- Understand the benefits and obstacles of permaculture in cities.
- Recognize the importance of social justice to urban permaculture projects.
- Describe urban permaculture practices, including strategies for access to land.
- Experiment with zones and sectors in urban settings.
Table of Contents
- In cities, permaculture projects can thrive
- Urban agriculture movements
- Urban nature
- Access to resources
- Obstacles and challenges to growing food in the city
- Tips for creating permaculture projects in small spaces
- Urban permaculture practices
- Waste cycling
- Human-powered transportation
- Collective projects in public spaces
- More to explore
In cities, permaculture projects can thrive!
The permaculture movement began as a re-imagining of agrarian landscapes but it has exciting emancipatory potential in re-imagining how cities might become places in which humans and nature co-create and co-operate. Urban permaculture allows us to create ecologically regenerative spaces in our individual lives and in collective spaces. As we will explore, social and economic permaculture become especially important in urban permaculture design.
People and cities
People have lived in cities, i.e. large, permanent settlements, for thousands of years. Since the turn of 20th century, the rate of urbanization has increased steadily throughout the world, with markedly intense growth after the 1950s.
There are multiple problems with cities but at their heart they are dynamic, vibrant, and diverse. Cities have the potential to be destructive and alienating to people and the environment, but they also have the potential to be places of innovation, imagination, and creativity. As Jane Jacobs points out, “lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves” (1961, p. 448). Cities are places in which permaculture projects can have perhaps the most impact because the majority of the world’s population currently live in cities, a trend that is expected to continue. Creating ecologically regenerative and socially just cities is one of the most important tasks of permaculture.
Right to the City movements.
Cities have been the site of many important movements for social and environmental justice. In fact, one of the most important aspects of cities is that they bring together a critical mass of people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and this sometimes develops into dynamic, intersectional social movements.
As long as cities have existed, there have been movements of people struggling for the right to democratically and collectively decide the conditions of their lives. These wide-ranging struggles can be thought of as Right to the City movements that struggle for the rights of people to have democratic, participatory, and collective control over their own neighbourhoods.
Urban gentrification and environmental/food justice.
Two manifestations of right to the city movements are struggles against gentrification and environmental racism. These two movements are connected in that they examine the ways in which race and class determine how cities are designed, often relegating people of colour and poor people to neighbourhoods that are food deserts or to polluted areas of the city. When those neighbourhoods become desirable to wealthier people, property values rise and long-term residents face dislocation.
Environmental racism refers to the way in which neighbourhoods that are predominantly made up of people of colour tend to contain more toxic sites and less green spaces. Environmental justice movements struggle against this racism and also against similar phenomena that occur in low income neighbourhoods. Food justice examines the ways that class, race and gender impact the access people have to healthy, culturally appropriate, accessible food.
Urban permaculture as a right to the city movement.
Urban permaculture, with an ethical commitment to people care and fair share, should concern itself with these important struggles. In their statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Starhawk and Pandora Thomas argue that, “We cannot care for the people unless we assure justice for all people and assert the value of every person’s life” (Thomas and Starhawk 2016).
They further highlight that the permaculture principle of observing patterns within ecosystems means we must point out and interrupt patterns of oppression and exploitation in human societies: “…we see a recurring pattern of devaluing and dehumanizing people of color that extends back through the centuries…We cannot build a vibrant future unless we acknowledge this painful past and recognize that its legacy continues today…our economic, political and social systems can only find ecological balance when they are founded upon justice” (ibid).
Urban permaculture is, in many ways, a right to the city struggle in which people aim to ‘make and unmake’ their cities (to use David Harvey’s concept). Although urban permaculture can be limited to private, backyard spaces, many practitioners either have no access to private property or, because of the nature of cities, want to extend beyond the limits of their property. Cities often require us to collectively vision and create ecologically regenerative cities.
Urban agriculture movements
Urban agriculture has been a vibrant part of cities since their inception. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that early urban dwellers not only had kitchen gardens but maintained orchards, kept bees and raised all kinds of ‘farm’ animals in cities. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century in some parts of the world (especially North America) that cities became divorced from agriculture.
