Permaculture and the Urban Landscape
Permaculture is a design methodology that emphasizes patterning after ecological systems, the observation and cycling of large scale energy flows through a landscape, making use of relative location to create beneficial connections between elements in a system, and sharing the surplus and abundance that such connections yield. However, these principles are most often taught in ways that apply to broadscale homestead design even though most people in North America live in urban or suburban neighborhoods.
So, in the urban environment, how can we model our habitats after living systems when living systems are interconnected and our neighborhoods are all carved up disconnected by the colonial grid? How can we plan things in intelligent ways or cultivate relationships of mutualism when the regieme of ownership entails that each individual has control of their own small parcel and no one has control of anything in common? How can we build relations that serve multiple functions when our urban zoning laws restrict usage to only one function? How can we make use of our diversity and share the surplus of resources that we own collectively, and build resiliency as a community when the grid incubates a mentality of scarcity and individuation? How can we reinscribe the circle into the square?
At the Planet Repair Institute, we observe that the sharp lines and boundaries of colonial power have created an unsustainable culture because they dissect life into compartments that no longer engage or interrelate with one another and inhibite our ability to relate as a resilient ecology of living beings. Consequently, our approach to the remediation of the planet is to engender intersection and connections everywhere in our social and ecological cityscape.
As it turns out, this is easier than one might expect because humans, like all creatures in an ecology, have the natural propensity to interconnect. Much like mycelium creeping through the soil, we are naturally drawn towards building relations with one another and creating rich and diverse forms of culture. The lines of the grid that keep us contained only hold as much meaning as we give them. Just like the worms or the birds, people have the power to transcend the lines. By connecting with our neighbors, we can walk beyond these lines together and transform a cityscape that alienates us from power into social and political structures that function like an ecology again, and localized economic systems that are based not upon eternal expansion but expanding relationships between living things.
Applying permaculture to urban spaces requires more than just creating a beautiful garden in one’s own backyard. In order to break free from the paradigms of scarcity that alienate us, we have to take down our fences and employ the techniques of “Block Repair” to reclaim the commons and foster relations of abundance. Block Repair begins with the simple revolutionary act of getting to know your neighbors, your neighborhood, and taking an inventory of what resources and skills already exist in your locality.
These resources can be material resources, or cultural resources. For instance, our neighborhood of Sellwood shares a strong cultural identity with the Willamette River, the Johnson Creek Watershed, and the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge that we live alongside. This provides us with a set of strong symbols with rich meaning and references that we can all relate with. The neighborhood is also populated with well educated professionals and working class families who embody a culture of engaging with new ideas and getting stuff done. There is also an established commercial area in the neighborhood which offers potential for a more of a localized economy where people aren’t having to divest their energies away from the neighborhood each day in order to make a living for themselves. We are also strengthened by a history of civic activism in the neighborhood, whether that be the generations of community members who have preserved the neighborhood’s historic character, to all those who have planted trees, installed parks, fought for our community center. and created a strong neighbor association. These are just a few of the existing features of the neighborhood that we can identify as already existing assets with which we have to engage and from which we can begin our work of block repair.
In addition to these aspects of the cultural fabric of the neighborhood, there also exists an enormous surplus of material resources – the materials that we each accumulate in our houses, attics, garages, yards, and sheds are effectively akin to a box-store’s worth of material and supplies that, put into common use, constitute all the materials that we need to repair our block.
Once these foundational relationships with our neighbors are developed, it becomes apparent that by putting our collective resources back into the commons everyone benefits and becomes more abundant. This is what occurred in our neighborhood 15 years ago when the neighborhood gathered to create Share-it Square. Faced with the absence of public space in our neighborhood, our neighbors gathered in what was otherwise an uninspired, ordinary intersection, and festively gave birth to Share-it Square – a gathering place where people can come to get to know each other, exchange knowledge and resources, and ultimately take collective measures to address these issues.
The creation of Share-it Square was a revolutionary act in that it challenged the powerlessness of a grid which dictates that there can be no place for us to cultivate direct relationships with our neighbors or make decisions regarding our spaces as a community. In the grid structure, power always lies elsewhere – in some bureaucracy that is removed from the neighborhood itself. With the creation of Share-it Square, people have taken power back by coming out of their houses to meet as common people at the crossroads. The residents adjacent to the intersection disrupted the grid and challenged its sense of “placelessnes?s have by placing private property back into the commons.
In the spirit of permaculture, we affirm that we are in relationships, and that to tell us we can’t have one is to deny that we exist. We also affirm the permaculture emphasis on multiple functionality and stacking functions by creating places perform more than one single function. At Share-it Square, a space that was designed with the single purpose of automobile transportation was transformed into a place where people now gather, rest, post announcements, organize, celebrate, create, trade, build community and share.
Work Where it counts
The reverberant impact of Share-it Square in the landscape of our neighborhood have been tremendous. For instance, on the scale of our neighborhood, there are far more gardens where before there were only lawns. Our neighborhood is now home to the city’s first straw-bale addition. New home businesses have been created, and trade and bartering amongst neighbors has revolutionized our economic system by keeping our resources localized and thus allowing people to remain in the neighborhood more often for work and exchange. Generally speaking, people know each other far more, as is evidence by an increase in dinners, parties, and social gatherings in people’s homes, and as a consequence, people have become more willing to make long-term cultural investments in the neighborhood, such as raising children here.
New commons have also been created in the neighborhood since Share-it Square. Many neighbours have begun to take down their fences and share the space on the inside of our block. Our neighbors Michael and Rachel have opened up their garage space to create a creative commons and tool library, realizing that we don’t each need every single tool stored in our houses so long as we share with those around us. Other neighbors have offered up their yard space for for us to all grow some staple crops together as a community. At our house, a piazza was built in our backyard for people to come and gather, and a cob sanctuary offers a place for people to seek quiet refuge and alone time. These are just a few examples, and there are constantly new projects that we are creating to open up the commons piece by piece, such as our community compost zone that we are currently working on.
These observable changes take place at multiple different scales, demonstrating yet another wonderful symmetry with permaculture design. Not only do changes happen at the level of individual homes and in our neighborhood, but Share-it Square has impacted many other neighborhoods throughout the city of Portland, with dozens of intersection repairs now having been created throughout the city, and countless other block repair interventions. The energy that has emanated from Share-it Square also led to the birth of the City Repair Project and the Village Building Convergence, both of which began in our neighborhood. The Village Building Convergence, which has now taken place in Portland for ten years running, is an annual event where hundreds and possibly thousands of people across the city engage in community directed neighborhood repair projects. And the concept of block repair is now pollinating far and wide. Members of our neighborhood have been flooded with invitations to speak to other communities far and wide in these past years.
All of this change exemplifies what the permaculture designer means by “start small and work where it counts” – in other words, know how to make the greatest effect with the least amount of effort. The creation of a commons at the crossroads where everyone could see it was a strategic intervention to gain maximum impact and leverage. By doing so, Sharret-Square became a demonstration project to show others what could be done. The demonstration has inspired changes at many levels which then each become their own nodes for transformation, which then homeopathically spread into to households, neighborhoods, and even businesses and institutions in ways that are both apparent and unseen.
Starting small and working where it counts could be as simple an action of connecting with a new neighbor and inviting them over for a meal, or it could be initiating a neighborhood heartstorming circle or resource mapping project. Even such simple actions will not only obtain an instant yield, but may also set up a perennial feedback loops that will eventually produce and create more long term yields.