Geoff Lawton on Permaculture for the Urban Environment (Podcast)

Geoff Lawton, Director of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, gives a positive talk on permaculture for the urban environment in an interview by the Los Angeles-based Institute of Urban Ecology.

Geoff is in good form in this talk — it’s well worth a listen.


Click play below to hear the interview!

Interview with Geoff Lawton


  1. Awesome talk — I also really appreciate knowing about this since, as a newcomer to permaculture, I am interested in more hands-on experiences. I had not known of this opportunity in the LA area and will be attending a Saturday workday soon!

  2. Kudos to Geoff. He was on fire for this interview. In particular, I thought that his definition of Permaculture was just about the most succinct and comprehensive I’ve heard from anyone. I hope that the ideas Geoff expressed in his definition will become “THE” definition. I’ve heard lots of Permies stumble over their words to try to define Permaculture and end up confusing their audience rather than enlightening. Everyone should listen! (Although, the link from your website didn’t work for me. I had to go directly to the Institute of Urban Ecology site to find it. https://www.instituteofurbanecology.org/2012/12/focus-on-food-ep-13-extended-interview-with-geoff-lawton/)

  3. Hi Brent. Thanks for your comment. In regards to the link ‘not working’, you don’t need to click on the link. Instead, you click on the little ‘play’ icon to the left of the link.

  4. Hi Craig, I tried clicking the play icon, it looked like it was trying to load the file, but nothing happened. I sent you more detailed info in order to help you troubleshoot.


  5. Thanks for the info Brent. Actually, I see what the problem was. If you click play right from the main page (i.e. if you don’t first click into this page), then it fails, but if you first click on the post title, and play from here, then it works. At least it does for me.

    I’ve added a break before the player, so the it will force people to click into the post before they play.

    When I can a chance, I’ll look into this further to see why it’s not working from the main page.

    Thanks again.

  6. Hi all –

    Thanks for posting this great interview with Geoff. The more urban permaculture, the better IMHO. I love the implication that L.A.’s massive freeway systems produces “subtropical” heat gain and rainwater runoff, which can be re-routed and integrated into new urban food-production systems… ;-)

    By the way, here’s Geoff’s definition of permaculture at the beginning of the interview:

    Permaculture is a system of design that pulls together all the essential elements and connects them together in a way that supplies the needs of humanity and benefits the environment at the same time. So it turns around the existence of the world’s people so that we become the most positive element and influence on the world’s natural systems. So that is a position that we can take up only by intention, and that involves your direction of your actions towards beneficial positive design. And that’s an exiting way to engage in your life and your world and the people that you meet and interact with everyday.

  7. Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the transcription.

    I’m a firm believer in the power of first principles, and definitions fall into that category. Several months ago, after struggling to find a comprehensive and succinct definition for Permaculture that I could share with others, I came up with this, “Permaculture is a design methodology that outlines a path by which people can become a regenerative force in the world by reintegrating our way of life with that of the rest of the community of life.” I think it compares pretty well with Geoff’s in this interview.

    As the Permaculture movement begins to cope with scaling up to meet ecological need and societal demand, I think defining what we’re about will become more and more important.

  8. I visited their budding polyculture site yesterday. Although the two gentlemen who are guiding the Urban Ecology Institute were not there, we did some work. It’s an interesting place to say the least, and they definitely have their work cut out for them.

    However, I was really concerned with how the horses on the property were treated (the property is not owned by the Urban Ecology Institute). I visited with one horse who was standing on top of so much poop that the back of the stall was about 2 feet higher than the front, inside a tiny stall with no access to water (on a pretty hot day). So, the horse was having to stand in a pretty awkward position all day. Oh, and the horse was seriously emaciated — I may just call animal control, that is how bad the horse was provided for. I know it is difficult to find access to decent sized tracts of land in a city . . . I for one would not return. Perhaps this falls under Earth Care?

  9. It seemed to me that Geoff’s vague and hand-wavy answers to very specific questions will be very off-putting. Yes, permaculture can save the world, but how, in the particular case of L.A.? The interviewer asked twice.

