Can we actually map Kalamazoo’s resilience and sustainability?
Is there a tool that designers, planners and sustainability consultants could use to paint the map of Kalamazoo “green” by measurably converting unsustainable, costly land-uses that lessen our resilience and contribute to carbon emissions to “regenerative assets” that help with climate while adding to community resilience and meeting community needs?
The ecological design system of Permaculture provides us with analytical tools to do exactly that, but it requires a substantial paradigm shift in how we view and measure “sustainability” in the landscape. Over the last 40 years, the Permaculture community has developed exactly such a tool, the concept of “regenerative” infrastructure, land uses and systems. And it will also challenge Kalamazoo to adopt cutting-edge emerging techniques that move “beyond the war on invasive species,” to understand how we can serve nature while simultaneously using the landscape to meet the needs of Kalamazoo residents in a way that is truly “regenerative.”
Regeneration Vs. Sustainability
From the Permaculture perspective, the “sustainability” paradigm is a “type 1 error,” a system designed so that it is ensured to fail at its designated goal. Over the last few decades, this recognition has caused Permaculture designers to call for a completely new paradigm. The basis of this critique is as follows:
Sustainability is unsustainable. The typical use of the term “sustainability” when applied to systems and technology that are presumably less harmful, or more easily sustained into the future, than the current status quo. Most enterprises and endeavors wearing the “sustainable” moniker are thus, literally speaking, unsustainable by definition. This includes, for example, landscapes designed with the Sustainable SITES initiative, which can meet every requirement, yet contribute to climate change and waste energy with no benefit.
Sustainability is Zeno’s Paradox. Like Achilles running half way to Zeno’s tortoise each day, setting the goal of “moving towards” sustainability ensures that we will never create a just and sustainable society. Yet one wonders why carbon emissions and energy/resource waste has increased over decades of “sustainability” activism.
Sustainability prolongs ecological collapse and injustice. By working to make injust, destructive and harmful systems more “sustainable” we are literally acting to continue injustice and harm further into the future than they would otherwise endure. Some systems are “unsustainable,” and it’s a GOOD thing that they cannot continue much longer.
Sustainability is unclear and difficult to measure. Full lifetime energy use and embodied energy are almost never included in calculations, and when included, many (if not most) “sustainable” initiatives are revealed to be less sustainable than the systems they replace.
The sustainability paradigm does not account for the Energy Efficiency Paradox or Jeavon’s Paradox that increases in fossil fuel efficiency will not decrease fossil fuel consumption, and have thus far actually increased fossil fuel consumption. I now refer to the documented facts of the Jeavon’s Paradox, which are well documented, not any particular theory created to account for those facts, since it is not necessary for us to agree on the theoretical causes to be suspicious of a course of action that is contra-indicated by the facts. Measures intended to increase the efficiency of local fossil fuel consumption can NOT be expected to have a positive measurable impact on reducing atmospheric carbon.
Regeneration: The Emerging Alternative
Given those critiques, a very simple and viable alternative has emerged from the Permaculture community: the idea that our human systems must tap into the power of renewable resources and ecosystem services to go BEYOND sustainability, to actually grow healthier, wealthier and wiser over time, rather than reaching to slow inevitable decline.
As proposed by Permaculturists like Geoff Lawton, the Regeneration paradigm is simple and easy to measure:
A regenerative system yields more resources than it consumes. Regenerative food systems yield more soil and fertility than they consume, while yielding more calories of energy than they consume. Regenerative landscapes catch, clean and infiltrate more water than they consume. Regenerative land uses yield more useful energy (food, fuel, crafts and medicines) than they use (especially in the form of fossil fuels.) Regenerative systems give more to people and human communities than they take. They do not create or sustain social injustice. And finally, regenerative land uses sequester more carbon than they release into the atmosphere.
This has three major added benefits. First, it has the effect of recognizing that humans are animals, and human communities are ecologies, reconnecting us with nature and ecosystem services. Second, it undoes the tie of Jeavon’s paradox, by forcing us to directly address net impact and consumption, directly redesigning the systems that cause climate change, and setting the goal that goes beyond “net zero.” And finally, it’s concrete, measurable, and mappable, allowing us to set goals and judge real outcomes.
