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Participatory planning the theme of local group meeting

PERMACULTURE SYDNEY EAST’s meeting of November 2009 took the form of a group consultation for the development of a permaculture interpretive garden at Randwick Community Centre.

Randwick Council’s Sustainability Education Officer, Fiona Campbell, has been successful in obtaining a public facilities grant to carry out simple retrofitting the the community centre building to improve both its energy performance and the comfort of users of the facility.

Ideas were developed within the themes noted on the coloured cards. A ball of twine was spiralled into the centre to highlight the primacy of permaculture’s ethics in any works claiming to be examples of permaculture design.

The permaculture interpretive garden forms part of the educational component of the grant, other aspects of which will be the installation of an educational water trail, courtesy of another grant, to educate visitors about water issues and the conservation of water. This will include the refitting of the community centre kitchen to improve water management and to install educational features in it, and the installation of a number of different types of water tank to store rainwater falling on the Centre’s extensive roof area.

All of these features will be accompanied by interpretive signage and the water trail will be structured as an educational feature for the benefit of visitors and school groups.

Making demonstration centres accessible

The need to locate educational facilities where they are readily available to the public has gone largely unfulfilled in Sydney where there is no facility like Melbourne’s CERES centre to fulfill that role.

Ex-NASA astrophycisist-come-community-advocate-and-eduator, Dr Robert Gillman, identified the need for such facilities during his 1995 visit and public presentation in Sydney. There are plenty of private homes that demonstrate energy and water efficient design and technologies as well as home food production, however they are not pubicly accessible other than the few that open for the annual Sustainable Houses Day. The exception is the city’s community food gardens that welcome visitors to view urban food production and related water harvesting technologies.

Randwick’s permaculture interpretive garden will be used by Fiona for Council’s Sustainable Gardening courses, several of which are offered free to the public during the year. The new Living Smart course, which will also be offered free through the year, will also use the educational facilities.

Arcology Sustainable Design’s Terry Bail, an architect who has qualifications in permaculture design, is designing the refitting of the building. This will likely include simple measures to reduce heat gain through the west-facing windows, such as external, moveable louvres. Terry designed the innovative, portable sustainable home demonstration unit for City of Sydney that appeared in public places in the inner city area in 2009.

The educational component of the grant has already started with a series of training sessions on environmental education in schools led by Julie Gaul from the Early Childhood Environmental Education Network. These have been attended by early childhood teachers and others.

A team works on ideas.
A team works on ideas.

A harvest of ideas

The purpose of the Permaculture East activity was to provide the community group with the opportunity for input at the conceptual stage of the project. This was done by taking the group through a structured process to generate and harvest ideas to pass on to the project’s landscape designer, Steve Batley of Sydney Organic Gardens. Steve, like architect Terry, has qualifications in permaculture design.

The process introduced the practice of design thinking. Design is about finding solutions to achieve the needs of a client. The needs are defined by the client and the role of the design team is to identify the most effective and efficient means of achieving them. Effectiveness means achieving what the client wants and efficiency consists of the processes of doing so, such as cost effectiveness and making as full as possible use of materials (minimising waste), time and process.

Scene setting

The starting point for any participatory design process is to define what the focus is and to interpret  concepts.

To ensure that people were talking about the same thing, a scene-setting exercise started the process. Going around the circle while passing and unraveling a ball of thick twine to form the circumference for a pattern that would evolve with the process, participants offered one word that would summarise what permaculture design is about. This elicited responses such as: wisdom, diversity, lifestyle, nature, collaboration, solutions.

Making associations between theme cards and ideas was facilitated by arranging the cards in a circular pattern.
Making associations between theme cards and ideas was facilitated by arranging the cards in a circular pattern.

The following phase saw the use of Robyn Clayfield’s permaculture design cards to devise ideas to illustrate elements of permaculture in the design of the interpretive garden.

A card stating ‘what is permaculture?’ was placed in the centre and cards with permaculture’s three ethics placed around and adjacent to it. Around this, cards with permaculture’s principles were arranged, forming a circular pattern on the floor. People then formed pairs, discussed their ideas and placed cards containing them, of how the garden could illustrate the principles, adjacent to the card with the relevant principle.

