Lessons from Urban Permaculture

(Diversity and abundance flourish at the city’s many edges.)

Everything under the sun comes with trade offs, good and bad, and the great thing about city life is:

The people. More opportunities to work together with others, build community and culture, and generally get stuff done. 
What’s the bad thing about city life? 
The People! And the fact that you actually HAVE to work with them to get stuff done. 
That’s what makes Urban Permaculture an important labratory for modelling efficient design on any site, from suburban homes to rural farms: City life is  busy life. More people, more to do, more energy and resources, more potential… less time to take advantage of any of it! The efficient use of time, space, resources and social connections to maximize our potential while saving us time becomes the major question of good urban design. 

Busy suburban and rural Permaculturists might find some helpful tips and tricks by taking a look at their urban partners. 


We’re about to go pretty advanced here: In Permaculture Design, one of our main discussions is about “Intensity,” or how much work (energy) you put IN to a system in order to obtain a yield from it. (Also called Energy Return On Energy Invested, EROEI.) “Extensive” elements require you to put very little time or energy into them to maintain them or get a yield. “Intensive” elements require more energy and time, but reward you with a greater yield. For example, a well-planned, and well-managed Bio-Intensive Garden will require a lot of work and resources: digging, weeding, watering, soil amendments, mulch, and dealing with pests and disease issues, but it will return a very high yield of high-value fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, a fairly wild extensive edible hedgerow MAY have a smaller yield, but will take little-to-no resource investments or non-harvest time to maintain and get a yield out of. 

The goal of good design is to look at how much time and resources we have to invest and then create a mix of intensive and extensive elements that maximize the outcome. This works equally well in the garden and other aspects of our lives (in business, it’s similar to the 80/20 principle.) 

Another way of putting it? I care less about mamimizing the “profit” of my garden and more about maximizing the hourly wage I “pay” myself to garden.

According to most of my favorite Urban Permaculture resources, including The Permaculture City by Toby Hemenway, the Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, and the movie Urban Permaculture by Geoff Lawton (my top recommended resources) the principle dynamic of urban projects (or other small sites) is that they are more Intensive. Since you’ve got less space, you can put in more energy per square foot in order to maximize the value. 

But this doesn’t necessarily mean putting in more PHYSICAL energy, labor or resources per square foot. And it doesn’t mean toiling past the point where it does you any good. 

Instead, we can think of being INTENSIVE about information, creativity and DESIGN, being very deliberate about the choice and placement of each element, right down to each plant! Finding plants to do your work and building rich connections between each of them becomes key and traditional Permaculture design techniques like Zones (check out our video!) become even more important. 

So with that said, here are a few of the design elements that can make or break Permaculture in the Urban environment. 

Maximize UTILITY not “productivity.” We can use Permaculture to design beautiful, functional landscapes for ourselves that support beautiful, happy lives. We can design to harvest our most important resource: free time. The best designs aim to go even further, creating “Flexible Adaptability of Intensivity,” naturally resting in a “low energy” mode when life gets hectic, but allowing us to quickly scale up intensivity when we have the time to get a bigger yield. 

Aesthetics. In the city, this is extremely important. Many Permaculture project has ended by looking like a wild, horrible mess. But there’s no reason a Permaculture landscape can’t be incredibly beautiful. Think “Intensity” again. Choose the places where a very “tidy” look will have a big impact, then choose aesthetics that look “wilder” elsewhere to let nature take over. Look into the “Post Wild Edible Landscaping” that’s becoming very trendy. 

Higher diversity per acre. Plants also do work in the garden. They can weed for us, convseve water for us, mulch, fertlize, attract pollinators, repell pests, fight weeds and so on. We can even plan a “guild” of plants that can work together to take care of all of these needs for each other. More importantly, when we have high diversity, we take advantage of the Ecological Resiliency/Diversity principle, “the greater # of species in an ecosystem the more resilience and disease/pest resistence is conferred to each individual in the system.” High diversity means a healthy garden and less work to do. We recommend starting with at least 30 species. 

Maximize Connections – Get plants to take care of each other. Get plants to take care of your chickens. Get the chickens to take care of your plants. Get your plants to take care of the volunteers who take care of your chickens. Get the volunteers to take care of their communities with your excess plants and chickens. This is how to maximize productivity. (This also works as a way to build the local economy!)

Catch as much energy as possible. In a small space, maximizing each resource is key! We can plant a garden to maximize the light that each plant gets, this is called a “sun trap” design. And we can plan garden beds to make the best use of each drop of water Water. And we can also design to catch social energy from volunteers and visitors. 

Focus on “Social Permaculture.” With large spaces, you have more potential output and can accept more “waste.” Maximizing the value of a small space means really looking at how people use the space: what they need, what they have to offer, and finding out how to build connections to them. A large nursery can focus on just selling a lot of plants! We have to package the plants we grow with our design and educational services, such as in our Community Supported Forest Gardening program  that packages food samples, plants, design services, and a complete forest gardening course all into one really incredible program!

Integrate Social Elements and Social Space. In small spaces, this may be one of the most important elements  Design your landscape to be your own personal home resort. You can have your own paradise, and eat it too. 

Integrated life design. Finally. Permaculture starts in the garden, but what we learn there can transform our lives, our communities and our society. We can design our gardens by thinking about how our environments can support what’s REALLY important to us. In the busy urban environment, we can get a lot of benefit out of designing ourselves an environment that reminds us about what exactly IS important, since it’s easy to get distracted by the hustle and bustle of life. We can design PLACES that make us slow down, put our hearts and minds at rests and give us space to really enjoy life. 

And we can design to change society. Our urban location has put Lillie House directly in touch with the true transformational power of Permaculture. Our rural Permaculture partners, often surrounded by vast lawns and monocultures of GMO corn (not to mention “social” monocultures,) rarely get to see the impact their good work has had on visitors after they leave the farm. In the city, we get to harvest continuous inspiration from meeting amazing people doing incredible things, regularly witnessing how Permaculture blows minds and changes hearts, and generally minimizes the harm of our bizarre modern world while maximizing happiness for humans and non-human beings alike.  

When we each set aside time to give ourselves this gift, we are investing in “viral change.” If we can design our lives and landscapes to generate true wealth, health and happiness, support a better way of life with more connection to community and nature, then we won’t have to twist people’s arms to change society. They’ll line up for it like its the new iPhone. 

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