Permaculture Design Course

Permaculture Design Course
Madeira Island - Portugal
Permaculture is to live in harmony with nature providing for human needs and the needs of everything around us

Permaculture Interview with Penny Livingston

 Interview with Penny Livingston

There is a myth that as the human population increases, food, and arable land to grow it on, will necessarily be in short supply. Competition for land and other dwindling resources will, in turn, destroy the world's remaining forests and ecological preserves. But there could be another outcome, another approach to life, an new beginning. In her three-part, exclusive interview with Ecotecture, Permaculturalist Penny Livingston tells us how.

Learn more about Penny and her Permaculture Institute of Northern California

Ecotecture: How did you first get interested in Permaculture, first discover it?

Penny Livingston: I have a background in landscape design, and I was getting to a place where I wanted to work with people connecting them back to the natural world. As a landscape designer, you get a lot of people saying, "I want a no-maintenance garden." There are people who want to sit out on their porch or their deck and look at a beautiful garden and not have any interaction with it. So I did a lot of natives, and habitat, and getting birds in there. I've always thought that there is more than just covering the ground with plants. It is really about, "what are the functions of the plants, and what else can they be doing besides just looking beautiful? Can they be make oxygen, process water, provide habitat, heal people?" When I found out about Permaculture, that pretty much fit the bill.

Ecotecture: How did you find out about Permaculture?

PL: Well, (laughs) I went through a crisis where I fired a client. It didn't feel very good, but it was just one of those things where I was working for very wealthy people and constantly getting my money talked down, talked down, when I charged so little, at the time anyway. It was just so offensive to me, the I said, "I think you should find somebody else." I had a big hole in my schedule after firing this guy. A friend of ours from Lost Valley Education Center in Oregon was staying with us. I was really upset. I didn't even want to come to dinner. I was in my office, and stewing, wondering, "What am I doing with my life, comforting the rich, building these things . . . what's it all for, anyway? It is a luxury."

Ecotecture: When was that?

PL: This was around 1990. To have somebody come in and design and put in your landscape for you is not a necessity, it is a luxury. It was getting to the place where what I was doing seemed so meaningless.

So, my friend talked about a Permaculture course starting three days hence. I didn't have a clue as to what Permaculture was. She talked about a blending of ecology and community economics. That was a hook for me, the community economics part. So, I went, and took a two-week (Permaculture) intensive design course. It turned my world upside down, or, right side up, let me put it that way (laughs).

Ecotecture: Where was the course taught?

PL: It was at the Lost Valley Education Center. It was in December. It was taught by Tom Ward, June DeHobbs, and Rick Valley, who were three students of (Permaculture Founder) Bill Mollison's.

Ecotecture: And it turned your world right side up?

PL: Yeah. Yeah, because everything made so much sense. But I wasn't real clear on what Permaculture was and how much of what they were teaching was their opinions and how much was the curriculum. So, I ended up taking a couple more courses. One of them was with Bill Mollison. Since then I have become good friends with him. He stayed here and I've hosted him and I've gotten a real in-depth look from the horse's mouth, so to speak, because he was one of the co-founders, with David Holmgren, of the concept of Permaculture. David Holmgren was a student of environmental design and Bill was a professor of forest ecology at the University of Australia, or perhaps Tasmania. They put the whole concept together.

Ecotecture: I've heard Bill Mollison referred to as the "Tasmanian Devil."

PL: Oh yes.

Ecotecture: What's he like?

PL: He's a delightful human being. He has a persona of being a rather irascible curmudgeon when he gets on stage. He'll rant, he is an iconoclast, he likes to poke at everyone's sacred cows, and he does it well-pisses people off. He also angers people into action. He is very effective at doing that. He really gets people to start looking at themselves in a more critical way.

But in private, at home, he's like a big bear. He is so interested in everything. His idea of a good time is to go to used bookstores and buy books, which is so fun to do with him. He also cooks really good food, particularly sea food. Fresh, hot, sea food. That is what we do a lot when he is here. He's not particularly interested in looking at everyone's garden, and giving everyone advice. In fact, he shuns that. He really likes to just kick back, tell stories, talk about new ideas, the old days, and he is a delight to be around. He spent quite a bit of time here, and, when he leaves, I feel very sad because I never know if it is the last time I will see him.

Ecotecture: How old is he now?

PL: I'm not exactly sure. I think in his early 70's. He quit smoking, the first of this year. It was pretty funny, you know, this "sustainability" guy smoked like a fiend. So he is also sort of a walking contradiction himself, like so many of us are. He's very accessible and down to earth and a regular person.

I think when I first met him, before I met him, I expected to see a grouchy, aloof, disconnected, burnt-out, irascible, egotistical guy.

Ecotecture: Sounds like he has a good reputation, at least.

PL: (Laughs) That is what I expected. I didn't know. You just think, here is somebody who is a global figure . . . But he is not at all any of that. He is really fun.

Pond, water storage tank, trees and light on Livingston's PINC property.
Click for full image.
I feel very grateful not only that I have gotten to be friends with him and to get to know him the way I have, but also that he decided to not go out in the bush and isolate himself, that he did come back (from his trek in the wilderness) and bring this design system with him and walked the globe and shared it with community after community for two or three decades now. I feel indebted to him, in a way, and extremely grateful that he did that. It certainly changed my life.

