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What is ‘Zone Zero’?

llustration by Cecilia Macaulay

Zone planning in permaculture design means placing elements according to how often we need to visit them. Areas that need to be visited every day (e.g. the glasshouse, chicken pen, herb garden) are located nearby, while places visited less frequently (grazing area, orchard, woodlot) are located further away.

In Bill Mollison’s book ‘Introduction to Permaculture’, zone zero is defined as being the centre of activity in a design. This may be the house, or in the case of a large scale design may be a village centre.

However some permaculturists have used the term ‘zone zero’ to describe the human element in permaculture design, claiming that the most important part of a design, the people, often receive little attention during the design process.
So how do we define zone zero in permaculture design?

Four experienced designers gave their opinion…

  • Zone 0: the centre of human activity, for example, the house.
  • Zone 1: close to the house, is the most controlled and intensively-used area containing the garden, work-shops, greenhouse, small animals, wood-pile, compost, etc.
  • Zone 2: has typically larger shrubs, small fruit and mixed orchard, windbreaks, poultry, ponds, terraces, etc.
  • Zone 3: contains unpruned and unmulched orchard, larger pastures or ranges for meat animals or flocks, and main crops.
  • Zone 4: is semi-managed and semi-wild used for gathering, hardy foods, unpruned trees, and wildlife and forest management.
  • Zone 5: is unmanaged wilderness – where we observe and learn; it is our essential place for meditation, where we are visitors, not managers.

David Holmgren…

David developed the concept of permaculture with Bill Mollison in Tasmania in the mid-1970s. He lives and works as a designer and consultant in Central Victoria, Australia.

I consider the human dimension in Permaculture very important. I have often said to clients they are the greatest asset and the greatest liability of their land. They are more important than any of the physical characteristics of the land in terms of its sustainable use and development.

But I am wary of the Permaculture concept becoming a ‘theory of everything’.

Perhaps ‘zone zero’ as encompassing human aspects such as psychology, philosophy, ethics, religion, family, love and conflict is an example of that tendency to take a very simple physical model and try to jam a lot of incredibly complex things into it.

I don’t really use the concept of zone zero much but I take it to mean the house. It provides the framework for the house design.

In my work I will do a lot of design in relation to earthworks and how the house sits on the site, the access in and out, the position of the greenhouse and so on. It’s really the province of architectural design, household management, food processing, eating, sleeping and so on. All the activities within that zone are more human–centred than the other zones.

But the zone refers to the house itself, not people, because the concept of zoning is a spatial concept. Zoning relates to physical design. People themselves are not actually confined in a physical sense. So it is quite a limited concept rather than it being an ‘over-arching idea’ that can encompass what permaculture design is all about. It is just one way of looking at things.

If you get to a point where you are actually seeing the zones as distinct systems that can be dealt with separately then the whole concept has become counter-productive. There is only one system and the boundaries are only there in a conceptual sense, though they may more or less coincide in a lot instances with things like fence lines and building walls, and so on.

I have been quite critical of the zoning concept over the years because it is a ‘single node development model’.

On complex properties such as village developments there are many activity centres, or nodes. Each one of these could have a series of zones around them.

The big issue in design is the interrelationship between those centres and the network that develops, and the links between things such as access and water supply. What I call a ‘network approach’ to design needs to be developed more in Permaculture.

Rosemary Morrow…

Rosemary is a design consultant based in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. She has travelled extensively and taught courses in Central Australia, India and Vietnam.

In every class I’ve held, the need for personal change, both psychological and spiritual, has come up in discussion. We are unanimous that a new society is needed and that we simply must alter ourselves for that to happen. It is common for most people to want others to change. I have been fortunate enough to do courses which are specialised in conflict resolution and non-violent exchange.

The permaculture design course (PDC) as it stands, incorporates many possibilities for social and personal development, with topics on land access, land rights, ethical use of money and right to livelihood. In my own teaching I set down class rules in the first lesson based on humility, maximum cooperation between students and everyone’s right to be heard (and to be wrong) without ridicule. I encourage individuals for their gifts and potentials – trying never to compare one with another. I discourage negative language such as ‘but’ and accusing and adversarial behaviour.

