Why We Need Systemic Change, not Token Community Gardens

Sarah Pugh
Wednesday, 18th March 2015

As Bristol City Council, European Green Capital, is about to destroy Grade 1 agricultural and horticultural land in favour of a road building scheme, Sarah Pugh asks how permaculture can step up and influence whole communities, food systems and economies.

Every public space, every niche, could be planted up as a food forest. The lead picture is taken in LA and shows how a simple change in the law by pioneering urban farmer, Ron Finley, has allowed food to be grown in public lots all over the city. We need to do this in every town and city all over the world, reducing food miles, reducing the need for the transport that clogs our roads, reducing smog, feeding people, and turning our urban landcapes into beautiful, productive landcsapes. That is what permaculture should be about, not tiny patches of token gardens but BIG swathes of edible food forests everywhere on every continent!

Meanwhile, over the past three years an impassioned planning battle has raged as campaigners fought to stop Bristol City Council building a road over Grade 1 agricultural land, allotments and a community food project. For the past six weeks local people have occupied the trees in a last resort attempt to halt the scheme. This week, as the last protester is pulled from the trees, the fight continues with campaigners appealing to government officials to stop the scheme.

This isn't just a story of a bad council doing bad things. The priorities that led to these decisions being railroaded are systemic and largely invisible. What has come to light through this tiny microcosm is the power and limitations of that same old 'Business as Usual' story. How can it be possible in these times of climate awareness, that Bristol, a city celebrating European Green Capital status, can still be prioritising big money development at the cost of future resilience? How can decision making process still not factor in the major issues of the day?

Stepping Up to Big Change

As someone who has, for many years been involved in permaculture teaching, community gardening and Transition, I am asking, how can permaculture design inform a change in culture, practice and power? How do we get out of the weekly volunteer garden and start affecting big changes? Permaculture is an immensely powerful and versatile design tool and it's time has most definitely come if we are to avoid being taken to hell in a handcart by the inertia of current thinking.

In a recent trip to the USA, I was inspired by projects that use permaculture and food growing to create systemic change. I visited projects that feed, train and employ people. In Portland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Milwaukee and San Francisco, I found pioneers who are successfully innovating with urban sustainable design, often in areas of acute deprivation and despair. They don't always get it right but the scale of their ambition is inspiring.

Ron Finley has changed the law in LA to allow people to grow food on public land

Technical and social innovation

The challenges and opportunities are different in the UK. The NHS and benefits here buffer us from the levels of poverty experienced by the American poor. But US city dwellers have access to much more land; even the poorest areas boast enormous gardens and empty lots provide more growing opportunities. The rise of urban homesteading in bankrupt Detroit is never going to be transferable to the terraced yards of inner city Manchester but the entrepreneurial spirit, technical and social innovation, resource cycling and creative determination are all things we can learn from.

Here in the UK we are starting to expand our range but often permaculture is limited to a 'demonstration garden' or a small scale venture that relies on volunteers to run in their spare time. I'm not knocking this. It's important that we get the mechanics of temperate permaculture right and that we show the world the value and viability of forest gardening, soil building and polycultures... but it's also time to up our game. As crunch time looms on the horizon, it's time permaculture stepped out of the garden and into the structure of how our communities, food systems and economies function. I want to see permaculture regenerating urban land, feeding people, providing employment and building the health and well-being of communities. It's all possible. Permaculture has the answers... we just need to ask big enough questions.

Be part of this important converstaion...

Sarah is a permaculture teacher who has taught practical courses with Patrick Whitefield for many years and co-founded the social enterprise, Shift Bristol. She is currently writing a book about inspirational and pioneering Urban Permaculture and Sustainability projects in association with Permannet Publications. She will be travelling across the USA and UK finding practical, grass-roots action that is transforming the urban landscape and bringing communities together around food, farming, economy, energy, green building and more. The book forms part of a timely and vibrant conversation about how we want our cities to move forward. As our governments continue with 'Business as Usual' it becomes more important to create resilient pathways for a sustainable future. If you can, please support her.


"Sarah functions in the urban landscape as mycorrhiza exists within the soil. Networking, communicating, sharing, educating, empowering and connecting individuals and communities at large. Her passion for regenerative urban permaculture is relentless and her potential for positive impact limitless. Anyone interested in creating a better world will reap the benefits of her pioneering travels." Laura, Ex Permaculture Student, co-founder and Director of Shift Bristol CIC.


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MickMack |
Sun, 10/01/2016 - 00:50
This has been on the agenda all the time as far as I am aware. I recall Mollison stating that permaculture needs to be mainstream and not peripheral. I have argued with permies for many years that change on the scale that it needs to happen to include all those outside the middle class niche in which it resides, won't come from permaculture. The notion that expropriation will deliver the political and economic responsibility to implement the changes and on the scale that needs to happen is what I have advocated for most of my adult life, but no, the university educated liberal green brigade always know better. Well, let's see how quickly they learn that capitalism isn't going anywhere until you physically drag it from the course of history kicking and screaming as one Mr Karl Marx made clear some time ago.