Patterns, Details, Big Visions and Local Decisions

Graham Truscott
Tuesday, 14th April 2020

An exploration of patterns and details within permaculture design and how these are applied to projects of various sizes.

Uncle Fred kept the tobacco industry in business. Rarely was he without a cigarette between his lips, in his life-calloused hand about to be lit, or already alight with ash trailing from it.

His wife shared the same habit (slightly more elegantly) but no amount of the duty-free perfume with which she doused herself could disguise the distinctive stale tobacco smell that clung to them both and to their terraced house in Middlesbrough. An obnoxious, precocious 12-year-old me asked them why they smoked when so many life-limiting health implications were known.

The predictable response was that they knew someone who had been a smoker all his life who had lived to the age of 93 (or some such)… so they weren’t worried.

In this, they may have made a classic error. They chose to extrapolate from a personal experience – or detail - (favourable to their desires) rather than draw conclusions from the overwhelming pattern of (scientific) evidence. Was this a risk analysis that ultimately failed them? Both died early from smoking-related conditions.

But we all do it. We find a rationale for something that we want to do. We highlight a detail that suits our case and use that to ignore the pattern evidence that can actually help us.

The permaculture design principle 'work from the patterns to the details' is there for a reason and it is at least partly to save us from ourselves. How often do we, like Uncle Fred, in our daily lives, place greater emphasis and reliance on things that we have ourselves experienced or 'just know', than on what a modicum of objective analysis shows to be the better option?  Sometimes this is because we like to think we are independent beings, so proven evidence patterns like 'herd immunity' (in the case of vaccination) don’t carry as much weight in our minds for example.

It isn’t unusual for businesses, organisations and governments, as well as individuals like Uncle Fred, to focus on a particular detail, or details, to the detriment of best practice pattern planning that would give a more rounded perspective. Government knee-jerk reactions to individual events ('random details' if you like) seem to be particularly prone to unintended consequences - but perhaps that’s a problem to explore another day…

Today, I’m more interested in how we get ourselves into 'pattern thinking' and away from working upwards, and usually erroneously, from the details to the wider picture. Patterns perspective provides both a tool to help us understand the world better and a tool in our armoury when we are designing better ways of being and living.

Focusing on the overall scheme and objectives first (the general pattern), works at all scales and in most contexts. My suburban garden has a mini-food forest of about 15 square metres which calls upon the classic permaculture pattern design of layering. Plants at different heights and shade requirements were called for (in order to maximise yields) and then the details as to exactly which plants that suited the location – and me - were identified.

By contrast, there are fantastic people planning whole cities and bioregions with the help of pattern thinking. Recently I have seen this through my work with The National Forest. Here in the East Midlands, the level of woodland cover within an area of about 200 square miles has been raised from around 6 percent 28 years ago to around 21 percent now. The Forest had (and still has) a vision of woodlands and vigorous economic activity in the landscape. Its 'Greenprint' identifies the patterns it is seeking physically and economically, socially and even biologically (healthy people and healthy ecosystems).


©National Forest. Before


©National Forest. After: Map showing landscape scale increase in woodland cover across the 200 square miles of the National Forest

Industrial landscapes blighted by more than two centuries of coal and clay mining, much of it open cast, have been transformed, and wooded 'corridors' of connectivity created wherever possible. With clarity around the general pattern that is wanted, awareness of Climate Change and existential threats help to shape the detail around individual planting schemes, health and regenerative economic opportunities as well.

Some professions rely on pattern development theory and some even teach the need to see the overall picture in order to understand or appreciate the detail. Meteorology, specifically weather forecasting, is an example: in fact most sciences studying the earth or the biosphere take this approach. In scientific weather forecasting (as opposed to Uncle Fred and his jar of beans – that’s another story too), a grasp of the pattern of isobars, humidity, general circulation of the atmosphere etc., from thousands of data points is essential before there can be any hope of predicting likely weather developments. More controversially perhaps, astrologers look for patterns in the movement of heavenly bodies to make their predictions. Scientists working in disease control will look for patterns and connections in the spread of infection.


©National Forest. Before: Hicks Lodge – a large scale pattern design in the National Forest.


©National Forest. After: Hicks Lodge – the trees in the centre are the same ones in both images.

Having had the good fortune to train many years ago as a systems geographer, I have been conscious of the pattern/detail conundrum in most projects, enterprises and corporations that I have ever been involved with. So often in businesses (from global majors to local start-ups), we have leapt into implementing x or y because we could grasp some detail or other, without troubling ourselves too much about the context of x or y (where they fit in the pattern of activities), what the wider picture is, or even whether x or y are really the best and only things we could be doing. Spectacular waste of money, resource, time and effort ensues…

At Whistlewood Common (a 10-acre community owned agroforestry enterprise in South Derbyshire), the 'patterns to detail' design principle has stood us in good stead. We had little option here actually. The need to raise money to secure the land was so urgent that the 'big picture' context was required very quickly. To find the community investment, it was essential to create and promote a broad vision of possibility: the pattern design, with numerous connecting elements and functions, was proposed as a response to the big global issues. Had we waited to 'observe and interact' (another permaculture principle) at this stage, someone else, probably a wealthy horse owner or a developer, could have bought the land before we had a chance. For us, there was no time to discuss the detail, no time to work out exactly what form any of the elements we proposed might take - and little point either. The detail would have slowed us down, even if we had selected just one element to explain more thoroughly. No, it was the general idea of what could be done that carried it: the vision that this former cabbage field could become a productive biodiverse landscape with areas of orchard, forest and meadow, structures for people and places (and edges) for wildlife -without tying ourselves down to too much detail.


©Graham Truscott. A miniature food forest comprising just 10-12 square metres of a suburban housing estate.

Seven years on, the details have emerged as each element has demanded our attention or grabbed our volunteers’ energies. First it was the types of trees we planted (and how and when - to a 'where' proposed by the pattern), then the design of the initial composting tree bog - as basic human needs on the site had to be catered for! Later we spent hours teasing out the details of the core community building, but it now stands exactly where the initial pattern design suggested that it should. Armed with the benefit now of experience (observing and interacting) the fire circle, still in its original pattern location, has been rebuilt twice, making it safer and more practical each time. 

So, some thoughts on pattern-to-detail design and the risks of doing it the other way round. What is your experience?

Useful links

Creating biodiverse community land

Nature's patterns and geometry in permaculture

Book: Permaculture Design: a step-by-step guide

Book: Permaculture Design Companion