Why permaculture needs to expand systems thinking to handle natural disasters

Richard Register & Sven Eberlein
Sunday, 23rd June 2013

Permaculture provides us with such incredible systems thinking, but are the majority of us designers afraid to go large-scale? Sven Eberlein interviews ecocities expert, Richard Register.

Climate change may ultimately force us to live in more resilient, ecocity-like settlements. What are the chances that the New Jersey shoreline hit by Hurricane Sandy gets rebuilt along your design ideas? What would you tell the local planners if they asked you for help?

RR: That would be a nice invitation. It would be the same thing I said after Hurricane Katrina. I went to New Orleans a few months after Katrina, and what I suggested didn't go over too well because after so much loss people who had been traumatized were not willing to experiment. They wanted to go back to the things they knew. Everyone wanted to go back and build the same thing. It's almost like a reflex, and in New Orleans that reflex was to say, "Let's go back to how it was and just build a higher dike around it."

Well, in New York you will need a higher dike, because you're not going to de-build Manhattan. In a place like that you do need a higher dike, because that's all there is when water levels rise during a big storm. But if you have an opportunity to redesign, which you do in New Jersey and you had in New Orleans, you would be building on elevated fill, the tried and true method that goes back 4500 years. This isn't my idea, I'm just recognizing that it's out there. In the Mesopotamian valley these first large Sumerian cities like Ur were built on elevated fill. The Tigris and Euphrates would flood and the entire valley be turned into this ocean of waters slithering by, where everybody would be safe, twenty feet above the water.

This is the idea I brought to New Orleans and I could bring it to New Jersey, if people were receptive to the idea. Now, you're going to lose your beaches and have a waterfront that's essentially a cliff, but it works and you can have your town behind it. You can even design it like a bow on a boat, so the flood splits. So that's a solution. You could never do this with suburbia because of the massive amount of dirt you would need, but you can do it in a compact city with narrow streets and taller buildings because you have 50 times as many people.

You could have these kinds of islands of development along the New Jersey coast or Brooklyn, where you can dredge and change the nature of the landscape. You can dredge in some places for the boats to come in, and at the same time create more ecological variety because of different species at different levels. The wetlands can move inland a little ways and you can use a little bit of leverage to plant and protect native plants and make causeways to link your islands. And just build intensely. Manhattan is like that. Imagine if they had built Manhattan ten feet higher - there wouldn't have been a problem. If they'd built it 20 feet higher there wouldn't be a problem for 150 years.

But really, you don't want that to happen in the first place. You don't want the climate to change that rapidly because you're going to lose 1000s of species. So what's the best solution? Ecocities again, because you're not producing the CO2 in the first place. Ecocity solutions helps prevent climate change in the long run and also works for the accommodation of the catastrophes that have already been created. If we don't do this stuff, it's going to continue to unwind, and we're probably going to go over the irreversible thresholds that James Hansen has talked about.

It sounds like the problem is the human psyche. Are we addicted to living in very unhealthy ways?

RR: Looking at the solution instead, we need the courage to extend permaculture on a community scale. We need discipline. We're in a war-type situation, which is what Lester Brown says all the time. We might say that we are currently involved in the Third World War, the War against Nature.

The basic principle here is knowing what to build. Permaculture knows what to build on a single structure farm or homestead. And that's okay. The interesting thing is that when someone asked Bill Mollison at a talk he gave back in 1984 about the urban environment, he knew exactly what to do. He used a great big warehouse as an example, a multi story solar greenhouse, and then looked at implementing mixed-use throughout the whole building. He took the ideas from permaculture and expanded it into something on a community urban scale. I think that permaculture principles, the discipline of observing and learning, seeing what the patterns are and applying them, is absolutely primary. One must obey nature to command it.

So what it comes down to is the basic principles? If you get the basic principles right you're well on the way?

RR: Yes. So what are the principles? One is organizing things as organisms. You need a whole systems perspective where all the pieces within the system - sensory, processing, digestive, reproductive, etc. - function. You have to be able to multi-task and we all do, no problem. We eat, we sleep, we get exercise, we do meaningful productive work, we enjoy ourselves, we reproduce. There are specific things we do and it doesn't confound us at all, we just do them.

Another is how the organism relates to its environment. You have to understand the whole system without violating the finite limits of the environment. That's where the economists are in deep trouble. Another one is what Paolo Soleri would call 3-dimensional versus 2-dimensional. In a complex living system all the connectors and surfaces have to be arranged so they can make things happen close together. I call it "access by proximity". If you're living in an environment, is the shortest distance between two points a straight line? No, it's designing the two points closer together. That's what I call "access by proximity" and it's a fundamental part of design.

So you have the organisms, you have the ecological lessons from the community, and you have access by proximity. Once you get those things - which I think permaculture does - you're on your way. The only problem is that in permaculture, many designers [and we are all designers] don't extend it to the built community and whole cities. If they did, they'd be dealing on an ecocity level. So I am a permaculturist on a community-organizing level, and I wish more permaculturists were able to join that. But there's a lifestyle consideration that keeps many permaculturists from wanting to be in the city.

Thank you to Richard Register and Sven Eberlein for this interview for Permaculture magazine. 

Further information

Interested in becoming a city planning permaculturist? Have a look at our permaculture course listings to begin your journey.

Sebastian attempts to see if we can: Make our cities sustainable with permaculture

Is the Ecocity the only way to effectively manage massive populations?

Read Richard's Ecocity vision in Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature.

Richard emphasises the importance of personal creativity for urban design in Ecocities: using creativity to express our future urban needs

See how Michael Guerra applied permaculture principles to interior space design. Watch the Compact Living - how to design small interior space video

Emily explores: Vertically raised beds for urban green spaces

How to minimize and downsize: 10 steps to reducing personal comsumption