Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit Permaculture Design Course as Design Charrette

Urban Decay Porn

Media about Detroit tends to be pessimistic, though that is changing, so much of it has the distinct feel of watching a train wreck in progress. Even when the intent is good, the results are often mixed.

Ironically, the Detroit Works project (DW), and even this course, could be seen to reinforce the idea Detroit needs fixing. Though the city is, in fact, in the process of redesigning itself, it is a vibrant, breathing, roiling city that is taking itself seriously and celebrating its own rebirth.

Detroit is a city of the future. It's a city that has what few others have: open space to grow in, and grow into; abundant water; industrial infrastructure; a relatively high latitude to keep a hotter climate at bay; cold and snowy, but no severe, winters; and lots of idle hands. For a permaculturist, at least this permaculturist, it's a dream city. What other city in the world has this combination of elements? What city is better poised to model what post-industrial, post-carbon cities can, and will, look like? And if you look beneath the edifice Detroit is now infamous for, much like any burnt forest or mudslide zone, flood or even man-made disasters like Chernobyl, you see life. But it's not below the surface, it's in your face. No, if you're flipping through images of urban decay porn, you're missing what Detroit is, what it can be, and what it can mean to other cities as a potential example of the future. That's why we chose to work in Detroit.
A Design Charrette for Detroit

The idea for a design charrette for Detroit had its genesis last September in the first public meetings for the Detroit Works project, my participation in the design charrette for the Imagination Station, and discussions surrounding the DW meetings at the Boggs Center. Dissatisfaction with the DW process was running high, and perhaps no higher than in my own fevered brain. Why wasn't this organized from the neighborhood level up? Why had so few known about it for so long? Why was so little information coming out of the Mayor's office? Why shrink the city when the future is almost certain to see flows of climate refugees into Detroit and the region at large? And many more.

The Imagination Station design charrette was impressively productive. I've never seen what their design team decided would be the final design, but what came out of that two-day charrette could stand on its own. This was an effective process! I probably drove a few people batty jumping up and down screaming, "Design charrette for Detroit!" (figuratively) ever since.

When Larry Santoyo shouted out on Facebook we should do something in Detroit, I took it seriously. Keith D. Johnson expressed interest, too. After nailing down that we could work out the dates and logistics, I hit them with the concept of designing a sustainable Detroit. To my surprise and delight, they agreed and "ReNew, ReVision, ReDesign Detroit - A Permaculture Design Course" was born.
In reality, a Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is a design charrette. For two weeks students study intensively the ecological engineering and design principles of sustainable systems design. Students work in groups to complete a design to be presented on the final day of the course. Wikipedia has this to say:
The word charrette may refer to any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem. While the structure of a charrette varies, depending on the design problem and the individuals in the group, charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the group divides into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work to the full group as material for future dialogue. Such charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution while integrating the aptitudes and interests of a diverse group of people.
Wiki continues on to describe the process as applied to urban planning:
In urban planning, the charrette has become a technique for consulting with all stakeholders . This type of charrette (sometimes called an enquiry by design) typically involves intense and possibly multi-day meetings, involving municipal officials, developers , and residents. A successful charrette promotes joint ownership of solutions and attempts to defuse typical confrontational attitudes between residents and developers. Charrettes tend to involve small groups, however the residents participating may not represent all the residents nor have the moral authority to represent them. Residents who do participate get early input into the planning process.
Geoff Lawton described the PDC design process in a recent article.
It is standard format, in the PDC curriculum, that students are given an exercise to design a landscape with a design brief so they can make the move into design while being mentored by their Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) teacher. This is not a test but an exercise, enabling students to make the first step into design while still taking part in the PDC program.

