Urban suburban village bush

1.  Did you grow up in a big city, suburb, small town or the countryside? 

2. If you had your way, what size place would you like to spend your life?

David Holmgren can feed his family on a hectare and share the surplus with neighbors in Hepburn Springs.
David Holmgren can feed his family on a hectare and share the surplus with neighbors in Hepburn Springs.

Urban Suburban Village Bush
By Steven Saint Thomas

Permaculture was born in Australia, a huge continent with northern tropics, coastal rainforests and vast inland deserts. Most of its 23 million inhabitants live in cites along the east coast – Brisbane, Sydney – and Melbourne and Adelaide in the south.

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren articulated Permaculture in the late 1970s as a mindset and method to design habitat in the context of Australian culture and farming practices. As Permaculture goes global, the best in natural, low-energy farming practices from around the world are being cataloged, tested and propagated through Permaculture Design.

During our three months Down Under, we worked on seven different organic farms and visited a handful of other permaculture sites. We observed that permaculture can be found in four distinct settings: urban, suburban, village and bush.

“Urban” and “suburban” are self-explanatory. Cities have been around for millennia because humans found certain efficiencies in density. You can build water, food and transportation systems that deliver survival to whole lot of people packed into a relatively small area.

Suburb sprawl, however, began to break down the advantages of density and actually undermine the sustainability of cities. Metro areas have huge geographic footprints and rely dangerously on fossil fuel-driven infrastructures and importing food and water. Cities were originally surrounded by farms that supplied their food, but now food is trucked in from specialized growing regions hundreds of miles away.

Our hometown of San Diego, for example, must import 70-80 percent of its water from the Colorado River and Northern California. Any disruption of the water system (often consisting of an open aquaduct) would mean three million people scrambling to survive. Imagine the water and food riots in Los Angeles!

So urban permaculture is alive and well. Some permaculturists think the vulnerability of cities to disruptions in food and water is balanced by the commitment of state and federal resources to rescuing them. Who’s going to get help in a crisis, an off-the-grid farmer in Idaho or the people of New York?

We worked at a backyard garden in the heart of Sydney, the Camperdown neighborhood bordering the university. There were lots of bus lines, malls (called “arcades” in Australia), restaurants and traffic.

Likewise, larger suburban lots in Sydney’s Vaucluse neighborhood and Hornsby to the north were being planted with trees and gardens, and designed to capture rainwater despite connection to the water grid.

Our host in Vaucluse had converted his swimming pool into an aquaculture pond with lotus and water hyacinth harvested to mulch his gardens.

Beyond the suburbs is what Australian’s call “the bush.” To the North American mind, this term might conjure images of vast prairies or barren savannahs, but it’s the Aussie equivalent of “countryside.”

The bush is, of course, dotted with small towns or villages – places with small populations but firmly hooked to electrical grids, water mains and sewage systems.

Mullumbimby, for example, is a village of about 3,000 people just six miles west of Byron Bay, a beautiful but well-trafficked tourist destination of about 9,000 residents. Here we found Sharon Gibson cultivating a suburban-sized lot (front and back yards) on a quiet little street.

Permaculturist Maureen Corbett has been homesteading a hectare (2-1/4 acre) for 20 years in Hepburn Springs, a five-minute walk from permaculture co-founder David Holmgren. Hepburn Springs is a spa-resort village of less than 1,000 about 70 miles northwest of Melbourne.

Finally, beyond the villages, we found real “bush,” open spaces where permaculturists are working 12-acre lots without water lines, sewers or lots of neighbors.

We worked for a delightful British ex-pat who owned a $3-million estate overlooking 12 acres of bush, as well as a couple who powered their home, farm and soap-making operation with a solar array.

Permaculturists John Champagne and Paul Hudson were also designing and managing large rural lots about 20 minutes away from the nearest village.

All things considered, I think the village setting is ideal. Urban and suburban life is crowded, stressful and completely dependent on the fossil fuel-driven utilities grid. On the other end of the spectrum, the back-to-the-land life in the bush is solitary and vulnerable. Villages offer the best of both worlds – slower paced life with larger lots for cultivation, but access to utilities and greater potential for supportive community.

There’s a certain randomness to where most of us live. A particular job took us (or our parents) to a particular place and we moved into a random house or apartment that happened to be on the market when we needed one.

Most of us can’t pick up and move, but maybe we can. Maybe we can actually design – figure out the criteria for a sustainable habitat and go find it, build it, develop it.