Throughout the world there has been a steady resurgence of urban agriculture, particularly in the last four decades. The movement has taken a diverse range of forms and is associated with vastly different initiatives and projects. It is, thus, more accurately thought of as multiple, intersecting movements.
Urban Charity Farms.
Urban Farms were set-up in the late 19th and early 20th century as ways to encourage a work ethic in the urban poor. Often these farms were problematic because they promoted the view of poor people as lazy, instead of examining the deeper socio-economic reasons for poverty. These types of project were tied to the early development of social work as consisting of friendly visitors, i.e, wealthy white women visiting the homes of the poor. It is tied to the idea of poverty as being tied to individual characteristics or poor lifestyle choices. I encourage you to read Poor People’s Movements by Piven and Cloward (see resource list) for a description of the potential and importance of grassroots poor people’s movements.
In World War I and World War II food became more scarce in Europe and North America (and probably many other parts of the world). People in North American cities were encouraged to set up victory gardens in order to grow some or most of their own vegetables. They were very successful with the majority of urban residents growing about 40% of their own vegetables. Victory Gardens can help to demonstrate how possible to is to grow food in small spaces in cities.
Community gardens, both allotment plots and communal projects, began to arise in North America out of Right to the City movements. Initially, they often involved guerilla gardening – residents taking over vacant land and setting up a garden. The Guerrilla Gardeners in New York City established many of NYC’s gardens in this way. The establishment of community gardens was also sometimes an explicit political action, for example, the establishment of the People’s Park in Berkeley, California in the late 1960s.
As community gardens became more established, many gardens began to follow the allotment plot model on public land, although some operate communally as living community centres. Community gardens remain a site for struggle and protest.
Guerilla gardening involves planting a garden without permission of the property owner. Guerilla gardening can happen on public land or private land, and often takes place on vacant or neglected lots. Guerilla gardening can take the form of a communal garden, a small garden bed, or individual plantings of trees or plants. It can also manifest in the launching of seed bombs. Guerilla gardening has sometimes been used as a form of political protest, including the famous People’s Park created during a student protest in Berkeley, California in 1969.
Food not Lawns.
The Food not Lawns movement, inspired by the book of the same title by Heather Jo Flores, encourages people to turn their lawns into gardens and food forests. It also, very importantly, encourages people to create edible projects in their neighbourhoods. This becomes an especially important act when taking place on pseudo-public land, such as front lawns in suburbia. The movement has inspired the creation of local activist groups, many of which focus on reclaiming front lawns and boulevards from grass. It is very important in disrupting the lawn aesthetic in urban and suburban areas and challenging the idea that food production does not belong in cities.
While cites are sometimes dismissed as concrete jungles, they are in fact filled with an abundance of non-human nature. In reality, some animals and plants thrive in cities. Recent studies by entomologists, for example, found that some species of native bees prefer cities to the countryside due to the presence of less pesticides and more floral and habitat diversity. When we consider that many rural areas are filled with oceans of monocultures with islands of intense animal agriculture, it makes sense that many animals and plants flourish in cities.
Here’s a short video from my urban backyard in the late summer. The goldenrod is buzzing with an abundance of bees and wasps. The children in the background are a great example of a sector (I do not have a quiet backyard!). The video is shaky but you can hear the genuine wonder and awe in my voice.
Urban permaculture is especially important in co-creating spaces in which non-human urban natures thrive. The regenerative ecosystems we create will be filled with insects, mammals, birds, and a wide diversity of volunteer plants.
This relationship is not one-sided. We can also benefit from the diversity of non-human nature in cities. For example, volunteer plants, commonly known as weeds, can be important sources of food and medicine.
Tips for foraging in cities
- Forage only abundant plants especially those others may consider weeds such as (in temperate North America) dandelion, chicory, mullein, stinging nettles, chickweed, and garlic mustard.
- Do not forage near railway tracks or sites you know contain(ed) toxic materials.
- Do not forage in areas in which pesticides are used – a great way to find plants is to offer to weed the backyards of friends and family who do not use pesticides.
- Forage in public spaces and use it as an opportunity to educate others.
- Forage in groups – share knowledge and skills while building community.