I don't know of any other single human being that has done more to empower communities to start taking responsibility. There are more Permaculture people doing silent, quiet — just doing the work — then there are in any of those big USAID, World Bank, or Peace Corp projects combined. There are literally tens of thousands of people doing this all over the world involved in on-the-ground Permaculture projects.

But they are not announcing it. There are journals where people write about what they are doing, but, often, it is very difficult to find the people because they are just doing it. The Permaculture community is very anarchistic.

Ecotecture: What happened after you took that first Permaculture course?

PL: I came home and basically did business as usual, still. People would talk to me and say how was it, what happened, and I would say, "I can't even talk about it. I'll get back to you (laughs)." My brain was so full. I went through all my notes, put 'em on a computer, rearranged them. That really helped me to remember everything. Because after about a week and a half I went brain dead. You get so much information, especially in the old way of teaching — and it is still being taught this way — lecture, lecture, lecture. Whereas in our (PINC) courses, as much as possible, we get out there and do hands-on every afternoon. We break up the input of information so people can process it.

So, it wasn't until I went to the Green Gulch Zen Center near Bolinas, California, where they were doing a workshop on sustainability . . . I just happened to read about it that morning, when it was happening, when I opened up the Green Gulch newsletter. I dropped everything, jumped in the car, went down there, and said, "I want to hear what you have to say."

As we were walking along, and looking at the landscape and what was happening there . . . you can see that it used to be a ranch, they pulled the cows off, it's has been probably three years or more with no cattle there, so you can see the land re successioning itself and coming back. So it is a good example, the hills there, and, all of the sudden, things just started trickling out of me. An understanding happened.

I don't take ecology classes — scientific biology. I do have a lot of friends who are naturalists that have really given me great information, but there was a pattern, something clicked where I could see the pattern and see flow patterns. That is a big part of Permaculture. That is the tool you use, along with observation. Those are the two things, observing and pattern understanding and recognition — mostly you are observing and looking for patterns.

Ecotecture: What kind of patterns?

PL: Oh, any kind of patterns. That's the beauty. It could be flow patterns, patterns of succession, air flow, water flow, pathway flow, human dynamic patterns. Just looking for patterns and identifying them has helped my whole understanding of complex systems.

Once you identify a pattern, you work within that pattern, work within that flow. It is an understanding that just comes. It is a non-intellectual understanding. In fact, I have been musing about how much of what we attribute to intuition is really pattern recognition, and maybe vice versa (laughs). Because it comes in very much the same way. You see, when you are looking at a tree, for example, or you are watching a river or creek flow, you are getting so much information that you don't even know that you are getting it, consciously.

So as a designer I make decisions that just feel right. What Permaculture brought to me was learning how to trust my intuition. I really think a lot of what I was calling intuition was simply complex pattern recognition. As a designer, I could tap into that, and I ended up with successful designs. Especially if one is working with living things, landscape, for example, you are working with plants, soil, critters, water, wind, and weather (dynamic patterns.) It's not like building cabinets and putting them in someone's house or getting a piece of furniture. It is a living system that you are designing with it.

So, a successful design requires very little maintenance, and creates a healthy environment and high production. That production can be interpreted as habitat, clean water, a comfortable place to be, definitely food production and raw materials of all sorts for human use. When you start looking at the pattern you realize that even the migrating Warblers that are coming in and eating the little caterpillar that would normally be eating your plants — that is human use too. So habitat, if you want to look at it that way, has a human function to it as well, that of maintaining a balance so we don't have to do it.

Ecotecture: So what happened next? There you were. You had finished your course, you went to the Zen center, and you got this big flash...

PL: That is what I got, I got an "Aha!" It also happened with my dreams. I kept dreaming this stuff. Every night. To the point where I would wake up in the morning and sometimes I would just be exhausted because I would have to go out and do it again- designing. As you know, as a designer you use a certain part of your brain when you are intensely designing things. It can be tiring. It is not something that you can do all the time, at least I can't. I get very spaced out when I do three or four hours straight on a project, just doing designing and drawing or measuring or mapping, even. All of that takes concentration.

This "Cobb" structure, built by students at a Permaculture Institute of Northern California workshop, serves as Livingston's office.
Click for full image.
So, I'd do that in my dreams, and then in the morning I would just be wiped out (laughs) to the point where I finally said, "OK, I submit. Stop it!" I decided to devote my life to spreading the word about Permaculture, because, I thought, "this makes so much sense. It is teachable. The curriculum is brilliant."

There is a lot of sustainability stuff out there. A lot of ecological design stuff and all these different flags. But, I find that the way the information is presented, the principals, in Permaculture, no matter who you are, whether you are an architect, engineer, farmer, a housewife who has hardly been in the garden . . . one woman we had was a baker who thought she didn't "have any experience." She found that everyone can tap into his or her ecological knowledge, it is all within us. There is a resonance that starts to happen.

