Permaculture, governance & economics? Interview with Leonard Barrett, President, Barrett Ecological Services, Portland, OR. By Willi Paul, permaculturexchange.com
“I think a lot folks reject permaculture out of hand because permaculture is too closely associated with new-age cultural practices that many in the movement treat as if they were a part of permaculture. I'm no authority on what permaculture is or isn't, but last I checked, it was a design framework, with implications for lifestyle choices, but not a lifestyle unto itself. We need to get better at marketing permaculture as a design framework, separate from the lifestyle of its most visible or vocal adherents. Otherwise it's a slow-growing choir.” - LB
Interview with Leonard by Willi
What is placemaking? Who are your influences here?
I generally think of placemaking as the act of creating environments that people can positively identify with, in terms of their stories, values, and aspirations, and that serve their visions and goals as individuals and communities. I think most architecture, planning, and development has given us fairly sterile spaces and boxes that communities, if they're lucky or have the cultural inclination, have to claim as theirs and placemake themselves. Ideally, the planning and development can be community driven, and when it is, the stories and ways of that community are deeply woven into the fabric of that place. Then you get really compelling places that people like to write books and articles about because they're so vibrant and stand in such contrast to the non-life-affirming places that most of us wander through every day. We're pretty lucky to have quite a few of those types of spaces in Portland.
As far as influences, for the last seven or so years I've been really close with Mark Lakeman, who founded The City Repair Project. His ideas about placemaking and community reclamation of public urban space are pretty integral to my own views on how we can improve our places and communities. Our design firms share an office, and these days we're collaborating on about half of each other's work, so there's a lot of cross-pollination of ideas.
It's beyond the scope of what we can get into here, but I think there are a bunch of key aspects of what make places great, and there is a lot of good writing out there about it, like Alexander's A Pattern Language, but also works that folks in the permaculture world might be less familiar with, like Kevin Lynch's Image of the City, and People Places by Clare Cooper Marcus.
How is your design process and result different than a traditional landscape firm?
Well, I rely on this crazy holistic design framework some of you may have heard of. But within that, my design process pretty closely resembles a traditional landscape architecture design process, in that the steps are the same (Programming, Schematic Design, Design Development, etc.). I think that as far as landscape permaculture is concerned, we have a lot to learn from the traditional landscape architectural community, because while the average PDC gives us some amazing design tools (zone/sector, overlay, etc.), it is extremely deficient, in my opinion, on design process. This is an area where we need more channels for advanced training and mentorship, and also to be more open and inclusive of great work and process that has been developed outside of the movement.
What were your key designs & lessons from the Nike International project?
The community garden design I facilitated at Nike's international headquarters was an interesting process. That campus has 5000 employees, and almost 10% of those, about 500 people, are involved in the garden. At the time (mid-2009) I was just starting to work on larger projects of this type, and I think I really underestimated the amount of resource that a company like Nike could put toward something like this. So one of the key lessons was that I probably should have dug my heels in around a few key pieces of the design that got axed. It's pretty amazing as-is, and many battles were won; but I think that as we start engaging with more of these huge institutions, we can't underestimate the role that good community education and engagement plays in getting the type of support that can catapult a project from just-another-permaculture-garden to an awe-inspiring precedent that incites 20 other similar institutions to do a similar project. The Nike garden has already inspired at least four other community gardens on large corporate campuses that I'm aware of...and there will undoubtedly be more.
Oh, so another super important piece is that with every big institutional project I've worked on, there's been a mole...an undercover ally on the inside. My advice for anyone who wants to work with large institutions doing work of this type, or anything similar, is to get really good at finding the stealth permaculturist who is already working within the institution, and then figure out how you can support them.
Is there a recurring permaculture principle that seems to stand-out in your work – more than the others?
Yes, "design from patterns to details." And to do that, we all need to get better at recognizing the patterns on one end (what Hemingway calls "pattern literacy"), and always be honing our technical skills on the details end. As a movement, I think we have a long way to go on both ends. Again, a lot of advanced training and mentorship is missing. On both ends, the role of mentors that I have sought out--folks like Rick Valley, Tom Ward, Toby Hemenway--have greatly advanced my knowledge on both the patterns and the details sides of things.
What are your key marketing messages at Barrett Ecological?
"We take the 'cult' out of permaculture."
