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Permaculture in the Cities – An Interview with Geoff Lawton

Photo © Craig Mackintosh

Marcin Gerwin: Permaculture is currently hardly known in Poland. Could you explain what it is?

Geoff Lawton: Permaculture is a design science. It’s a system that supplies all the needs of humanity — all the basic needs and all the intricate needs — in a way that also benefits the environment. It works from the intimate small space of human habitat right up to the broad, damaged ecosystems which can be repaired with the design science system.

To learn it you need to go through the training course so that you can understand all the disciplines and how they connect together, because it’s a holistic design science where multiple disciplines connect together — similar to an ecosystem. It’s like an ecosystem of knowledge where the connections are more important than the actual disciplines, so that you can understand how you can integrate not only living systems but also built infrastructure in a way that all elements within the matrix are benefited by overall design.

MG: Could it be useful in a city also?

GL: You especially need permaculture in a city. It’s even more beneficial in a city than it is in a rural landscape. You can design your city block to consume less energy and to consume less water. You can grow sprouts or mushrooms. If you have a balcony you can produce more per square meter on a balcony than you can on any land. We have people here in a city producing 70 kg of food on 20 square meters of balcony. That’s 3.5 kg per square meter and 35,000 kg on a hectare.

But permaculture is not about growing systems alone. It’s about how we deal with our waste, how we deal with our energy, how we deal with our built infrastructure and our housing, and how we trade and act in a way where we are socially responsible. So only a small part of it is about growing systems or animal systems. A lot of it comes down also to invisible structures of community. Permaculture is taught in schools, as a subject. It’s in community groups also — they use permaculture as a guideline to ethically interact so that their actions are beneficial to the environment and to each other. Surplus is returned to environmental care and people care. People are reducing their energy, water and waste, as they choose materials that have low embodied energy. People have their own small gardens, they take pride in streetscapes — there are permaculture streets, and there are the community gardens and parks which engage in permaculture design.

MG: Permaculture streets sound interesting.

GL: They are streets that have controlled runoff of water from the hard surfaces towards the growing systems. They have fruit trees, food plants, functional plants. They also have compost receptacles, they have waste systems set up so that people can recycle and reuse. There are interactions between gardens — gardens open up to other gardens. They share their landscape. There are also streets that harvest wind, because they have an orientation that creates a wind tunnel, or streets with solar aspect for solar electricity. Whatever way we can apply permaculture within a streetscape that already exists, then we’ll retrofit that street so that it becomes more functional. New streets are designed so that they are more environmentally friendly and people friendly.

MG: How can you apply permaculture in parks? Would it mean growing edible plants or just ornamental ones?

GL: All of that. You can have edible plants, edible trees, you can have a low-energy landscape — which means you don’t need much lawn-mowing, chemicals or fertilizers. They are also people friendly — people can enjoy the environment there — they can also have water systems or wildlife-friendly areas so that rare and endangered species can have a habitat. Water harvesting is often included — usually it would be water runoff from the surrounding streetscape. And they would have an educational element for children and visitors.

MG: In many cities in Poland there are problems with floods. Can you use permaculture to prevent flooding?

GL: Yes. It has actually been done in Europe over the centuries with willow and in warmer climates you would use large clumping bamboos. You take harmonic planting belts outwards from the river through the flood plain and water going through the willows slows down and drops its organic matter on the upstream side and deposits sand and silt on the lower side. So you create a harmonic deposition belt. The sand and silt is a perfect combination for a growing media. You raise the level of the land with natural deposition by planning in a harmonic pattern.

MG: Do you think that keeping lawns, which is popular in cities, is a good idea?

GL: If it’s just a statement of landscape fashion then it’s a rather foolish thing to do, because it consumes a lot of energy. Often more chemicals and water are used on lawns than on agriculture. Lawns are often even more damaging than conventional agriculture. Obviously, we need lawns for recreation and open space, but we could limit a lot of lawns and convert them to food production and back to natural habitat. We could graze lawns as well, to some degree. We don’t have to use machinery. We also don’t need to use chemical fertilizers as much as we do. The lawn has become a statement of arrogance and exploitation — “I can exploit the environment and make it look like I’m a wealthy person”. We could have small lawns so people can feel comfortable in an environment where they are close to wilderness, but we don’t need ridiculous amounts of them. And grazing animals can provide us with something that looks like a lawn.