Although I use these ideas in my classes, I take Zone Zero to be the building and its technology. I would not feel comfortable developing a unit of the PDC as ‘Zone Zero – the person and society’. I feel that important links to personal and social change come up at appropriate times during the course. Also I would not feel good about Permaculture jargon such as ‘Zone Zero’ for the person. I am happy to discuss people and societies using terms which already exist.

Robyn Francis…

Robyn is a teacher and designer based in Lismore, Australia.

Coming to terms with the issues central to people and human dynamics is a difficult task for many. The complexity of people as individuals, as communities, and as cultures often presents a challenge that is all too easy to ignore. Yet people are central to permaculture. When individuals can cooperate towards a common goal the results will have a greater impact. From this perspective I see the term ‘Zone Zero’ as being most appropriate – all action commences from within the individual, all design is ultimately subject to the human factor of both designer and user. The practical realisation of permaculture is a result of applied philosophy, thought, information, empowerment and motivation in people.

Personally, I like to think of the home as the heart of ‘Zone One’, the house and garden being an integral and inseparable design unit – our personal living environment. There should be no great fears of coming to terms with the human element in design, it must be acknowledged and worked with in a sensitive and realistic way. Simply by applying basic permaculture design principles to people, on an individual and community level, we can learn so much about life and find a practical human ecology. People permaculture – Zone Zero stuff – doesn’t need personal growth or spiritual dogmas any more than any other element in a permaculture system. The principles of cooperation are a big enough challenge for most of us when it comes to human cooperation – what we need are some good tools to facilitate the process.

We all have our strengths and talents, the things we love to do – we need to find our human place in the system so that we can use and develop our skills and talents to the benefit of the greater community as well as for our personal sense of satisfaction and achievement. The complex webs of interdependence and functional cooperation that give natural systems their sustaining resilience can and need to be applied to the patterning of people and human environments.

Bill Mollison…

Bill has taught and written extensively about permaculture for decades.

Periodically, people remark on the lack of ‘spirituality’ in Permaculture writings and courses, even on the lack of attention to a ‘Zone Zero’ or concerns with human interactions.

Yet all of Permaculture deals with the welfare and interdependence of living things; and it is all directed to right livelihood, beneficial interaction and a conservative lifestyle.

Permaculture is about living system design. It is not pop psychology, co-counseling, anthroposophy, or any particular belief system.

Permaculture has always been about skills and systems that are practised, and verifiable by any individual; it does not, and will not, teach purely individualistic beliefs – such systems are already taught elsewhere, and there are numerous courses on spiritual, therapeutic, or theological subjects available.

The strength and credibility of Permaculture lies in its projects.

In my experience, all cultures recognise Permaculture as a tool to extend their native understanding of what is observable, hence a tool to empower themselves, a way of thought that anyone can own.

We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy.

Fukuoka, Bahaguna and many acknowledged spiritual people would agree and have said much the same thing. We begin with the small and practical, and end up with larger concepts of the whole, including the human and spirited dimensions.

“Duty and work, well performed, are elevated to the level of sacrifice or spirituality in the Gita” (ancient Hindu scriptures).


  1. A few thoughts from my recent exciting experiences with permaculture as an educator and a neophyte practitioner.
    Is it also that zone zero is the quintessential psychological and philosophical basis upon which the “home” or core zone is based? The development of humanity and humanness in a community that respects both its members and its structure.Without first aknowledging and internalising the conceptual knowledge of permaculture, change cannot really occur, for many it is a readjustment if you like to what many people see as the “new” way of looking at “old” thoughts and practices. It is like opening a present you received as a child that has been in the cupboard because it seemed too hard to make it work but now as an adult how it works finally makes sense. It is surprising to me that people still do not understand the fact that we are all part of the whole and continue to exist outside of the natural order of zero to me is an awareness of community in the widest sense and the part we all play in it. the local connectiveness to the holistic community and how we can impact positively on this bigger “picture.
    Permaculture practise is not really new truths but rather a coming together of like minds in an attempt to develop a bigger and more cohesive whole, or global community.

