Upon Being Asked to Reflect: Pattern Language, Salingaros Article and Permaculture Design

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Language has always been my favorite past time. I have been a writer from the moment I could hold a crayon.  Conversely, mathematics destroyed me through most of my education…until graduate statistical analysis. I still remember being terrified by the thought that I had to get a passing grade in statistics. But more clearly I remember the moment the switch between my right and left brain was properly placed. Statistics IS language. I completed qualitative analysis and four statistics courses with A grades.

So it is with heavy heart that I have to turn the pattern language sacred cow into creamed chipped beef.  I do not remember the last time I read anything so pretentious.  Architecture has always struggled with the mixture of engineering and art, most often referred to as “design”.  Is it applied science? If so, then give us practical methods of successful application. If it is art, then lift us up (Personally, I’m a FL Wright fan).  I think there is a useful tool here but it was covered in Piled higher and Deeper, steaming  LANGUAGE.

I do not have a Master’s Degree.  I left the Master’s program in Interdisciplinary Social Sciences when I was offered two contracts to coordinate multi-million dollar programs to restore coastal fisheries in Northern California. To quote my thesis advisor “Why are you wasting time and money on a degree that you think you need to do the job you are now doing?” So, without the degree, here is what I know: Quote from Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander:  “Vast parking lots wreck the land for people.”

Reality:  Vast parking lots irritate people by forcing them to park far from their destination and create an environment in which people forget where they parked their vehicle. Well, that is what people wandering around the Walmart parking lot will tell you. Well, they tell me that even though I never ask.   But what might outweigh these irritations (walking is necessary for human life – circulation of blood and lymph, and all that rot – and personally, I bent the antenna on the roof of my truck so that I could see it across the largest parking lots; no architect necessary)?

Another pattern language phrase outweighs the sloth: Safe Travel.  Mr. Niko Salingaros, in his article (The Structure of Pattern Language, June 2005) reiterating Mr. Alexander’s book (Pattern Language, 1977), suggests that parking lots should be designed for five to seven cars, surrounded by gardens, trees and hedges. And here is what I know: Parking lots so designed: will create an environment where safe backing of vehicles will be impacted by lack of visibility, increasing negative emotions and insurance premiums; owners of large vehicles will avoid shopping there and they are usually people with money; will cause a marked increase in auto tampering and burglary; and the sheltered rows will increase the probability of strong-arm robberies.  Oh how I would love the small shops of locally-owned businesses, with close parking and friendly alert shop owners!  Yes, I have some serious reservations about Walmart’s impact on the planet, economy and human health (let’s not even go into the role of China.) But when I walk out to my vehicle at 9pm I know that:  there will be lights; there will be lots of human beings around; there are cameras watching me get to my truck; and an employee to take the cart back for me.

But the truth is that government regulation and taxation are horribly unsupportive of small business. There is a pattern for you: On scale, if the Federal government creates tax and regulatory challenges to small business, and local governments create zoning, construction and marketing challenges, the businesses that will have the financial wherewithal to setup and maintain a successful operation will be those that can afford to comply with all the challenges. Ouch.  Pattern language: Environment in Which to Make a Living.

I am much more interested in the webs that evolve to overcome challenges to the survival of each element, structure and system on all scales in several categories – government, business, my nursery, each type of plant in the nursery, the combination of plants in the nursery into hedges, and the elements that feed these: money, water, suppliers, supplies, and oh yes those poor people wandering around the Walmart parking lot who last year came over to my trailer and asked if the beautiful plants in it were for sale…opening the opportunity for language opening the door for new experiences opening the certainty that I will carry the plants while helping them look for their car. Pattern Language: Success.

Permaculture: Question Authority

Tea_garden_buddhaA culture of personality, permaculture Fathers and their “North of the 38th Parallel” off-spring (again I have to say no Earth Mothers here) have found notoriety through online videos, bits and pieces of beautiful, lush and verdant landscape. One Father that has intrigued me for some time is Geoff Lawton. His most well-known project is the Jordan Valley Project covered in several videos entitled “Greening the Desert.” I think this project is a great example of how social science and community organizing must be part of this work…well, at least if you want to share the wealth.

Shortly after my first viewing of “Greening the Desert” One, Two and the updates, I began to wonder what had happened that the site had not continued to be treated under the permaculture practices and why the funding had been discontinued. Why had new funding sources not been developed?

The issue of funding and what may have happened to the original source for the first Jordan Valley site is touched on when the narrator of the video states that a second site is being considered which will be obtained with funds directly from the Permaculture Research Institute – the organization closely associated with Geoff Lawton.  There were references to having control over the funding so that an outside funding source would not be able to discontinue funding or control how a site is developed.

The majority of articles and videos about the Jordan Valley project present it as a huge success, if not inspirational. According to these sources all of the practices implemented worked, even if for a limited time. Success seemed to be measured by the growth of the plants, by the presence of moisture. By carefully worded subtitles on the screen it was implied that the human community had abandoned the project site. We see bare cropping areas, a facility that had been built as a training facility, and goats wandering freely, allowed to browse wherever, when ever.  An article entitled “Permaculture Greens the Jordanian Desert, But Why Are People Wary?” by Sami Grover, dated October 14, 2010 states:

“While the drip irrigation systems demonstrated in the video are impressive, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the project is reliant on volunteer labor from abroad—while the volunteers describe how the local population has a hard time understanding the idea of saving and using rain water. It’s yet another reminder that outsiders can only do so much when it comes to ‘development’ work—ultimately we have to find solutions that communities will adopt and run with themselves.”

“The second rule: Never go outside the experience of your people.” This quote is from Saul Alinsky, one of the greatest community organizers of the 20th century. Along with horticulture and soil science, anyone hoping to share the concepts of permaculture in an effort to improve the quality of life on this planet NEEDS to read Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Where ever you see the word “enemy” in that text insert the words “fear/ignorance”.

If, for whatever reason, we believe that it is our mission to “help” those who we perceive to be leading impoverished lives, we had better first find out how those communities see themselves. We may believe that our methods and behaviors will bring what we have defined as a ‘better quality of life’.  It is only self-serving and narcissistic to assume that we know best. If we have tools to offer we let others know of them and watch vigilantly for a door to open. Even then, we must enter with humility and with many questions and an open mind so that we provide only that which is asked and in such a way as to support the values of the community asking. Authority is never in the outsider. The safety offered by authority is the only way that a community will take the risk to try something outside of their experience even if that thing may provide them with some relief.

From the minimal research I have done for this review I believe that Mr. Lawton will only find his form of “success” by being more in control of his project site and by inviting “the choir” to come to the site to do all of the ground work.  As a last note, there was one website which was extremely caustic in its reports of Lawton’s lack of “people skills” and his disrespectful treatment of “students” who paid high fees to “learn” at his facility.  In every report there is a thread of truth and a great deal of the author’s perception and interpretation. If only a thread is true, it was a sad and damaging report. Another Internet site offered an email from Scott Pittman, Director, Permaculture Institute, dated December 24 2010 which not only questioned Lawton’s motives and ethics, but grieved the loss of Bill Mollison as an active member of the international movement. Apparently his skill at pedagogy and his work with people was a substantially positive influence in the movement.

It is a sad commentary on the permaculture movement that the most well known “teachers” do no advise their “students” to always think critically, testing ideas and applications as the Buddha advised his followers:

“When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” – The Kalama Sutra