    I would encourage Geoff to get specific. In the case of L.A., the problems are so large that “the problem is the solution” platitude won’t impress many people. How exactly can 50+ years of bad design resulting in a massive area of impermeable surfaces which collect oil, pesticides, and other chemical pollution be a “solution” in any way? If there is a way, let’s hear it.

  10. Greg, I hear your frustration. I heard a lot of good stuff in this interview yet I can see how someone new to permaculture (I don’t know if you are one of those people or not) might be wanting to hear more specific examples.

    As I see it, part of the “solution” in L.A. is that there are vast horizontal surfaces. Roofs, for example. Up on those roofs there is heat, and there is wind. So use it. Rooftop gardens. Solar panels. Rooftop wind turbines even? Maybe a green roof with heat-loving succulent plants could be appropriate. This would not only reduce heat gain but also improve air quality. If you look up the internet resources Geoff listed you can find many more ideas.

    One of the ways I try to educate myself is to pay attention to questions that people feel have not yet been adequately addressed, so thanks again for voicing what you were hoping to hear.

  11. LA is host to the organization Tree People. Andy Lipkis started this group as a kid, was one of the first people to bring Bill Mollison to the US, and has accomplished an amazing amount of work in a short time.

    LA is also host to Larry Santoyo and Earthflow Design Works who is one of the best permaculture designers in the world in my humble opinion. He is one of Bill’s oldest students in the US.

    I say connect up locally.

  12. I agree with Greg. The vagueness of some of Geoff’s answers left a lot to be desired, especially considering the audience (The L.A.-based Institute for Urban Ecology) is already in-the-know one would think.

    “The problem is the solution” works great in the famous case of Too Many Slugs is Really a Duck Deficiency(TM), but as Greg pointed out, how can these massively polluting and ecologically abusive systems be considered “the solution”? I don’t necessarily fault Geoff’s lack of specifics on this question because my perception is that overall, he’s a very positive actor in all of this and I’ve personally benefitted a lot from his teaching. It’s also a tremendous challenge to be “on” all the time, especially on the radio, so I don’t feel it necessary to be over critical of Geoff on this one. I’ve heard him go into great depth many times on the Q&A sessions. On this interview he was a little more on the vaguely positive, let’s rally the troops into a positive mindset side of things – which is OK as long as it is accompanied by solid detail.

    In my neighborhood (San VIcente, Córdoba, Argentina), crime, vandalism and police/mafia complicity are everyday, catastrophic problems. When I look at this kind of situation and try to size it up with “the problem is the solution” it definitely makes me work harder for the positive deductions, which of course is not a bad thing. It also makes me question – like Greg – the effectiveness of Permaculture’s famous principle/koan/soundbite in the face of the wanton, out-of-control disharmony of the cities.

    Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language) states over and over that the problems should be defined to the greatest detail, and that the solutions are birthed by an honest and coherent definition of the problem. This approach could also be considered an adjunct to the “problem is the solution” koan game, and I hope that we don’t give up these exercises in the face of massive, complex problems which stretch them beyond their more comfortable applications (such as slugs/ducks).

    In the case of L.A.’s massive freeway system, and automobiles in general, I can’t see agriculture on the side of a polluted freeway having a net positive effect as long as the cars are still running. Whatever run-off could be diverted toward these gardens would be incredibly toxic to start with. Maybe the infrastructure could be considered “the solution” in a future scenario where cars are no longer viable, streets can be cut and transformed into community gardens, etc… Which is basically a scenario where auto traffic is massively reduced or prohibited. Bill Mollison in the Designers Manual states in the “types of resources” that those which pollute and destroy other positive resources via their use (i.e. freeways with cars) should be outlawed and considered taboo at all levels of society in its practice, ethics and law. Of course the message “Ban Automobiles and Freeways” is not the kind of thing that most positivistic permaculturalists want to spend their time lobbying for (especially when they/we are trying to sign up workshop participants), but there it is directly from the pen of Bill Mollison…

    Thanks everyone for the discussion and the effort. These are huge questions and no one has all the answers, but at least we are making ourselves responsible for the discussion, and hopefully, positive actions in the face of it all.


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