  2. Just a thought, maybe “zone zero” is the “soul of the block/land.”
    We alln know a poorly designed house will reflect in poor behaviour/planning/thoughts of the residents. Getting the Soul zone “right” sets people up for being, growth and learning, easily reflecting more stewardship qualities.
    Ancient Vedic architecture (vastu)labours on this silent all pervading intelligence within a building/land, that directs us to well-being and harmony.
    I think all permaculture people do their journey to honour the soul/spirit of the block. Just today a local farmer asked my why I was planting a windbreak when I was just a tenant? I asked him in return, “can’t you hear the block begging for it?”
    Love the web updates.

  3. Another great post !

    I think I’d agree most with what Bill said. Take the notion of Zone Zero and apply it to the house, and, how it’s structured, and the design of life within.

    I was at an avid gardeners house once, and they said: “Make yourself at home !”, while they ran off for an errand. I was hungry, so looked around the kitchen for food. I ended up in one of the main cupboards, and started eating some readily available cookies. They were fantastic. Chocolate cookies. So good.

    A similar thing happened at a local friends house. I went into the kitchen, and on the main table, in the middle of the room, was all the fresh fruits and vegetables of my friends labor. I immediately grabbed a pear, and another after that.

    Both these people had tons of fresh food, but only one’s was in front of me. I ate healthier when the food was in front of my face. A simple concept, but one that people often neglect in my opinion.

    I’m a fan of leaving spirituality and religion out of the teachings of Permaculture, for obvious reasons. In one of Geoff’s videos, he talks about being in the garden, and the calming and psychological effects of being surrounded by bounty. That rang a bell so true. Design and abundance “will” effect human nature, and while it is not something you can touch, it is a positive repercussion of Permaculture. Abundance + Sweet Smells + Tasty Food == Happy Humans.

    But yeah, I personally think of Zone Zero as being the living quarters, and how people interact with their dwellings. Here’s to keeping fresh food on the table.

  4. You can leave the spirituality out of the teachings of Permaculture but I will happily add Permaculture to the teachings of spirituality.

  5. Hadn’t seen this article before, but gave a fuller reply on Toby’s recent one, which was linked to here.

    We need to always remember that models aren’t reality: they exist to be played with – and the zone model can be very usefully moved out of the physical-material sphere into including the abstract & social components – something totally consistent with the very definition of permaculture design, p.37 DesignersManual, but that we tend to not design with so well.

    The concept of ‘zone00’ especially is useful for stretching our minds in new design directions: it suggests we can design our own consciousness (ie. learn & even change our world-views), and that will greatly influence anything we do in zones 1, 2, 3, etc.

    Many students of integral permaculture are suprised to find out for example that there exist very useful natural succession models of personal maturity, of social world-views & even of morality. These are as much based in observation & experimentation as the natural successions models of ecosystems & other natural cycles that we’ve always taught in permaculture courses.

    And any type of natural succession model can be designed with (accellerated or impaired), but also any model can be wrong, or superseeded by more useful models – so all have to be open to re-modelling, subject to new incoming observation and experimentation. It is very important to constantly update our models, and to remember they are JUST models (not reality).

    There’s a classic article by Dana Meadows which points out how in fact re-designing zone00 (human consciousness) is the most impactful design intervention we can ever do in any system >> Why would anyone want to keep that out of the zone model?

    I think it’s important to remember that the point of permaculture design is not to uphold (especially old!) theory or teachings, but to get humans to live in harmony with the planet, to stop destoying vital ecosystems. We are, unfortunately, prone to forget that when we get very engrossed in our little designs, and it might be a good thing that ALL of our tools somewhere remind us “what is your motivation in this design, really”?
    (Design motivation being essentially social for good permaculture design is another often ‘forgotten’ base clearly stated in the Designers Manual).