The same curriculum has been taught to Warani Indians in Equador, architecture graduate students in Portugal, communities throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, Nepal, and Bali, not to mention Australia and New Zealand — it is everywhere. Vietnam has a big Permaculture community now, thanks to one Australian woman who went there. The curriculum is the same everywhere so you can have the same course in India as you do here. It can have a different bent to it, based on the culture, but the essential information is the same. It transcends cultural, political (boundaries) — you can have Libertarians, left wingers, religious right wingers all in the same group, and everyone is resonating on these principals because they just make sense. They are very non-dogmatic.

There is another brilliance to them. They can be applied in the tropics, temperate climates, drylands, wetlands. So that is what psyched me. I thought, "this is brilliant."

It takes a while to really understand and apply it to your own life, because everyone is different, everyone's life is as complex as life itself. But, when you get up in the morning, you start to have a little bit of a palette of criteria about what to do with your life and what decisions you are going to make. "Where is my food coming from? Where is my water coming from? Where does my sewage go? Where is all this garbage going?" You are certainly asking these questions.

Then you start asking, "what can I do to start turning these wastes into resources." Then you find that the creativity is only limited by that of the designer. There are incredible things that can be done to reduce consumption, increase production, create these ecologically viable and economically sound settlements for humans.

Ecotecture: What is the difference between Permaculture and, say, organic gardening?

PL: Good question. They are very different. Very different. One of the things that has been said in the past, and I don't agree with this, is that only Permaculturalists have ethics toward the land. I completely, whole heartedly disagree. Every organic farmer that I know has a very profound ethic toward the land. That's why they are farming organically to begin with.

But, organic farming comes from a premise of monoculture. You are still plowing, in most conventional senses, you are still growing all your crops in a row, you are still growing all your lettuces here, your cabbages there, your potatoes over there — for practical reasons. They are mostly growing money more than they are growing food.

Ecotecture: Permaculture doesn't plow?

PL: In Permaculture you don't dig, you don't plow, you very rarely weed. You have a perennial based system. That is where you start.

Ecotecture: And you have a diverse system?

PL: Yes, very diverse. You basically focus on growing your soil, and the soil will grow the plants. That's kind of true for organic agriculture also, but with Permaculture you plant the foundation first, with all the perennials. Then, within that perennial system (you plant annuals). The annuals may be a small percentage, 10 to 15 percent, depending on what your needs are, how much space you have, and what size your project. It is very small piece. That is the piece of which we say, "if you want to do biointensive (gardening), biodynamic, or whatever method of growing your annual vegetables, go for it." Whatever works for you.

You can also interplant within the Permaculture system, and do sheet mulching (see below). There are a thousand different ways of growing food. More than that (laughs). I don't want to put a limit on it.

There is an unlimited number of ways to grow food. It's probably one of the most site specific things you can think of. I could live across the street from here and I'm going to have a whole different set of issues. For farming, especially organic farming and annuals, the learning curve takes years to get that site down, in terms of starting the seeds at just the right time, and dealing with all the variations in the weather conditions, particularly here in California. There is a huge amount of knowledge that has to be attained through organic farming.

If you design a Permaculture system right, and you put it in place, you can walk away and it will grow itself. That is the primary difference. I've got perennial kales. I just lop off the top and stick them in the ground and they grow. I have greens all year long. We've got fruit trees now that, in their fourth year, are yielding bushels of fruit, and this is just a small garden. We don't have that many trees, but we have many hundreds of pounds of fruit. It is good fruit, it is highly mineralized, highly nutritious.

These are plants that want to grow here. That is the only kind of plants that I'm interested in on any site. I am not interested in coddling plants. I'm not interested in creating false conditions for plants to grow. If it is the right plant in the right place, it will grow itself. It doesn't need much help from you.

Some of these, like that (Australian) Palonia tree I was showing you (which has grown 15 feet in one year), I have given one shovel full of chicken manure and that is it. With our trees, we very rarely fertilize anything. The birds do it for us, the ducks do it for us, the sheet mulch as it breaks down — the carbon breaks down, like a little bio bank, a slow release fertilizer as it decomposes.

Ecotecture: What is sheet mulch?

PL: It is a high carbon mulch. You mulch by putting cardboard and newspaper down, and put wood chips or straw or some carbonaceous material on top of that. Instead of using cardboard, some people in the tropics use giant taro leaves. You can use carpet, especially if it is non-toxic. But, even if it is toxic, even if it has the formaldehyde in the glue, it gets broken down molecule by molecule by bacteria until it is rendered harmless. Sheet mulching is a good bio-remedial way to clean toxins where you get all these critters eating the carbon, the detritovores eating everything and breaking it all down.

That is true also of soil and of water. That is where we work. Our whole process is that as we are growing our food we are also cleaning our water, cleaning our soil, creating food for other critters besides ourselves, and deepening the complexity of the natural world through our participation. It is more complex, more diverse, more fertile, more ecologically rich than it would be if we as Permaculturalists or humans never entered that place.

