Can We Make our Cities Sustainable with Permaculture?

Sebastian von Holstein
Tuesday, 25th September 2012

It is predicted that the next century will see 70% of the world's populations reside within the 'safety' of the modern metropolis. Here are 15 ways to make our cities more healthy, creative and sustainable

If we are seriously attempting to address a holistic approach to sustainability, we must engage with our cities too, attracting the attention of architects, urban planners and developers the world over, in order to provide substance to the 'green,' 'eco' architectures of our present day. 

This challenge calls us to think differently about permaculture and the way we apply the skills we learn following on from design courses. Permaculture is predominantly based on three principles: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. However, As Looby Macnamara's People & Permaculture emphasises, the vast majority of permaculture courses only deal with Earth Care, often excluding in one way or another, the other two principles.

Could this give us an insight into the cities of the future? Picture by Richard Register

Creatively Designing Our Cities With Sustainability in Mind

Herbert Girardet's Schumacher Briefing, Creating Sustainable Cities, describes the sustainable city as a place "organized so as to enable all its citizens to meet their own needs and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future."

Adding to this, Richard Register – the man responsible for coining the term 'Ecocities' – states that "the whole notion is to have a beautiful city that is really creative". Working as a sculptor in the 1980's, he envisaged that "we could all be living in these sculptures that are very supportive of human creativity".

Cities Need to Raise Awareness of Rising Energy Prices and Food Security

The city is presently dirty, uniform and carbon intensive due to a constant expansion of urban sprawl and a general dependency on cars. Meanwhile, skyscrapers, new builds and renovations in cities around the globe are praised for their loose 'green' credentials – the reality is far removed from the romance of their green aesthetic manifestos.

Richard Register outlines that the city is the biggest thing built by humans, but very rarely could it function on anything other than cheap energy and long food supply chains. In fact, London's assembly heard in as far back as 2009 the issues concerning the city's dependency on imported foods and the growing concern about food security.

Jenny Jones AM, Chair of the Planning and Housing committee, said: "We only have three or four days food supply in the event that supplies coming into the capital dry up like they did during the fuel crisis."

With permaculture, we must begin to think more closely about the neglected subject of the city. Many of us with green fingers need to take what we know about soils, food growing and polytunnels and apply this knowledge towards a coherent architectural vernacular, urban food production and the development of sustainable economics, industry and human relationships.

A green, healthy urban communal space. Picture from

London's current rate of urban sprawl is putting its food supply at risk, as farmland is sold off to make way for new-build housing development and recreation areas. As a result, London officials have stated, that "unconventional spaces such as rooftops and derelict land on which food can be grown should be identified for commercial food growing" comparable to Havana, Cuba's 'Organoponico' style of urban food production.

15 Steps to Creating a Healthier, more Sustainable City

As a brief guide, I will leave you with the 'International Ecocity Frameworks and Standards' (IEFS) 15 conditions, for which to analyse the biological, geographical, ecological and social progress of the cityscape:

1Access by Proximity: Walkable access from housing to basic urban services and transit access to close-by employment options.
2. Clean Air: Big industrial ceiling fans can help with clean energy and quality air circulation. Big industrial ceiling fans can help with clean energy and quality air circulation.
3. Healthy Soil: Soils meet their ranges of healthy ecosystem functions as appropriate to their types and environments; fertility is maintained or improved.
4. Clean and Safe Water: Access to clean, safe, affordable water; the city's water sources, waterways and water bodies are healthy and function without negative impact to ecosystems. Water is primarily sourced from within the bioregion.
5Responsible Resources/ Materials: Renewable and non-renewable resources are sourced, allocated, managed and recycled responsibly and equitably, without adversely affecting human health or the resilience of ecosystems.
6. Clean and Renewable Energy: The city's energy needs are provided for, and extracted, generated and consumed, without significant negative impact to ecosystems or to short- or long-term human health and do not exacerbate climate change. Energy consumed is primarily generated within the local bioregion.
7. Healthy and Accessible Food: Nutritious food is accessible and affordable to all residents and is grown, manufactured and distributed by processes which maintain the healthy function of ecosystems and do not exacerbate climate change. Food consumed is primarily grown within the local bioregion.
8. Healthy Biodiversity: The city sustains the biodiversity of local, bioregional and global ecosystems including species diversity, ecosystem diversity and genetic diversity; it restores natural habitat and biodiversity by its policy and physical actions.
9. Earth's Carrying Capacity: The city keeps its demand on ecosystems within the limits of the Earth's bio-capacity, converting resources restoratively and supporting regional ecological integrity.
10. Ecological Integrity: The city maintains essential linkages within and between ecosystems and provides contiguous habitat areas and ecological corridors throughout the city.
11. Healthy Culture: The city facilitates cultural activities that strengthen eco-literacy, patterns of human knowledge and creative expression, and develop symbolic thought and social learning.
12. Community Capacity Building: The city supports full and equitable community participation in decision making processes and provides legal, physical and organizational support for neighborhoods, community organizations, institutions and agencies.
13. Healthy and Equitable Economy: An economy favoring economic activities that reduce harm and positively benefit the environment and human health and support a high level of local and equitable employment options – the foundation for "green jobs".
14. Lifelong Education: All residents have access to lifelong education including access to information about the city's history of place, culture, ecology, and tradition provided through formal and informal education, vocational training and other social institutions.
15. Well Being – Quality of Life: Strong citizen satisfaction with quality of life indicators including employment; the built, natural and landscaped environment; physical and mental health; education; safety; recreation and leisure time; and social belonging. 

Sebastian von Holstein is the online editor for Permaculture magazine and also the founder of the newly launched Von Holstein Group, which aims to restore health and balance to communities through the arts, design and architecture.  

For more practical ideas and solutions, visit Ecocity Builders Online

For courses and education information, please take a look at the Schumacher College program for 2012/13

Click here to go beyond the 15 steps set by the International Ecocity Frameworks and Standards' (IEFS)

Visit our online bookshop to have a look at Looby Macnamara's People & Permaculture, Herbert Girardet's Creating Sustainable Cities and Richard Register's Ecocities

greenbuilding |
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 03:51
Many cities see the importance of growing the tree canopy, but so many still don't. Urban planners have to set limits on growth and reserve parkland where there will be no development. Those parks need to be cherished. Kiva
zartanwoods |
Wed, 24/10/2012 - 23:38
High traffic streets can go underground.