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Designing Authentic Community

Humankind can never do the important work of re-designing our agricultural systems on a community scale with dysfunctional and alienated communities. This is the core wisdom of permaculture: permanent (i.e. stable) culture for permanent agriculture. But, we need to re-design these systems as soon as possible, because our unsustainable and unstable reality is catching up with us quickly and creating much suffering!

Dunbar’s number

I’ve been thinking a lot about where this alienation and dysfunction comes from and how we can re-design our communities for authentic relationships (using permaculture design which is based in systems thinking). As well as having this disconnected feeling and yearning for closer relationships, many people also feel a need for more solitude, a need to get away from too many people! Of course, there are many aspects related to the design of our social communities that simultaneously influence groups and individuals. For this article, I’d like to focus on one aspect, the size of personal communities.

In this day and age of seven-plus billion people on spaceship Earth, with cities of millions, towns of tens of thousands, people with two thousand and more Facebook friends, tens of thousands of Twitter followers — among many other forums — our lives are designed around “more is better,” yet many people still feel that we lack meaningful relationships. A friend recently pointed me to Dunbar’s number “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” Dunbar, an Anthropologist, puts this number at about 150 for humans.

Too big?

Thinking about this through a Permaculture lens brings some insightful ideas. The design principle “Use small and slow solutions” seems to align with Dunbar’s findings, as one consideration in designing an ethical, sustainable, and resilient community would be “Setting limits to population and consumption…” (as Bill Mollison defines the third ethical basis of permaculture, in “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”). Thinking not in terms of Malthusianism and population remedies/catastrophes but more in terms of our relationships, is there a benefit to focusing on a smaller, more intimate, social community?

Though social media seems excellent for sending a message to (and creating a dialogue with) large numbers of people, a question many people (including myself) struggle with is: How can we use this technology appropriately, while still designing a social life where interpersonal relationships have an authenticity and depth — a closeness of human relationship in which we can form a cohesive social community with the capability of implementing group solutions to the triple threat of climate chaos, resource depletion/peak energy, and a precarious global financial system based on debt?

Maybe our human communities and social circles are just too big for authentic relationships? This seems to explain the dual problem of yearning for closer relationships because of alienation and still wanting to get away and have solitude. An appropriate analogy seems to me as follows: if you ever took a lecture-format class in an auditorium with hundreds of people on a subject versus studying the same material with a small group where you discuss, interact, and synthesize the material, a common experience is that the first scenario fails to engage most students, whereas the second more intimate scenario leaves everyone in the group yearning to delve deeper into the subject matter.

Embarrassingly, this relates to my experience with my elementary schooling in which our science class was instructed to do a leaf collection and label all the leaves. I was so disinterested that my responsible mom ended up dragging me out to fifty trees and basically did the entire assignment for me! But now, having gardened in small intimate groups as well as being a student of Permaculture and being part of close networks of permaculturists, I managed to discover an unending insatiable craving for all knowledge related to plants and a curiosity about everything that grows around me. How and why did I pass up that earlier opportunity! In a more intimate learning environment, I might not have wasted that valuable opportunity. This is just a small example of how the size and quality of a community might influence its members in certain respects.

In today’s world, our subject matter is the dying planet. Does people’s disinterestedness in this subject relate to the size of our alienating communities?


If it is true that size of community can directly relate to the quality of our relationships, how can we design our communities to result in successful outcomes and authentic relationships? (1) This question led me to various ways to structure the 150 people for Dunbar’s number. One breakdown is in four categories: kin/close friends of about five people, a super family of about 20 more, a clan of 25 more, and then a tribe of 100 more (total 150). As far as I’m concerned, we could see these as nested categories (e.g. each successive group also containing the former groups) or separate designations. But, a permaculture perspective seemed to call for something different than these stepped categories. So, taking the pattern of the spiral (coincidentally the same pattern used on the “small solutions” snail!), I decided to utilize the groups, but instead on a graduated, less fragmented, progression.

My goal was to first analyze my social community and then, secondly, create an ideal social network — one in which I could feel more connected and less alienated within. My analysis created a somewhat startling result for me: it was very difficult to fill in the “close friends” and “super family” in an honest way — I had to leave a gaping hole in the center. My definition for placing people along the scale was "people who you have frequent person-to-person contact with whom you:

  1. feel you can tell them anything,
  2. know you can count on them anytime, and
  3. those who listen to you and share with you" (strongest candidates closest to the center).

… and then people you have (or maybe have not) met in person, but whom you have some communication with, are placed furthest away from the center.

