In the Spirit of Lewis & Clark. Interview with Andrea Laliberte, by Willi Paul, Permaculture Exchange


In the Spirit of Lewis & Clark. Interview with Andrea Laliberte, by Willi Paul, Permaculture Exchange

Introducing Digital Mapping and GIS for Permaculture and Landscape Design
Oregon State University Department of Horticulture
May, 19, 2012. Cordley Hall 4056, OSU Corvallis
Instructor: Andrea Laliberte
Cost: $75

This workshop will introduce participants to digital mapping tools and techniques (Geographic Information Systems or GIS), and how small landowners and permaculture designers can use these tools with freely available data for site planning. A map is an integral part of Permaculture design, and using a digital format allows for multiple data overlay and for obtaining real-world measurements. We will investigate what data layers are available, useful and appropriate, and where aerial photos, topographic data, soil maps, and other spatial data layers can be found online, downloaded, and integrated to develop site plans for design and land management.

In the morning, we will demonstrate data access, tools, and techniques, and we will look at the pros and cons of using free online tools such as Google Earth versus GIS software. In the afternoon, participants can work on maps of their own sites in the OSU computer lab, guided by the instructor. This workshop will focus mostly on freely available software and data, but will also present how more advanced tools and techniques can be used to obtain slope, aspect, and solar radiation maps as well as outputs with higher detail and greater accuracy.

Register Here

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Interview with Andrea by Willi

How has your view of land changed with your new journey into permaculture?

With my background in ecology and specialization in remote sensing, I have always been very interested in how patterns and ecological processes on the landscape are related. Processes create patterns on the landscape, and when we observe patterns, we can usually determine which processes are involved. Looking at aerial photos or satellite imagery has always been fascinating to me, because landscape patterns are so visible from the air and tell a great story about the human-nature interaction at a landscape scale.

As I started to learn more about permaculture, I realized that I already had much of the background knowledge from my formal education in forest and range ecology, hydrology, landscape ecology, soils, and mapping. But it is the permaculture philosophy and the principles that bring all those different aspects together under one umbrella. For example, I was quite familiar with pattern-processes and edge effects in ecology, agroforestry principles, and the capture-storage-release functions in the hydrological cycle. However, as my knowledge of permaculture principles grows, I have a better idea of the connectivity of the different principles and how humans fit into this, both on a larger landscape scale and in my home garden. I have been a lifelong gardener, and I am now really excited in applying permaculture principles in my garden and in my life in general.

Tell us how to select (free) land design tools for our garden projects?

First, I should state that my expertise has been more with GIS than landscape design tools or software, but my goal is to incorporate aspects of both, because in permaculture design we are interested in topography, placement of plants and buildings, and the relationships to each other and to the larger landscape in general, and I feel that GIS tools can be very helpful.

Obviously, there are many software packages available. I am partial to free or open source software if possible. Sometimes, free packages don’t have all the tools you really want, but this varies greatly. For commercial software, what I like to do is to download the trial version and test it out, or get the user guide to get a feel for the tools that are available. Often, you can create a design with just the trial software.

You also have to decide whether you want to use landscape design or GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software (or combine both), because each is designed for different tasks. GIS is really more suitable for larger sites, say at least a few acres. If your site is smaller than that, you can still use a GIS, especially if you want to place buildings, fences, etc. in a real-world coordinate system or overlay map layers. But for smaller sites, a landscape design package may be more suitable, because it offers many choices for plants, fences, walls, etc. to place in the landscape.

The real advantage of using a GIS is when you want to work with topography or produce topography-derived datasets such as slope, aspect, hill shade models or stream networks. These datasets can still be produced on a smaller site, but in many cases, the available free data are too coarse to produce good topography and more detailed survey data are needed. One free GIS package I use is Quantum GIS, and for a relatively low-cost commercial GIS, I like Global Mapper. Of course, Google Earth is a great free tool, especially for visualizing your parcel of land in the greater landscape.

Do you think that permaculture design is collaborative at base?

Absolutely. Permaculture design requires lots of knowledge and skillsets in different areas and I would think that a permaculture design created through a collaborative process and involving people that have in-depth knowledge in particular areas as well as generalists to pull it together will create a better permaculture design. I am relatively new to permaculture design, but I see the collaborative aspect as a key part of it.

