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  • Seeds of Substance
  • Permaculture , Whole Systems Design

What is Permaculture & Whole Systems Design?

Hilary Kotoun

Local artist Holly Fisher of Spence Creative captured permaculture concepts during a field trip for 9th-grade students from Newport’s Rogers High School.

Permanent + Culture = Permaculture

Permaculture is a design discipline that uses ecosystems as a model and an ethical framework for design.

Whole Systems Design 

Systems thinking, a modern branch of ecology, accounts for relationships, patterns and context between multiple systems. Whole systems design is based on the Earth’s processes, with the goal of humans working with nature rather than against it. The methodology observes all the systems in a given space—be it a farm, a home, or a large company—and enables the creation of an optimized design based on interactions of everything within the system.

These concepts are not new

They have existed for thousands of years, beginning with Indigenous people worldwide, who passed down their ecological knowledge.

The term permaculture was first coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren; it is a creative process based on intelligent and thorough observation. The methodology can be used by many sectors (not just agriculture or landscaping) to create custom, context-specific solutions. In short, permaculture is the development of human ecosystems intended to be sustainable over a long period of time. More often, the design process is applied to the landscape, creating a home, facility or farm that supports humans living in balance with the environment.

A stellar example of permaculture can be experienced at The Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) an 80-acre research, demonstration, education, advocacy and community-organizing center in West Sonoma County, California, that develops strategies for regional-scale community resilience and the restoration of biological and cultural diversity.

Permaculture looks to the natural world and its elegantly constructed ecosystems as a model for design. The design system is constructed around the triple ethic of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share, often called a triple bottom line in business: people, planet, and profit.

The guiding force of permaculture is the suite of principles that drive decision-making throughout the design process. These principles are derived from observing natural patterns and studying systems and formed into memorable concepts.

Permaculture Principles

The guiding force of permaculture is the suite of principles that drive decision-making throughout the design process. These principles are derived from observing natural patterns and studying systems and formed into memorable concepts.

Protracted and Thoughtful Observation (PATO) – Ongoing and considered observation of natural systems rather than ongoing and thoughtless labor.

Stacking Functions – Each element (noun, thing) performs many functions (verb, needs).

Planned Redundancy – All functions are supported by many elements.

Relative Location – Conservation of time and energy through careful placement of elements in relation to each other and sectors to enhance the functioning of the overall design.

Compose With Rather than Impose Upon – Work with natural forces, processes, agencies and evolutions so that we can assist rather than impede natural development. Use gravity to move water, use the sun to warm and light, use wind to cool, etc.

Use Onsite Resources – Determine what resources are available and what is entering the system on their own and maximize their use. Waste is an unused resource.

Optimize Yields – Increased energy and material cycling increases yields.

Waste Equals Food – In ecological systems, the waste of one process is the food or energy for another process. Pollution is the result of bad design.

Make the Least Change for the Greatest Possible Effect – Make small strategic changes to save time, energy, resources and unintended consequences.

Start Small Then Expand – Implement elements in phases, being aware of scale and scope, remembering that every action causes a reaction. Build in time for feedback.

Work from Patterns to Details – Work from a large scale down to a smaller scale while keeping the larger scale in mind at all times.

Think Spatially – Work in 3 dimensions. An ecosystem is a multi-dimensional volume that exists and grows to the sides, up and down.

Work in the dimension of time Natural design follows a pattern of evolution based on dynamic equilibrium that optimizes stability and resiliency over time. Our designs can follow suit and take advantage of natural changes over time.

It Depends! – Theories are important to inform application, but every situation is a unique combination of biological, geological, hydrological and cultural factors that must be considered in detail.