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?
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.