We currently live in Colorado Springs, a metro area of about 500,000 people. It’s a small town compared to San Diego, but it’s got a sprawling footprint, is trying to get even bigger and is losing a lot of its quality of life.

We don’t know where we’ll be in five years, but it probably won’t be in a big city or out in the middle of nowhere. I suspect it will be a village.

1. What is the population of the place where you currently live and do you think it is sustainable?

2. What small farms are within 100 miles of where you live? Are there any permaculture gardens or demonstration sites nearby?

3. If you live in an urban area, what is the best part of town for larger lots or community gardens for local growing?

4. What have your elected leaders done to make it easier to grow food in your area? Or have they erected barriers?

1. In terms of sustainability, what advantages do larger cities have over small towns or rural areas? Or vice versa?

2. How would people in your region react to a serious, long-term disruption of electricity or water – looting or cooperation?

3. What would need to happen in the next 3-5 years to make your area truly resilient?

4. Is your home the best place suited for resiliency or sustainability, or is there a part of town or another place in the world you might prefer to settle?

Human scale habitat

Australian wine country needs a lot of oil and coal to stay in business.
Australian wine country needs a lot of oil and coal to stay in business.
By Steven Saint Thomas

Everyone in Australia’s Hunter Valley seems to make a living in one of two ways: they’re either running the family vineyard or ranch, or they’re employed by one of the giant coal mining corporations.

The families work the valley while the corporations strip the hills. The two lifestyles clash when the corporations drill for what Aussie’s call “coal seam gas” next to family farms.

There’s a lot of economic pressure for the little guys to sell and leave the valley to the industrial extractors. It’s all a matter of scale, and huge business enterprises get the advantage of economies of scale.

What about human scale? Permaculturists ask themselves some pretty tough questions: Can we really depend on fossil-fuel driven supply chains owned by huge corporations? Is it possible to sustain ourselves with the land and resources we have? Have we bitten off more perpetual-growth paradigm than we can chew?

As economist E.F. Schumacher proposed in 1973, small is beautiful. We need to explore a future that is not unlike the past – a way of life that is sustained by human effort rather than fossil fuel.

Take, for example, one of the largest organic vineyards in Australian wine country. One middle-aged couple with hopes of retiring in the next decade are managing 80 acres of grapes. That’s enough produce to yield more than 100,000 bottles of wine.

They are trying to do all this with one full-time farmhand, a part-time assistant and a handful of young adults traveling the continent through Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

Throw in a hundred head of sheep, a small orchard and two vegetable gardens and you’ve got some burned-out family farmers shopping for a condo on the coast.

They need a lot of fossil fuel, both petroleum for tractors and other vehicles, and electricity from burning some of that coal being mined over the ridge. Irrigating 80 acres takes a fair amount of pumping. Delivering wine to Sydney is expensive.

A permaculturist would ask: is this sustainable? Is 80 acres of mono-crop a wise idea? Could a smaller vineyard produce a decent amount of wine for people around the valley – while the rest of the land is used to cultivate food?

Perhaps a smaller vineyard could be harvested by hand instead of a special tractor. Grass and hay around the farm might be sufficient feedstock for a smaller herd of sheep. Maybe people in the Hunter Valley would have plenty of work creating a self-reliant region, and they wouldn’t need to mine coal for sale to Asia.

Size does matter, but permaculture turns the paradigm upside-down in favor of small solutions. It says the Hunter Valley vineyard needs to be scaled back or perhaps run by a community of people who can all make a living together.

If a tractor is absolutely necessary to aid the harvest, maybe some acreage could be planted with a feedstock for biodiesel.

In the United States, most households have enough expenses to require two breadwinners. Two adults must work full time to earn enough cash for housing, food, water, energy, healthcare, childcare, vehicles, insurance and whatever amount of stuff we choose to accumulate (not to mention renting storage units in which to store the stuff). And everything we need and want will come from all around the world through a fossil-fuel driven global economic system.

Dinosaur Economics, I’d say! Why not consider life on a single income? If every American household had only one breadwinner (or two part-time earners), the country would enjoy full employment and lots of people would be free to garden, produce food, make their own clothes, ride bicycles and even entertain each other.

Who knows – one day we might not need corporations because we’re working for each other, whether it’s in rural Australia or suburban America. Why not consider a parallel economy where you or someone in your local area produce the things you eat, drink, wear and use in everyday life? Because the truth is, we need each other now, and in the future.