On urban permaculture, eco-activism and co-creation of space with non-human animals — a conversation with Becky Ellis

Urban permaculture is possible even without owning private property or large amounts of land.

by Gosia Rokicka


Becky Ellis

Gosia Rokicka: You’re a permaculture practitioner and teacher and at the same time a city dweller. What would you say to people who see permaculture as a land-based design system for growing food and sustainable living on a large scale?

Becky Ellis: I would say that permaculture is a way to design your life, a way of thinking about how you want to live in balance with non-human nature and with other people as well. It doesn’t require owning private property. While doing my own Permaculture Design Course I lived in a co-op with a communal space and for the following few years I was renting apartments so I didn’t have access to my own piece of land. I got involved in a lot of community projects instead, including a community garden which had certain rules that got in the way of some of the permaculture practices I wanted to do. But learning how to work with other people and how to convince them that some things are worth changing constitutes a part of social permaculture. I was also volunteering for gardening projects for children where I tried to incorporate as much permaculture as possible and it turned out that many people were really interested in the stuff I was so passionate about. Some things I’ve done over the past few years were not related to gardening, such as Mantis Arts & Eco Festival which I put together in my neighborhood, but I still consider them a part of permaculture — bringing people together, helping them to connect and be in community with each other.

The Permaculture Women Guild’s online PDC you’re currently involved in has additional modules on social and emotional permaculture which are not common in other PDCs (both in person and online). Do you reckon this is something women in particular bring to permaculture?

I think women are definitely raised to have more skills for this kind of interpersonal work with other people. We also tend to take on more of the burden it entails — in our relationships, workplaces, communities. But knowing how to work cooperatively with others is actually a valuable and important skill. I don’t think our biology has anything to do with it but definitely there is something about the way women are raised in most cultures. Social permaculture is something all people need to practice, especially in an urban setting. Even if you have your own backyard most of your surroundings, even if privately owned, are visible to other people.

Speaking of visible… You’ve written about your neighbors worried your “hippie ways” would devalue their properties and about the fact you’re not allowed to keep chickens in your suburban backyard in London, Canada. Do by-laws make it more difficult to practice sustainable living in some places around the world? Are we heading towards the “war on lawns”?

Some people in North American cities are really attached to lawns and to the lawn aesthetic. I think to them it’s more than just an aesthetic. It’s tied to issues of race and class, so challenging it can be really complicated, especially in predominantly white, middle class neighborhoods where such aesthetic can be a part of someone’s identity. There is a really interesting book on that subject, “Lawn People”, written by Paul Robbins, a geographer.

For some, having a well kept, visually attractive lawn can be an expression of what they think a good neighbor and a good citizen is. Disrupting this aesthetic can be contentious but it’s important as it highlights the issue of neighborhood segregation.

And neighborhoods in North America are very segregated by class and also by race.

Another thing worth mentioning is suburban mentality — everybody seems to be self-enclosed in their life. “I’ve got my backyard, maybe even a pool in it, I can get everywhere in my car, I don’t need to go out into the community and do stuff with other people”. I see it as a negative thing — in North America we don’t really know how to work together with other people in a cooperative way. Urban permaculture is promoting community projects in spaces that are public or open to the public. It can be messy, there can be disagreements but working through that is a really important part of learning how to live together with other people. Some big cities like Toronto, Montreal or New York City have diverse and vibrant neighborhoods. But suburbia are harder to reach in that way.

That may come from the fact that in crowded cities people live close to each other, in apartments and townhouses so they are more likely to go out and actually want to share activities with their neighbors.

Absolutely. They also move around by means of walking and biking. But the further out from the center you go, the more people are using their cars. There is this movement to get people on their bicycles more but it requires a shift in attitude. If the only cyclists that are seen are those that do it for fitness reasons, everyday people won’t get inspired. We need to see more people doing things as a part of a different way of living with other people and with the world. Probably there are some significant cultural attitudes and ideas that prevent people from doing that and also by-laws that seem to be more prevalent in North America than for example in Europe. There are some communities in Canada where the rules of housing development ban outdoor clotheslines. It’s just this weird idea what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. I think a great aspect of the PDC I’ve done and also the Permaculture Women Guild’s PDC is the part about activism. We can’t change ridiculous by-laws on our own so it’s crucial to know how to get together with other people to work towards a cause.

And another great aspect of the online PDC is that the teachers live in quite a few different countries so it’s a good opportunity to learn how permaculture can adapt to various conditions — no only climate-wise but also society-wise.

People in our society right now are lacking imagination — we can’t see how the world could look like from a different perspective and how we could build it and live in it collectively.

Dystopian visions usually concentrate on quite a grim future but what I love about permaculture is the idea that people don’t necessarily have to be disastrous for the environment.

There are positive ways in which we can engage with non-human nature. As Arundhati Roy wrote: “Another world is possible”. It’s great to see how people live in other places in the world because sometimes North America feels like it’s the center of the universe. The fact that our continent is a superpower that overshadows the world is problematic, so it’s particularly important for us here to be able to imagine different ways of living — and getting there through social movements.

Even if those other places and different perspectives belong to some parts of the world that seem to be completely detached from us — or us from them, I guess? You’ve written about Zone 5 seen as a wilderness from a social rather than environmental perspective. Can you tell us more about it?

One of co-teachers on my PDC, Rain Crowe, came up with the idea of Zone 5 as the wild we have a responsibility towards, whether we visit it or not. And if you are a North American, you would certainly impact those parts of the world you would probably never see. They are a part of your everyday life. In capitalism we are in relationships with people all the time — even if we’re drinking coffee for example. There were people who grew it and people who picked it and people who were involved in the whole process of production and sale. There were animals that were involved in the development of the plant itself. All of this has become invisible in our consumerist society but to me it’s important to highlight these relationships, to make people think about Zone 5. We are a global international community and we have responsibilities to each other: to people and to non-human animals as well.