MG: Grazing animals in a city could be rather controversial for some residents. Many people don’t see the potential of agriculture in the city.

GL: If you look at the city you have a lot of intricate, very high value and extremely diverse microspaces which you can use. Then there is a peri-urban agriculture which surrounds the city. In a well-designed city a lot of waste products, the storm water runoff, organic waste and sewage waste can be directed towards a peri-urban agriculture. But threaded through that are the grazing systems. They can actually thread right through the city if you like. Then you have the rangeland outside of that, and threaded through that is the farm forestry and large forestry systems extending out from there. So forestry and wilderness thread together on the outer edges and come in through the grazing land which can be corridors throughout the city. Then the city can have high-value urban agriculture integrated right through it. And that urban agriculture can have great functional benefits for the city in terms of microclimate.


This interview first appeared in Dziennik Opinii in Poland.


  1. Grazing animals in a city could be rather controversial for some residents. Many people don’t see the potential of agriculture in the city.

    But, go back in time not very far, and all Polish cities had at least some form of food production and animal husbandry going on — including keeping chickens, goats, pigs, and even cows, in urban sections. You can see a glimpse of this kind of historic resilience in neighbouring Slovakia (see the sub-section titled “A Glimpse of Past Resilience”):

    The rise of globalisation has killed much of this integrated self-reliance, but increasingly people will see the need to back-track — and with the accumulated knowledge we have now, there’s the potential to create urban systems that are far superior than what has gone before.

  2. Regarding specific content of link; one can show how to do a “cowboy coffee” (or even tea) (both milk-brewed in my case, with Turkish grind as best by experience for value, flavor and settling and decanting purposes), and then politely ;) add/encourage a splash of that nice ‘rocket fuel’ to it, if only to draw the flavors out a little. Yum-yaw. ^u^
    Permaculture “says” that you can use a simple pot for most food-prep things, and so, for example, save on coffee filters and a machine, and get a better coffee to boot. Cold-brewed coffee is ok too, is very smooth and less bitter, but takes a longer while. A half-cold-brewed and half-hot-brewed frozen mix, blended, with some of that ‘rocket fuel’ added during the blending process, to also help melt/soften the mix a little, might make a very nice coffee slush.
    Coming up: Wild wintergreen milkshakes!

  3. MG: In many cities in Poland there are problems with floods (Well DOH) Can you use permaculture to prevent flooding? GL: Yes. [Although it has [NEVER] actually been done inside existing cities – you would plant willow or clumping bamboo. You take “harmonic” – wtf? – planting belts outwards from the river through the flood plain. Water going through the willows slows down and drops its organic matter on the upstream side and deposits sand and silt on the lower side.” Yeah right – so it does this when the river breaks its banks and homes get flooded? Now if you are building a POLDER yes “raise the level of the land with natural deposition by planning in a [harmonic] pattern that accelerates deposition” but when the issue is flooding of houses and sewage being mixed into the carpet planting willow or bamboo is a waste of effort. FSS

    1. I’m not familiar with Poland’s landscape, but perhaps the idea is that the flooding doesn’t start within the city itself, but outside in the surrounding landscape. There, I would imagine bamboo or willow would work fine. The river breaks it’s banks because of the flood or rush of water. You slow that down and then the river doesn’t break.

  4. I’m another who is intrigued by the proposed use of “harmonic planting” to control floods, whether in cities or not. I’ve googled the term but can only find it used in relation to tobacco growing and then only one instance and without an explanation. Could we have a more detail please?

  5. I wonder if “harmonic” in this instance also takes in what is happening on the watershed above the flats. I believe Bill Mollison stated that if every watershed had swales on them, flooding would be greatly reduced.

    So in combination with swales/diversion drains/keyline/tree belts and tree canopies in general/vetiver hedges/bamboo hedges/willows, water would be slowed on the hills and slowed on the flats.

    Simon has a point in that a lot of city design is barely above the waterline and slowing water nest to a house puts it a risk. But, if the entire path of water, including the headwaters were slowed and allowed to infiltrate, the risk of flooding near the houses by a clump of vegetation is greatly reduced. Reducing or removing the stormwater runoff from house roofs and roads into basins or gardens would greatly help the flash flooding in cities.

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