NEWS FROM THE FRONT DESK: The climate clock is ticking, and we’ve completely stuffed it in the past when it comes to sustainability. Here’s how some of the principles from permaculture can show the way forward. 

Back in the 1960s, two Tasmanians – Bill Mollison and David Holmgren – coined the term “permaculture” to describe a new way of thinking about farming, and how we can grow our food in a more ecologically sustainable way.

Their ideas drew heavily on knowledge from First Nations people, and built on earlier works by women such as Ruth Stout and Esther Deans, as well as international thinkers such as Japanese pacifist Toyohiko Kagawa.

What’s interesting for people in the built environment space is that many of the problems – and solutions – they identified can also be applied to our cities.

And we don’t mean that just in a superficial way (although having more permaculture used in green buildings and public spaces is a fantastic idea). 

We mean that – if we’re serious about making our built environment more sustainable – it’s worth taking a step back and at least thinking about how some of these ideas can be applied to our cities.

Because – it’s time to be blunt here – far too often, we’ve completely stuffed it when it comes to sustainability.

So what does permaculture have to do with cities?

Permaculture is too big a topic to cover fully in this article, but there are a few ideas that are directly relevant to how we build our cities.

The practice was a response to the problems of modern monoculture farming, which tends to grow one crop species in a field at a time on an industrial scale. It’s ecologically disastrous, using massive amounts of fossil fuels, pesticides and chemical fertilisers to destroy almost everything other than the one crop or animal being grown for human use. 

This monoculture mindset is very similar to what we do when we set up a single-use zone that only allows one type of building for one type of activity in a particular neighbourhood (more on this below).

Mollison and Holmgren observed in nature that “guilds”, or group of plants and animals, are mutually beneficial when they coexist in the same ecosystem. The classic example is that by raising chickens with crops, the birds will eat unwanted bugs and weeds, while providing fertiliser through their manure that helps those crops to grow.

In a sense, we’re creating guilds when we build walkable mixed-use communities in our cities. Sometimes, this is done by having different activities in the same building (perhaps with retail on the ground floor and residential units, office space, or other uses above). Other times, it’s by having those buildings in short walking distance from one another.

The design principles of permaculture are based on thinking about whole ecosystems. Thinking about the whole ecosystem of our built environment is something we don’t do nearly often enough when we think about our built environment.

Instead, we tend to leave the design of buildings in our cities to architects, structural engineers and developers; the layout of our cities to the planners; how we get around our cities to traffic engineers; energy efficiency to the scientists and consultants; and urban greening to the landscape architects.

We even divvy up how we govern our built environment to different agencies at different levels of government. For example, in most jurisdictions, the departments for transport are separate to the ones for planning. But really, they’re all part of the same built environment ecosystem.

Finally, and most importantly, is that we need to care for the earth, care for providing people with the resources they need, and not using more resources than we need. It should be self-explanatory how these tie in with building socially and environmentally sustainable cities.

In some ways, we’ve gone backwards…

The idea that we should build our cities to have a “guild” of complementary uses within walking distance of our homes, instead of as monocultures, isn’t some radical new greenie idea. 

It’s how we’ve built our cities through most of history – including in Australia.

Just take a look at the image above. It’s Elizabeth Street in Melbourne in 1863 from the State Library of Victoria.

If you’re used to living in monoculture single-use zoning, there’s a few things that will jump out. The first is that there are shops built out to the edge of the street, instead of being set back behind a car park.

There’s other uses in the buildings above – homes and offices.

The homes, workplaces, public places and civic spaces are laid out to make them easily accessible by foot. The horse-drawn carriage was used less frequently, on the rare occasion people needed to go places beyond their immediate, walkable area. 

The street in front is a dynamic public space for pedestrians. The asphalt surfaces, gutters, and concrete footpaths were a retrofit that came much later that turned these local public spaces into transport corridors for cars. 