Access to Resources
Cities are wonderful places to practice permaculture because they contain a wide variety of resources, sometimes in the form of other people’s garbage. In many ways cities epitomize the permaculture principle that the problem is the solution. The things that people consider garbage (or sell cheaply at garage sales and thrift stores) may prove to be very useful in your permaculture projects. For example, all kinds of containers useful for gardening can be found on the curb on garbage day.
Cities also contain natural resources that are underutilized. Three natural resources that I have used extensively for my urban permaculture projects are cardboard boxes (for sheet mulching), newspapers (for vermicomposting bedding), and leaves (for mulch).
All cities are rich in one resource for sure: people. Many people have both resources and skills to share. This has led to the development of a true sharing economy, not involving monetary exchange or for-profit corporations, with the creation of little free libraries, tool libraries, seed libraries and maker spaces.
Although still on the edges of mainstream society, people have experimented with the sharing of skills in a variety of ways, including community resource mapping and bartering networks.
By now in the course, you should have at least gotten your feet wet in the design studio, where you will find an entire class focused on finding resources for your design project.
Communities of difference: edge principle applies.
One of the greatest things about creating permaculture projects in cities is that you have a chance to connect with a large diversity of people. In most cities, you can meet, garden, learn from, and share a sustainable future with folks of almost every age, race, and economic background.
So, remember that diversity creates resilience, and make the effort to be inclusive to communities of difference. The Social Justice and Decolonization module goes into much greater detail on this.
Obstacles and challenges to growing food in the city
Some common challenges, and ideas about how to turn problems into solutions:
Neighbours and bylaws.
Urban areas tend to be more heavily regulated than rural areas. Or, at least, your actions are potentially noticed by more people. It is important to note that many (but not all) municipal bylaws are enforced on a complaints-only basis. This makes it especially important to use your social permaculture skills. If you can convince your neighbours of the importance and benefits of your practices, you may not run into any problems with authorities.
Cultural attitudes about what belongs in cities.
In some cities of the world, especially in the United States and Canada, people have deeply entrenched ideas about what belongs, and what doesn’t belong, in cities. Depending on your city and neighbourhood, you may encounter the idea that agriculture and ‘farm’ animals do not belong in cities, including bees and chickens. Most cities do not allow composting toilets or humanure. Some neighbourhoods or subdivisions may even try to ‘ban’ practices such as drying clothes on a clothesline or composting veggie scraps. These cultural attitudes may be the biggest obstacle you encounter, because it is very hard to shift deeply entrenched ideas, some of which people may not even be fully conscious. One way to shift these cultural ideas is by providing an excellent example of a permaculture design. To go a step further, the best way may be to form an advocacy group of like-minded people, especially if you hope to overturn ‘bans’ or bylaws.
The most common challenge: land access.
Lack of access to land is often raised as a barrier to participation in permaculture. Land ownership in North America, both rural and urban, is prohibitively expensive for many people. Many permaculture practices are based on land ownership including the creation of perennial gardens, the growing of food forests, major earthworks such as berms and swales and the building cob structures. While these projects are possible as community initiatives on public or communal land, to create community projects like these requires highly developed organizing skills, something in which few people are trained or experienced. In urban centres, where public land can be highly contested, the creation of these projects often requires sustained activist campaigns that are grounded in an understanding of the complex connections between urban land and race, class, and gender.
In cities, access to land is one of the biggest obstacles for people hoping to practice permaculture. Land in the city tends to be very expensive and zoning rules mean that some practices may be forbidden in certain parts of the city (for example, animals considered ‘livestock’). As Rosan and Pearsall (2017) point out in their new book Growing a Sustainable City?
The question of urban agriculture, even cities that seem to support urban agriculture or permaculture projects in theory or in policy often bend to the pressures of developers and other market forces in practice. Rosan and Persall point out in their research on urban agriculture in Philadelphia that access to permanent public land for urban greening/food projects is rare. In their research they found that the land granted for urban growing projects, unless encompassed into a land trust, was often for short-term leases that could be terminated at any time.
