from 13 nov 2005
blue vol IV, #20
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Permaculture, Eco-urbanism
and the Future of Sustainability

by Larry Santoyo

The future of sustainability is in our cities and towns. Urban neighborhoods are ideal for the promise and potentials of permaculture design. Our cities embody the greatest concentration of the social, intellectual and physical resources needed to create a sustainable system. Making our cities sustainable will directly help to protect and preserve our wilderness.

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Permaculture is the art and science that applies patterns found in nature to the design and construction of human and natural environments. Scientific research has demonstrated that ecological stability is achieved through biological diversity; no single organism can be identified as being responsible for stability. Permaculture reveals that this stability is achieved only through a complex network of connections between elements in the total system.

Through the observation of natural systems, common principles and "indicators of sustainability" emerge. These can be used as guidelines for sustainable urban design.

So, contrary to popular belief, permaculture isn't about gardening! It isn't about plants, or living off the land, or green building or even ecovillages. It isn't about any ONE of those things - it's about ALL of those things - or more precisely, it's about how all those things connect.

That said, permaculture can be applied to just about anything I think its most important application is to urban design and community development: eco-urbanism.

How does one do permaculture in an urban setting?

One doesn't do permaculture, one uses permaculture. Permaculture is a process of design protocols and methodologies. It is a design science of "connecting."

Modeling this concept of functional connections is the basis of permaculture design. In a rural setting, we can use ancient and modern techniques to solve our needs. In an urban setting, we are more likely to use strategies to solve our needs.

For example: let's solve the need for healthy food. In a suburban or rural situation ,the permaculture design process may lead us to solve that need by growing and raising our own food. But in an urban setting, the permaculture design process may lead us, not to growing our own food, but rather, to supporting a local farmer to grow it for us - a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Instead of using gardening techniques to solve the need for healthy food, we use the strategy of linking producers directly with consumers.

Another example: years ago I lived in a beautiful but economically depressed logging town in the Great Northwest. My friends and I always wanted a music venue in town, as well as an art gallery and gift shop to showcase the many talents of our community. Though these businesses were tried, with little success, we were determined to start some cultural enterprise. We opened a restaurant, and while we were at it, we hung the crafts of our local artisans on the walls, set up a stage in the corner for live music, bought and used local produce in the kitchen and served organic espresso that kept the customers chatting and the mood lively. It soon became (and remains today) its own bustling ecosystem.

It was a complex connection of diverse elements. Just like nature, one helped support the other. And just like nature, it had niches in space and time: we rented out the kitchen after-hours, so others could save money and energy making food, without having to build another health-code-approved commercial kitchen. They were then able to sell their products throughout the state, as well as at our own restaurant gift shop.

On their own, the individual enterprises of art gallery, music club and gift shop had failed in our little town, but when those same things were connected with the additional element of a cafe, success was realized. That is a permaculture design.

How does one go about creating an urban ecovillage?

Anybody with lots (and lots) of capital can buy appropriately-zoned property to develop, build and sell. That part is done everyday by "developers." But for those of us who don't have that kind of capital, working together in small groups and pooling resources gives us tremendous buying power.

There are already good legal models for the urban ecovillage structure: a condominium association, believe it or not, can work well for an ecovillage. In a condo association, individuals own their buildings while the land is owned and managed collectively. Another proven model for group ownership is a limited liability company. In an LLC, the company owns the real estate and individuals have easily transferable memberships in the company.

At minimum, an ecovillage would consider the many factors surrounding materials and energy use. And a development using permaculture design would certainly consider using available buildings (infill) before building new ones. It would demand responsibility to the surrounding cultural and natural ecosystems.

Then wouldn't the collective consciousness of the world have to shift dramatically in order to make a sustainable village happen?

NO. That is one of the greatest misconceptions. As we address in our design courses, to become sustainable, we don't need the whole world to change. In most cases, it only takes about 50 to 100 people to support 50 to 100 people, and we don't even have to all do it on one property!

In some cases it would even be better to have nearby satellite groups of commercial, residential and agricultural zones.

Another important distinction would be that these villages need to start with 50 to 100 diverse people, offering different talents, services and skills. As in nature, this will ensure built-in functional connections. All this is in the pattern of what we do already - we only need to rearrange the connections of people doing business with people.