    If to see ‘zone00’ right in the middle of the zones model can remind us of that (& that we tend to automatically think of ourselves as central to our designs, if we are still stuck in individualism), then it’s very useful. Give me pragmatism over purism any day.

  6. This is an interesting topic. I observe the permaculture teachers above express a reluctance to acknowledge the subjective/spiritual component that human being bring to their practice of permaculture. To sumarise:

    I am wary of the Permaculture concept becoming a ‘theory of everything’.

    ‘tendency to take a very simple physical model and try to jam a lot of incredibly complex things into it.’

    Rosemery Morrow:
    I take Zone Zero to be the building and its technology. I would not feel comfortable developing a unit of the PDC as ‘Zone Zero – the person and society’

    Robyn Francis
    Zone Zero stuff – doesn’t need personal growth or spiritual dogmas any more than any other element in a permaculture system.

    Bill Mollison:
    Permaculture has always been about skills and systems that are practised, and verifiable by any individual; it does not, and will not, teach purely individualistic beliefs

    The thoughts of all of the above individuals seem to constellate around a common set of thoughts: namely that Permaculture is not concerned with a philosophy, Dogma, individual beliefs (one might also add metaphysics) It is instead concerned with a living system design. ‘It is not pop psychology, co-counseling, anthroposophy, or any particular belief system.’

    Inso far as it goes it would seem to be a sensible for permaculture to distance itself from such Exoteric belief systems which quite rightly have nothing to do with Permculture – On the other hand as a long time practitioner of meditation – I can see that the states of mind and the quality of attention with which Iwe pay attention to the world, has a dramatic effect on how the objective world appears to me. And this is not the world being mediated through a subjective belief system, so much as the objective world it self appearing qualitatively very differently according to the quality of attention with which our minds pay attention to it.

    Indeed from a reasonably refined mental state the world looks/is perceived as, whole /interconnected/Transient/ beautiful – Not simply as ideas/philosophies/dogmas of these things but a palpable living reality that this is how things are, viewed from this more refined perspective. Conversely from a more conflicted and divided state of mind the world is perceived as separate/isolated/ non alive/ atomised/ relatively fixed – to such a divided mind – ideas of interconnectedness/ wholeness etc will indeed be dogmas, ideas and beliefs – they will simply not be a congruent with the subjective experience of such an individual.

    The best of all spiritual traditions, in there esoteric aspect of practice ( as opposed to beliefs and dogmas,) will say that the world as it is perceived and the individual perceiving can not be separated – the quality of the perceiving subject and perceived object always go together. So from this point of view if permaculture is concerned with ‘a living system design’ – the quality of awareness a designer brings to the living system design process will be hugely influential to the outcome. Therefore I would say it is a mistake to ignore this qualitative subjective component, And could it not be argued that that the quality of attention of the designer is perhaps this is the most important component of a successful design – more important than the beliefs and dogmas of Permaculturists. As evidence look at this article on the PDC syndrome:

  7. To my mind the distinction here is clear: Zone 0 is on the physical plane, focusing on physical activity in the built environment, the house, village etc.
    I can make a case, literally, for a Zone 00, or maybe Zone Infinity, as defined as the Home or Comfort Zone. This is where the physical, mind and core are connected by heart, as in “home is where the heart is” and I may be reconnected when that is what I really want.
    For me there are two distinct and connected disciplines regarding the HOW I reconnect: Permaculture works on the physical plane, where I am in the zone; The Work of Byron Katie works on the mental plane to return me to it when I have lost my way temporarily. The simple process of the Work is a way to turn my negative thinking into positive integral action. I equate it fundamentally to making compost on the physical plane.
    Spirit takes care of itself/ me if I simply allow it.
    The connection between the two disciplines? Byron Katie defines heart as “natural wisdom”, which to my mind, on the physical plane, also describes permaculture. I would describe it as common sense.

  8. Hey there,

    Love the article! I was wondering if you have the sources for the quotes you use? I would like to reference them in a paper I am working on.


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