During the 72-hour course students receive a body of diverse knowledge which, despite covering a number of disciplines and emphasizing the connectivity between those disciplines, can seem surprisingly simplistic and easy to understand until students are put into design groups and given a challenge to design an area of landscape with a design brief. If the brief is likely to be a real life scenario then the possibilities expand and the design system complicates itself into innumerable choices of interactive complexity.
...One also has to figure out how to work a landscape with its particular variations and restrictions. From then on all those basic parameters that you have to work around when designing are repeated over and over. There is virtually no obsolescence in permaculture because the principles of nature are eternal, infinite. Compost is compost, sun angles are sun angles; they will vary from site to site, but they are more or less constant in the way you analyze them.
In design you are completing a picture so that the systems have total integrity and your approach to designing waste systems, energy systems and living systems must reflect this. Also local economy and the energy audit in relation to production and processing and end use efficiency have more or less the same fundamental approaches.
Ultimately, this is a PDC and our students expect and deserve the best permaculture course we can offer. We have a responsibility to cover the full curriculum and feel creating a design solution for the city will offer the best course possible. Not only does this ambition highlight that the perception of permaculture principles as applicable largely to gardens, farms and food production as being erroneous, it preps our students to move step into their roles as designers familiar with any scale of design, from kitchen gardens to cities.

The design charrette enhances the learning process by providing an unusual and challenging task in applying permaculture principles on this scale. Increasingly, triple bottom line, i.e. sustainable, solutions are going to be sought, and regenerative design opportunities will move designers from smaller scale productions to larger-scale designs.

For the city, the course offers an opportunity to condense months of design meetings into a single two-week process providing a dynamic, creative, design-oriented space in which an intense alchemy may produce, from various sources, solutions the people of Detroit can make use of.
Sarah Coffey's recent blog article on the DW project highlighted a number of concerns about the DW process thus far and a number of parallel processes that are underway by various groups around the city. Each of these design processes addresses a primary critique of DW: participation at the neighborhood level, as neighborhoods, as well as addressing change at the micro level DW seems to perhaps be weak on.

Bringing Plans Together

Some of the critique is framed as issues of racial, economic and social justice. This is an area where permaculture design can be most effective. Regenerative design, deeply rooted in the examples natural systems provide, allows us to approach design as an objective application of principles. A sustainable system is inherently just because a system based on what nature has wrought has no waste, values and uses all elements, and supports all elements in multiple ways, thus is resilient. It requires all elements to work in concert to function properly. Racism, hoarding, division... these cannot exist in a regenerative system. Permaculture design gives us a another tool with which to deal with injustice by simple application of design principles.

While there is certainly cross-pollination and collaboration among some or all of the various groups involved in design projects, none is a whole city design offering a different perspective than that so far evidenced by DW. It is our view this design charrette can have a beneficial impact on creating the future Detroit by providing a crucible for intense collaboration in a neutral space drawing together the data, outreach, feedback and visioning that has already occurred throughout the city. It will necessarily also reframe the discussion under the umbrella of what is commonly called the triple bottom line, or Social, Racial, Economic and/or Food Justice. These are what permaculture frames as the ethics of Earth Care (we are dependent on the ecological services of the planet), People Care (all are equally valued, none are preyed upon, each plays a role) and Fair Share (inputs and outputs must be aligned to avoid pollution (waste) in the system or the system is out of balance and will ultimately fail.)
We invite individual residents and representatives from the various initiatives

  • The People's Movement Assembly on “rightsizing”
  • CDAD
  • Lower East Side Action Plan (LEAP)
  • The coalition of GenesisHOPE, Church of the Messiah, the Boggs Center, Feedom Freedom Growers, We Want Green Too and members of Earthworks Farm
  • Brightmoor
  • Declare Detroit
  • Detroit Work
and others, into one space. There is no assumption a final solution can be found in two weeks, nor that this process in any way supplants, replaces or is more valuable than any of those already on-going. This is but a tool with a different lens, one that has been shown to be effective in addressing the wide range of challenges we face, but which is flexible and doesn't require all participants be together in one space for two weeks. Rather, it relies on the information the participants can gather and the groundwork already done by so many - though your direct participation would be a great benefit. The city is both partner and client in the design process.

Sample Projects/Permaculture References

For more information, to offer feedback or suggestions, or to participate, please send an e-mail to with the subject line "charrette."

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