Streatham is growing
Streatham-based Social Landscapes is a Community Interest Permaculture Company who work with communities to create green spaces and social places that promote wellbeing. But what on earth is permaculture and why should we be getting involved? James Perrett got green fingered to find out how permaculture might save our world.
Permaculture is not, as spell check might suggest, a movement dedicated to the art of curling one’s hair. It’s a way of looking to nature to inspire change across all areas of our lives.
The term permaculture originated as a portmanteau of ‘permanent agriculture’, but it’s become more than that; a set of principles for a change in culture and communities.
“One of the best definitions of permaculture is ‘Common sense made common again’,” explained Social Landscapes’ Tish Vail. “If you go back to indigenous knowledge, people just did stuff because it made sense yet for some reason, we’ve lost the ability to make it really simple.”
What are the practices of permaculture?
Permaculture may be about making life simpler but the practice itself has many layers.
It emerged in the 1970s when University of Tasmania lecturer Bill Mollison and student David Holmgren began looking into our unsustainable structures for growing food and developed a methodology, drawing inspiration from diversity in nature.
For example: we grow big fields of one crop. If that one crop becomes diseased or eaten by pests, the whole food supply has been wiped out.
Whereas in a forest the species are so diverse that if one dies, there would still be a huge number of others to supply food.
They used nature herself as inspiration to develop the three strands that exist in permaculture today.
First: looking into ecology – observing how systems in nature work – then extracting those principles and applying them to a design.
Second: researching and putting into action the knowledge and practices of indigenous people. Working with the environment, not fighting it.
Lastly, looking at systems-theory and exploring relationships between things in a system; how behavioural patterns emerge.
Overarching these three strands are three ethics of permaculture:
- People care (“How can this be beneficial to people?”)
- Earth care (“How does this affect the environment and how do I make it beneficial for it?”)
- Fair share (“Can I put this back into the system again or give it to a new system?”)
According to Tish, a lot of permaculture is about using the problem to create the solution.
She said: “If you have slugs on your veggie patch, what’s the alternative solution to putting chemicals down? Ask yourself what’s in your eco system that could help.
“Oh look, I have a pond with ducks so I’ll create a space that allows the ducks through the vegetable patch to eat the slugs.
“You’re feeding the ducks, getting rid of the slugs and the ducks can help fertilise the ground with their poo. Natural solutions.”
Similarly, Tish suggested that you can grow your own vegetables even on a small balcony by looking at the layering of plants in nature.
Instead of having flat-laying boxes, find a way to stack them on top of each other, as you might find in a forest, and create a food growing wall.
How can permaculture help our community?
Social Landscapes work with councils, particularly Lambeth, and communities to bring people together in what they call a “beneficial project”, as well as offering private workshops.
For instance, you may have seen the big “Edible Wellfield Road” planter pots of free-to-take vegetables, built and cared for by its residents as part of an engagement project in 2014.
“Within communities we’ve become very separated,” Tish said. “What we do is to try and use the garden spaces or outdoor spaces to bring communities and people back together.
“What we’ve found is that food is an essential part of our living and when you help people see they can grow their own food, you see these connections.
“When people see they have a beneficial output, whatever it may be; berries, apples, vegetables, there’s a delight in that and from our experience that’s where we’ve found that this sense of beneficial relationships is starting to bring people back together again.”
Approached by Lambeth Council directly, they’re currently working on a project for Roupell Park Estate in Streatham Hill.
Tish said: “There’s a derelict piece of land just outside that’s been empty for about 7 years; the council want us to turn it into a community space.
“We’ve had four community consultations to find out what residents want for the space, how they see it working, what they need.
“Lots of great ideas came out, all based on permaculture principles and us asking ‘how do we keep the system going once we’ve left them to it?’”
Social Landscapes also worked on a cycle tour around Lambeth, using permaculture principles to create a pathway for people to see the great projects going on in the borough.
How can permaculture save our planet?
Tish thinks we should be looking to permaculture as part of the worldwide discussion about our environment.
“Experts are now saying the impact we’re having on our planet has reached irreversible levels and if we don’t stop it’s going to be absolutely disastrous for us,” she said. “Not in a different generation but in 10, 20 years. In our lifetime.
“A lot of the environmental issues we’ve got feel like they’re too big and global and the individual can’t make those changes. It feels defeating.
“What permaculture does is give you a way to make small, manageable, changes.
“If everybody started making these small changes the collective can have a big impact rather than people thinking they need to change the world.
“It’s an activist movement but in a positive way.
“You can just quietly get on with it – you don’t have to make a big statement and it makes you feel good – you always get a benefit from it.
“Once you start doing it, it encourages you to make more changes.”