You won't find that explicitly stated, but when you look at our website or who we are, you get the picture. We work with a lot of fairly mainstream clients who are progressive and in total alignment with the ethics, but who might be a little nervous that bringing in a permaculture designer will mean that they're going to have to close every design meeting holding hands and chanting or saying Om together. And there's nothing wrong with that, if you're into it, but a lot of folks are as uncomfortable with Om's as most folks in the Pc movement would be with something that starts with "Our Father in heaven..."
I think a lot folks reject permaculture out of hand because permaculture is too closely associated with new-age cultural practices that many in the movement treat as if they were a part of permaculture. I'm no authority on what permaculture is or isn't, but last I checked, it was a design framework, with implications for lifestyle choices, but not a lifestyle unto itself. We need to get better at marketing permaculture as a design framework, separate from the lifestyle of its most visible or vocal adherents. Otherwise it's a slow-growing choir.
Do you implement any localization strategies for Barrett Ecological clients? Any examples?
I'd like to think that everything we do is a localization strategy. If it's a backyard, we're hyper-localizing food/water/nutrient cycles. On a larger project right now we're looking at some pretty tight-loop aquaponics systems using geothermally heated greenhouses...which should feed a lot of people with very local nutrients and energy. So it's all localization.
But to rant a little bit, I think that a lot of the most important localization work needs to be done on a regional planning scale, and very few people from the movement have effectively penetrated into the circles that make those policy decisions. There are some good examples, but we need to be doing more. Here in Portland we're making some great headway through the citizen-driven Food Policy Council, in which several permaculture and transition folks are active. The local food co-ops are also doing good work to incubate the market for locally grown staple crops, which I have not seen in many other regions.
On that note, I think that the permaculture movement and the cooperative movement need to hang out and talk more. The coop movement has the business and economic development skills that the permaculture movement is lacking. And we generally share common vision and goals. I was recently elected to the board of Portland's oldest food co-op (People's), and have been astonished by what a tight ship they (the collective management) run. I can't imagine what the permaculture movement could get done if they picked up some of the management and organizational development skills at play here. I really think it would catapult us forward immensely. I've been really impressed by the folks, like Living Mandala, that are starting to include modules on Dynamic Governance or Agile in their course offerings. This is definitely a big step. Bravo!
Please critique the permaculture Guilds in general. Are they leading the way? How could they improve?
I think the question is "what are the guilds for?" If they're just for movie nights, small workshops, and listservs for people to rant on, great. But it doesn't seem like they're advancing the field. Groups of people with real projects and real initiatives are doing that. If some of the guilds are doing that, awesome! I'm sure some are, and I'm just not aware of it.
Can permaculture gain by extending its reach into the political system? What strategies would be worth trying?
Absolutely! I think that as a movement there is a prevailing story that the "system" is necessarily a tool of oppression and destruction, and that keeps folks in the movement from taking part. On the contrary, I think that government and politics are necessary tools for making things happen, and that we can get in there and deconstruct the oppressive and destructive components and get on with making good things happen.
In the Designer's Manual Mollison laid out a very compelling framework for how to think about bioregional organization and economics. It's a shame he only devoted one chapter to it, and stuck it right at the end, because it's the most underutilized piece of that book. And while I'm on my soapbox here, PDCs need to get much, much better at showing how the principles and design tools of permaculture can be applied to governance and economics, and stop focusing on gardening as if that is what permaculture is.
What is sacred to you?
I'm not sure about that word, but family, community, and fun are really important to me.
What songs, poems, symbols and/or Heroes come to mind when you think about permaculture mythology?
I don't think a permaculture mythology is useful. I'm quite happy with a design framework.
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Leonard Barrett is a designer, land planning consultant, and teacher based in Portland, Oregon. His design firm, Barrett Ecological, provides design and planning services to a wide array of residential, commercial, and community/institutional projects, ranging from small urban lots to many-thousand acre rural properties. Leonard has taught at colleges and universities throughout the northwest, and guests lectures at many permaculture and ecological design courses. His design work is featured in the best-selling permaculture book Gaia's Garden: A Homescale Guide to Permaculture (2nd Ed.) by Toby Hemenway.
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Leonard Barrett, President
Barrett Ecological Services
// site design and consulting for
regenerative human habitats //