The permaculture design is the designer’s chance to enter into cooperation with the Earth. He/She steps into a natural space and becomes an integral part of a complex system of interconnections and living relations. The permaculture designer wants to work in accord with the laws of nature in order to make best use of available resources. Wanting to design a garden, organise a group of people or plan an activity, he/she might become part of an intact or a defective environment. In any case, the designer, being an element of the respective system, must be aware of his/her influence and potential to enhance or harm his/her surroundings. Therefore, it is his/her first duty to be a careful observer.
The designer has to be well aware of different influencing factors that are part of the environment he/she is operating in. These factors may be located inside but also outside of the actual planning area. Firstly and of major importance are social factors: the local culture and society, the economic and political situation as well as governmental and legal support. Secondly, the designer records site-related factors such as history, geography, water supply, soil properties, topography, climate and plant and animal availability. Thirdly, energy-related factors are cleared: the designer has to understand the available site-structures, resources, local skills, technologies and infrastructure to base the design on. Fourthly, abstract factors, such as time management, deadlines and project related facts, the client’s wishes or requirements and general ethics are considered. The observation and analysis of the site and the collection of data constitute the initial steps of any design and enable the designer to create a useful connection between the different factors.
Through these observations the designer determines boundaries, limiting factors and available resources. The area boundaries for a design should exceed the actual planning area and integrate the effects of outside influencing factors. In a garden, this might be the neighbours tree casting shade on the planning area – in the case of planning an event, the designer has to regard public transport or parking possibilities around the site. The social context, natural conditions, the legal framework, the clients wishes or financial or timely resources can all present limiting factors that restrain the designer’s freedom of self-expression. The actual usable and available local resources and skills are identified and sustainably integrated into the design. From the evaluation of the collected data, the designer will formulate ideas, realistic aims and compare his/her interests with those of the client and the expected users or participants. He/She will identify key functions to be fulfilled and possible elements, systems and patterns to apply to reach the desired results.
Three of the main permaculture planning tools are sector, zone and elevation planning. They all follow the principle of energy efficient planning. Sector planning is used for the detection and integration of outside energies such as winter and summer sun sectors, wind sectors, flow of cold air, flood or fire danger, pollution, people currents, views, etc. The visualisation of these energies will help the designer to create interconnections and to select design elements that enable their moderation: capitalise on shortages and ameliorate or use excesses. The method of zoning is based on the idea of optimising the internal management of resources and minimizing human energy expenditure. Starting with the core zone around the house, elements and systems are placed in zones from 1 to 5 according to the amount of visits, inputs and maintenance they need. Elevation planning makes sure the designer uses slopes and elevations to facilitate efficient energy flows. The most obvious example here is the downward flow of water, but also nutrients in the soil and cold air move downwards while warm air is rising. A good designer understands and integrates these forces of nature into his/her design.
Natural systems and processes are characterised by a high complexity that is hard to understand for the conventional human mind. Therefore the permaculture designer makes use of a high variety of tools and methods that he/she compares in overlays and analyses. They help him/her to better understand the interrelations of different elements. These tools are all instruments designed to enable us to work with natural processes and stand in cooperation with them.
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