Nature, without humans, doesn't really contain such a garden. That's the beauty. We are natural beings. We are part of nature. We are just as natural as the mountain lion, bear, elk, skunk, beaver, fish, and birds. Permaculture offers us an opportunity to participate in the natural world in a really good way. We can maintain the balance just like the wolf that kills the weak caribou and keeps the caribou herd strong just by being a wolf. With Permaculture, we can create a system that can go on for an indefinite amount of time.

Ecotecture: Our readers might have a little trouble understanding that human beings can augment or improve upon nature.

PL: OK. Let's take the example of soil. If you take soil that has been degraded, compacted, walked on, exposed, heated, raked, overgrazed, driven on, or whatever- herbacided, pesticided. Even without the poison, just due to the compaction and lack of organic matter in that soil, it will blow away. It takes, depending on who you read, between six hundred and nine hundred years for nature to build an inch of top soil. That can wash away through bad practices in one storm within two hours. You may lose two, three, four inches of top soil in one storm. Without humans, that site will have to wait six hundred to forty-eight hundred years to become viable again.

Enter human beings, homo habilis. Ability and habilis come from the same root. We have the ability to move things around. To create relationships. To put things in certain places. That has gotten us into a lot of trouble, but it can also get us out of a lot of trouble. By sheet mulching, composting, adding organic matter, forking the soil, aerating the soil, whatever we need to do to that spot, we can build that top soil up in two or three years.

I have a bush pile that I created just from the pruning of the fruit trees that I planted here that has created almost a foot of topsoil in four years. It is not just topsoil. It is more like humus, a stable, nutrient laden form of top soil. I don't know what the exponential rate . . .if you want to calculate what percentage of efficiency that is, or what percentage of benefit that has.

It is not only that. That pond I put out there (on my property). . . we saw that little bird before, that little sparrow, that bird would not be here if that pond were not here. The first thing that happened when we filled the pond with water is we could hear, we could feel the birds all saying, "Thanks." Also, "Cool!" (laughs) They weren't coming up and bowing down full of gratitude, but they were very happily and pleasantly surprised when they came back (after the pond construction was complete) and found this water that they could work around. We intentionally made shallow places where they could dip into it. That is what that (stone) waterfall is. It is designed so little birds like that can go there and not be freaked out about it. We had a hawk taking a bath in that waterfall.

Ecotecture: Then you are mostly talking about taking soil systems that have for whatever reasons been degraded.

PL: Or lawn landscape practices. You keep mowing your lawn and hauling away the greens-that's mining your soil.

Ecotecture: Right. The way I heard what you said originally is that if there was a natural area that was in a pristine state you would come into that and make changes. That is where I saw an argument. Obviously, when you are talking about degraded areas, humans can help a great deal in their recovery.

PL: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. No Permaculturalist that knows anything would dare go into a pristine area, especially an old growth area.

For example, there is one principle that is called the "edge effect," or "creating an edge." The idea is that an edge, or ecotone, is more ecologically rich than the two ecosystems that have come together to form it. For example, the border between a pond and the dirt around it, or a clearing and a forest.

One of the things we strongly emphasize in our courses is that you must truly understand edge. It means, for example, that under no circumstances do you go into an interior forest and clear out a meadow, because, in fact, you are removing more edge than you are creating. If you take out one old-growth tree, or one large tree, the surface area you are removing (from the forest canopy) has more edge (than you are creating on the ground.)

Another huge conversation is about the definition of old-growth. It doesn't mean that the forest has never been cut or burned- it is about the level of complexity and the level of interrelationship within that forest. They are still having a hard time defining that. In my opinion, it is not about looking at how big the trees are, but about the ecological complexity in that forest.

In most forests, it is all happening in the ground. We hardly see anything that is going on above ground. There is fungal activity, bacterial activity, the relationships between them. We have already determined that there is more biodiversity in one gram of Pacific Northwest Forest soil, healthy soil, than there is in an estuary. And that there is more biodiversity going on below the ground in a Pacific Northwest Forest than there is above the ground in a tropical rain forest.

It is really about understanding. When we talk about complexity, when we talk about edge, we are not talking going into a pristine situation and removing or changing something. In fact, that is the whole discussion about Eucalyptus (trees.) Everybody is complaining about how Eucalyptus and Scotch Broom (a large shrub) are invasive plants. Let's start focusing where there is nothing growing, and start working on those sites before we start tearing down trees that happen to be habitat for Monarch Butterflies (Eucalyptus stands along the Northern California Coast, particularly in the Monterey Bay Region), that happen to be rookeries for raptors that eat rodents.

What they did at Angel Island (State Park in San Francisco Bay) was horrific. They cut down all the Eucalyptus because they are not native (so they could replace them with native plants). Why didn't they go onto some bald, overgrazed hill and plant a bunch of native trees? Focus on those areas instead of coming into a forested island with a degree of complexity that, even though it is not native, is thriving. An old, tall, huge tree has implicated itself with the critters around it.

So yes, we mostly like to focus on degraded areas. We are fortunate in that way, because there are lots of areas like that. No shortage.

ECOTECTURE: Does your garden feed you?

LIVINGSTON: Yes. We don't buy any fruit or vegetables, only staples like bread and the scones we had when you came here today.