Ideas included:

  • permaculture zones — artwork
  • edge effect — via keyhole gardens and herb spirals
  • use of biological resources — bees, wormfarms, chooks
  • sectors — use of taller shrubs and plant screens to block wind
  • pattern — circles, spirals, labyrinth
  • relative location — placing a kitchen garden and a tea garden adjacent to the kitchen
  • multifunction — plant guilds, pergola
  • multiple elements to support a particular function — companion planting, fruit trees.

PcSE_consultation12The question of what global issues the garden could illustrate was also considered. This was done to context the permaculture interpretive garden and to broaden the appreciation of the purpose of the exercise.

The twine, already formed as a perimeter to the pattern made by the cards that was evolving on the floor, was spiraled though the cards to centre on those bearing permaculture’s ethics. This reinforced the centrality of the ethics to what is done as permaculture.

The activity concluded with people walking around what had become a radiating pattern on the floor to read what others had listed. During the review, people considered what the key messages of the garden might include. Closing energy loops, permaculture’s ethics values, a garden for all life based on food chains and a garden of physical beauty were offered as ideas.

The centrality of the ethics

Permaculture’s ethics are three: care of people, care of the earth, the sharing of surplus resources so that other people can meet their needs. As a reference against which permaculture can be assessed, it is the ethics that define whether a project or work is truly permaculture.


The ethics are implemented through a variable set of permaculture principles, originally developed by permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison and lately revised and updated by co-founder, David Holmgren. The two sets are compatible and permaculture designers and educators draw from both. David’s, though, has gained greater currency since the publication of his book that describes them.

Ideas were eveloped for each design area.
Ideas were eveloped for each design area.

Thinking about user needs

Any project in a public place requires the analysis of the needs and concerns of those who will use the facility and those indirectly affected by it.

The stakeholder analysis saw the group list who the stakeholders might be. This included those who might use the permaculture interpretive garden itself as well as those who would make use of the physical context of the garden, the community centre grounds.


Stakeholder analysis requires careful consideration and, in accommodating the uses chosen, thoughtful design is need to avoid potentially conflicting uses clashing. The need is to accommodate the chosen uses in the most effective way possible through design thinking.

Identifying the needs and concerns of stakeholders will be accomplished in a public consultation that is being planned, however it was included in the consultation with Permaculture East to gain some ideas of who the group thought stakeholders, their needs and concerns might be.

The stakeholders are documented in the accompanying diagram, and their possible needs and concerns in the table at the end of this report.

Reviewing ideas developed during the card process.
Reviewing ideas developed during the stakeholder analysis.

Developing ideas

The next activity brought participants onto the site of the proposed permaculture interpretive garden.

Here, Steve took them through a site analysis and they broke into small groups, each with a copy of the site plan, to think about how the ideas for the site could be located and the form they might take. Each group then explained its ideas of the site.

Standing in the shade, Fiona and Steve (right) talk with the group about the development of the permaculture interpretive garden.
Fiona and Steve (right) talk with the group about the development of the permaculture interpretive garden.

Building the skills base

Seated under ths shade of a paperbark, a small team develops ideas for the permaculture interpretive garden.
Seated under ths shade of a paperbark, a small team develops ideas for the permaculture interpretive garden.

Permaculture East is a new group and, while the main intention of the process was to harvest the ideas of its members as part of the consultation process around the permaculture interpretive garden and community centre, another intention was to familiarise the group with considerations they may have to take account of in any projects they carry out. In this sense, the process was one of skilling-up for public involvement, which falls within Fiona’s ambit in her role with Council.

Developing skills such as those visited in the process is crucial for permaculture groups planning to work beyond the home and garden. Here, issues and interests are more varied and complex and design thinking has to take them into account to develop solutions that accommodate as many of them as is desirable and practical and to disadvantage few. This is a difficult and potentially fractious task.

A full day could easily be devoted to the process as this would allow going in-depth into design ideas and their implementation and to include other topics. But, with only two hours available, the process was necessarily hurried, however the results show that it was successful and worthwhile.





Comments (1)

  • susan van de Griendt
    September 16, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Thank you for this amazing example. We live in South Africa on the Garden Route on the edge of vast indigenous forests. We are starting a permaculture group with 1 member having completed the PDC. I would like to workshop a stakeholders analysis and my question to you is: are there any templates or defined guidelines to the questions that need to be asked? Or do we start with the 12 principals of permaculture??? If you can assist in this matter I’d be very grateful.

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