Access to land in cities and elsewhere, is often tied to complicated politics around class, race, and colonialism. Urban agriculture projects have sometimes been implicated in contributing to urban gentrification and dislocation. As Rosan and Pearsall argue, “there needs to be more recognition that decisions about urban land are intensely political and that in American cities [Canadian too] they often divide along race and class lines” (217: p. 160). Permaculture practitioners do not just focus on building projects in their own communities, some set up businesses and farms in the Global South. There is a danger that these international permaculture initiatives can contribute to the dispossession of local people. As White et al. (2013) point out, “the application of the market paradigm to the environment (‘market environmentalism’) has become an important trend which reinforces a growing ‘metabolic rift’, and so the separation of people and nature”. These projects build “…on long histories of colonial and neo-colonial resource alienation in the name of the environment” (p 11).
A focus on individual land ownership further entrenches the displacement and attempted genocide of Indigenous people that has occurred throughout much of the world. Aside from collective approaches to land ownership (for example, land trusts), it is essential that permaculturists from settler backgrounds support the struggle for Indigenous land rights – globally and within their own region. It is also important to move our language from one of ownership of land to one of care taking and attachment.
This brings us back to the deeply problematic issue of colonialism and racism. Mollison and Holmgren, by their own admission, gleaned the knowledge and skills of indigenous and traditional communities, creating a clear set of easily digestible principles that make up the concept of permaculture. They did this partly as an attempt to confront the degradation of nature by industrial agriculture and capitalist development. But some of the knowledge and skills they gathered were developed by specific, identifiable communities of people who are rarely acknowledged within the literature. Acknowledging the innovation and significant contributions of Indigenous people is an important part of the decolonization process. This means that we should not try to own, brand, or commodify these skills and practices.
The project of decolonizing permaculture is necessary because permaculture is a movement focused on the use of land and because of its problematic co-option of Indigenous knowledge. This means that it must be a movement that builds solidaristic alliances with Indigenous communities. Decolonizing any system, structure, and practice in our society must start with difficult yet hopeful conversations about returning the land to Indigenous people.
For more information about decolonizing permaculture, please check out this video taken of a workshop at the Building Resilient Communities Convergence in California, U.S.A. in 2016.
Sometimes the issue of access to land in cities is complicated by polluted land and, as alluded to earlier, this is also deeply tied to issues of class and race. To put it bluntly, the most polluted neighbourhoods in North America tend to be the poorest neighbourhoods as well as neighbourhoods with a high proportion of people of colour. This is not an accident, this is by design. Pointing out this injustice has fueled both the environmental and food justice movements.
The urban inception of these movements were both inspired by the radical activism of young people of colour:
- The Young Lords, a radical Latinx organization from the 1960s and 1970s were some of the first urban environmental justice activists.
- The Black Panthers, a radical black liberation organization of the same time period, initiated the first free breakfast program in the United States, and drew attention to the racialized and classed differences in access to nutritious food.
Although access to land for urban agriculture projects can be an obstacle, people have found a variety of creative ways to overcome this barrier:
Additionally, there is a growing movement around the world for public food forests, community farms and collective apiaries.
Collective projects in public spaces can be an important way to begin to reclaim the commons and can help to disrupt the concept of private property. This is an important part of beginning to grapple with what it means to decolonize our cities. We can begin to shift our language and practice from one of ownership of land to one of care-taking and attachment.
I have found it very useful to, while retaining my community activism and grassroots organizing, find some allies within city governments.
A word of caution about Guerrilla Gardening:
In order to not replicate racism and/or classism, I recommend that you guerrilla garden in your own neighborhood. Sometimes well-meaning people try to initiate urban agriculture or permaculture projects in neighborhoods that are not their own and may, unwittingly or not, be part of marginalizing or alienating people in that community. Don’t decide for others what they need: Focus on the communities in which you are already well-integrated and then work in solidarity with other communities and neighborhood.
Tips for creating permaculture projects in small spaces
Sometimes (often) in a city, you can get access to some land…but just a small amount of it. Here are some ways to make the most of what you can find:
- Choose dwarf varieties of bushes and trees – some may even thrive in large containers making them mobile.
- If creating a permaculture space in a community garden, use containers for opportunist (but extremely useful) plants such as comfrey and mints.
- Use containers – you can even mimic a food forest using containers.
- A greywater system can be as simple as a bucket in your shower or a container in your sink. Simply dump this on your plants/garden beds.
