It Takes a Village … Find Yours!


By Steven Saint Thomas

The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is widely attributed to Africans but it reflects the experience of most humans around the world (and through the centuries) who have lived in villages.

The late permaculturist Toby Hemenway noted that cities, too, have been around for eons and have served people greatly in our needs for community, security and commerce. Hemenway wrote The Permaculture City in 2015 after having lived both in the off-grid countryside of southern Oregon and the city of Portland.

Now David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, has published his blueprint for the sustainable suburb, RetroSuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future.

Holmgren writes that suburbs are potentially the best of both worlds, a “sweet spot” between rural and urban living.

I think he’s right. Visiting Holmgren at his 2-1/2 acre homestead in central Victoria changed my life. I caught a vision of what you might call “Permie Paradise” – a family producing most of their own food and sharing the surplus with friends and neighbors doing likewise in the small Australian town of Hepburn Springs.

Now, one big difference between Australia and America is scale – only 24 million Australians have to share their continent and resources.

Hepburn Springs (population around 1,000) is what we Yanks would call a “village.” It is not part of sprawling, back-to-back suburbs with which city-dwelling Americans are familiar.

So I think it is crucial for urban and suburban permaculturists to break our high-density regions into, well, villages. Whether these villages have 400 people or 1,000, the point is they are neighborhoods where people can focus their efforts on localizing their food system and economy.

In the Zone
If you only read one section of The Permaculture City, read Chapter 5, “Strategies for Gardening in Community.” Hemenway applies permaculture’s “zone analysis” to the question of local food systems.

Zones reflect the frequency of use, the amount of time and energy, spent in various parts of a property. Zones are usually depicted as concentric circles moving out like ripples in a pond.

Zone 0 is where you live – usually a house – and Zone 1 are the grounds immediately surrounding it. Zone 5 is farthest away and often left alone as “wilderness” in permaculture design.

Hemenway asks us to map our foodsheds. Zone 1 would be food that we grow in our own gardens. Zone 2 would be community gardens or neighbors within walking/cycling distance where you could obtain food.

Food you can buy from a farmer’s market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) schemes falls into Zone 3. The next zone represents grocery stores or other retailers that sell locally produced food.

Finally, Zone 5 includes corporate chains and big-box retailers selling food from all over the world. Hemenway advises, “Get as much of your food as possible from zones 1 to 3. The leap into a nation- or planet-sized foodshed occurs at zones 4 and 5, with industrial-processed and out-of-season foods bought at retail stores.”

Most of us find our eyes glazing over! Our food systems are completely upside-down, with very little coming from the inner zones and most of it from global, corporate sources.

Holmgren’s new book doesn’t use the word “foodshed,” but makes the central argument about survival in the near future: “Suburban food production capacity is a key factor in the adaptation of cities to challenging futures.”

Village Shift

In the past 20 years, I have lived in San Diego (3.4 million people), Colorado Springs (500,000) and now Humboldt Bay (88,000). All these areas are dependent on large, centralized systems to provide water, energy, food and transportation infrastructure.

They all can be broken down into villages. We launched our first “Village Shift Project” in Colorado Springs in 2015. The first step was mapping all the elementary schools.

Elementary school attendance areas are roughly the same in population and have already been drawn by a school district – a locally controlled governmental entity that gives intense attention to demographics.

The average city map will have elementary schools identified. A map of the Colorado Springs region (El Paso County, Colorado) revealed about 125 schools – approximately 125 villages. We highlighted them and put the map on a large piece of poster board.

Next, we recruited “Local Food Ambassadors.” We brought the map to farmer’s markets, environmental events and community fairs. People passionate about local food, gardening and building community were invited to plot their locations on the map with colored dots. Soon we had about 100 people plotted.

The dots on the map only had numbers, but we kept track of all the names and email addresses. As the weeks progressed, clusters of dots began to form. Some parts of town had many Local Food Ambassadors (LFAs), others had few or none.

Our team connected the dots – we invited people in clusters to meet for potlucks and form Village Food Councils for their neighborhoods. Soon we had like-minded folks sharing food, conducting gardening classes and trying to integrate backyard produce into the local farmer’s market.

Find Your Village
We are in the Humboldt Bay region now, trying to bring Village Shift to the communities of Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Trinidad. This work includes helping edit the 2018 edition of the Local Food Guide, published by a small nonprofit called Locally Delicious.

A catalog of local food assets will help LFAs and other food leaders in assessing and improving the foodshed. No studies have been conducted to determine what percentage of the food on Humboldt tables is locally produced, but the potential is much greater than in Colorado Springs, where the list of farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs and locally made products barely fills two pages.

One great food asset in Humboldt is the North Coast Co-op, which boasts 13,000 members in the bay communities and operates two grocery stores (Eureka and Arcata). Almost every product made in the region can be found on the shelves and the stores even track local sales on the customer’s receipt.

We have proposed a “Co-op Neighbors” project, in which members would be invited to self-organize village groups. Like Village Food Councils, Co-op Neighbors would gather for potlucks, share cooking and gardening, even arrange carpooling to stores.

Our goal is to increase the access of local food in the inner zones. It’s all part of preparing for the impending impacts of climate change, food and energy shortages, and financial collapse.

“It’s incumbent on everyone to begin taking personal and household responsibility for reorganizing their lives to adapt,” writes Holmgren. “My proposals remain valid if you’re looking for better ways to live now, rather than working for a version of the future sold by corporations, media and political parties.”

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?