I often tell my students that we cannot make an entire city of millions of people sustainable. Nothing in natural systems would lead us to believe that. But what we can do is gain the experience of making 50 to 100 people sustainable - and that is what we can and must duplicate a million times! That is eco-urbanism.

So business is a big part of a sustainable future?

Yes, but of course we have an obligation to insist on ecologically and socially responsible business and industry practices.

These days we have lots of resources to guide us: permaculture principles, LEED [Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design] building requirements, holistic resource management and other checklists which help us to define and incorporate the necessary social and ecological imperatives.

I am adamant in my belief that providing honest community services leads to honorable community service. Ethical and ecologically responsible commerce will make communities sustainable.

What about city restrictions and bureaucracy - wouldn't that prohibit success?

It is only a matter of time. Most cities and counties are already embracing more mixed-use zoning and are working with builders to incorporate green building technologies, alternative energy and waste and water recovery systems. It doesn't have to be an us vs. them kind of thing any more. Many city officials are willing to help and willing to learn.

Most of what we need is already in place, permaculture design methodologies teach us to work with existing influences. Along with climactic and environmental considerations, code and zoning become additional factors to put into our design equation.

Most officials will see that money is saved when self-reliant eco-urban neighborhoods are successfully building longterm economic vitality while preserving natural and cultural resources.

What would you tell would-be ecovillagers to help them succeed where so many have failed?

I can't emphasize enough the requirement for an early and enduring commitment to solving basic needs first. I would insist that membership in a community requires any member to fill an empty niche and provide a needed product, service or skill for the village. I think that is the way to insure longevity and success for an ecovillage, and certainly to add interest and creativity to the development of a local and stable economy.

Keep management small, especially in the design and development phases. I believe that, if it is well-designed, most people will appreciate and support it, without needing to be part of the initial design decisions. I would say that there is a common and sometimes crippling misconception, that reaching consensus is the best way to address group issues. So my advice is, unless "processing" is the main objective, consider other methodologies of management and decision making, especially when dealing with time constraints.

Also, diversity is key. Diversity of opinion, beliefs and backgrounds. Be aware and avoid ego- and ethno-centrism. Resist dogma and ideology as the basis for settlement. If people are willing to care for the earth and for each other (permaculture ethics), don't push for more. Trust that simple agreement amongst a diverse group is enough to form common bonds that will enable the village to develop a lasting protocol for decision making, conflict resolution and problem solving.

This is when all those permaculture strategies come in, right?

Yes, once we have carefully designed and built our homes to save energy, and help us prosper and be healthy, we can continue the permaculture process to solve our other needs and create more and more local livelihoods through collaborative efforts.

A CSA solved one of our needs. Now imagine that a village could go on to support and include not only membership in the nearby farm and garden, but also in the community workshop space and tool-lending library, the bicycle and car co-op, manufacturing co-ops, health care providers, recreational and cultural facilities, neighborhood fuel production and distribution center, local learning and vocational training programs for young people, community forest farms, business incubators with teams of experienced business advisors, child AND elder day care, cargo transport vehicles and vessels, all community-owned and -operated. All these niches become possible as each one contributes to the richness of the whole, functioning ultimately as an ever-evolving community ecosystem.

We can then strengthen and stretch dollars with local barter clubs, micro-loan programs, regional currency [remember SLO-Hours?], hours banks and LET [Local Exchange Trading] System. All these permaculture strategies are ideal for urban applications.

Eco-urbanism isn't the end-all. Once we learn to create sustainable communities, we will also gain the experience necessary to teach others and start to multiply our new-found solutions for sustainability. We can continue, with strength, to address regional, national and global issues of human settlement.

Bill Mollison, co-founder of the world-wide permaculture movement, says it best: "We must work to repair and care for the Earth. We must seek peace and guard human rights - everywhere - and we must invest all capital, goodwill and intelligence to these ends."

It starts with 50 to 100 people.

–  Larry Santoyo

Larry Santoyo is available for consultation, design and project management. For additional information about Workshops and Training Programs see

(see also - Recommended Useful Species List for Cold Climates)

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