- Compost outside if possible but also consider an indoor composting system such as vermicomposting or bokashi fermentation.
- If creating an urban food forest, work with the trees and plants that already exist as much as possible. Consider your space part of a larger urban forest.
- Grow vertical. Use trellises to train sprawling plants to grow up. Use shelving to grow plants vertically.
- Think beyond your private spaces. You have a whole city – are there collective spaces in which you can garden? Can you take over a nearby boulevard? Is there a community garden or community food forest where you can spend time? Maybe you can find a place to do a little bit of guerrilla gardening…
Urban Permaculture Practices
Many permaculture practices and techniques can be easily transferred into cities but often at a smaller scale and with some modifications due to legal restrictions. Some techniques are almost impossible to do legally and it may be important to consider when to ask permission and when to beg forgiveness. This will differ based on your city, your neighbourhood, and your neighbours. Most city bylaws are complaint based so winning your neighbours over to permaculture is invaluable.
When designing your space, continue to think in terms of zones and sectors but take full advantage of the vibrancy and dynamism of cities by extending your zones and sectors to include all the spaces of the city. This will not only help you in designing your space, but can assist you in designing your life.
Designing in this way might help you to clarify how you want to live your permaculture principles: what do you want to be an everyday part of your life?
If you’re designing an urban site, please read my article about designing zones and sectors in cities.
Here are some ways to put permaculture principles into play, in your daily, urban life (even if you don’t have time or space to jump into a whole system design where you’re at now):
Local food sovereignty.
Your urban permaculture design should include being part of a local foodshed. Aside from the food you grow yourself, support local, organic, and small-scale farmers. Be part of creating a food community based on concepts of food sovereignty and justice. If possible join a food co-op, a community supported agriculture farm, and/or spend time at a local farmers’ market. You can help to support a socially just local food system by supporting the rights of farmworkers. You can extend this globally by supporting the activism of peasants, small farmers, and rural landless people through La Via Campesina
Eco-building and alternative energy.
Eco-building in the city is possible but there tends to be more rules and restrictions. There are builders that utilize environmentally-friendly practices and design. Be careful to research builders’ claims as you don’t want to fall victim to an expensive greenwash. Some forms of eco-building are not allowed in cities but you can find creative ways to utilize them. If a cob building is restricted, what about a cob pizza oven or bench? If a straw bale house is not allowed, maybe a small straw bale shed is acceptable (or forgivable).
Often in cities people cannot build new homes but instead are retrofitting older homes. Examine your house for how you can begin to change it (small projects are more manageable) to make it more ecologically regenerative. One way to live ecologically in the city is to live in as small a house as possible. Especially those of us in North America have to start questioning the bigger is better mantra that has driven suburban sprawl.
Tips for making an small, old, or rented house more eco-friendly:
- Consider not using air conditioning and keeping your heat low in the winter.
- Use low VOCs paint.
- Buy used furniture (the anti-flammables may have already off-gassed) and energy efficient appliances.
- Insulate areas that lose heat.
- Plant trees strategically to cool your house in the summer.
- Install a simple greywater system by diverting water from your washing machine.
- Install rain barrels.
- Use solar energy where possible: small solar lights, passive solar water heater, solar greenhouse, and solar panels (if possible).
- If engaging in renovations, research what eco-building methods are possible.
- Ditch the clothes dryer – use a clothesline as much as possible.
Cities and urban living can produce a lot of waste. Keeping waste onsite, and cycling it back into your system, is an important way to deal with the waste you generate. We can also establish programs on a larger scale in our neighbourhoods and communities. Consider:
Water. Establish a grey water system if possible, diverting water from your sink or washing machine to your (non-edible) gardens. Install rain barrels or rain chains to divert rain water back into your gardens. This might be a good moment to revisit the Water module for more ideas and detailed information.
Food. Compost everything you can. If you have space, establish an outdoor composting system. If you don’t have space, you can compost fruit and veggie waste indoors with composting worms. Vermicomposting is one of the best ways to compost fruit and vegetable scraps in urban areas as it can be done in small or indoor spaces. Bokashi fermentation, a method of composting from Japan that uses bacteria to break down food waste, can also be done indoors and can compost meat, dairy, and cooked foods. You can also feed some food waste to your domesticated animals. My pet rabbits eat most of my veggie scraps and their waste goes directly into my garden!