We certainly shouldn’t put on our rose-coloured glasses. The folks in 1860s Melbourne could have done with a few more trees, and on the social sustainability front, it was horrendous for Indigenous people and women.

At the same time, those solidly-constructed, medium-density repurposable mixed-use neighbourhoods have served us well for many generations. It’s a big reason why the inner suburbs of Australia’s big cities are so sought after today.

The monoculture housing disaster

Then, after World War Two, our parents and grandparents took everything they knew about building vibrant, walkable, mixed use places and threw it in the rubbish.

Instead of creating “guilds” of buildings that are accessible at a comfortable walking distance, they built places that are only accessible at a comfortable car driving distance.

They laid out massive monoculture suburbs of single use, one-to-two story detached single-family houses. 

Building at car scale meant the basic necessities of work or food were now outside a comfortable walking distance. You had to buy a car or starve.

The image above is the middle-ring Melbourne suburb of Vermont South, taken from Vicplan. 

Each of those tiny pink rectangles is a roughly quarter acre plot of land where – even today – you are not allowed to build anything except a detached single family home. 

That row of green through the middle is a park, created later on land that was originally set aside for a proposed six-lane road (the Healesville Freeway) that was, mercifully, canned. 

These pink suburbs were built on the lie that there was a limitless supply of cheap oil, coal and gas that we could burn, in increasing amounts, forever, without any consequences.

They were justified on the lie that this is what the market decided – when in reality people weren’t allowed to build anything else on their land. 

And we built these sprawling car-dependent monoculture pink suburbs across South East Queensland, from the Sunshine Coast to Tweed Heads; from Mandurah to Joondalup in Perth; across western Sydney; and in almost all directions Melbourne.

Monoculture leads to lots of parking

The big problem with unwalkable monoculture housing is that you can’t easily walk around your block to get the things you need. Instead, you have to drive to the shops or the office.

And what that leads to is vast tracts of land for car parks (like the one above in the Melbourne suburb of Rowville, taken from Google Street View), paved with dark, urban heat island inducing asphalt.

In the very far distance in the photo above, you might vaguely make out some shops. The common sense thinking from 1863 would be that it’s an ideal place to put some housing on top. Perhaps have some open public space in a street in front. Put more housing within walking distance of the shops where the car park is.

Unfortunately, even in the middle of a housing crisis, monoculture zoning says no.

According to the CSIRO, just under one-fifth (17.6 per cent) of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels for transport – especially petrol-based cars.

That’s a big problem when only around 2 per cent of our cars are electric vehicles.

When seeing the full ecosystem leaves you seeing red 

Permaculture teaches us to think about the whole ecosystem. 

But in the built environment sector, we sometimes tend to think of solutions for just our corner of the built environment – buildings, planning, transport, energy, trees – while neglecting the bigger picture.

That can lead us into narrow debates – high-rise or medium density, electric vehicles or trains – that neglect the bigger picture. 

Not looking at the full ecosystem leads to, for example, La Trobe University in Victoria creating a sustainability plan that includes a carbon neutral by 2029 goal, with the big focus on things such as installing solar panels to reduce energy consumption, and recycling waste.

There’s just one small problem that becomes apparent when you take a map of La Trobe’s main Bundoora campus, and colour in the roads and open air bitumen car parks in red.

It’s basically a giant car park with lots of nice grass and trees, with a few 1970s brutalist lecture theatres, shops and offices in the middle.

It serves students who, for the most part, live beyond comfortable walking distance from the university.

To its credit, La Trobe does have a campus master plan that can fix some of its big red issues. But the fact the big campus master plan is separate to its sustainability plan certainly speaks volumes.  

A big job ahead of us

The good news is that we are moving in the right direction with many of our new developments and buildings. Australia’s built environment sector leads the world with green buildings in many regards.

But, with the climate clock ticking, we have a big job ahead of us when it comes to retrofitting sustainability and fixing the urban planning blunders of our past – and not repeating them.

Thinking about permaculture is a good place to start.

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