26 Jan 2010, 9:12pm
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permaculture notes: food forests, cities

same disclaimer applies–
these are pretty much straight from my notes, with no further research done (and i am interested in researching some of these things further, eventually). any inaccuracies are probably my fault, and i’m not too concerned about them right now. probably don’t quote me (or any of the people i’m quoting) on this stuff, though, without doing your own research!

WEEKEND #4: food forests and cities (december) (guest teachers: leonard barrett and michael cook of city repair)

“the only tool not in the permaculturist’s toolkit is the cookie cutter.”

two approaches to mimicking natural systems:
structure permaculture: mimicking the structures of nature (so it looks like nature)
function permaculture: mimicking the functions of nature (attempting to create working ecosystems)

in creating carefully-designed polycultures and food forests (and doing some crazy stuff with water distribution), we are ostensibly mimicking nature but are really creating pretty unnatural environments. as our understanding has grown, we’ve gotten more skilled at understanding the principles that underly the structures we are imitating, so we can apply those principles more broadly.

we also discussed the natural/unnatural distinction and whether it’s really very useful, a là 1491 (a great book i read a couple months ago by charles c. mann). which is the natural landscape when human fire suppression has allowed fir forests to replace oak savannahs that were the result of human fire setting? and humans only started setting fires to maintain prairie 4000 years ago when the climate in those areas shifted from one favoring prairie to one favoring forests…

this is also part of the native vs. non-native debates that happen in permaculture/sustainable gardening circles. according to a book called bringing nature home by doug tallamy, native vegetation supports more biomass of insects and birds than exotic vegetation does. it takes more than a couple centuries for plants to indigenate themselves. toby’s proposed solution is to design a native backbone surrounded and supported by plants we are familiar with and already know how to use (i.e., proven exotics).

a note on invasive plants: intact ecosystems are hard to invade because they’re closed loops with no spare resources for an invader to take advantage of. pollution and disturbance create untapped resources. so we want to protect and create functioning ecosystems.

most of us feel that cities just sort of evolve up around us or “just happen.” most of us also think of cities as ecologically damaging or not evolving along ecological lines. but leonard urges us in fact to think of them as biological and ecological, and to consider their evolution thusly.

in a small town of 647 people, there are 208,981 possible relationships between people. in portland, there are 1.24×10^11 possible relationships! cities increase the edges between people and create huge opportunities for information exchange.

two-thirds of the world’s population lives in the “third world,” and cities there are very different than how we think of them here. they are incredibly dense, and because of pollution there’s no blue sky except when the winds roll in. by the middle of this century, more than half of the world’s population will live in cities like this (if trends continue).

for most of the world’s history, 99% of people lived in rural areas. as of 2008, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas! the slope on that graph went waaaaay up around 1950. today, 83% of americans live in settlements of over 50,000 people.

it’s impossible to tell how increasing resource consumption will affect urbanization and development trends, but right now it’s looking like rural areas will continue to depopulate as people move to town for better jobs and so on. we in first world cities have a tendency to be nostalgic about going “back to the land,” but leonard quotes bill mollison–”keep out of the bush; it’s already in good order”–and suggests that everyone living in cities would give a lot of the earth a chance to revert to unmanaged ecosystems and rebuild the lungs of the planet.

this caused some interesting discussion! said one of my classmates: but the city is a hungry maw that eats its surroundings!

to which leonard replied: lots of ecologically damaging things happen because of subsistence farming. poor farmers get pushed to the most marginal and ecologically-sensitive land and use techniques like slash-and-burn.

another classmate said: but some indigenous people are maintaining ecosystems. and leonard said: but historically, those people probably moved around every few hundred or few thousand years to let land regenerate. now, we have way too big of a footprint (as a species) to do that. he acknowledged that there are a lot of issues at play, but basically said:

we humans need to minimize the footprint of our actions, especially the most ecologically-damaging ones… so it behooves us to allow as much of the earth as possible to revert to being what it will be. and, since there’s already a huge urbanization trend in the world, let’s think about how we can leverage that to improve global ecological health! a saying from finance: “the trend is your friend.”

that trend:

every 12 days, the amount of new developing urban area in the world is equal to a city the size of the chicago metro area: 6 million people!

