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Permaculture zones, urban design and the socialist left

by Dave Riley

Brisbane Socialists Alliance hosted an interesting discussion here(at the Northey Street City Farm) on How can we make Brisbane a permaculture city?The exchange was part of the SA's Brisbane City Council election campaign where it calls for Brisbane to become the country's first urban permaculture capital.I have written here before on this topic but with the Roberto Perez tour pending and the upcoming GLW Social Change/Climate Change conference it is well worth returning to it.

I don't want to promote permaculture as an environmental fix it as though that's all we humans need to do.

There's also a penchant to make permaculture exclusive as though it can only be really owned and practised by those who have done officially recognised courses in permaculture.

I think that's fine -- inasmuch as we need the skills to share.But the overriding question isn't in the detail of ecology and biology but in the politics: if permaculture is such a useful means to locate human food production in any number of environments, how are we going to do that on the massive scale required?

While Permaculture here in Australia has adopted some political concepts imported from libertarianism and based on an aggressive localism, the remarkable example of Cuba's experience with permaculture cries out for replication.
Cuba has in the past 18 years transformed their food production using bio-dynamic farming and permaculture. Havana produces up to 50% of its food requirements from within the city limits, all of it is organic and produced by people in their homes, gardens and in municipal spaces. Read more about how and why the Cubans made this happen at The Power of Community
The documentary exploring this transformation, The Power of Community has almost reached cult status.

So the question isn't so much how to make "a" permaculture garden but how do you replicate the transformation that occurred throughout Cuba (110,861 km² and 11,394,043 people) and apply that to Australian conditions?

That's a political rather than a biological question. Nonetheless, what permaculture offers us politically is a template to organise towards.

And we know it's kosher and works because it worked so well in Cuba.

Cuba allows us to review permaculture as a practice on a scale that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.There's this living laboratory and environmental transformation we can explore and consider as being relevant to what we strive for here as we try to remake our urban and rural environments.

So the question of how we make Brisbane or Melbourne or Wollongong or Blacktown... centres for everyday permaculture practice is very relevant to the sort of political agenda we need to address.

I think that's an important adjustment we need to make rather than relying on some broad generic concepts or falling victim to an all too easy utopianism.

Unfortunately permaculture in Australia tends to be held hostage to individual solutions. Of course individual solutions play a part as millions of "individual solutions" come together in social change. Our challenge is to facilitate that -- campaign for ways and means that will free up our suburbs and farming land for considered zonal adjustment. And we need to do that collectively by, as the film suggests, empowering community.

In standard permaculture design templates, "zones" are engineered relative to 'a farm house' or a single residence:
  • ZONE 0 — The house, or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live, work and relax
  • ZONE 1 — Is the zone nearest to the house, the location for those elements in the system that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often, e.g., salad crops, herb plants, soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, worm compost bin for kitchen waste, etc.
  • ZONE 2 — This area is used for siting perennial plants that require less frequent maintenance, such as occasional weed control (preferably through natural methods such as spot-mulching) or pruning, including currant bushes and orchards. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale compost bins, etc.
  • ZONE 3 — Is the area where maincrops are grown, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal provided mulches, etc. are used, e.g., watering or weed control once a week or so.
  • ZONE 4 — Is semi-wild. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as timber production. An example might be coppice-managed woodland.
  • ZONE 5 — Is wild. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural eco-systems and cycles. Here is where we learn the most important lessons of the first permaculture principle of working with, rather than against, nature.
But when you come to address a massive urban environment with millions of homes in dormitory style domesticity such a zonal template is rigid and on a miniscule scale. We have to talk about and design permaculture suburbs, permaculture cities and permaculture regions --and we have to find ways to engage millions of people in the business of facilitating this process of change and adjustment.

That's the way Cuba did it. So we know it can be done.

So I think that's still the mainly unwritten political platform that we on the socialist left have to compose and learn to articulate.

4 Com:

Dave Riley | March 11, 2008

The tragedy is that if you do a web or blog search on "Permaculture" combined with "Socialism" chances are you'll get little material beyond my own and Derek Wall's (Derek is with the English Green Party) thoughts on the topic.

So I guess theres' a bit of web work to do...

Kellie | March 11, 2008

With city permaculture, I think it's about getting really outrageous & creative, and encouraging/allowing high-rise buildings to grow food from their window sills! Rooftop gardening, community-owned spaces right within the heart of the CBC, sponsored and supported by local Govt, is one of the means to 'green' the cities.
Think of the oxygen benefits...
Does anyone out there have any other ideas of how to literally 'green' cities (ie, produce food 'on site')?

Dave Riley | March 11, 2008

The problem with producing food "on site" is that most urban space is privately owned. Even making use of "public space" is contained by its use as preferential infrastructure --such as supporting the car as one third of urban space is dedicated to the road network. So any greening is usually limited to the margins as reticence is built into the political system.

So instead of a consistent and dedicated greening as you suggest, you get pragmatism. In Cuba all levels of government were absolutely onside with the permaculture project. It was actively facilitated in partnership with urban and rural communities.

Thats' the key elemnt that many permaculturalists simply ignore.

Here this is disjunction and hesitancies and obstacles to a consistent and aggressive "city permaculture'. So you cannot get a permaculture greening without massive investments in public transport and restructuring of agriculture and , I suggest, a housing program that does not rely on working people wearing a massive mortgage. You cannot sentence people to security reliance on rela estate and then say we want to open it up and share it with whoever...

Otherwise you do it piecemeal and hobbyist and individually and leave the main stuff untouched and unchallenged. So I am suggesting that any "city permaculture" has to be a political program that has many planks to its platform --planks that enables the geographical and community space in which to facilitate the permaculture ecology and design work driven by engaged local communities.

Its'; no good just having a "vision' of the garden you want to cretae -- you also have to work out the tactics you need to deploy to get there.

Brad | March 11, 2008


The biggest enabling factor for the success and eventual integration of the work was flexable political will. This is especially true when it comes to land-use policy. Support for sustainable food systems came direct from the top (Fidel) and laws were altered and practises adapted that suited the development of urban agriculture. Roberto noted that this type of change is not so easy in a capitalist system where land has, what he described as, 'different value'. A good example of this flexability is the clearing and cleaning of vacant lots in Havana. As is common in Britian, vacacnt city lots in Havana gathered rubbish and debris (especially in the 1980s). Masses of red tape and petty quarrels between neighbours often kept these lots in a state of dis-repair. Changes in policy allowed these lots to be cleared and used for gardens. Roberto says that in other countries this would probably never happen. In other countries we often see vacant lots gathering rubbish with chain link fences around them preventing any useful use! In Cuba land only has value related to its usefulness, rather than speculative value.

Roberto Perez

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