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Permaculture design’s role in community gardening

Permaculture design’s role in community gardening

Story and photos by Russ Grayson

I WAS AT AN EVENT recently where I heard a curious statement. It was this: community gardens that don’t work well are those that make no use of permaculture in their design.

The statement was made by someone who has been involved in permaculture education for some years and, thus, people are going to believe it unless they have the capacity to question what they hear. The question piqued my curiosity because I have been involved in permaculture since 1984, because I taught a permaculture design course through the 1990s and because I have been involved in community gardening for quite some years. It got me thinking — what is the role of permaculture design in community gardens?

Permaculture educator, Faith Thomas and the author led a collaborative process of design for the Carrs Park Community Garden that included a permaculture approach that met the needs of the gardeners.


For those unfamiliar with the permaculture design system — for it is a design system and not a form of organic gardening — it can be described as a metasystem that brings together a range of thinking processes, strategies and techniques for living sustainably in city and country. Put simply, permaculture is a way of thinking, a paradigm, for taking the actions that amount to sustainable ways of living. The system is guided by a set of ethics that include care of natural systems and people and the sharing of surplus resources.

Permaculture borrows heavily from other disciplines and practices and it has evolved primarily as a community-based approach to taking action. There are people using it professionally, however they are few and their application of the design system is more sophisticated than its application by individuals and voluntary community organisations, which make up the bulk of those adopting it.

A false assertion in need of redressing

One reason that the statement in question caught my attention is that it is demonstratedly false, and why I am writing about it is because it was made as a public statement. My intention is not to criticise the person who made it but to reassure those involved in community gardening, but not in permaculture, that their gardens are as productive as any others, including those that purport to be ‘permaculture’ community gardens.

I was also motivated to write out of concern for the good reputation of permaculture as an inclusive approach to designing the ways we live.

I know the statement to be untrue because over my 16 or so years of involvement in community gardening I have seen so-called ‘permaculture’ community gardens that demonstrate poor productivity, poor design and poor relations with landowners and neighbours. I have also seen community gardens without any connection with permaculture, or without input by permaculture designers or educators, that are highly productive and that have effective organisation. In fact, it’s probably true to say that these are among the most productive of community gardens I have encountered.

A role for permaculture

The statement raises an important question: what is the role of permaculture in community gardening?
I’ve already said that permaculture is a design system. Design is problem solving. It is the application of knowledge and imagination to the solution of some challenge, such as how to make a community garden on a particular piece of land.

If permaculture, as a design system, is a means of achieving some end, then that end is determined by the gardener’s needs

Design is the means to an end, not the end itself. It follows that permaculture is therefore not an end in itself — that is, the furthering of permaculture as a movement or practice is not the purpose of applying the permaculture approach to design in community gardening or elsewhere.

If permaculture, as a design system, is a means of achieving some end, then that end is determined by the gardener’s needs. It is the role of the permaculture designer and of the design process they make use of to make those gardeners’ needs achievable. Those with experience in the design professions will recognise that this is the basis of the designer-client relationship, and it applies as much to permaculture as to any other design discipline.

When permaculture and its priorities are placed above the needs of the community gardeners we have a situation in which the tail of permaculture wags the dog of gardener needs, as the saying goes.

Thus, permaculture’s role in community garden design and management is one to support the aims of the gardeners.

Perceptions of permaculture

It was on thinking what was said about community gardens lacking permaculture input being prone to failure that I became a little concerned for permaculture’s reputation.

In the past, permaculture alienated some organic gardeners who saw it as laying claim to their practices, practices they had been using well before permaculture was thought of. When permaculture people started to incorporate organic gardening in definitions of ‘permaculture gardening’ they saw it as an act of intellectual colonisation. Permaculture might have come across as a little too dominating.

In a similar way, the idea that permaculture design is a necessary component of any successful community garden could be seen by those involved in community gardening, but not in permaculture, as a little elitist. Why? Because it suggests that the choice of community gardeners not to make use of a permaculture design approach potentially makes their gardens less effective. It also implies that, were any permaculture people involved in those community gardens that it was suggested do not work, then they are derelict in their skills. This might been seen as a little insulting and misses the point about permaculture being a design system.

To suggest that only permaculture can produce workable community gardens is divisive because it creates a permaculture-based ‘us and them’ division in community gardening which has been absent from our community gardening movement. It offers to intellectually split community gardeners, and, were this to occur, it would reveal permaculture as disruptive as well as elitist. This is another reason I, as someone with a long background in permaculture design, and I am sure others, would regret happening.