Four of us eat out of the garden, my husband and I and my two resident Permaculture students. I didn't even show you the back, but it is real sunny (in early January). We have broccoli, cauliflower, lots of kale, collards, chard, lettuce and onions coming in. We still have tomatoes, because we have had such a warm winter. We still have potatoes and a number of different kinds of tubers all throughout the garden.

I don't have to import anything into this garden any more, and I will be able to grow food for . . . ever. If I kept it managed, with the chickens, and composting and keeping our food loop going from the garden to the table to the compost, there is no need to import any food. This is a sustainable system.

If the Y2K thing had happened, and there was no food, and we did not stock up on anything, we would be still eating just fine out of the garden for the whole rest of the winter, and be starting more. Now is the time to start more seeds. In another two months there would be even more food on its way.

ECOTECTURE: Do you collect your own seeds?

LIVINGSTON: Yes, we do. We collect not all of our own seed. For example, cabbages. If you have broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts all coming in at the same time, you will get some weird crosses from the Romenesco Broccoli's, for example. But, you know you could, you could save your seed, people have done that for millennia, and you could create your own varieties. Or, if I only grew one kind of cabbage that I really liked I'd get the two varieties by saving the seeds. But it is insect pollinated, so, in a small space like this, it is a little tricky to do.

On one level, you could say, "Sure, I could collect those seeds and plant them and I would be growing food. Anything I would grow from those seeds would be edible. It probably would taste pretty good. But it wouldn't be necessarily the broccoli that . . . . it would be a brocciflower, or something like that (laughs.)

ECOTECTURE: You are eating entirely out of your garden. How much land to you have?

LIVINGSTON: A little less than an acre. About three quarters of an acre.

ECOTECTURE: And you are feeding four people?

LIVINGSTON: Yes. And out of that—you can see—we are not even planting all of it. We could be producing a lot more. With all this running around we do . . . we are really only growing for our own needs.

ECOTECTURE: With a Permaculture garden, approximately how much space you would need to feed, say, a family of four? Half an acre?

I guess you could probably feed twenty to thirty families on a half an acre.

LIVINGSTON: That's a hard one. I would guess way less than half an acre. I guess you could probably feed twenty to thirty families on a half an acre.

ECOTECTURE: On a half an acre?

LIVINGSTON: Oh yeah. You can grow a lot.

ECOTECTURE: . . . of regular soil. You are not talking about in barrels or anything like that?

LIVINGSTON: No, with Permaculture if you wanted to double that, you could.


LIVINGSTON: Yes, you could. You absolutely could. Because you start thinking in terms of cubic feet instead of square feet. You can start trellising, for example. One of the methods of increasing your production is going vertical. It is called stacking. Permaculturalists think in terms of multiple canopies, so you have the high tree layer, lower tree layer, vining layer, shrub layer, herb layer, ground cover layer and the root layer. You have all these different layers, then you pattern your garden to allow the sun to come in as you need it. So you might create little meadow areas where you can grow cantaloupes or tomatoes or something that needs really hot sun.

One of the things we do here on the (California) Coast is pattern our garden into a south facing horse shoe shape with something like clorin or bamboo with a light colored, big, reflective leaf on the back side so you are not only getting convection heat from the ground, but you are also getting reflected heat from the leaves of the plant. Then you add straw mulch. If you notice . . . . this came to me, though everyone else knows about it . . . I discovered it by walking into an area that is mowed, and it is all brown underneath the mowed area. You go from where it was kind of green and taller grass into the mowed grass and you can feel the heat coming up to your face on a hot day or a warm day, just from the color of the straw. I got, "Oh, we can mulch our tomatoes and our cantaloupes with straw and that will help them ripen in the sun. Otherwise, it is very difficult to ripen tomatoes on the Coast unless you are growing hybrids that are designed for that.

If your goal is to have the most productive farm, to be able to create as many crops as possible, and, say, to make the most money from those crops, you certainly can do it. Working within these Permaculture principles is great.

That is not our goal here. I'm already enjoying about as much abundance as I can stand. I touched down—I've been traveling a lot—I come home and I have one day and it's, "OK. Let's put up two more bushels of apples." Slice them, puree them, can them, dry them and do whatever we can do and that is what we have been doing all summer. So, one of the other principals of Permaculture is that you design these productive systems so that you have some place to put all this stuff, or it will result in pollution.

It will either end up as an imbalance of too much rotting food on the ground, or an imbalance of not enough habitat and too many exotics to have a nice balance with the birds and other critters that cohabitate this place with me. I don't necessarily think that to just go in the full production direction is necessarily wise, but we can certainly provide for enough for you and however many other people you need. From there, you can figure out what you will do with your space.

We got the clay (for the cobb-construction walls) from the pond we dug, and built the building with it.

When we look at a yield, we don't look only look at how many tomatoes we can grow. We consider how many inputs are we adding to the garden, and subtract that from the outputs. We will get all the energy that goes into what we are producing.

