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Growing permaculture in the city

A complete newcomer to permaculture, Lisa Schnellbeck reports on how an introductory weekend course has changed how she approaches urban living.

When thinking about permaculture in action, like most people I had imagined an idyllic smallholding, an ecovillage or, at the very least, a suburban semi with an abundant garden, a turf roof and perhaps – let’s be really adventurous – a composting toilet. But where does that leave the average city-dwelling apartment renter with no garden, who has never even picked up a trowel, someone like me? How can I integrate permaculture into my life?

Alpay Torgut, who has been involved in permaculture for many years, has rather different ideas about what permaculture in action means. His vision embraces urban living and provides solutions for those not ready, unable or unwilling to move to the country. Alpay has been running permaculture classes several times a year since 1990. I spent a weekend in North London at Alpay’s course ‘An Introduction to Permaculture’ learning more.

The weekend started in a children’s nursery classroom – the perfect setting to forget old ingrained ideas and take our first steps towards sustainable living. The walls were brightly decorated with children’s paintings and I had the sense that we were entering a world where everything is new and the possibilities for change endless.

When everyone had arrived, we moved outside to shake the working week out of our muscles and enjoy the wonderful late-summer sunshine. After doing some ‘mind gym’ exercises to ensure that our brains were ready to absorb new information, we moved back inside, introduced ourselves to the group – a wonderful mix of all ages and backgrounds – and got our first lesson.

More to beans than meets the eye

To begin with we were taught about the concept of spirals of destruction and encouraged to recognise the negative environmental side effects of our actions. Alpay identified some common spirals of destruction and the group discussed these and others. Then, to bring the idea closer to home, Alpay introduced us to the well-travelled bean. In a shrink-wrapped pack bought at the supermarket nestled a clean, uniform, innocent-looking green bean. The label told us that the bean had been picked in Zimbabwe to be washed, trimmed, packed and shipped to the supermarket. With just a little time spent thinking, we could all guess an approximate biography for the bean. Alpay encouraged us to ask the questions: who, why, what, where and, lastly, how? Who picks the bean; profits from the bean; buys the bean? Why are beans grown in Zimbabwe packed for Britain; shipped to Britain; eaten in Britain? What happens when food is grown vast distances from where it is eaten? What happens to the packaging the bean comes in? What affect does this trade have on the country of origin? What happens to local growers in Britain when we buy beans from Zimbabwe in the supermarket? Finally, how can we as individuals become more connected to the food we eat? We were now ready to learn more about permaculture.

Up until this point I had been labouring under a delusion, despite reading up on the work of Bill Mollison and others, I still thought that permaculture was about gardening or, if I was being really ambitious, agriculture. Alpay told us straight: permaculture is a method for creating sustainable systems, gardening is only one of many applications of the principles of permaculture.

However, before you learn about the principles, you have to understand the ethics that underpin the principles of permaculture. The ethics were straightforward and easy to understand – simply put, take care of the earth and each other – so simple, in fact, that it was difficult to understand how any other approach to human activities could be considered. The principles were also straightforward, and provided a framework to understand what we were going to see in the afternoon’s fieldtrip.

After sharing a delicious lunch of locally bought organic food, supplemented with some of the most intensely flavoured pears and grapes I have ever tasted, we were ready to leave the nursery classroom and explore a nearby food forest.

The fruit we had all enjoyed at lunch had been grown in a local kindergarten’s garden, designed in line with permaculture principles and the work of Robert Hart, so that fruit trees, grape vines and herbs flourished. The garden was idyllic in the warm afternoon sunshine and Alpay encouraged us to explore.

Even my uneducated eye could discern the unusual wealth of plants and insects, the pear tree laden down with fruit, two different varieties of grapes thriving, comfrey, thyme, mint and rosemary. There was so much to appreciate. Rarely heard in central London, here birdsong was louder than the sound of traffic. With all my senses awake and attuned to the environment around me, it was as if London was very far away.

We had stumbled into Eden – and it sure did look, sound, smell and taste good! What if in every city square the same straightforward principles were applied? It was as if fireworks were going off in my head: the possibilities for converting the cities we live in are endless. I had the feeling that we were engaged in a revolution, this feeling has not left me since.

The first day of the course ended with two videos, both inspirational. First we saw Bill Mollison exploring what had been achieved around the world. A housing development in the USA built by permaculturalists showed us what was possible. Forget ‘The Good Life’ this was utopia, with families benefiting from easy access to fresh food, clean water and a non-polluting source of energy, the sun. The second video was of a project closer to home, a composting toilet built in a weekend by volunteers at Dial House in Essex. That night I went home looking at my surroundings with new eyes.

Welcoming a new dawn

Sunday began with the same mind gym exercises, but this time I was really breathing deeply, conscious of preparing my brain to absorb every bit of knowledge. In fact, all of Saturday had been something of a mind gym for me. I had begun to make the connections between my actions and the negative effects that we would normally blame on others: companies, local councils, the government, the world trade organisation – the list goes on and on. Far from being oppressive, understanding that I am, in part, responsible for the way the world is was incredibly empowering. That well-travelled bean proved that my actions, no matter how small, make an appreciable difference.

The morning’s lesson was how to apply permaculture principles when designing systems. Again, Alpay stressed that these principles can be applied to any system, thankfully for me, permaculture is not just about gardening. During the morning’s lesson, I was thinking of applications suitable for my own situation at home and work. This is one of the great strengths of Alpay’s approach – no one is excluded and everyone is encouraged to be creative in how they integrate permaculture principles into their lives.

In the afternoon we returned to the nearby food forest to plant seeds in preparation for the spring. The day had special significance because it coincided with the winter solstice. One of the students suggested that we visualise what we wanted to grow in our own lives when planting the seeds. Luckily, there were lots of seeds to plant: broad beans, mustard seed and more. After spending two days learning from Alpay’s example, I had so many ideas of what I wanted to grow that one seed just would not have been enough!

Harvesting seeds of change

In the weeks that have followed the course, I have made small changes in the way I live my life, certain in the knowledge that all these small changes add up and make a big difference. However, the most important change to come about from the course has been in the way I think about my choices. I feel as though I have been given a toolset of skills and resources, as well as the confidence, to repair systems and build new solutions. Finally, my actions – from recycling, to ethical shopping and even the way I interact with my family and co-workers – have been given new value.

Much of what Alpay teaches can be read in books, but the course gives students more than knowledge – even the best books are no substitute for being shown permaculture in action. Seeing permaculture come off the page and grow, tasting the fruits of what you have learnt – these are benefits that you cannot get from the printed word. Alpay shows his students that you should not be overwhelmed by how much needs to be changed and that the city is the perfect place for permaculture to flourish. I can wholeheartedly recommend this permaculture weekend ‘taster’ course.