Help us with selection criteria if we need to hire a hire a geospatial (or GIS) consultant?

As with hiring any consultant, I would examine the person’s education, professional background and areas of expertise. Geospatial consultants work on a large variety of projects that involve mapping: energy, civil engineering, environmental, municipalities, so there are many specialties. Ideally, the person would have expertise or interest in permaculture design and ecology in addition to the geospatial expertise. Membership in a professional association in the geospatial area is always a plus. Look at their projects online. Do the projects align with your ideas or lifestyle for your property? Also, I think it is important to have a face to face meeting and ask questions. After all, this is not just about getting an accurate, detailed, or pretty map, but to produce a design that works with nature and your lifestyle.

Are you re-purposing the standard parcel map?

I would not call it re-purposing, but the parcel map becomes a base layer in the GIS. Today, parcel maps are in digital format and used in GIS by county and city governments. A parcel map is an important layer in the GIS, because it is drawn to scale, shows divisions of the land, and represents the surveyed outline of a property, and it is generally available for free from county websites. It provides a good base layer, and images and other datasets can be overlaid in the GIS, so that landowners can find their location as well as measure distances easily.

Can we create new stories about land with a hybrid digital mapping + permaculture approach?

I think what GIS and mapping bring to permaculture design is a larger picture, a bird’s eye view, or landscape scale view, that offers a different perspective on how a piece of land functions in the greater landscape. Instead of just mapping the flow of water in your property, we can determine where that water comes from and where it goes when it leaves your property. We can answer questions such as: Is the property located in a larger valley or on top of a hill? How many small sub-watersheds are on my piece of land? What is the solar radiation? How much area of south-facing slope do I have? If I construct a tower or tall building, what is the line of sight from the building?

What is often incomplete with permaculture site maps?

I would like to see 3-dimensional visualization integrated with permaculture site maps. There is nothing wrong with 2D maps, but in permaculture design, topography, aspect, slope, and the movement of water are very important, so we should be able to visualize all this in 3D. Today, nearly everyone has downloaded Google Earth and looked at their house on their computer, so people are very familiar with the 3D concept. In fact, since Google Earth was introduced, it has been much easier to explain to people what I do!

I would like to introduce people to some of these concepts and tools, because I think a 3D visualization can add so much additional information to a permaculture design map.

Obviously we do not have access to the OSU computer lab. How can we build one?

The basic steps are to find data online for your area and determine which free (or commercial) software packages are suitable for your level of expertise. Data layers such as streams, parcel maps, and soil data can be downloaded from various sources online, such as county websites, USGS or the NRCS soil web database. Many of the freely available GIS packages can ingest a variety of data, but data formats or conversions may pose some problems for beginner map makers. One simple tool to use is Google Earth, because it has detailed imagery and everything is geoferenced, which means that you can make real-world measurements on the map that translate to the ground.

However, when you work on very small sites, there will be some inaccuracies due to the scale of imagery on Google Earth. Some online data may not open directly in Google Earth and GIS software may be needed for data format conversion. A workshop on Digital Mapping and GIS for Permaculture Design I am teaching at Oregon State University on May 19 will go into those details, and in the near future, I plan to develop an online version of the workshop.

Can you juxtapose a few permaculture principles with some standard practices in standard practices in GIS mapping?

The most obvious permaculture principle that applies to GIS and geospatial tools or analysis is observation of patterns in the images we use, and to design from patterns to details using GIS tools. For example, looking at a topographic model with hills, valleys, and stream networks lets us discover patterns. Those patterns show how landscape design on a parcel may be affected by upstream and in turn may affect downstream events. Likewise, patterns on aerial photos show where we can find closed forest, open meadows and the diverse and productive edges. We can observe how energy is caught, stored, and released. I think of the images as a discovery tool for applying many of the permaculture design principles. The ability to overlay images and other layers in a GIS allows us to experiment with the location of plants, buildings, roads, etc. in the landscape and their relationships so that these elements can work together. Mapping is also a powerful tool to observe and respond to change. Let’s say we build a pond and alter the flow of water over our land. We can create a new layer with the changed topography and observe water flow changes, or even model the effects before we build the pond.

