permaculture_cityThe Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience
Toby Hemenway
Chelsea Green Publishing
85 North Main Street, Suite 120
White River Junction, VT 05001;
July 2015. 269 pages. Paperback, $24.95.

Cities and suburbs are natural places for designs inspired by natural systems, according The Permaculture City by Toby Hemenway, a guidebook to permaculture design in the concrete jungle.

“Permaculture design is turning out to be beautifully suited to urban contexts,” says Hemenway.

These urban and suburban areas are very different from the farms and gardens where environmentalists have typically used permaculture design ideas. The permaculture movement began in the 1960s as an attempt to “create evolving, self-renewing systems” modeled on the kinds of relationships found in nature. Often that meant creating productive gardens in which, among other things, elements of the garden provide for some of each other’s needs, like nutrients, soil aeration, or shade.

Hemenway also wrote Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, which was the first major North American book on permaculture, according to his publisher. He put his permaculture ideals into practice at his own home in rural Douglas County in southern Oregon, where he lived for a decade with his family growing much of their own food and creating most of the things they needed for their day-to-day lives.

“Our much-wanted seclusion and self-reliance were becoming more like isolation,” he says. “Unless we are utterly determined to make absolutely everything ourselves and do it all ourselves (fuel? a bicycle? health care?), we are inevitably pushed to move beyond the personal to the community or local realm,” he says.

He has since moved back to the city and now lives in Portland, where he finds it somewhat easier to live efficiently. Hemenway’s rural life required more gasoline than the couple had expected, for example. In Portland: “Our energy use plummeted.”

The ideas of permaculture may also have their greatest effect in towns or cities like Portland. “Cities are a leverage point, the place where 50 percent of humanity now lives, and that number is rising,” says Hemenway.

Much of Hemenway’s book is still taken up with gardening and plants. Whole chapters put permaculture principles into practice in spaces as small as an urban backyard. Readers learn how to design spaces that capture rain or heat from the sun and how different species of plants can be grouped to supply vital needs for each other.

He also spends a significant amount of time on the analytic tools of permaculture, including how to place the elements of a design that are needed most often in the most accessible places and how to assess outside influences that can help or hinder a design.  “Permaculture design really is a universal toolkit. It’s a strategy for developing strategies,” he writes.

Later chapters focus on how human relationships and larger communities can benefit from permaculture thinking. Permaculture is based on building relationships, writes Hemenway. It starts with the personal, but it spirals out to include the local and the regional.

These later chapters quote the icons of urbanism, such as Jane Jacobs, and dispense advice on how to choose a livelihood that provides wealth in more ways than money, including social capital, intellectual capital, and experiential capital. Other chapters tell how permaculture strategies could help major metropolitan areas plan to provide themselves with water and energy.

That’s a long way from the plants and gardens that have been the main subject of much permaculture writing and thinking. “Urban permaculture is only slightly about gardening and mostly about people,” he writes. “Going it alone doesn’t build on the power of connectivity and functional relationships that are at the heart of good design.”