The biggest factor that kept most people out of the center of the spiral for me was the “frequent person-to-person contact” part, which is a huge factor in many of our transportation- and distance-centered lives. Living in the suburbs on the edge of a major city, it is common for me to see a close friend three times a month at most — and most people only once a month. Due to the nature of my work I see co-workers four to eight times a month (but there is very little planning or democratic design within the capitalist economy, i.e. many of us have little say in choosing our work situation). The “permaDunbar spiral”, as I call it, is a snapshot of a moment of your social life, as everyone’s relationships are constantly in flux, constantly changing.

PermaDunbar Spiral! (Concept: Randall Jamrok, Image: Nicki Meier)
Click for larger view

Moving forward

So, how can the problem be the solution? The problem is having too many people. Maybe we need more communities, rather than one large community. I think that people re-localizing in lobular groups rather than huge monocultures (compare lobe-thinking in keyhole garden beds), and loosely but self-consciously and collectively designing their communities based on the “permaDunbar spiral” (“loosely” to allow for natural relations to develop and “self-consciously” to provide focus), could potentially be a practical model to follow in beginning this important community journey. At the very least, people being conscious of (“Observe and interact”) the relationships they are developing and how much energy they put into different parts of their personal spiral, and the yields that come from those energy inputs, can be insightful in analyzing the connectedness or disconnectedness of someone’s social experiences in our modern world.

Design activity:

  1. Take two copies of the permaDunbar spiral.
  2. Fill in one to analyze your current community. How big is it? Does it align with Dunbar’s number? Are there any insights revealed from your analysis? I suggest first listing all your social contacts / relationships on a separate piece of paper, then putting them on the graduated spiral.
  3. Fill in the second spiral to create the most ideal community that you could imagine. How does this relate to your current reality? What design principles could you utilize to reach this vision of your interpersonal relationships? How could we collectively organize and re-design for smaller communities and more stable relationships?
  4. This second spiral could be your support network in times of struggle and hardship. Bringing this from an individual level to a collective/community level, how can you work with others to foster a community like the one that you envision?

Feel free to share insights and thoughts from participating in this activity in the comments below!


  1. Compare Bill Wilson’s concept of Agraria or Tiny Villages as a way of re-designing smaller, more authentic, communities.


    1. Thanks for the link, laceration! Always inspired by Orlov! Didn’t know about the new book! Looks fascinating!

  1. Authentic community is an organic outgrowth of shared lives, shared work, and shared purpose. The compartmentalization and perceived independence (beneath the surface veneer, the dependence is almost complete) of industrial society is antithetical to authentic community. We need to recognize that, when it comes to building community, we were all raised by wolves.

  2. Very interesting point. I think in many ways permaculturalists still feel a bit like “a fish out of water” in many communities because many in the mainstream community do not even grasp some of the basic concepts so it is hard to get communication traction and much of the communication is one way. I am interested in the development of a permacultural community facility that goes way beyond the community garden concept to where wastes, nutrients, water and fuels are all better managed as well by intensive permaculture principles. If some better systems and models could be confidently applied then it would help more people access and get into permaculture, communicate at better levels and swing the outlook to being more positive. Communication networking is terrible when the messages are negative but inspiring (like this site) when they are positive and constructive !!!

    1. Yes, I agree that we should all be doing everything we can to be forging out permaculture communities in every way we can that can teach people through experience–learning-by-doing–that the answers for a better world are already here within reach. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Yes, I totally agree and have felt for many moons now that we need a fundamental change/return to connection/integration/interdependence/cooperation and imagination when it comes to daily life activities, sustenance and creation/innovation amongst a SMALL group of friends with convivial outlooks. There is so much potential to be brought forward when and if we can step aside from the dominant demands of current systems. We can achieve much with SIMPLE solutions and sharing of what we have, who we are, and our gifts. And I also cherish and require solitude and quiet appreciation. Lets ask each other to join and start creating these small but powerful communities!

    1. Yes, stepping aside from the dominant demands of the current system is important! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Ok, I have a few sort of philosophical thoughts coming to mind about how to possibly extend this idea. First, let me say that I think this is a topic that we in the permaculture community need to further explore and understand. We understand the earth care fairly well, but when it comes to our inner beings and social relationships we have yet to really observe, inquire, interact, imagine, explore, experiment, reflect, share, refine, and further observe, inquiry, interact… and so on. Our people care tool kit has a lot of room to add more tools.