My office building is a good example. (See Photo, Part 1 of this interview in the ECOTECTURE library.) We got the clay (for the cobb-construction walls) from the pond we dug, and built the building with it. That is different from importing wood from Pacific Lumber. The little lumber we did use came from a local mill. Two local guys resurfaced old boards. They also resurface old telephone poles, and only take trees that have to come down for some other reason rather than for logging. They have either fallen down, or threatened someone's house, or they are coming down anyway. They will be chopped up for firewood—chipped up. Or, these guys can mill them into lumber. That is where we get our wood. It is all local. The cabinets we are getting for our kitchen come from an oak tree that fell two miles from here. Two years ago, our cabinet maker milled it, stickered and dried it, and now he is going to use it and we are fortunate enough to be able to buy that from him instead of supporting some unsustainable logging operation.

ECOTECTURE: Let say that you could have the future as you wanted it—a Permaculture future. If you think about large cities with many, many people to feed, issues of things being out of balance. Would it be forty acres and a mule, or one acre and a mule where everybody has a little place like yours and feeds themselves? Or would it be communal design?

LIVINGSTON: That is where you look as scale linking. That is a very important question, especially in regard to population. You have to look at diversity. Diversity in settlements is equally important (as biological or cultural diversity.) I would never say, "everybody has to live in the city. Everybody has to live in the suburbs. Everybody needs to go out and get his back forty somewhere." We need all of it. We can't have every single person living in the city any more than we can have every single person living out of the city. What we need is a diversity of scale so we have the mixed use inner city corridors with green belts running through them and greenhouses.

The Buddha watches as "gray water" passes through a flow form on its way from Livingston's roof to the pond in her Permaculture garden.
click for a larger image

There are urban designs with greenhouses on the south walls of every building and there was the potential to not only grow, but process your own food and your own gray water. Actually recycle the water within the building using it for heating and growing food in the greenhouse and for other purposes. Again, when you get an integrated design, it gets very exciting. I want to see somebody actually pull it off, and take the risk money.

I don't want to digress too much, because I want to go back to the vision. But, one of the ways that this could be accomplished is if some of these people who are hoarding some of the great wealth of this country, as well as anywhere else, actually took that money and threw it at somebody to do a design and to construct the archetypal development, or one example of an archetypal development. Yet that money would be 100 percent risk money. They may never see it again. Yet it would do so much good to be able to see such an example. Because right now those kind of systems, those infrastructures in the city are expensive. I think in the long term they will end up being a lot less expensive. They'll certainly end up being a lot less ecologically expensive. But, until we have the technology and the knowledge of how to build these things, it is going to cost somebody. You can't expect the builder to donate all his time to figuring it all out and scratching his head, any more than you can expect the engineers to do that. But there are people who are hoarding money. If they could pay these people to put their heads together to come up with an integrated design . . . we know we have the technology. We know what to do.

My dream would be to be able to work with a really good engineer, builder, and energy person and design a complex. Not just a house, a building, but a whole living center that includes living units, shopping units, commercial, residential, inner city, high density space that is totally cutting edge. I think there are some things on the drawing board, but I would like to know where to go to visit something like that.

The city could become so much more efficient, if it so desired. I know we have the technological knowledge to do that, but I don't know that we have the political will. Or the educated . . . . some of us have the education to do that, and some of us don't. It is a matter of putting together some kind of common vision, and that can be a broad, conceptual common vision, just recognizing that we can't just keep doing things the way we have been.

The cities can grow their own food. There is no reason why anybody in a city can't be fed from within that city, or at least from a greenbelt around the city. Functional trees . . . . You know, I drove into San Francisco the other day, to go on a little rant, tirade . . . Have you seen all the palm trees they are putting up?

What we need is a diversity of scale so we have the mixed use inner city corridors with green belts running through them and greenhouses.

ECOTECTURE: No. The ones by the Marina? I read about them in the paper.

LIVINGSTON: Do you know how much those palm trees cost?

ECOTECTURE: Ten thousand apiece, or something like that.

LIVINGSTON: Something like that. What does it say for the City? Are we trying to be a Santa Barbara wannabe, or what? Those palms have nothing to do with this place, and they are phenomenally expensive. Meanwhile, bus rates are doubling and the schools are going to hell. But the City somehow manages enough money to put that in? I'm actually shocked.

This is the type of thing we must start looking at. Who is running the show here? How is it that that decision gets made, there are abandoned buildings, and all those homeless people don't even have a pot to piss in. Excuse me, don't quote me on that. Don't even have a roof over their head. I get just . . . it is beyond getting angry. I get incredulous.

That is what management is. Whoever is pulling the strings in urban areas—San Francisco is just one pathetic example—but this is happening all over the place, and we talked before this interview about the gentrification of poorer neighborhoods. People coming in and real estate values going up. It is turning our whole existence into a commodity. What is up with that? When is it going to end? Where is the boundary going to be?

Obviously they transcend the boundary with genetic engineering, that they can patent and sell life. They can patent and sell your DNA that you created in your own blood. They make profits on it. They have patented our food supply. We have lost 97 percent. That is not an exaggeration. Ninety-seven percent of our food crops have been lost in the last one hundred years.

But, the city could be a beautiful, joyous, sublime, wonderful place to be. A place that breeds community, not isolation, that takes care of every single citizen in that city, that reduces or, hopefully, eliminates the need for crime.

