That’s at least one definition of this innovative practice, explained Jillian Hovey, the Toronto-based head of Sustainable Living Network at the 2012 Greenbuild in San Francisco. Another possible definition: “a holistic design methodology to access the intelligence of natural ecosystems.” Really, the goal of the ever-growing tribe of permaculturists is to “co-create with nature.” Permacultural projects include organic food, edible landscaping, forest farming, and other small forms of urban agriculture.

Hovey said one of the central tenets of permaculture is regenerative design. While sustainable design involves simply mitigating the negative impacts of humans on the planet, regenerative design goes beyond and seeks to create a “positive role for people on earth.” Practitioners of permaculture seek to merge landscape, people, and technology to create “food, shelter, and energy.” Hovey said it’s a “philosphical approach to land use” in which ”intricately conducted ecosystems, consciously designed” are put to work. (Still, she said some critics argue that, in these permacultural systems, humans are at the center of the regenerative effort, so the approach is still too human-centric, and doesn’t truly benefit “life in all forms,” as permaculturalists say they do).

Bill Mollison, the Australian founder of the movement, wrote Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, back in the 1980s. Early permaculturalists  in Australia wondered whether it could actually be replicated in other places, but they decided that other temperate climates could make the systems work. So a slew of Australian books came out, followed by American and European guides. Recent how-to literature includes Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscapes Naturally and Edible Forest Gardens.

Standing on Greenbuild’s oddest “dog-bone”-shaped center stage, Hovey walked in circles showing off photographs of permaculture projects being designed and built. One practitioner she showed, Austrian outlier Sepp Holzer, is well-known for his “crater gardens,” stepped, terraced landscapes, which involve moving earth to dig out gardens, creating more surface area for agriculture and microclimates for different plants.

Holzer was recently brought in by Hovey’s group to help build a stepped crater garden at a school in Detroit. With the use of a translator, Holzer communicated to the bulldozer operator to create a set of steep walls out of the earth, adding in wood joints made of out sticks to “increase the productive edges.” Wood was also put in so that it decomposed and made richer soils. Once the area was seeded, straw was put on top. As Hovey described, “nature hates bare soil. Weeds happen when soil is left bare.”

The project, and others like it, demonstrate how “nature can be used as a model.” Hovey said permaculturalists use a design process wherein ”everything is connected, every function should be supported by multiple elements, and every element should serve multiple functions.” This type of design process “builds in redundancy and resiliency.”

Permacultural design also enables feedback to be incorporated throughout the process. “This is a cyclical, iterative, spiral approach.” This kind of approach allows permaculturalists to “eliminate pollution.” While waste is abundant in nature — because it produces so much — pollution is not. Pollution is the “concentration of waste to such a degree that nature can’t handle it.” Interestingly, Hovey said lawns are a form of pollution because they “suppress existing ecosystems.”

Hovey went into great detail on the benefits of compost (if done right, it shouldn’t smell), along with the application of permaculture in parks, small urban plots, and even windowsills. 

Closing with a thoughtful take on regenerative design, Hovey argued that if these systems are designed to be self-sustaining, “the agricultural output is theoretically unlimited.” And if designers understand “ecological succession,” these landscapes can be “self-maintaining and even replicating.” Hence, permaculture as a state of permanent agriculture.

Check out Sepp Holzer’s book on permaculture at the small-scale.

Image credit: Powell Street Promenade, San Francisco / Hood Design / image copyright Marion Brenner and Beth Amann