Becky and hives (photo from her archive)

Animals seem to be quite an important part of your life and work: your Ph.D. thesis is about honeybees, recently you took part in the Minding Animals conference.

I grew up on a small family farm. When I was 15 I moved to a city and have been living in cities since then but I always felt connected to the different animals that lived on the farm with us — both wild and domestic. Early on in my life, at about 11, I became a vegetarian, partly because I did feel a real connection to the animals. I particularly bonded with lambs who quite early were going away to a slaughterhouse.

When I started doing permaculture I wanted to incorporate animals into my design but as a vegetarian on a mostly vegan diet I wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t involve harm or exploitation. And then animals came into my academic life as well. My Ph.D. in geography was meant to pertain to a completely different subject but as I have honeybees and I garden in a way to cater for other pollinators, my supervisor suggested switching to bees because for a Ph.D. you have to be completely obsessed with the topic to stay with it for years.

At the time when I re-entered academia the area of critical animal studies was gaining momentum. It aims to bring together animal activism and academic theory to think differently about the way we live alongside non-human animals.

There are some challenges to be tackled, I touched on one of them in my article about backyard hens.

There are animals that have lived with humans for thousands of years. We have very dramatically altered their genetics and we co-evolved with them in many ways. Chickens are a good example of that and to a certain extent honeybees, although honeybees can go feral without people quite fine. Dogs are another obvious example. We can live in community with these animals benefiting and enriching each other’s lives. I don’t eat animal products but I don’t see why chickens wouldn’t enjoy living alongside a human who provides them with nutritious food and safety from predators, while in return the chickens would help to break down compost and eat some of the insects and slugs which people don’t necessarily want in their gardens in large quantities.

I know not every animal rights activist or vegan would be won over by this idea but that’s how I feel, especially with bees. There are ways to create some really fantastic habitats for bees where they can thrive and flourish. Climate change is a reality and native wild bees are really going to suffer as a result. They need people to create habitats and places for them to forage. On the other hand, we can get honey from honeybees in a way that is not harmful to them. The movement for gentle beekeeping is growing. There are many ways we can live with non-human animals in mutually beneficial ways and that include wild animals. I’m not sure exactly what wild animals visit London, England…

Mostly foxes.

In London, Ontario we’ve got skunks and raccoons. Many people, even those who are into organic gardening, spend a lot of their time going about how to keep animals away, maybe even by killing them — how to get rid of the animals instead of how to live with them. But permaculture spaces are wonderful opportunities to live in relationship with other animals — the domesticated and the wild ones as well. Some of them really thrive in cities, alongside humans.

I like the concept of co-creation with the animals. I try to start to break down this idea that I own my outdoor space and that it’s only mine. Other animals live there and it’s their space too.

We have skunks under our deck. It’s their home, they live with me and we co-create our space together.

In my urban backyard I’m not growing all the food for my family. I understand farmers might have different struggles but in my case I’m happy to share with any animal that visits my backyard. Some of them, like native pollinators, really do need help and cities are actually sanctuaries for them because North American countryside is full of monocrop fields of corn and soy. Honeybees are unhealthy in America, but beekeepers manage the population. But solitary bees are in decline. They have a special relationship with specific plants or they don’t go very far from their nests to get food so monocrops are terrible for them. Cities with their diversity of native perennial and annual plants, trees and shrubs in people’s backyards come really useful, especially for native bees. All the honeybees in North America are non-native.

I’m originally from Poland and in Poland more and more boars are coming into cities to look for food.

We’ve got coyotes here. They thrive in cities but people see them as scary. They don’t really pose a risk to humans but they do to cats and small dogs so people get really upset with them. But this is their home too! And in order to have a balanced healthy ecosystem we need predators like coyotes and wasps. People keep complaining about shrews and moles and voles… Foxes are their natural predators so if you wish the population of rodents was kept under control, create a safe space for these predator animals. Foxes sometimes can make a den in your backyard — for a mama fox it could be safer to stay close to humans than out in the wild where coyotes may prey on her babies. My neighbors try to get rid of the skunks, while I hope “my” skunk will have babies this year. It’s hard to convince people to have that kind of a different relationship with non-human animals but I keep trying.

People seem to be happier to care for endangered species, such as hedgehogs for example in Europe, than for those they see as vermin.

I absolutely agree and I think humans really have to learn how to live with non-human nature in a way that’s not completely destructive but they seem to be resistant to this knowledge. Again: this is about these strange concepts what belongs in the city and what doesn’t and what private property really means.

We put up fences to mark what’s ours and what we want to keep out but it doesn’t work for non-human nature.

But I see a glimpse of change in attitude: theoretically front yards are private but in a way they are a pseudo-public space. Sometimes you can even engage with your neighbors over what they don’t like in your front yard! In mine we put up a little free library. In the spring we put seeds in there as well. There is a bus stop just outside so we built a bench where people can sit and relax while waiting for a bus. They use it a lot! There are many ways to break down boundaries that have been put up.

That brings us to another issue: in North America we are a settler society, created out of violent colonialism, which continues in many ways in Canada and the United States. So the whole idea of property ownership here is… problematic at least. I’ve been trying to get people to think differently about being a steward of land rather than its owner. In cities some people say: “I don’t have a piece of land, I can’t do anything” but that’s not true. Think about your local park: it’s yours. It belongs to people in the neighborhood as a collective. This is what makes permaculture quite revolutionary in cities. There could also be a link to movements against racism and injustice. You don’t need to own a backyard in the city. And even if you do, you should also engage in other community undertakings because this is a really impactful way to make a huge difference. This is permaculture activism.

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