Photo courtesy of Tom Olliver via Flickr.
Human beings have unequivocally altered the face of our planet, having embedded roads and cities into the earth, leaked oil and plastic into oceans, and carbon emissions into the sky.
Most of this has been the result of humanity working atop nature and in most cases, not in its favor. The situation may indeed be a dire one, as overwhelming evidence points to industrial and consumer lifestyles putting unsustainable strain on the planet.
The problem? Climate change aside, human beings are exhausting earthly resources, using up too many biological resources for the benefit of too few and harming the planet in the mean time.
The solution? Reduction of production and consumption, experts say, may be one key to turning things around. Now that the world’s residents are slightly more aware of tangible harm at our own hands, attention is shifting to a different model: working with the environment instead of against it.
This philosophy of sustainable design is called permaculture, coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. First a stand in for “permanent agriculture,” the concept has been expanded to mean “permanent culture” as well.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, permaculture is defined as:
: an agricultural system or method that seeks to integrate human activity with natural surroundings so as to create highly efficient self-sustaining ecosystems[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”loFTTQLuPpI5edjZ6dLg1PLkDwJG7TDy”]The overall aim of such design, according to Bill Mollison, is to “produce an efficient low-maintenance productive integration of plants, animals, structures and man; with the ultimate result of on-site stability and food self-sufficiency in the smallest practical area.”
While general sustainability refers to the concept of productive harmony between man and nature, permaculture zeros in on the ideas, systems, and designs that make it possible for an ecosystem to produce more using fewer resources.
These systems are modeled on relationships found in nature, rooted in agricultural design, and if widely implemented, could turn the earth into a more livable environment for our future great grandchildren.
Permaculture today: Can design favor the earth in urban settings?
Permaculture is simpler to achieve in rural and suburban locations, where land is more readily available for use as nature conservation, gardens, crops, and energy production.
But in an urban world, albeit one increasingly savvy to green architecture, both difficulties and opportunities are abound.
Up to 70 percent of the world’s population will live in a metropolis by 2050, making urban permaculture more important than ever, says Geoff Lawton, permaculture designer, consultant, and teacher — and more beneficial:
“You can design your city block to consume less energy and to consume less water. You can grow sprouts or mushrooms. If you have a balcony, you can produce more per square meter on a balcony than you can on any land.”
Lawton also imagines city streets with controlled water runoff and compost receptacles, streets used specifically for wind or solar energy, and community gardens and parks housing edible plants, trees, and wildlife.
He’s not the only one willing to put permaculture in an urban setting: Sustainable architecture firm Terraform Research Group designed a project that would, in theory, transform all of New York City’s architecture so that the city would be self-sustainable, growing food on roofs and buildings instead of relying on transport.
If it’s true that the future depends on reducing production and consumption so as not to deplete the planet entirely, permaculture is an alternative example that demonstrates how to live another way.
Though it is difficult to implement permaculture in cities due to their existing infrastructure, it’s not impossible to make small and impactful changes: for example, the creation of green roofs, community gardens, recycling systems, and alternative energy sources.
You can start with your own garden, or by planting edible trees, consuming less and recycling more.
In the future, city planners and architects alike will benefit by borrowing methodology from permaculture for agriculture and city design, which will help combat environmental harm, improve public health, and quite possibly transform urban life as we know it.
It may be too late to change our path completely, but small steps leaving smaller carbon footprints are better than no footsteps at all.