Patchwork Design Lab

June 3, 2010

Something of Value

What if we were to organize neighborhoods or even entire communities around food forests rather than thoroughfares and shopping malls? If you think about it, this would be more like a traditional village society, where people settle somewhere because the place has something of value. What would this type of neighborhood look like? Forests in the real world (that is, the world not as humans would have it, operating from some abstract set of arbitrary fantasies) tend toward what you might call incompletion. Ecologists have come up with the term climax to describe a sort of goal toward which biological succession “strives”, but there are very few examples in nature of climax ecosystems. Instead what you tend to see are patchwork mosaics of varying “stages” of succession. The designer of this mosaic is a collection of energetic events that you could collectively classify as patch disrupters. These include fires, cyclonic storms, and the influence of invading species from other areas. Humans, it turns out, evolved to be patch disrupters par excellence. What makes us so good at this disruptive behavior? It is our ability to say, “hmmm…..” That’s it. Repeat after me: hmmmm…..

You may have noticed that activity and productivity clusters around borders and edges. There is more going on at the boundary of a wood and a meadow than there is in either the wood or the meadow. Borders and seaports are hotbeds of economic activity, both licit and ill-. We can theorize about the causes, but why not just accept the fact and take it as a pattern that we can use? So one thing we are looking for in our neighborhoods is a sense of dynamic incompletion, a sort of wabi sabi aesthetic where tidiness is not the point. Tidiness at a very small scale is pleasing; tidiness as an organizing principle is antinomic. A monoculture is tidy. It is simple and uninteresting. It has very little of order, since there is very little to order. Contrary to popular agricultural theory (sheepthink), thousands of acres of corn or soy is not the way to get a maximum yield. To get any yield at all from such a system requires heavy (read toxic) petroleum and economic subsidies. The toxicity of these subsidies is not limited to the field itself. Consider the recent out-of-control oil hemorrhage in the Gulf of Mexico or the current global financial system, which, if we were honest, we would be calling the wreckage of a global financial system. The point here (just to complete this wild tangent) is that the truly toxic tends not to arise without the aid of human hmmmm….ing, or if it does, it tends to become properly sequestered by geological processes. At least until the next major geological upheaval.

But back to our little neighborhood. We look at the lay of the land. We plant marshy plants in the lowest areas where the water tends to collect – remembering to select plants that provide for our needs in numerous ways. Marshes are great natural water filters as well as a good place to grow many types of berries. We look at natural marshes to get an idea of the type and variety of plants we will need. We organize the land according to water availability in such a way that it includes marsh, meadow, and woodland, all devised to be functioning ecosystems with higher-than-typical concentrations of plants that provide food for humans. We site our houses and public buildings on the least productive patches, patches with the poorest soil, for example, so that our way of life interferes as little as possible with our ability to make a living. We try to design our communities in such a way that the need to indulge in trade for basic necessities is minimized.

There are still houses, shops, paths and roads sprinkled through and winding in and out of this pastoral landscape. They add to its variety and richness, though, increasing the aforementioned edge-effect and making the overall system more diverse, more balanced, and more productive.

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