Permaculture and the Future of Neighborhoods

Photos by Jan Spencer

Suburbia is often maligned and seen as a major mistake in land use. There was even a movie titled “The End of Suburbia” a few years back. But suburbia may just be the solution to a gnawing set of problems brought on by the overuse of fossil fuels generated by suburbia itself. The most pressing of which is global climate change. It’s become clear that business as usual isn’t an option.

The usual solutions proffered are such ideas as better transit, LEED buildings, LED light bulbs, more recycling and more efficient cars. Yes we need all these but even taken together they’re not enough to reduce our carbon footprint by the 80% scientists say is required to avert catastrophe.


The solutions lie outside the box of conventional thought but not, surprisingly, outside the conventional suburban neighborhood with yards and lawns. Most Americans live in suburbs, so that built environment is not one we can afford to scrap. There isn’t time to start over nor is there money.

The vast lands devoted to suburban housing can be made nearly self sufficient, perhaps even producers rather than consumers. In the process we can solve transportation gridlock and its CO2 emissions, methane and carbon emissions from agriculture, a growing shortage of water, youth unemployment and a host of other problems.


How is that possible? The answer is a single word: Permaculture. The word is a contraction of the words permanent and culture and was coined by Australian Bill Molison some 40 years ago. The term describes a set of design principles that mimic nature and allow natural processes to work for us rather than us working against nature as is the present paradigm. In a nutshell, the goal of permaculture is to close the loop so that the output of one system is the input of another and the system can run perpetually.

One permaculture principle is that the problem is often the solution, which brings us again to the suburbs. The maritime Pacific Northwest is a hotbed of suburban and even urban permaculture with neighborhoods in Portland, Seattle, Eugene and elsewhere undergoing subtle but important changes. We see buildings being repurposed, their lumber salvaged, solar electric and water heating installed, brightly painted intersections becoming gathering places, fences torn down to create larger commons and garden areas, lawns being replaced with edible plants and orchards, drip irrigation systems replacing wasteful sprinklers and a long list of other changes apparent to the practiced eye.


Another permaculture principle is to stack functions. So a neighborhood that was once only a bedroom community becomes a producer of food and energy and becomes a source of social cohesion not division. A building that once housed a car now supports solar panels above a green roof growing vegetables and catching winter rain to be stored in a cistern for summer use. Beneath the roof now is a community workshop for repairing bicycles or for woodworking or perhaps a neighborhood tool library. So in one building we produce electric energy, hot water, collect water for future use, grow vegetables and house a workshop.

Another garage becomes a neighborhood market that reduces the need to travel. With the growth of fiber optic networks most non-manual work can be done within the neighborhood further reducing the need for travel. Local travel can be by bicycle, which as traffic is reduced, becomes much safer.


Yet another garage can become a preservation kitchen with tools for canning, fermenting, drying and cooking large batches of meals for elderly or ill people less able to fend for themselves.

Centralized, expensive, water-intensive waste treatment can be replaced with composting toilets whose valuable fertilizer products including nitrogen and phosphorous now go to waste. Food waste is treated on site with worm bins that produce valuable fertilizer. Here we can see that we have achieved another permaculture principle: there is strength in diversity. Rather than accept the present consolidated system, from schools to freeways, we have created a resilient system much less prone to failure, much more like the diversity found in nature.

You can learn more at this year’s Northwest Permaculture Convergence August 28-30, 2015 in the River Road Neighborhood of NW Eugene, Oregon.

Visit to register.