Second Vermont Republic

A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.

The Permaculture City: Redefining Urban Life through Permaculture Principles, by Toby Hemenway (BOOK REVIEW)


We often think of cities as being separate and distant from the natural environment, but in this new book by, Toby Hemenway, called The Permaculture City, the author introduces a refreshing new way for urban, suburban, and towns to work towards sustainable practices through permaculture principles. In order to define permaculture Hemenway said, “If we think of practices such as organic gardening, graywater reuse, natural building, renewable energy—and even less tangible activities such as more equitable decision-making and social-justice methods—as tools for sustainability, then permaculture is the toolbox that helps us organize and decide when and how to use those tools.” (Hemenway, xii)

 The word permaculture originated from a combination of
“permanent” and “agriculture”, which is why it initially was focused on sustainable food production. (Hemenway, xii) When I was first introduced to permaculture, I learned how it could be used to redefine our food system and it wasn’t until I read this book that I discovered new ways to use permaculture principles. Permaculture can also address policies concerning infrastructures in cities, wastewater treatment plants, and solar. The initial approach of permaculture came from addressing sustainable food systems, but has emerged as a set of principles that now address an interwoven web of systems, where food is a small integral part. This permaculture book is a great guide to help formulate a plan of attack when figuring out which sustainable practices to implicate.

The Permaculture City will make you rethink your ideas regarding urban permaculture and think less about trying to “coax food from the few unpaved niches,” (Hemenway, ix) and instead, “permaculture is only slightly about gardening, and mostly about people.” (Hemenway, ix) Although it’s important to grow food for our communities through city gardens, educating people and teaching them to be more self-sustaining is also a significant piece to the puzzle. We need to look at how we build structures, use water and energy, and sustain ourselves by creating more environmentally, socially and economically conscious policies. We need to remember and examine how cities affect wild spaces. This book introduces techniques on how to change our daily actions to work with the environment and not against it. Books like this are important to help us start to understand how we can reconnect to the earth through cities. “As permaculture teacher Larry Santoy says, it’s not that we ‘do’ permaculture but rather that we use permaculture in everything we do.” (Hemenway, x)

Through watching and observing how organisms interact and function in nature, we can mimic those processes and apply that to our daily actions. Nature uses sunlight for so many functions and it recycles nutrients and waste. In nature everything is connected, and one thing depends on another, like how a bee is dependent on a flower for pollen and a flower is dependent on the bee to pollinate it. Permaculture reintroduces the idea that “when many parts are assembled so they can interact and influence each other, new properties emerge, such as self-regulation, feedback loops, self-organization, and resilience.” (Hemenway, xi)

The design for permaculture can come from all different types of professions and through everyone coming together; we can combine insights and integrate our skills. Hemenway talks about how we must redefine our understanding of urban permaculture and look not just at the visible structural changes in “food, energy, water, and waste systems,” but also within invisible structures like “business, currencies, and economies; communities, families, and other human groups; legal, justice, and decision making processes.” (Hemenway, xi) I believe this book is significant for anyone to read, no matter what profession you are going into. Everyone could benefit from learning how to be more aware and conscious of how their actions affect their surroundings and how to start working towards sustainability in their daily lives. As an environmentally aware student and activist, making people more aware of environmental issues is one thing, but giving them the tools and skills they need to work towards creating positive change for the environment is essential. Hemenway makes it clear that The Permaculture City isn’t a detailed manual for step- by-step instructions, but rather a toolkit of guidelines that outline many different methods of a “whole-system’s approach.” He also makes it clear that permaculture looks at addressing how we meet our needs with the health of the environment in mind.

I really enjoyed the example that Toby Hemenway used about how he and his family moved to a rural area in Oregon and left their urban life back in Seattle. They thought it would reduce their ecological footprint, but they came to find out that living in a rural environment actually uses more energy to drive to grocery stores, friends’ houses, and overall upkeep. Although cities do have their own problems regarding energy uses, most people don’t even have a car when living in places like New York City, because they can use public transportation or bike to work. This real life example made me look at cities in a new light and it’s interesting because we usually look at cities as metal structures with no connection to nature. It’s evident today that we need to work towards linking the wild environment with the city to create a more positive outlook. This book raises some thought provoking points and allowed me to become more aware of new ideas and question what I truly believe in.

There is a chapter on wealth that asks, “what is money?,” (Hemenway, 181) and being an economics minor with an environmental studies mindset, this is a question that I wanted to dive more into. It’s a hard topic to talk about, since poverty is a real issue in our society and many poor countries are the ones that are often more affected by climate change than others. So a conversation on wealth in our nation in relation to our consumption of resources is definitely a topic that needs to be addressed more in our communities to create a systems change. Hemenway suggests that we should learn to live a more simple life and live better while using less. (Hemenway, 184-190) This is one of many reasons why I believe this book is important for everyone to discuss with family and fellow peers. The actions of one group of individuals through their use of resources can indirectly and negatively affect another group. For example, there has been an increase in the production of plastic products in correlation with the growing wealth in countries like the United States. The production of these products then causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, thus adding to the risk of extreme storms. Poorer countries have a harder time taking measures to mitigate the effects of floods and hurricanes. We need more open back and forth discussion between diverse groups of individuals in order for everyone to understand the extent of their actions.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about a new and innovative way of looking at sustainability and acting on climate change. It acts as a stepping stone to working towards change in our communities using permaculture principles. When I visited parts of New York City a few summers ago, I didn’t see many trashcans and few recycling bins if any at all on the streets. This example displays the need for people to come together and educate one another on more environmental policies in cities regarding waste removal and recycling. Hemenway points out that this system change will come from rethinking about our city policies through their function and development in many different avenues.

Rachel Proctor is a student at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont.

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2015 by in Arts and tagged , , .

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