why are people moving? because we as a species haven’t been attending well to people care and redistribution of the surplus (two of the three permaculture ethics), i.e. they’re looking for jobs. cities are nutrient sinks (ex: the 3000-mile salad); how can we redistribute the surplus back to rural areas? leonard suggests that people are also moving for the magic and excitement of living in cities, which offer community and the opportunity to be a part of something complex and larger than life–even if it’s a slum, and a lot of it it.

mumbai is half slum but makes up one-sixth of india’s entire GDP! one-sixth of the world lives in slums, and they are economically vibrant.

all of this is a both/and discussion, not an either/or–nothing is all bad or all good. so let’s utilize the trend and find the good in these things.

the city in an ecological context:

keep or create wilderness corridors in cities… to increase edge between cities and rural environments/wilderness.

when we don’t bring ecosystem services into the city (vegetation and tree canopy), we get the urban heat island effect and other consequences.

historically, city locations were determined by the places watersheds came together, or by the presence of other important resources (water, arable land). fossil fuels changed this and made oddities like las vegas possible–cities with no relative location to the things that support them.

leonard proposes applying permaculture and transition principles on a block scale. get out of the limiting lot-by-lot scale and collaborate with your neighbors! tear out fences and make use of microclimates. it’s a way to walk our talk w/r/t community-building and community resiliency.

other local/urban ideas:

* yardsharing: you want a garden but don’t have land, they have the land but don’t have the time… etc. check out hyperlocavore. this could even be an entrepreneurial venture–somebody in portland has actually run a csa by gardening in various yards all over portland!

* neighborhood seed swaps: develop and nurture seeds that are adapted not just to the pnw climate but to the climate between stark and burnside, or on the alameda ridge, and so on. a way to walk our talk w/r/t genetic diversity and food security.

* tool libraries! (there are currently tool libraries in town in NE–started by the ainsworth street collective–and maybe another place or two, actually!) what other resources can we share in common?

* block-scale rainwater harvesting–leonard suggests that the currently-underutilized space underneath city streets would be a great place for cisterns! (you know, until we can tear up the streets altogether and farm ‘em…)

* rooftop gardens

* so in parts of portland (my old neighborhood of woodstock for example) there are lots of unpaved streets labeled “roadway not improved.” some of them barely qualify as streets. apparently–though i can find no google confirmation of this–there is an organization or movement in pdx that’s trying to get some of these streets taken off the list of “streets to eventually be paved when we maybe have the money someday” and turned into public parks or gardens instead! the potholed gravely streets were one of my favorite things about living in woodstock and i love the idea of them becoming parks, but as one of my classmates pointed out, there are people in many of those neighborhoods who are angry that they haven’t been paved yet–accessibility issues etc and people worried that their neighborhoods are being marginalized. so, of course, it’s complicated.

* front yard food gardening–take a visible underutilized space and utilize it! it’ll encourage others to maybe do the same and create a positive feedback loop.

* container gardening

* mobile raised bed: leonard showed us a photo of a little veggie bed on a wagon that the owner/gardener locked to a post in a sunny spot across her street every day. he suggests that the next step would be to built a bicycle trailer raised bed and bring hands-on organic gardening workshops to events, etc!

* gardening in parking strips. if you’re worried about pollutants, trees and woody shrubs are probably okay. or, if less than 1000 cars (according to bill mollison) or 2500 cars (according to the city of portland) drive by every day, your food is probably okay anyway.

* go around and label food plants (like fruit trees or wild edibles) in the public right-of-way with signs: “this is food! here’s how to harvest it!” etc.

* small-scale aquaculture: “barrelponics”

* shade walkways with grape arbors (or kiwi, or pollinator-attracting blossoms, or…)

guilds: a mutually-beneficial grouping–of plants, of people, etc.

when designing plant guilds, we can do it (just some possibilities that toby talked about): by structure, by function, by analogy, or by evolutionary relationship.

the oldest guild:
the “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash! the beans grow up the corn and fix nitrogen, the corn secretes a sugar that beans like, and the squash spreads over the soil and creates a “living mulch” that discourages weeds. they create an “overyielding polyculture,” meaning that the total nutrient production of a field planted with the guild is higher than that of a field planted with any of the three plants in a monoculture–20-30% higher in fact!

designing guilds by structure:
choosing plants that fit together physically. stacking in space. put plants together sort of like a jigsaw puzzle to make the best use of available space.
this is more about avoiding negative interactions (one plant crowding out another, etc) than it is about creating beneficial interactions.