Consume less. Cites are places of mass consumption but, as mentioned above, they are also places in which people throw out lots of usable materials and have a lot of sharable resources. Reuse and fix items as much as possible and share what you can’t keep. Try to avoid buying disposable products. Help to create a culture of sharing in your community.
Garden waste. I compost most garden waste, even unwanted plants if they have not gone to seed. I have a brush pile that provides habitat for urban wild animals. I also use some of that brush when building or maintaining hügelkultur. Leaf waste gets put right back onto my gardens to help insects and other animals overwinter and to give insulation to the roots of my perennials.
Part of practicing permaculture in cities means extending your zones beyond the lines of your property. This means thinking about how you travel around the city. Human powered transportation in the form of walking and cycling are important for the creation of ecologically regenerative neighbourhoods and cities. If possible, I encourage you to walk and cycle as much as you can. It is especially important to create a culture of cycling as part of everyday life. Is there a bicycle advocacy group or bicycle co-op you can join? Sometimes cycle groups have an over-emphasis on fitness or a macho culture, but women cyclists are working to change that.
Check out these amazing women cycling activists in Los Angeles!
Public transportation is also an important part of creating an ecologically regenerative and socially just city. Cars are very expensive and car ownership is not possible for many people. Everyone should be able to move around the city. And, of course, the more people who have a car-free or car-limited lifestyle, the better for the environment.
Collective Projects in Public Spaces.
One of the best ways to practice permaculture in cities is through collective projects in public (or private) spaces. This can include community gardens or farms, community land trusts, public food forests, placemaking projects, and co-housing projects. Many practitioners of permaculture have created autonomous human communities, offering an alternative to mainstream society, with the creation of ecovillages and intentional communities.
In cities, this can take the form of creating an urban eco-neighbourhood. These can become, as Federici and Caffentzis (2014) argue, “autonomous spaces from which to reclaim control over the conditions of our reproduction, and as bases from which to counter the processes of enclosure and increasingly disentangle our lives from the market and the state” (p 100).
Collective projects are also exciting because they take away the focus from individual land ownership which can be an important step in decolonizing our cities. As Harsha Walia argues in her important article Decolonizing Together: “Non-natives must be able to position ourselves as active and integral participants in a decolonization movement for political liberation, social transformation, renewed cultural kinships and the development of an economic system that serves rather than threatens our collective life on this planet” (Walia, 2012).
Check out this article about some amazing food/urban agriculture activists in the United States.
Reminder: all of the topical module homework is optional/strongly recommended, but the only required assignments for your certification are in the “design project deliverables” you’ll create as you move through the Permaculture Design Studio.
Questions for Review
- What sorts of community garden projects, right to the city movements, and the like are available where you live? Make an inventory and get involved!
- Do you have access to land? If so, would you consider sharing it? If not, how will you gain access?
- How will you foster healthy relationships with your neighbors, whether they are into permaculture, or not?
- What other activities, besides gardening, will you incorporate into your urban permaculture strategy?
- Include a layer of sector analysis that includes neighbors and other city influences.
- Map how you will incorporate neighbors, parks, and community gardens into your design.
- If your main design project is in a rural setting, include a consideration of the resources you bring to and from the city.
- Explore the joy of urban permaculture firsthand. Find an urban permaculture project and volunteer for one hour. Do whatever is needed but be sure to talk to people about their experiences while you work alongside them. If you can’t find an urban permaculture project, find a community garden or urban farm.
- Find an experienced urban permaculture practitioner and interview them about their experiences. Ask about their successes, the obstacles they encountered, and their advice for others.
- Make seed bombs and disseminate them in your neighborhood.
- Get involved with a local community garden or urban agriculture project.
- If you live in a city, grow food in the pseudo-public spaces of your house and strike up a conversation with your neighbors about food production in cities.
- Look into establishing or being part of a sharing or bartering initiative.
- Join or support co-operatives and credit unions.
More to Explore
Each of our classes includes a list of optional extra materials to enjoy or ignore as your interest and circumstances relate.