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Bill… Meet Jane

Oct 21, 2011

By Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture

Being a lifelong glutton for continuing education, I find myself at the moment studying both Permaculture Design and brushing up on the seminal Jane Jacobs text “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  This has been an interesting juxtaposition, and one that holds more similarities than I might have expected.

Permaculture Design is based on the teachings of the Australian Bill Mollison, known for his pioneering work in the 1960’s and 70’s on natural systems design and the means of using these to create ecologically sound, productive landscapes and increase the resilience of human settlements.  Best known for its advocacy of  food production using horticultural means (“permanent + agriculture”), permaculture is a set of principles and practices that invite the discovery of patterns in the landscape, seeking efficiencies of complementary systems, and closing loops of inputs and outputs of materials and energy.

Developed and popularized further by Mollison’s students such as David Holmgren, Toby Hemenway and others, the system has subsequently been expanded and applied to the “design of buildings, energy and wastewater systems, villages, and even less tangible structures such as school curricula, businesses, community groups, and decision-making processes” (1).  Permaculture is currently enjoying a growing wave of popularity, and is seen to be in strong harmony with ideas that support sustainability, relocalization, and the “creative descent” associated with peak oil and the transition town movement.

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Jane Jacobs on the other hand was a strident New York-based journalist who became an outspoken critic of modern city planning in the 1960’s.  Despite having no formal training as a planner, she was a keen observer of the urban life of New York City and the ways in which it functioned when allowed to evolve in its own organic way.  Outraged at what she perceived as the arrogant intervention of master schemes to impose external order, usually intended to serve the movement of the automobile, she became a highly regarded urban activist who successfully led opposition to plans for building several massive freeway projects in the city.  In 1961 she published the seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, which outlined a framework for urban vitality based on assessments of scale, function, safety, investment, and architectural infrastructure.

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It’s not known if Bill and Jane ever met, or if they were even aware of the other’s philosophies and advocacy half a world apart.  I suspect however that if they had had a chance to compare notes, the conversation would have been very interesting.  Both philosophies developed in the mid-century period of general post-war optimism, therefore making both their work radical in its day.  They shared the acknowledgement of the “brokenness” of large-scale infrastructure, monoculture, and the imposition of scale-inappropriate patterns on our landscape.  Both developed their ideas from fine-grained, on-the-ground observation of systems that function holistically.  Their fundamental principles share some interesting parallels:

Jane’s City Planning Principles: Bill’s Permaculture Principles:
To generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts, four conditions are indispensible: Core principles for ecological design:
The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. Stacking:  Each element performs many functions, and each function is performed by many elements.  Redundancy is deliberately built into the system.
Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent. Edges define areas, and break them up into manageable sections.  We are attracted to edges; these accumulate energy and are the most diverse parts of the ecosystem.  We need to select appropriate edge patterns for climate, landscape, size and situation.
The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained. Collaborate with succession.  Living systems usually advance from immaturity to maturity, and if we accept this trend and align our designs with it instead of fighting it, we save work and energy.  Mature ecosystems are more diverse and productive than young ones.
There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  (2) Use small-scale intensive systems so that the land can be used efficiently and thoroughly.  Close associations of species clustered around a single element (guilds) assist in health, aid in management, and buffer adverse environmental effects. (1) and (3)


Both philosophies are based in the idea of diversity as a fundamental measure of system health, and both warn against the pitfalls of monoculture and monotony:

Bill Mollison:

“Although the yield of a monocultural system will probably be greater for a particular crop than the yield of any one species in a permaculture system, the sum of yields in a mixed system will be larger. Diversity is related to stability… which occurs among cooperative species, or species that do each other no harm. The importance of diversity is not so much the number of elements in a system; rather it is the number of functional connections between these elements. It is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work.” (3)

Jane Jacobs (quoting a Eugene Raskin essay):

“Genuine differences in the city architectural scene express the interweaving of human patterns. They are full of people doing different things, with different reasons and different ends in view, and the architecture reflects and expresses this difference, which is one of content rather than form alone. … Considering the hazard of monotony, the most serious fault in our zoning laws lies in the fact that they permit an entire area to be devoted to a single use.” (2)

I am finding these parallels fascinating; the root of what both are addressing is the healthy functioning of sustainable systems, be they human systems, food production, natural environments, or dense urban settlements.  This kind of radical common sense is even more relevant today than it was 50 years ago, and we would do well to listen hard to their collective wisdom.


(1) Toby Hemenway, “Gaia’s Garden – A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”, Chelsea Green, 2nd< Edition, 2009.
(2) Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Random House, 1961.
(3) Bill Mollison, “Introduction to Permaculture”, Tagari, 2nd< Edition, 2009.