A map for action:
Best of all, the regeneration paradigm provides us with clear lines of responsibility and accountability. We each take responsibility for making our own properties, livelihoods, blocks, neighborhoods, and enterprises regenerative. It becomes the responsibility of the City of Kalamazoo to:
Ensure that the properties it manages are maintained in a regenerative way.
Provide support to residents and business owners to enact regenerative practices.
This is accomplished by providing “patterns” which land stewards can use apply to their own landscapes and enterprises.
Harnessing the Power of Nature:
Human systems are all prone to entropy and decline. We build houses, schools, roads, bridges, etc. and over time, without continued inputs of energy and eventual replacement, these manmade systems will continue to decline, requiring consumption of fossil energy and resources.
But natural systems exhibit “Negative Entropy,” growing in stored energy, diversity, and health over time. They are regenerative. It is these systems that we must tap into to create human systems that are also regenerative.
Regenerative and Degenerative Land Use Patterns:
This simple tool of water and energy analysis gives us a way to analyze land uses as either “regenerative” or “degenerative.” Either a use cleans and recharges more water than it uses, or it doesn’t. Either it yields more useful energy than it uses, or it doesn’t. Either it creates soil, or depletes it.
If we were to mark such uses on a Kalamazoo map today there would be very, very few “regenerative” areas. Even a map of Kalamazoo city properties would be almost entirely (and very strongly) degenerative, contributing to climate change and injustice.
We will only achieve a regenerative Kalamazoo when we have enough regenerative land uses to “pay” the costs of our degenerative ones.
Degenerative Land Use Patterns:
Unused/ornamental Lawn: The ultimate degenerative land use. Each lawn costs us water (both from watering and from increased polluted runoff) fossil fuel energy, climate change, and public health (chemical use and machine use) and receive NO useful energy back in return. When this is done on public land, we each pay tax dollars and our fair share of fossil fuels with no public return. If we were to map Kalamazoo resilience, unused lawns would be the darkest red, the most unsustainable land use. One of the best things we could do would be to incentivize the elimination of lawns.
Athletic fields and other useful lawn areas? While much maligned by environmentalists, lawns like athletic fields are maintained at a useful yield for human inhabitants. They should of course be kept to the minimum necessary to maintain fair access to athletic uses, but they can be seen as a “regenerative asset” contributing to community, public health, etc.
Unused parking. Unused parking is costly, and has nearly %0 infiltration.
Degenerative “Restoration Areas.” A particularly controversial outcome of an energy/water audit is that many “restoration areas,” “native gardens,” or “prairie gardens” have a negative energy audit, using a substantial amount of energy while yielding nothing, infiltrating only a small amount of water, in some cases requiring water during establishment, exposing the public to pollution and unnecessary health risks, and requiring long-term chemical and fossil fuel interventions to maintain. Poorly designed restoration projects have minimal (or arguably negative) impact on wildlife habitat. Such degenerative landscapes can be designed fully in keeping with the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Sustainable SITES protocol, yet remain highly unsustainable in terms of energy, resource, soil and water use. Because they do not plan for natural succession, or worse yet, plan to require us to fight against nature and ecological succession, they require long-term human, fossil fuel and chemical intervention with no measurable public benefit. Meanwhile, planned Regenerative sites like Lillie House Permaculture in Kalamazoo have more and rarer native plants, require no fossil fuel or chemical intervention, provide high quality wildlife habitat, generate soil, sequester more carbon, catch and infiltrate a high percentage of water, and strongly enhance climate resilience while mitigating climate impact – yet, would not be eligible for Sustainable Site recognition, since we grow useful exotics and refuse to spray poisons. For more information, see “Beyond the War on Invasive Species” by Tao Orion.
(Poorly planned Restoration project causing erosion, soil loss, water pollution and habitat loss.)
Regenerative Restoration: Ecological restoration and habitat projects can always be designed to be “regenerative” by ensuring that they yield positive Energy Return on Energy Investment and they infiltrate as much water as possible (forest is typically considered to infiltrate 100% of precipitation.) This can be done by accomplished by planting to “obtain a yield” from the land use, or by designing for the process of ecological succession to take place, instead of planning to fight it with chemicals and fossil fuels. Compatible energy-positive land uses include native-heavy forage gardens and forest gardens, community mast lots, agriforest systems, community coppices and lumber lots. Kalamazoo could grow 100% of Kalamazoo’s home heating in carbon negative community coppice lots that would also create many rewarding jobs. Land uses that work with succession will move from a stage of prairie to old fields and thickets to young woodland and eventually forest. Gardens, public space, and parks can be planned to mature beautifully through a process of natural succession without heavy human intervention. Since our modern soils and climate are necessarily non-native soils and climates, such gardens and landscapes will necessarily include “exotic” species or even “invasives.” Without including such plants, it is nearly impossible to create a regenerative landscape. When planned accordingly, such land uses are among the most regenerative management systems.
