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Home / 2013 Fall / Features / Designing a Sustainable Future: Permaculture at Naropa
permaculture class with Jason GerhardtPhoto: Lindsay Michko

Designing a Sustainable Future: Permaculture at Naropa

By Lindsay Michko

An emerging field in environmental circles, "permaculture" has become one of the latest buzzwords, with ever-increasing exposure. But what is permaculture, exactly? Many people can identify it as a sustainable form of agriculture, but few know much beyond that. Attempting to pin down the definition of the ever-evolving field, permaculture's co-originator David Holmgren describes it as "consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs." While permaculture may have started out with an agricultural focus, it has grown to encompass much more than that. Holmgren explains, "People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture."1

Various principles govern the field of permaculture, including designing from patterns to details, producing no waste, using and valuing diversity, creatively responding to change, and turning problems into solutions, just to name a few. Most, if not all, of the permaculture design principles apply not only to designing physical structures such as gardens, but also to "invisible structures"—the human-created systems that make up the culture of a place. This makes permaculture a useful and versatile tool in problem solving and assessing the sustainability of given systems.

Naropa offers two courses in permaculture: Introduction to Permaculture and Permaculture Design, both taught by visiting instructor in environmental studies, Jason Gerhardt. Beyond learning about plants and principles of design, students fully immerse themselves in permaculture ideology, applying their learning to the world around them. The William D. Jones Community Greenhouse serves as the class's main laboratory, though students experiment all over campus, planting community food gardens and food forests, cultivating mushrooms, and exploring legal rainwater harvesting techniques.

This coming spring, the greenhouse laboratory will further develop, adding domestic quail. Illustrating the permaculture design principle of stacking functions, the quail will fulfill multiple needs of the greenhouse, which has a surplus of slugs and sow bugs, and a wintertime deficiency of warmth and carbon dioxide. In addition to providing fertilizer, eggs, and meat, the quail will eat the slugs and sow bugs that are detrimental to plants, and generate heat and carbon dioxide, making the greenhouse a more complete system.

All of this prepares the students for their final project: a full permaculture design. Teams of four to five students are tasked with creating an original permaculture design plan for a given piece of land, complete with precise maps and a formal presentation. Each year the design location is different, with classes of the past drawing up designs for Naropa's Snow Lion student housing, the alley running along Naropa's greenhouse, the space in front of Wulsin Hall, and this year—Naropa's entire Arapahoe Campus.

Gerhardt asks his students to explore what Naropa could look like through a permaculture lens, encouraging them not to limit themselves to the outdoor design, but to observe the design potentials in the campus's invisible structures, as well. How could we achieve a more sustainable campus culture? To answer this question and create a design, students must use the permaculture design process. This begins with observation and analysis—students will observe the campus, noting seasonal and daily weather patterns, patterns of human use and traffic, and other factors, as well as talk with the project's "stakeholders," interviewing the campus constituency to identify needs. Based on these observations, the students will begin to vision what is feasible for the site, and then continue on to the planning stage to begin creating design ideas. As their designs become more complete, the students will address strategic and technical details and draw up their design. Finally, students must communicate their design, with maps of the property, final design drawings, and a presentation explaining their decision-making process.

We will just have to wait until the end of the semester to learn what innovative ideas the students propose for the university community. Naropa students have the unique opportunity to deeply integrate their understanding of permaculture with an entire academic year's worth of study, as opposed to many public permaculture courses, which last only a brief couple of weeks. And the difference could not be more evident. "Most permaculture class design projects aren't very good. But I haven't found that to be true of my Naropa students," explains Gerhardt, deeming the designs of his Naropa students "some of the best designs I've ever seen in permaculture classes, sometimes better than professionals." Learn more about permaculture at Naropa.


 1 David Holmgren, "About Permaculture," Permaculture Innovation and Vision. (October 2013).