When Toby Hemenway and his wife moved to the country to live a bucolic life in a sustainable, environmental way, what he learned was quite the opposite of being more environmentally sound.
In fact, their ecological footprint turned out to be far larger than if they lived in the city. They needed a car to go anywhere, services and stores were beyond walking distance miles away, and their social lives were severely limited. When Hemenway added up the impact of his country lifestyle, he had to admit there was a better way to live a greener life – move back to an urban area, and later, write a book about it. The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience is that book.
The Permaculture City integrates the concepts and practices of permaculture within an urban setting. Granted, the city is often the last place one thinks of as environmental, but Hemenway says,
“The human-nature bond can be lost in cities if we’re not careful, and I think we go somewhat insane without it. Cities can help keep their surrounding regions both ecologically and economically healthy by fostering connections that are intended to do that, rather than ignore or simply exploit their surroundings.”
According to Hemenway, a truly healthy city incorporates a diversity of offerings that address the physical, social, and emotional needs of the dweller; his book bridges the gap between city and country, and is rich in the history of how our current urban models came about, where they went wrong, and how they can be changed and improved.
Hemenway’s strength is his ability to overlay historical fact to bring greater clarity to the current problems plaguing the modern urban space. From the very first chapter, he walks the reader through the life cycle of cities and their evolution in response to social change; this gives the reader a clearer perspective on the “why” and “how” behind the transportation and social dynamics of urban environments. His book is chock full of examples and explanations that illustrate each chapter’s purpose, often going beyond the basic details so the reader has no choice but to understand what Hemenway is so passionately writing about.
The social capital, or the human interactive value, of urban areas is a strong focal point of the book. Hemenway highlights the ideas of Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, and Kevin Lynch, individuals who strove to integrate and not isolate the elements that comprise a well-rounded city, while weaving permacultural aspects throughout. His suggestions truly honor Jacobs’ “village in the city” concept that the most vibrant ecosystem in the urban environment is the human one. When asked about the motivating factors behind writing The Permaculture City, Hemenway stated:
“the most interesting work in permaculture, to me, was being done in cities…growing food is easy compared to learning how to work with other people constructively.”
But Hemenway includes that toolset as well; chapters 3 and 4 of the book are essentially a permaculture design course (PDC), covering the basics from designing a small backyard garden space to implementing energy efficient changes that can save money and improve one’s quality of life. Hemenway offers intense, effective environmental options for the urban homeowner, with everything scaled down to individual lot size.
The integration of urban areas with the surrounding bioregion is also highlighted. Ancient civilizations integrated their services and fuel production, transport and defensibility into a cohesive whole that enabled them to have resilience and stability, even in times of war and famine; Hemenway discusses how that ancient wisdom can be applied to our modern cities, which are often geometric with little to no thought about how the human experience integrates into the model. City dwellers would have a considerably different user experience if land developers and city planners had copies of The Permaculture City as mandatory reading. What determines whether a city is successful in being an overall great place to live often does not come down to cost; it comes down to a design the meets human needs and builds social capital.
This is not Hemenway’s first book rodeo; he’s a well-known heavy-hitter in the Permaculture world, and has a significant list of published material, such as Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, and other works. His writing style is straightforward and clear, and The Permaculture City is not a coffee table picture book that trades information for eye candy. Hemenway has done his research, skillfully delineating the ways an individual can change their environmental impact even while living in a concrete jungle, and illustrates it all with strong visuals. In short, The Permaculture City: Regenerative Design for Urban, Suburban, and Town Resilience is an excellent resource for anyone not living in the countryside but wants to do right by Mother Nature. Now you can get your green on, even in NYC.