ECOTECTURE: Lost in what sense?

LIVINGSTON: Lost in the sense of extinction and lack of biodiversity, different varieties of seeds not being used any more. This is mainly because of the agricultural practices we have of monoculture. If you don't use a seed for ten to 20 years, its viability is gone. That has happened to 97 percent of our food crops. It is astounding. There is a movement afoot, now, to bring back that diversity with heirlooms, and try, but 97 percent is a pretty high figure. That figure came from the people who are actually working on trying to protect these things, especially the heirloom vegetables, and who are devoting their lives to creating more diversity on the planet.

There is serious stuff going on, and we are planting $10,000 palm trees in a place where it is totally inappropriate. That's is the problem, right now. The solution is that somehow as a society we have to get our heads together and start to use them, use what we have been given, and to start redesigning and redefining the city. It is possible. It is totally possible. It is just improbable, at this point. I am not hopeful.

But, the city could be a beautiful, joyous, sublime, wonderful place to be. A place that breeds community, not isolation, that takes care of every single citizen in that city, that reduces or, hopefully, eliminates the need for crime. When you start looking at what is the root of crime, why one human wants to do something bad to another human for their own personal gain, what does that need come from? It is all there. All that information and all those ideas have been worked and reworked and reworked, but everybody has been doing it in isolation. They have the psychologist or the crime-ologist talking about crime. They have the other person talking about poverty, somebody else talking about starvation, and somebody else talking about economic opportunity, but they are not all talking to each other. Until that happens, nobody can (move forward.)

Then enter in design, architecture, infrastructure, the opportunity for somebody to simply park his or her bod on the planet. That has been taken away from us. That is a basic right. What is happening with this society that we are searching for the proverbial dollar while people are dying in the streets? It is unfathomable. I don't know of any other species that does this, that works this way. I don't know any other species that kills their own children, basically. It is through that . . . I can go down a pretty deep, slippery slope, but it is Permaculture, and the idea of what it has to offer humanity that keeps me going.

Otherwise I could talk . . . . . I really get a sardonic pleasure out of scaring students with some of the current statistics. But, you know, that isn't productive. (Laughs) But it is there.

ECOTECTURE: It is there.

LIVINGSTON: So Permaculture is important stuff and it is good stuff and it is stuff full of light and hope.

ECOTECTURE: This city that you were talking about, what would be the actual form it takes?


ECOTECTURE: You have already described it in a general way. . . A community with a compact structure.

LIVINGSTON: Yes. My first overlay would have been oaks, because that is the tree of this place. If you look at it from an indigenous point of view, if you have acorns and you have oak trees, you have absolutely everything from an indigenous perspective of this place. If you don't have acorns, you are just shit out of luck.

But we are Europeans, most of us, and we don't eat acorns. I would vote for putting in trees that feed people. Because that is what needs to happen right now. There is a lot of starvation in San Francisco, and, in fact, that neighborhood, the (upscale) Embarcadero where those palm trees are, you try to find some organic food somewhere within walking distance. You won't be able to. You are hard put to find any grocery store within walking distance.

We don't have a
water shortage,
we have a
storage shortage.

There are already communities throughout the Bay Area where people have to get into a vehicle, burn fossil fuels, travel may blocks, if not miles out of the community to simply get food, not to mention organic food. In the landscape, when you are working with the natural world, I would think about planting things people could eat. Nut trees are really great, because they don't store pollutants in their nuts. They don't have a lot of lead. Some may, but walnuts, for example, will not store lead in their nut. We don't have a lot of leaded fuel anymore, but that is just an example. Nut trees make great food trees.

But you talk to the Mayor and the Planner and they say, "What would happen if somebody was coming along and they stumble on a nut tree and turn their ankle and they can sue the City and dada, dada, dada. . . Dada. Somebody will have to come along and pick up the nuts and leaves." That is where you have to start redefining what is important.

In the cities, we would have the greenbelts producing food and habitat, there would be clean water running through the city, bioremediated.

ECOTECTURE: Do you think enough water falls on, say, a typical city in Northern California so that it could recycle and reuse its own water without having to go to outside sources?

Cricket Cottage houses guests at the Permaculture Institute. A year-around food supply grows in the foreground.

LIVINGSTON: You bet. You would have to do calculations but the main issue is storage. We don't have a water shortage, we have a storage shortage. It would be challenging to store enough water for a city to use for five months out of the year. We have one of the longest dry seasons in Northern California. But, it is possible. Sure it is possible.

If you have a two thousand square foot house, and you get 24 inches of rain, which is an average rain in the San Francisco area. . . during the drought, it is a low average. . . that is two cubic feet of water falling per square foot of your roof. If you multiply that times 2,000 square feet (of roof), you have 4,000 cubic feet. Multiply that times 7.48 (gallons per cubic foot). So that would be something around 32,000 gallons of water.

ECOTECTURE: Falling on a typical roof in San Francisco?

LIVINGSTON: That is a small roof. That is a typical suburban roof.

ECOTECTURE: Do you happen to know how much water people would use in month?