designing guilds by function:
for example, if you’re designing a guild around an apple tree, you might look for plants that suppress grass growth, attract insects, accumulate nutrients, act as a barrier against foraging wildlife, etc. these elements support the central element.

designing guilds by analogy:
mimicking native plant communities–maybe they work well together or maybe they just happen to all like the same conditions, but it’s worth a shot! you can replace one or more of the plants with a similar domesticated variety and see how it goes.

designing guild by evolutionary relationship:
or as toby said, “guilds for botany nerds,” or “kinship gardens.” this is from alan kapuler of peace seeds. the idea is to plant based on evolutionary distance, basically to see how putting evolutionarily-related plants next to each other changes our perspective on them–i.e., if we crossed perennial kale with cauliflower, could we maybe get perennial cauliflower? something like that, anyway.

one more kind of guild–the “crapshoot guild”–see what likes to grow together by seeing what comes up from last year’s scattered seeds!

i’ve sort of been wanting to take an aikido class lately, so i was particularly amused/intrigued by its use as an analogy for permaculture: use existing trends/forces to do good/do what you want to do! we want to create systems that can take whatever force they’re being exposed to and USE it as a resource!

the “climax forest,” when all trees are mature and there’s little undergrowth, is a myth. in reality, patches occur, dead trees fall and let light in so the understory grows, etc. mature forests are patchy and diverse and complex!

old-field succession–the steps by which forest (or food forest!) moves into empty land:
1. gap/clearing/bare soil
2. old-field perennial and annual vegetables
3. “old-field mosaic”
4. shrubland
5. woodland garden
6. mature forest or forest garden
and then fire or disease cleared out a patch and the cycle starts over… it’s not a linear process with a fixed “climax”/end! any large forest will have patches of all of these stages.

i think the idea is that we can guide our food forests through these stages to maturity as well, while taking advantage of the productivity of every stage along the way.

BIOMASS is really important for soil creation, nutrients, etc. clearcutting removes the biomass that is needed to support further growth. annual agriculture is basically clearcutting–all the biomass/productivity is removed/harvested. which means there’s less productivity the next year!

so the idea behind food forests/forest gardens is that we create an ecosystem from which we take only 10-20% of the total productivity/biomass every year, so the ecosystem can continue–in fact, we become a part of the ecosystem.

when we talk about elements in a plant guild or in a permaculture design having FUNCTIONS, we are really talking about CONNECTIONS–i.e., a nitrogen-fixing plant connects nitrogen and soil. there used to be a tendency in permaculture design to make dogmatic statements like “each element in a design must have five functions,” but really, when you put pieces out there and let them connect, cool things happen. it doesn’t take too many connections between elements before ecosystems emerge! so when people say each element should have five functions–whatEVER–you really only need ~2 connections from each element before everything coalesces into a system.

michael cook of city repair believes that our over-consumption of resources has its origins in the grid system that pervades both our physical environment (streets/houses/etc) and our mental environment (media and advertising that encourages us to equate consumption and interaction). because we have no gathering places and are not connected to each other, we NEED more as individuals and try to fill that need with junk and over-consumption. 90% of what we produce is destined to go straight to the landfill–packaging, etc. grids are great for long-distance transportation and navigation, sure, but you miss all the life between points a and b. more efficient does not mean more fulfilling.

so, city repair isn’t so much trying to fix all of that. they’re just trying to build community. (the disease causing all of these symptoms is a lack of community.) how to build community? by celebrating, having fun, feeling good!

city repair builds “catalysts for community.” intersection paintings, in addition to calming traffic and providing neighborhood focal points and all of that, also become reasons for community members to come together every year (to repaint). traditions rise out of that and real community happens… coming at it from a different direction than “intentional community” created by people with common values who decide to try to live together in community.

intersection repairs are ENCHANTING–michael says, enchantment is present in our media but often missing from our lives. enchantment is what makes it okay to go slowly through life rather than rushing efficiently from place to place.

encouraging people to invest themselves in where they live. and so on. we also got to see lots of slides of city repair projects. i owe a lot to city repair–four or five years ago i was walking through sellwood and stumbled onto share-it square, looked it up, found city repair and thought what they did was SO COOL. last year i went to some of the village building convergence, and the rest is history. city repair got my hands in the dirt, exposed me to permaculture, set me on my way. okay, a. and his mom did some of the work, too. i am so lucky!

good post as always dude, it looks like you’re learning a hell of a lot!

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