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Connections Between Permaculture & Systems Practice

By Megan McLeod, Northside Rising

My personal learning about systems (and especially understanding how people are the trickiest/most important part of systems) came from a part of my life where my days lived and breathed permaculture. Permaculture is a design approach to growing food (or a colonial re-brand of traditional indigenous ways of coexisting with and supporting nature to thrive). 

In my current role as a connector and convenor of collective impact work, I can see many of the same principles in permaculture mirrored through the approaches my team takes in leading stakeholders to work collaboratively for improved community outcomes & shifting the status quo of current systems. 

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Creating Edges Where Learning & Resiliency Happens 

One key concept in permaculture is that the squiggly edges that exist within ecosystems are where the most biodiversity exists. The more edges between different ‘ecosystem niches’ (areas defined by a difference in species or climate conditions), the more resilient your growing system will be to changes beyond your control. In community, my role at Inspiring Communities exists within these same diverse learning edges where different sectors and voices in communities come together. It’s an uncomfortable place to be as things usually evolve and change quickly. It’s where people learn and it’s also where ideas mix together. 

When we get to the planting stage in the community, let’s think deeply about the elements we are considering to add or change in the system. We can consider: What would support the activities and initiatives already existing if placed in the appropriate spot to leverage current forces? How can we avoid hindering successful current activities?

Permaculture designers work hard to create more edges in their systems, because whatever grows there will be more productive. Plants & animals that hang out around the edges of 2 different ecosystems reap the benefits of both – diverse diets, habitats, and conditions. In fact, so much can happen between edges, that entirely new ecosystems can emerge based on conditions existing in 2 ecosystems mixing together. 

When we think about the ‘edge effect’ back in the community, it certainly makes sense to focus our attention here.  When we create spaces where multiple systems can come together and thrive, this allows people and organizations to create linkages, share practices, align resources, and learn from each other in new ways. 

Are the roots of a tree straight, with just one long edge? No. They are curled & twisted, snarling around rocks, and branching out in different directions to ensure the tree has the best chance of survival should a hurricane pass by. 

Considering How All the Elements Relate to Each Other 

Taking a design mindset when we look at communities should be the norm, not the outlier. When planning a system to grow food, a permaculture designer thinks about how the species they will plant and elements such as light, water, and wind will interact with each other, influence each other (good or bad) & what patterns might emerge. Good designers observe their system for a full year cycle of seasons before rushing to plant seeds. 

When we consider where to place an element in a system, we need to think about all the needs (inputs) AND all the outputs of each and every part of a system. Without considering these, our design is going to have some flaws that we may not see until way later. A permaculture mindset allows us to think about an idea, a project and imagine: What might it look like when it becomes a full grown new way of working? A way of being? An example from nature: How will my yard be impacted when the tree we planted is bigger? A little sapling from a cutting or seed doesn’t throw much shade onto the plants around it when it’s first popped into the soil, but certainly 5-10 years down the road, the branches of the tree will reach much higher and farther than when it was first planted. With the wrong planning, the shade of its branches might block out other essential plants. With the right planning, the tree itself could become a structure that acts as a living fence, providing wind shelter, a habitat, and a border against invasive animals. 

When we get to the planting stage in the community, let’s think deeply about the elements we are considering to add or change in the system. We can consider: What would support the activities and initiatives already existing if placed in the appropriate spot to leverage current forces? How can we avoid hindering successful current activities? Carrying this mindset when we bring people together working on complex issues will encourage those involved to more clearly see how their goals & needs align. 

With more elements in a system, you guessed it – more edges are soon to follow. Edges in nature are a messy mix of all kinds of life, and having more edges that are connected to each other serves to bring about a more diverse and resilient system, one that has many pathways from one element to another, so that if something happens to a particular pathway (funding changes, priority changes, staffing changes), then the relationships and partnerships can still exist because many different connections have been built between the different actors in a system. 

Community organizers could benefit from learning a few tricks from the Permaculture Designer’s handbook and to consider some of the basic principles of design thinking when holding space for people to create ideas & strategies aimed at uncovering the best ways that the communities we work in can function. 

Facilitators need to hold compassion while still being able to move with flexibility, and letting ideas, thoughts, feelings, and knowledge pass freely over the permeable edge that we are holding in the social innovation sector. The edge is where the magic happens.  A permeable boundary can be both a good thing and a negative thing, depending on how much planning and care you put into it.


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