Agriforest systems. These are systems planned primarily for human use, and can include public forest garden and foraging systems. Especially important in such systems are carbohydrate crops, primarily chestnuts, as grain agriculture will always be grossly unsustainable and Kalamazoo will need to start supplying more of its own calories in sustainable systems close to town (if we are to have any hope of becoming Regenerative.) These can include coppice lots for heating, lumber lots for building, etc.
Successional gardens: This is the magic that begins when we simply stop intervening in nature’s process. There are many plots of maintained land that would be more beautiful, sustainable and functional immediately if we simply stopped mowing them.
Erosion control forests: Forest is the ultimate erosion control system. “Green infrastructure” should be priortized over expensive, unsustainable techniques.
Water infiltration forests: Forest catches and infiltrates nearly 100% of precipitation, more than most poorly designed “rain gardens.” Even young forest has a major impact on unburdening our stormwater infrastructure and preserving clean water for the future of Kalamazoo.
Urban Agriculture: Many publicly and privately owned lots can be used to create jobs and healthy food for Kalamazoo residents. I would rather my tax money be spent on such uses than on maintaining poisonous wasteful lawns.
Homescale Permaculture Landscape: Permaculture landscape, by design, grows food for minimal energy input, reduces labor and maintenance costs, includes native plants and wildlife habitat, sequesters large amounts of carbon and catches and infiltrates as much water as possible. Designs aim to be “energy positive” producing more useful energy than is required to fuel the home, making them good energy investments. Most investments pay for themselves in one year or less.
Community Gardens and farms: Well planned organic community gardens and larger community farms can help with both mitigation and resilience while requiring less maintenance than lawns or degenerative land uses.
A Kalamazoo Alotment system: In Great Britain, cities are constitutionally required to provide a large sized allotment of roughly an tenth of an acre to each family to help fight poverty and ensure public health. Publicly owned land in Kalamazoo could be managed in the same way, saving tax-payers money while providing opportunity for income and fighting hunger.
This new paradigm gives us the directive to use “restoration” money in a way that is restorative to both the people and natural communties of Kalamazoo. It moves restoration grants and monies out of the hands of a few high level experts and the distant chemical companies they largely work for, and into the hands of Kalamazoo residents to use Kalamazoo’s landscapes in a way that provides income, food and security.
By supporting and promoting truly REGENERATIVE land use patterns directly in the landscape, we can have a direct and measurable impact on the sustainability and resielience of Kalamazoo.
Michael Hoag: Manager/teacher/gardener/author/designer/consultant.
Michael Hoag has spent over 20 years as a full-time worker in the army of Permaculture change-makers. He is founder of the Transformative Adventures Cooperative, managing director of Lillie House Permaculture, and a full-time Permaculture designer and consultant who has participated in over 300 projects. He has worked on farms of all sizes, worked with food justice organizations, colleges and universities, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and PIRGIM. As a teacher trainer, he has worked as a pedagog in crafting university curricula, adult education curricula, and programs for environmental and ecological awareness, and Permaculture. He has worked at a farm credit bureau, a commodities exchange, and managed farmers markets. He has created businesses including market gardens, vermicomposting operations, and helped start and lead multiple community and non-profit organizations.
Michael has over 20 years experience teaching classes and facilitating group projects, including community garden and forest garden projects. He’s an enthusiastic researcher of traditional temperate forest garden systems and productive ecologies of the Great Lakes region. The culture, history and aesthetics of gardens and garden architecture are his great passions, and he believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people and cultures. He has taught and lectured for McHenry County College, Arora University, the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Chicago Adult Learning Resource Center, The Kalamazoo Nature Center, and gives presentations to community groups, organizations and churches. He helps organize Van-Kal Permaculture, the SoMi Permimixer, Michigan Safe Energy Future, CORE and the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition’s Food Group.
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