    I like the PermaDunbar Spiral idea, but given that a potential solution is multiple smaller communities rather than one larger (which I think is often the case already, but people may not recognize that they belong to multiple communities), maybe there is a way to think about the PermaDunbar Spiral in terms of multiple dimensions (3, 4, or more). Right now, it is two dimensional (breadth=who and length=emotional/social closeness), but what would happen to our understanding of ourselves, our relationships, and our communities if there were a height (=community layers) and a time component built into this model? Perhaps, we play with the idea of the spiral as a snail shell (3D – breadth, length, and height) infused with life that moves with time. The introspection and reflection would be more complex, especially since there may be multiple community layers, some of which are interconnected at different points in time. However, it may be helpful to further extend our understanding of how and when these elements integrate/segregate and how we adapt to change. It would also highlight the multitude of edges that exist that, with thought and care, can be optimized.

    There may be an optimum number of relationships to maintain a stable social network, as Dunbar’s number theorizes, but perhaps it isn’t so much the set number as it is how we integrate, value, stack functions, and utilize the patterns we glean from the details of each dimension/element. Perhaps, like a well-planned, polycultured food forest, there is a way to optimize the yield of the layers of relationships and communities while minimizing the distance between the dimensions/elements through observation and understanding of where, when, why, and how these dimensions/elements interact with one another.

    1. Yes, the 3D image of the snail shell is wonderful! Community layers and time are also hugely important factors, too. Good point. This reminds me of a teacher’s communities, who may teach over a hundred students a week! With your addition to the model, they would be able to factor that community of students in the analysis in a simple way. Thanks for your thoughts!

      1. It’s interesting, Randall, that you mention the teacher’s community and being able to facilitate hundreds of learners within one of the communities that teacher engages with because I am an educator, but my focus is with younger children (birth through primary years). I’m working on a project with folks in the community to use permaculture ethics, principles, and methodology to design a children’s education empowers in learning and life called PERMIE KIDs. It’s not about creating a PDC for kids, but rather a holistic educational framework that allows educators and children alike to view anything and everything they are learning through the lens of permaculture. As I was contemplating this, I was thinking about how to incorporate these ideas into the education for young children! Thanks for the inspiration.

        1. Hi Jen. I am guessing you already know about this but just in case you haven’t, do you know about the Waldorf Education model? I am not well versed but have several friends who are homeschooling their kids with this method and it seems like something that could offer some reference for what you are talking about.

          I have always said that if we want to see large scale change we need to educate the younger generation through experiential education. Great to see you are doing some of that work :)

          1. Yes, thanks Lance. Waldorf has a lot to offer folks of a permaculture mindset. We have a couple Waldorf schools near me that I have visited and I have researched and integrated many of the program concepts into PERMIE KIDs ( My M. Ed. was in International Education with a focus on the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP), so I have taken from that and others (Montessori, Sudbury, unschooling, etc). I don’t believe there is one way to learn or one way to educate and I want to help others know what resources are available.

        2. Wow, Permie Kids looks like a great program!
          I’d be interested in learning more into it.
          There is an organization here in Chicago, US, called Gardeneers ( which I am working with that facilitates learning-by-doing garden education and develops integrated curriculum around the the garden. So, I see about 100 kids in two days–mostly small groups and mentoring. Learning about the permaculture ethics, principles, and methodology seems an incredibly valuable opportunity for kids! It’s great to hear about more people putting it into practice.

          1. Awesome! I am going to check out Gardeneers right now. I as well love hearing about others reaching out and sharing knowledge, ideas, concepts, and skills with children. I posted the link to PERMIE KIDs in a response to Lance above, but to get an overview of what I’m working you can go to

  5. Great article Randall. I have been thinking about these same ideas for a couple years. I agree with Jen that the height and time aspects of analyzing our community structures are going to be a more accurate way of representing the complex relationships.

    We are developing a space where people can explore these ideas for themselves while visiting our land. The idea is to have a small “super family” sized group of people living in close community and working together to develop resiliency. And then also hold space for temporary visitors to connect to themselves in a deeper way through the natural surroundings, farm activities and community engagement. The benefit is that the small rural community of about 200 people around us here in Boulder, UT also seems very interested in exploring communication and relational issues.

    In the near future I would like to hold a space here on our property to invite permaculture enthusiasts to discuss and explore this often unmentioned part of the people care ethic.

    1. Thanks a lot, Lance!
      Your projects and ideas sound really great. Thanks for sharing those ideas. I hope to be able to create space for those discussions and community-building opportunities as well. It’s good to hear about people involved in these activities.

  6. I would like to start a global forum for kids, parents and educators interested in integrating Permaculture into education (and community?) to talk, exchange ideas and be a repository for resources. I’ve purchased the domain Anybody want to pitch in and make it a reality? (I’m a wilderness guy and science teacher, not an IT guy). My email is [email protected] if interested.

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