…applying permaculture principles, alongside those proven over long decades of organic gardening, is what makes a community garden a valid expression of permaculture

If a community garden is to be labeled a ‘permaculture’ garden then there must be a well-defined reason to do so. There is an obligation on those making the claim to be able to demonstrate how their garden makes use of permaculture design. This is to say, the gardeners must be able to articulate and demonstrate the application of design thinking in the physical design as well as the organisational and social design of the garden. Why the social design as well as the physical? Because social motivations are often as important to community gardeners as is food production. Sometimes they are more important. And any design, any training in community gardening that does not afford commensurate attention to social design… well, it’s simply not permaculture nor is it good design or education.

Permaculture is not the only approach to sustainable gardening.

Community gardens can work quite well even when there is no ‘permaculture’ used in the design. Adding the term ‘permaculture’ to the name of a community garden does not make it a valid expression of the design system. Applying permaculture principles, alongside those proven over long decades of organic gardening, is what makes a community garden a valid expression of permaculture.

The Australian City Farms & Community Gardens Network, while not started by someone (Dr Darren Phillips) who came from the permaculture milieu, from its beginning included permaculture people in its formation and development. Some of these are permaculture educators; some prominent permaculture designers with a background in the design professions. They enact their permaculture through the Network or through other organisations rather than flag-wave it as permaculture. This is how permaculture was meant to be used.

Comments (3)

  • Joss Fenton
    14/01/2010 at 11:00 am Reply

    Very thought-provoking and enlightening article, thanks Russ.
    As a new person to the concepts of ‘community gardening’ and ‘permaculture’ it was timely to read this.
    I am also in the privileged position of working on a new community garden in Lenah Valley Tasmania with Ruth Mollison, who is the daughter of one of the Permaculture ‘developers’ – Bill Mollison (see
    Ruth Mollison has been a fantastic leader in getting the new community garden (and new community sustainable living group in its entirety, for that matter) to the next stage of implementation. Similar to Russ’ notes, Ruth has used a system of care for BOTH the natural systems AND the people involved.
    Thanks again Russ for the ‘story’ and also the creators of this fantastic website – all very resourceful!
    Joss Fenton CPA
    Lenah Links Bean Counter

  • media
    14/01/2010 at 11:24 pm Reply

    Thanks for the comment Joss, and it’s good to hear of a second community garden in Lenah Valley. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting the first (Creek Road) and was impressed. Perhaps you would be interested in writing a little about your new garden for this website.
    I was motivated to write the above article out of concern for permaculture’s reputation. I am aware that there has been public criticism of the design system’s role in other community gardens, most notably though some time ago in one long-established community garden in Melbourne. That criticism was made publicly, at a local government meeting to discuss the potential for community gardens in the local government area.
    People’s perceptions of permaculture can sometimes influence others and I think it is worth keeping this in mind when we, as permaculture designers or educators, work with community garden or other groups and individual citizens.
    I and others – some with a permaculture (Permaculture Design Course) background and who have incorporated permaculture principles and ideas into their work – have recently been involved in a series of consultations for the conversion of a local government community centre building to make it energy and water efficient, and there is an educational ‘permaculture interpretive garden’ (nice acronym) component to the project. Having been involved in similar local government projects, including community gardening policy development and starting a community garden, I have learned that if permaculture is to become embedded in the thinking of those with influence in planning, then we must be careful to maintain its good reputation. Credibility among local government staff and planning people is as important as it is among the community at large.
    For me, the essence of making use of permaculture in projects is to adapt permaculture’s principles to the situation and to do this within the design system’s three ethics of people and earth care and of distributing surplus. As I said in the article, meeting the needs of the people we design for is paramount, though sometimes people ask for assistance in defining those needs. Here, we need to be careful that we don’t accidentally impose the needs we, as permaculture consultants, think they should have rather than engage them in a process of defining their own needs. There are plenty of participatory processes we can draw on to do this.
    As a method of nature-assisted-design, I believe permaculture to have a valid role in community garden development, especially where social and physical needs of the site are part of the design process.

  • John
    14/03/2010 at 3:15 am Reply

    Thankyou Russ
    We permaculturists can sometimes come across as a little zealous, and it is a welcome reminder that permaculture is a design methodology, and not an end in itself.
    It would be ironic indeed if it became the source of conflict and blockage in local community development.
    Personally, I prefer not to use the word at all, not to try to proselitise others, and allow my actions to be judged by their outcomes – not their conformance with theory.

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