Tell us about your preliminary vision for your pending small farm design?

My husband and I have a lot of work ahead of us. We had bought our 5-acre property in 2001, while I was attending Oregon State University. In 2003, we moved to New Mexico for my job with the Agricultural Research Service, and our property was rented out for the last 8 years. The tenants left behind a tremendous mess, both inside the house and on the land by their horses, who overgrazed and stripped the bark off many trees. You can say it is an ideal situation for a restoration project! At this point, we are focusing on starting a vegetable and herb garden, plant fruit and nut trees, and get some chickens. The longer term plan for our Oak View Food Forest, as we named the farm, is to establish a food forest, achieve as much self-sufficiency for our own food as we can, and generate products for farmer’s markets and restaurants. My husband is a chef, and we also plan to develop value-added products that are attractive to restaurants interested in unique and local food products.

Please elaborate on your vision for your new firm, earthmetrics. Who is your ideal client? Less than ideal client?!

At this point, most of my contract work is for my previous employer, the Agricultural Research Service, and I work on analyzing images and creating maps from aerial photos acquired from small unmanned aircraft used for mapping rangeland vegetation and assessing vegetation changes over time, as well as publishing my findings on this research. In the future, I would like to focus my efforts more on working with small landowners, especially those with an interest in permaculture. I also want to expand on developing and teaching workshops for small landowners in digital mapping, GIS, and remote sensing, because I know that a lot of the tools I have used for years can be extremely helpful for landowners, but often they are not aware of the tools and techniques. I really want to communicate the science and technology behind GIS to landowners in an understandable and easy to apply manner. Working with small landowners and people interested in permaculture also allows me to integrate my professional expertise with my personal interests in gardening, sustainability, and local food.

I worked for two civil engineers in the past, both overly-dominant males. Is GIS equally represented by both men and women today?

Based on my experience and observations, the geospatial world is becoming more and more equally represented by men and women, and at all levels, from students to leaders in the field. In the professional society I have been a member of since 1998, the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS), I have observed quite an increase in women. In fact, in the last few years, the society’s presidents have been predominantly women, and I also see a lot of female students joining the field. I recently heard a comment that there are still not too many women in the surveying profession, but when it comes to GIS and Remote Sensing, I would say that I have seen a strong increase in women over the years.

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Andrea Laliberte Bio –

Andrea recently started her geospatial consulting business, earthmetrics, after leaving her position at the USDA Agricultural Research Service Jornada Experimental Range, where she had been a remote sensing scientist since 2003. At the Jornada, Andrea’s research focused on the innovative use of satellite and airborne imagery and geospatial analysis for vegetation mapping and landscape ecology, and the use of small unmanned aircraft for obtaining very high resolution imagery for various mapping projects. Andrea developed remote sensing monitoring tools for the National Resource Inventory (NRI) in support of the Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP), and developed and taught workshops and graduate level classes in geospatial analysis and remote sensing at New Mexico State University.

Andrea has a BS in Natural Resource Science from Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, a MS in Rangeland Resources and a PhD in Forest Resources from Oregon State University. For her dissertation work, she conducted geospatial analyses of human influences on historical and current wildlife distributions, and studied Lewis and Clark’s wildlife observations with regard to human influences. This research has fostered her strong interest in human impacts on ecological processes and patterns, which can be assessed using satellite and aerial images and geospatial techniques.

Andrea has had a lifelong interest in outdoor activities, gardening, and farming, and prior to her university education, she worked on ranches, farms, and operated her own horse training and breeding operation. In December 2011, Andrea and her husband Marc, who is a chef, moved back to their 5 acres property in Brownsville, Oregon, where they had lived during Andrea’s studies at Oregon State University. Andrea and Marc are using permaculture principles to restore their neglected property and start a small farm and market garden, while focusing on sustainable living, organic gardening, and local food.

Andrea now specializes in providing geospatial analysis and services through her consulting business, earthmetrics, but is also working on incorporating geospatial mapping techniques for small landowners and for permaculture design. This spring, she is teaching a workshop on digital mapping and GIS for permaculture and landscape design in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University in collaboration with Beaver State Permaculture.

Connections –

Andrea Laliberte, earthmetrics
andrea.laliberte at

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