During July I completed a 5 day urban permaculture course with Shift in Bristol, led by local permaculture legend Sarah Pugh. I’d signed up for the course before Brexit and all its turbulent fallout, but by the time it had started I was feeling pretty despondent following a calamitious series of events; new right wing Tory leader and cabinet, leadership coup on Corbyn, Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and then during the course the demise of the Dept. of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)….the list could go on!
I was certainly ready for inspiration and to refocus my low energy into positive permaculture solutions.
My Life in Permaculture
Permaculture first ignited my interest in sustainability, when I accidentally found myself on a two-week design course with founder Bill Mollison, in north Queensland, Australia, at the beginning of my long-term ‘gap’ year. The experience did actually change my life, as it started me WWOOF-ing – working on organic farms and smallholdings around Oz, New Zealand and Malaysia – which led me to many years working for the Soil Association when I eventually moved back to the UK and landed in Bristol.
More recently I did another design course in west Cornwall – whilst living in Marazion – over the course of 5 months a group of us met to the learn permaculture principles and practice in a rustic educational centre in rural Sancreed. However as these courses were based in the tropics and countryside I felt that an urban perspective would help me to focus my sustainability work in the city in a more practical and holistic way.
So what is Permaculture?
The word literally means a permanent agriculture and culture. It is about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come in harmony with nature. In order to achieve this we design sustainable living systems for people and communities using an ethical framework, which draws inspiration and learning from the natural environment to create sustainable, agriculturally productive, non-polluting and healthy settlements. In most places this means adapting our existing settlements along these principles. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/knowledge-base/basics
There are 12 core design principles used to achieve this including; Observe & Interact, Catch & Store Energy, Obtain a Yield, Uses Edges and Value the Marginal, Use and Value Renewable Energy and Resources and Produce no Waste. https://knowledgebase.permaculture.org.uk/principles
Power of Community
Although it is often associated with organic food production and forest gardens, it is about so much more, including the whole process of designing sustainable living and production systems, which is why to me it is so exciting. A good example of this is during the early 1990’s when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba was in crisis, as it lost its main source of oil and food, so very quickly had to redesign its energy and food production systems and Australian permaculturalists were brought in to help them do this. There is a film the Power of Community – How Cuba Survived Peak Oil which describes the process, when I was living in Cornwall one of the filmmakers Megan Quinn stayed with me in order to speak to my local Transition groups, it is an amazing and inspiring story.
How Landscape Defines Us
The first day Dairth O’Sulihabhian kicked off with Aboriginal Dreamtime culture and how they understood the landscape and their role within it, explained through generations with stories and myths – something common to all indigenous peoples. It got us thinking about our relationship to our own environment, during a walk around the city, through a network of unfamiliar leafy back lanes and cycle paths, which criss-cross the City. Dairths incredible knowledge about the river systems – the veins of the city – which Bristol has been built over (with many of them now actually running under busy highways like the Gloucester Road) provided new insights into how the city has evolved and also our own ‘stories and myths’ e.g. road names indicating landmarks / rivers as well as historical functions and events.
The more aware we are of the environment in which we live, the more informed we are to make decisions to help protect it e.g. Dairth helped environmentalists successfully oppose proposed fracking licenses on sites right between the two main reservoirs which supply both Bristol and Bath, as well as one at the head of the water catchment area for the entire region. Crazy proposals, but without a good understanding of the land and its interconnections, ones which can be hard to defeat.
Politics, Land & Water
We walked across the top of the city parallel with the M32 then across the Frenchay and the Feed Bristol site – a market garden and educational centre. Matt Cracknall – who helps to run the site – gave us an informative tour of the productive site which grows both vegetables and people – alongside the controversial Metro bus development adjacent to the site.
Matt felt positive about the opportunities Brexit could provide for this type of small scale organic food production, with lots of different enterprises. In the short-term many farmers relying on the EU Single Farm Payment and environmental subsidies are likely to go out of business, unless Westminster keeps up a similar system?! However small scale sustainable agriculture doesn’t currently receive subsidies so could benefit from a new approach, in the medium to long term this could involve developing a truly sustainable organic food policy. Although this is not the likely vision of the current Tory Government!
Mark Leach from Bristol City Council took us through the mechanisms of how to effectively influence local government and policies. It seems like a maze to find the right information and officers to speak to about local planning, empty buildings, environmental laws, public procurement contracts and green spaces etc. A process becoming even more difficult due to the ever increasing funding cuts in Local Authorities. However I had recently heard a talk at UWE – part of their ‘Creating Our Green City’ – where the exemplar case studies of sustainable low-carbon cities in Germany and the US, all had more powers devolved to a local level. So it is important to get involved in the decision making process where you can.
Sarah recommended being aware of policy and contract timelines to use your time and energy wisely for maximum impact – important permaculture principle! Whilst Mark stressed the importance of putting your views forward throughout strategy consultations as they do all have to be recorded and reflected in the final document.
Transition – People Power!
The day after DECC was abolished Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition Town Totnes and the global movement which this catalysed. As a permaculture design teacher it inspired Transition, but came from a desire to develop a more practical application for towns and cities He described the mechanisms for the Transition process and the many amazing projects around the world – supporting local food, energy and social enterprise – all with the aim of creating low-carbon, resilient, happier and healthier communities.
My favourite was the Atmos Totnes Project an inspiring advanced example of one of these projects. Rob has been part of a team who have been working for the past 7 year as to secure the site of an old disused Dairy Crest buildings adjacent to the railway station. With the help of local MP they managed to get a meeting with Dairy Crest owners who then agreed (this did take 4 years?) they could have part of the building if they worked with their developers to gain planning permission for the site. What followed was an exemplar if exhausting consultation process involving around 5,000 of the 8,000 residents, which took them through a past, present and future story at the site. This process created a team of local ambassadors who continue the consultation within the community.
The planning decision will be reached through a referendum in the town – albeit one which will be much better prepared and executed than our recent one – so if a min of 50% of those who turn out to vote for it then Totnes will be the lucky recipient of a well-designed low carbon development which will include 62 affordable homes, a hotel, community training kitchen.
It is an inspiring project and a lesson in how to develop an ambitious an inclusive community project.
So where does Politics come into it them?
It’s pretty radical to back take control of your food, energy, housing, public spaces and communities, however now more than ever we realise if we want to have healthy, happy and resilient communities then we need to do it ourselves. If we have learnt anything by the politics and wider problems in our communities which Brexit represents – then it needs to be that we have to reach out to the marginalised and disadvantaged and that we all have to work together to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future. Permaculture provides us with the principles, tools and solutions for both planet and people. Now that’s Political 🙂
Traci Lewis firstname.lastname@example.org @TraciLewis79