption:

Session Four – Principles

With David’s presentation of his 12 design principles the workshop started to enter previously uncharted territory.

For in the last few days of preparing for the event David had a radical idea. Usually, he shares his principles by showing how they apply to the dynamics of natural (including human made) systems. So for instance in catching and storing energy he might discuss photosynthesis, then give an example of a firewood pile, or a water tank.

His radical idea was what about we explore how the 12 principles might apply or be injected directly into design process? I thought this brilliant and so we effectively threw participants into the deep end (during the first day when still getting to know each other, what’s more!) and after David briefly introduced each principle, we invited everyone to consider and speak to the question of “How can we apply this principle to the process of design?”

While this is self-explanatory for some of the principles (observe and interact, design from patterns to details, apply self regulation & accept feedback) let me share a few examples using some of the other principles that hopefully convey why I think this is an exciting and promising direction to be exploring.

I’m also working with Anthony Briggs to transcribe the rest of what was discussed so hope to share more along these lines in a future post.

Principle 2 – Catch and Store Energy

Thanks to a related comment from Mark Mathieson it occurred to me that when in a design process we go through a goals articulation process one thing we are doing is catching, clarifying and storing the energy of the client in a high-level vision statement. Throughout the process we can, as needed, ‘turn on the tap’ in the sense of revisiting that statement to re-inject energy and enthusiasm into the process (as well of course of checking to see if we are on track and/or if the statement needs to be further refined).

Principle 3: Obtain a Yield

One way of obtaining a yield inside a design process is to hone in on something you can implement early and fast in order to obtain feedback that then guides subsequent phases of the process, not to mention the benefit of starting to immediately use or enjoy that thing.

This is related to the minimal viable product (MVP) concept in product development circles and also a cornerstone of the lean startup methodology. As I mused in a past comment:

the process seeks to uncover or clarify what an implementable ‘first chunk’ might be where there will be some kind of viable value add as in actual progress on the ground that can be used to then guide (based on people using it and seeing how it feels) the figuring out of what the next MVP might be

Principle 5: Produce no waste

To me this principle clearly applies to the idea of not wasting time and effort perfecting and drawing up prematurely detailed designs or “master plans.” This relates directly to this earlier discussion of the distinction between fabricated and generated designs.

Principle 9: Use & Value Diversity

As David put it in his notes for this session, “use a variety of complementary and even contradictory design methods to arrive at more evolved designs.” I guess this is another take on David’s idea of avoiding design cul-de-sacs, in being open to finding the right design method for the job (and dropping methods that aren’t working).

I’m grateful for how everyone rode out this session, which as you’d expect had a tentative and exploratory feel. It also broke with any expectation the course was going to be about David and I simply sharing stuff we’d already worked out in the past, and was a direct taste of actually exploring new territory together.

However  I knew then and know now that this session was a first step for a way of integrating design principles and design process that I feel in time will have great potential to help strengthen permaculture’s design process weak link.

It was also a chance to hear each other’s voices and get a feel for our respective experience with and orientation to permaculture design process, which as a facilitator I found invaluable.

So concluded the first day.


  1. I’m super grateful here for the written notes and sketches shared by Anthony Briggs and Florent Marrot as well as the video footage taken by Keri Chiveralls and photos from Rayna Fahey & Anthony Briggs. It was great to be able to check my recollection again both the notes of others and the video footage from that session.
  2. Which is very similar to a diagram I’ve shared on this blog in the past and also see this model.
  3. I wasn’t intending for this cascade of fee-association, but that in turn reminds me of something Terry White, the only person Bill Mollison ever dubbed a permaculture saint, once said to me. I asked him about his relation to permaculture and he said “permaculture is one of the tools I use in my life.”
  4. Thanks Kinchem!

Dan Palmer

Dan Palmer has been studying and practicing permaculture for a little over ten years. Along the way he helped start the now global permablitz movement, a well-respected permaculture design, implementation and education company, and several overseas permaculture projects in India and Africa. He has taught or co-taught perhaps a dozen permaculture design certificate courses, read and written a lot about permaculture, and learned from many senior designers and teachers within permaculture and in related fields. In the last year he has started running what he calls Advanced Permaculture Design courses, in which he gets to work with folks that already have some training and experience in permaculture (and want to take it to the next level). He also continues to design, with several hundred professional design projects behind him.

Tags: permaculture design