LIVINGSTON: Say a family of four would use 100 gallons per day times 30 days in the month, that would be about 3,000 gallons per month. So the rainfall on the roofs alone would provide enough water for about ten months of the year.

EDITOR'S COMMENT: The calculations above do not include water that falls on the streets and other open spaces or reducing water use through conservation and recycling measures.

When you talk to urban planners . . . If we are going to get into city issues, and population, and density, the first consideration is the car. In this whole vision of the city we haven't even mentioned transportation. It is critically important that not everybody has to drive and park. I wonder how much fuel gets burned just by people driving around San Francisco trying to find a place to park. Stop at a stoplight. Drive around the block, miss the parking space, driving around for fifteen or twenty minutes just trying to find a place to park-not getting there. How many gallons of fossil fuel get burned, how much oxygen gets consumed?

The combustion engine in the city is unsustainable just from the point of view of how much oxygen it uses. Four hundred cubic feet of oxygen gets consumed for every gallon of gas that gets burned. Of that, a certain percentage does get converted back to carbon dioxide which can then get converted back to oxygen via trees and plants, but a lot of it gets converted into carbon monoxide and becomes an energy sink it doesn't get converted back to oxygen. If is wasn't for the fact that there is a breeze coming into most cities, people would be suffocating. In Mexico City, people are suffocating. They are suffering from lack of oxygen because they live in a bowl and don't have that air flow.

So, transportation. I think an electric/hydrogen car, whichever ends up being the car of the future, is critically important. I'm interested in electric cars because of the sound. I'm very noise sensitive. Imagine a city where there isn't the rumble of engines happening all the time. Imagine what that would be like. . . just that in terms of people's quality of life. They have this white noise constantly Rrrrrrr.

The combustion
engine in the city
is unsustainable
just from the
point of view of how
much oxygen it uses.

ECOTECTURE: Have you ever been to Venice?


ECOTECTURE: It is just like that. There's no cars. It's all water.

LIVINGSTON: There you go.

ECOTECTURE: There are a few motor boats on the Grand Canal and a few smaller motorboats on the back canals, but mostly, it is just like your place here no cars. It is really neat.

LIVINGSTON: Exactly. That does a lot to stop the agitation, the constant agitation of people who live and work and spend 100 percent of their time in cities. Imagine a city that is not only cleaning its own water and air, but it is also breeding humans who have a quality of life and hope for the future that they don't have right now. So that the children that are growing up in the neighborhoods know that there is a better world out there for them than there was for their parents, that things are improving. As children grow up, just that would create a blossoming human being instead of a despondent one. Right now there is a lot of despondency and hopelessness and depression.

But if you lived in a city that had light, where everyone was exposed to everyone else, there wasn't isolation, there was mixed economic community so you would have the very wealthy living right next door to the very poor and there would be housing for everyone. Politically, I don't know how to work that one out. I don't get involved in politics, because are you talking about being a communist, about socialism, being a capitalist, or, what are we talking about? The trickle down theory? I don't know about any of that. I don't even know where to go with that. That is somebody else's realm. But as far as design, as far as re-designing and redefining the cities, that is where I have a vision, and other people such as Richard Register have a vision. So many people could work together to create that if we had the economic ability and political will to do it.

One strategy would be that as the city decays then you rebuild it. You can't just go in and rip everything out and put if back in, but every sewer system in San Francisco is totally falling apart. As you have to rip up the streets and get at these pipes to re-configure them, that is when you start redesigning your infrastructure for your sewage treatment. That is when you have to start thinking about scale, and about people. What is more efficient, to remediate sewage on a household basis, or a neighborhood basis? Which is the easiest, most stable system to design. Sometimes, it might be easier to do everything on a per-household basis. Everybody has his or her own little system where they flush their toilet and it goes into their own greenhouse and it is all quite simple, no muss, no fuss, and all those pipes under the street can just rot. It wouldn't even matter. That's one idea. There are a lot of different ideas.

There is no need to
build more energy

Mixed use. That means people can walk to where they work, walk to where they shop. Foods can be produced and sold within the city. Jobs are created that way. We are not just providing office buildings for jobs, but actually providing jobs for people to be working within the city. The education system would be locked into all of this because there is a lot that school kids could be learning. We have things like the jail garden project, and people who do community service could be helping grow food for people who are less fortunate, or whatever.

You can hunt and peck and pick on just about every aspect of what a city could be. When you start to think about it, it all starts to make sense. It all can be in sync with the other systems. So you can link your transportation system with your food production system and with your community economics and urban redevelopment corridors and energy production systems. There is no need to build more energy infrastructure. Especially here. I keep thinking of San Francisco because I grew up here. This is a city I know.

You start putting windmills on those buildings, you would get a cash crop (of energy). Maybe nobody would have to pay any city taxes. They would generate more power than most of that city could use I'll bet. If you fly over San Francisco and see all these windmills fluttering around. But, people are going to complain, "I don't want to live by windmills." There is always this block that keeps those types of ideas from happening. But, if you are really serious about "let's get efficient, let's produce our energy," you have a resource in San Francisco that would probably cover half of California. (Laughs) I don't know about that!


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