PDC Learnings – Patterns

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

Photo of Cornucopia Community Garden Calgary Canada courtesy of ItzaFineDay

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.

Branching river, South Eastern Australia. Photo: Peter Markowich

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.

My First Projects List

Without doing any detailed analysis of functions and elements, all the reading I’ve done has given me a preliminary list of projects to undertake. Here is my first project list:

Explorations Into Permaculture Projects List
Project Leverage Point Priorities Importance Difficulty Timing
Begin growing transplants myself E A 1 spring
Canning of locally grown produce E A 1
Solar Panels E A 3
Monitor energy use using fuel bills and existing meters C A 1
Plant rye grass for mulch C A 2 fall
Cherry Tree Guild C A 2 fall
Blueberries C A 2 fall
Purchase Rocket Stove C B 1
Drying of locally grown produce C B 1
Elderberries C B 2 fall
Ducks C C 2
Chickens C C 2
Bees C C 2 must order by February
Thermal window Shades – west window A A 2
Thermal window Shades – north window A A 2
Thermal window Shades
– east window
A A 2
Purchase 2 months extra provisions A B 1
Wood Storage A B 2

Here is a link to the table as a PDF: project list 081111 for blog.  How did I create this?

After listing the projects that are floating around in my head, I assessed the importance and difficulty as discussed in the Evaluation Matrix from Powering Down.  They suggest that one asses difficulty using a four point scale (1-4) in this way:

1.  A project that we can easily do, resources readily available.

2. A project we can do, but it will take some effort to get the resources.

3. A project we could do, but it would be a serious challenge.

4. A project that for one reason or another is out of reach for the moment.

They suggest the following scale for assessing importance:

A. The project is  immediately and obviously useful for us now.

B. The project could be useful given certain changes we expect in the near term.

C. The project might be useful if circumstances were to change significantly.

D. The project is useless or irrelevant to us at this moment.

Finally, I used the A-F rating system to assess the degree of leverage as I detailed in my earlier post, Moving From Pattern to Details part 2. For example:

  • Developing a way to grow my own transplants in my zone 1 rather than buying store-bought transplants (grown who knows where) is a way of evolving the system structure, substituting local producers for long distance ones (F).
  • Monitoring my energy use and the actions I take to impact my energy use is a way to increase my access to feedback by creating a new feedback loop (C).
  • Enhancing my ability to create good compost by adding and harvesting rye grass, strengthens a balancing feedback loop. (C).
  • While both storing dried produce and canning increase my available food storage and cut losses of yield (C), canning substitutes a local producer (me)  for long distance ones  (E, since I already buy quite a bit of canned food).

I created a table in  an excel spreadsheet and then sorted the projects based on leverage point priority first, then importance then difficulty to come up with a preliminary sequence to follow.  This sequencing strategy is preliminary.

Looking at this  I can see how it is easy to come up with projects that have an A and B leverage point rating.  Its harder to identify projects with  C, D, E and  F ratings.  They are far less obvious.

P.S. I’m no longer stuck.

Also see: More Thoughts on Prioritizing the Project List and Last Thoughts on Prioritizing the Project List