Country, city... same problems, same guidebook to recovery?

This post was inspired by my friend Paul. He grew up in an Edge City, but during undergrad felt the pull, like so many of my peers, toward growing food. This past weekend, Paul gave a group of us a tour of the organic urban farm where he found his calling to cultivate and where he now studies a research plot for his Master’s thesis on edible forest gardening (learn about it here). Walking through the garden while Paul animated the relationships between plant, animal, and farmer reminded me of a conclusion I reached swiftly when I started studying cities (which itself was after I started studying agriculture).  

Here it is. In my view, the most innovative, humble, and inspiring tactics to regenerate both urban and agricultural land are almost exactly the same. In fact, the reason I was originally so drawn to the Strong Towns approach is because I looked at it and thought… so pretty much permaculture, right? The reason I migrated to this particular model of city-building, the reason I trust it when so many grand ideas have turned out to be human hubris in the past is this: it’s the closest model I’ve found to how nature operates. To my knowledge, the connection between growing resilient food systems and cities has not been fully articulated on the blog yet, so I'm going to start that process and see if anyone else finds this exciting.Photo by Gracen Johnson

Permaculture, a philosophy with spirited following, blends human design capability with the genius of natural systems. You can see the port-manteau: permanent agriculture. It's deliberate cultivation of land in a way so harmonious with natural systems that it can thrive and evolve in perpetuity. But enthusiasts will explain that permaculture is also a a set of guiding principles for society and the self, not just agriculture. Very true! It's extremely useful for cities and remarkably similar to the work of Jane Jacobs.

In keeping with Joe Minicozzi’s “why don’t we look at the yield of our urban development with the same eye as a farmer plotting out the most advantageous use of acreage,” I’m going to pull the analogy further. Except this farmer will be a permaculturalist. Just take a look at this list of excerpts from David Holmgren’s highly recommended summary document on permaculture design principles (all below are direct quotes - my comments are added in italics). You can hardly miss the parallels to Strong Towns.


  • Obtain a Yield - “You can’t work on an empty stomach.”
    • A yield, profit, or income functions as a reward that encourages, maintains and/or replicates the system that generated the yield. In this way, successful systems spread. - Think of Ian Rasmussen’s Party Analogy.
    • There is a consistent crosscultural pattern where rising affluence leads to dysfunctional and cosmetic environments replacing functional and productive ones. - Yep.
    • The nouveau riche model of success, in which the functional and practical are banished, needs to be replaced with honest acknowledgement of sources of affluence and real measures of success. - "What we need is productive growth." - Chuck
  • Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback - “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children unto the seventh generation.”
    • We can design systems that are more self-regulating, thus reducing the work involved in repeated and harsh corrective management. - Who needs more cops and security cameras when there are "eyes on the street"?
    • In modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.
  • Use and Value Renewable Resources & Services - “Let nature take its course.”
    • In the language of business, renewable resources should be seen as our sources of income (tax revenue), while non-renewable resources can be thought of as capital assets (grants, development permits, etc.). Spending our capital assets for day-to-day living is unsustainable in anyone’s language. - Chuck's Growth Ponzi Scheme
    • We have been conned into using unnecessary and complex gadgets for simple tasks. - “How thick was their zoning code?” - Chuck
    • Pursuit of total control over nature through use of resources and technology is not only expensive; it can also lead to a spiral of intervention and degradation in biological systems and processes which already represent the best balance between productivity and diversity. - Hello, stroads.
  • Produce No Waste - “Waste not, want not.”
    • It is easy to be wasteful when there is an abundance, but this waste can be the cause of later hardship. - The Story of America.
  • Design from Patterns to Details
    • Modernity has tended to scramble any systemic common sense or intuition that can order the jumble of design possibilities and options that confront us in all fields. - How do you upgrade a drive-thru taco joint vs. a traditional mixed use street?
    • Complex systems that work tend to evolve from simple ones that work, so finding the appropriate pattern for that design is more important than understanding all the details of the elements in the system. - The Traditional Pattern of Development spans across cities while the details of each Main Street are unique.
    • The idea which initiated permaculture was the forest as a model for agriculture. - Sort of like Chuck’s incremental growth of the city. If you just let a city grow on it’s own, it would incrementally climb up, out, and become more intense.
  • Integrate Rather than Segregate - “Many Hands Make Light Work.”
    • We find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. - The public space (streets, parks, plazas) you experience in a city are as important to liveability as private buildings.
    • Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. - The primacy of engineering, and silo-structured governance.
  • Use Small and Slow Solutions - “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” - “Slow and steady wins the race.”
    • Human scale and capacity should be the yardstick for a humane, democratic and sustainable society.
    • The end of cheap energy will shift the natural economies of scale in favour of small systems. - I know those who might add the end of cheap capital to that list.
    • In forestry, fast grown trees are often short lived, while some apparently slow growing but more valuable species accelerate and even surpass the fast species in their second and third decades. A small plantation of thinned and pruned trees can yield more total value than a large plantation without management. - This is like Joe Minicozzi measuring the city - downtown vs. exurban.
  • Use and Value Diversity - “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
    • Use diversity to reduce vulnerability to pests, adverse seasons and market fluctuations.
  • Creativitely Use and Respond to Change
    • In any particular system, the small-scale, fast, short-lived changes of the elements actually contribute to higher-order system stability. - Test and then invest/the incremental approach. The city should evolve, not expand and collapse.

And the grand finale:

Energy descent will demand real-time responses to novel situations and incremental adaption of existing inappropriate systems, as well as the best of creative innovation applied to the most ordinary and small design problems. All this needs to be done without the big budgets and kudos associated with current industrial design innovation.

-- end excerpts (although there are plenty more I could add) --

Before I met Strong Towns, I argued permaculture should be worked into the values and plans of every city. The benefits would be enormous from a food-producing perspective (imagine if we fully utilized edible landscaping), let alone an overall design philosophy. But then I realized the Strong Towns message is telling that same story in more practical language to city-builders. Transition Towns offers a complementary message and excels in community building where it lacks the nuts and bolts of city building. It would be helpful to map out where a Strong Town meets a Transition Town/permaculture.

After my tour with Farmer Paul, I'm feeling energized to dig back into permaculture to find more nuggets of wisdom that might apply to our work in neighbourhoods everywhere. Let me know if you'd like to walk that road with me. Maybe we could try out a Strong Towns Book Club and start with this?