I think of both patterns and techniques as the ways that elements interact with each other. The patterns are the strategies that produce an overall outcome while the techniques are the specific tactics that refine this outcome. The intrinsic characteristics of the specific elements selected offer a custom “solution to the design problem”. In this way, the design moves from patterns to details. This post will focus on patterns; the next on techniques.

A pattern is essentially a ordered arrangement of objects or events in time or in space.As we create a new system or modify an existing one, we create or change the rules that order the arrangement. Some of the physical patterns typically discussed in permaculture are:

- waves
- scattered distribution
- branches
- lobes or keyholes
- spirals
- nets
- tiles

We like to marvel and reflect on these patterns, but many of them are not really implemented meaningfully into design. One sees many scatter, branch, flow and lobe patterns in design but very few waves, spirals, nets or tiles. 99% of the time when I’ve seen spiral, it been an herb spiral. i think we have a way to go to fully understand the benefits and methods of incorporating these patterns into our designs.

Another type of “pattern” is the practice of taking action first at the highest levels of permanence discussed in two earlier posts. In my PDC these levels of permanence were presented as:

- climate
- landform
- water and erosion
- zoning and legal systems
- buildings and infrastructure
- access and circulation
- zones of use
- wildlife and vegetation
- soil
- microclimates
- aesthetics

Changing features at the “top” of the list produces greater impacts than those at the bottom, so a thoughtful design will find and address landform issues for example before tacking vegetation issues. Changing features at the “top” of the list also takes more effort or resources, so one may choose to leave them as they are and select elements better suited for the environment as is.

Another type of “pattern” is the method of completing the design process. This is circular pattern that moves through time (or maybe a better description is a coil or a spiral). Reciprocity between elements typified in guild design is another circular pattern where the circulation occurs between elements in physical space. Yet another is the repeatable pattern that an ecosystem exhibits as it changes over time from a immature to a mature one.

Here some of the more typical sources of information on patterns:

- A Pattern Language is a 1977 book by Christopher Alexander and others on architecture, urban design and community. Permacultursts are trying to expand the concept of patterns as described in this work to define ecological design patterns:
- The book Edible Forest Garden volume 2 presents 57 patterns for use in developing the forest garden.
- Also see link to Forest Gardening: Vision and Patterns that provides a map of these pattern as a pdf to download. Thanks Appleseed Permaculture LLC.
- Decoding Pattern Part 1 is a great article from Big Sky Permaculture. Unfortunately, there is no part two.

I think of these as the primary permaculture principles that deal with patterns, system behavior and reciprocity.

**Apply self-regulation and accept feedback**– We need to discourage inappropriate activity to make sure that systems can continue to function well.**Produce no waste**– By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.**Design from patterns to details**– By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.**Integrate rather than segregate**– By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

Interesting piece, how does this conversation relate to the mathematical idea of “fractals”?

As a non-mathematician, my understanding of fractals is very superficial but here’s my attempt at an answer. Mathematically, fractals are mathematical sets of equations (often displayed through geometric forms) that display a self-similar structure over a finite range. To the non-mathematician, we identify patterns that appear the same from near as from far as fractal. A number of the physical patterns described in this post are commonly described as fractal; clouds, spirals, branching patterns, random distributions. See Patterns in Nature here for wonderful examples by a photographer.

Christopher Alexander said “Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again and again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”

Fractals point to the mathematical roots of nature’s solution to common design problems.