Reviewed: The Permaculture City

By: Toby Hemenway

One Line:

A well-written introduction to the notion of permaculture as a mantra for a lifestyle in the pursuit of balance and likely best suited for those new to the ideas and goals of sustainable living.

The roots of “permaculture” lie in sustainable farming practices. Centered around the use of natural, complementary relationships between crops in close proximity the resulting synergy produces higher yields per acre without the chemical backbone of single-crop farming. The idea is that any given plot can have a network of overlapping crops to form an agricultural ecosystem. The combinations works to make sure that every component helps to maintain an aspect of a healthy growing environment: nutrients, soil quality, pH levels, pests or pollination. It is a fascinating field that is older (much older) than its recent, growing interest implies and is what drew me to pick up The Permaculture City by Toby Hemenway.

For those who pick up The Permaculture City with the hope of delving deeper into this area of study, there are indeed pages devoted to fleshing out the ways of bringing traditional permaculture concepts to the garden only steps from your back door. However, it quickly becomes clear that the author uses this activity as an example of a conversion to a broader lifestyle rather than the strict focus of the book. Instead, Hemenway takes the lens wider to encompass daily life on the scale of a single home and the ways that we can all reduce our dependence on external resources. What some see as a farming practice, Hemenway sees “permaculture” as a lifestyle built on the notion of balance.

In many ways, Hemenway uses the term “permaculture” as I would use “sustainability.” In its purest form, sustainability should be more than a series of technological endeavors, but actually a lifestyle that functions in response to a dynamic equilibrium of resources. To that end, the title of this book could have easily been “The Sustainable City” and it would have been just as accurate to the lessons written within. The voice of the author correctly identifies most American households as not being very self sufficient, but rather being maintained through the constant influx of outside resources into our homes.

In response to this condition, the book walks the reader through different essays that identify aspects of homes that can be targets for resource reductions. Growing food (be it plants and/or livestock) is certainly an option to help reduce dependence on outside food sources and achieve greater control over the lifecycle of our sustenance. Woven into these chapters are some of the complementary relationships between plant types, insects, animals and the surrounding climate (in my mind one of the highlights of the work). The book ventures on, however, into the pursuits of reducing our footprints of waste, water and energy along with thoughts on how to branch out beyond the property line to bolster efforts that can only take root at the community scale. Hemenway finishes his book with a pitch for simpler, less complicated lives that revolve more about personal happiness than monetary stature.

There is a refreshing perspective of practicality to Hemenway’s teachings as he keeps his suggestions to methods that are accessible to broad populations of normal means. Though the author clearly believes in the “culture” portion of permaculture, he also does not hesitate to cut through some of the romanticism of farming and resource independence, wisely conveying that living on a metaphorical island is not operating as a components of a balanced system.

“I’ve come around to thinking that trying to grow all your own is not a very permacultural approach to obtaining food. It’s a noble project, but the less-often-talked-about potential for isolation, monotony, and even disaster looms. Meeting a need as critical as food in only one way–all on your own–violates the permaculture principle of supporting important functions in multiple ways. Diverse strategies will build much more resilient personal and regional food systems. If you love to garden, then sure, grow lots of food. But a strong food system, whether personal or regional, is a network, designed in depth, built in community with others.”

While the author does make a good case for a slower life and provides a number of ways to veer away from the status quo that are easy for most people to accomplish, the book is less of a reference standard than I was expecting it to be. Though there are some specifics in tables and charts placed in each chapter, the overall message is one of broad strokes often ending with directions to other locations with further information on a given topic. While I did not find myself disagreeing with anything Hemenway lobbied for (which includes some philosophical perspectives on life in general) I am not sure there is a reason I would need to pick the book off my shelf again. This might make the book a better choice for those new to ideas of permaculture or sustainability that are looking for a good primer into large scale ideas rather than avid enthusiasts or seasoned professionals who might find larger portions of the books a well-written review.