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Christopher Alexander’s neglected challenge to Permaculture

Dan Palmer writes: Christopher Alexander is a radical architect and writer respected by permaculture practitioners. According to him, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second, but “it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts.”

Dan Palmer, Making Permaculture Stronger

Consider the opening statements of what are possibly the two most prominent definitions of permaculture:

Permaculture (permanent agriculture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems (Bill Mollison, 1988, p. ix)

A more current definition of permaculture, which reflects the expansion of focus implicit in Permaculture One, is “Consciously designed landscapes, which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs” (cited by David Holmgren, 2002, p. xix)1

These two statements share three key parts. One is the goal of systems or landscapes that have the character of nature in the sense they replicate, mimic, and in a very real sense actually are natural ecosystems. The second is that these target systems produce for human needs. The third is moving toward this goal via conscious design.2

Let us focus in on this last part – conscious design. As the key method or process given for approaching its desired destination, you would expect permaculture to contain a clear definition of what conscious design is.

By and large the permaculture design literature defines design as a process of combining elements into systems. The wording changes, but the core idea remains that:

  1. the elements exist prior to their connection, and
  2. the crux of design is joining, assembling, or integrating these elements (into systems, patterns or wholes delivering on the permaculture principles).

Perusing the seminal literature, I first find this core idea clearly in Mollison’sPermaculture: A Designers’ Manual (1988, note that I have added all bold text in this entire post to emphasis particularly relevant words and phrases):

Permaculture, as a design system, attempts to integrate fabricated, natural, spatial, temporal, social and ethical parts (components) to achieve a whole. (p. 36)

“It is in the arrangement of parts that design has its being and function…” (p. 36)

“Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which seeks to benefit life in all its forms.” (p. 36)

“The design [is] ‘a beneficial assembly of components…” (p. 37)

“For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is tomake a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.” (p. 70)3

This core idea has been accepted and repeated right up to the most recent books on permaculture design. In their Practical Permaculture (2015), Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein share prevailing permaculture understandings of the words elementand system. In defining these words and their relations, they explain:

“In its simplest form, a system is a bunch of parts (elements) arranged such that their relationship to one another (their function) allows some sort of job to get done or goal to be accomplished (purpose). For instance, a bicycle is a simple system composed of a bunch of elements (handlebars, chain, wheels and so forth) put together in such a way (handlebars connected to frame, frame connected to wheels) that they function to accomplish the purpose of transportation. We can see the same concept when looking at the parts of the human body. A pile of organs sitting on a table does not make a person. However, when those organs relate to each other in just the right way and each performs its functions, we are the result.

When all the elements of a system come together in the right way, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and emergent properties appear” (p. 18)

Later in the book, they apply this interpretation of systems thinking to permaculture design process:

“The permaculture design process is about assembling components… into mutually beneficial relationships. Elements can be placed in a number of different arrangements, but the connections made between them is whatbuilds systems that work effectively” (p. 59)

“Every element in your design should be analysed in order to figure out the best relative location to create beneficial relationships with other elements” (p. 92)

“The placement of elements in relationship to each other is critical to creating a functional permaculture design” (p. 99)

Let us consider one more example. In The Permaculture City (2015), acclaimed permaculture author Toby Hemenway explains that permaculture “offers a set of design principles for creating useful relationships that guide us in formulating our plans, and a host of connection-building design methods that help us decide which techniques to use to implement those plans” (p. 23). As he explains, “permaculture, not surprisingly, leans heavily on methods that focus on creating relationships among the parts of a design” (p. 31). He then fleshes out four of these methods, “each a powerful method for doing what is at the heart of permaculture design:creating connections and relationships among the parts of a design…” (p. 31). Here are his one-sentence summaries of these four methods (pp. 33-44):

“Highest use tells us how to connect design elements or activities in time by linking their functions or uses in a sequence. It tells us what to do first.”

“Needs and resources analysis tells us how to connect the parts of a design to one another.”

“The zone system organizes the parts of the design in relation to the user or center of use.”

“Sector analysis organizes design elements into useful relationships with outside influences that we cannot directly affect.”

The above quotes are representative of almost all published treatments of permaculture design. I think it is fair to say, then, that they are therefore representative of how permaculture designers in general talk about (and thus think, teach, and practice) design.

We can put this core understanding into a table. We have just seen evidence that the permaculture design literature generates sentences about what design is via the formula of selecting an item from each of these three columns and stringing them together:

start withthenthem to form a
create relationships between

Integrating elements into patterns, connecting components into whole systems,organising parts into relationship, and so on, are all different expressions of permaculture’s unambiguously dominant understanding of what permaculture design is.

Christopher Alexander’s Challenge

Christopher Alexander is a radical architect, builder and writer widely known and respected by permaculture practitioners. Indeed, Alexander’s work is referenced in high esteem by the authors of the three books just cited.

A core theme in the 14 plus books Alexander has published over the last half-century is a critique of the idea of design as element assembly. Here are two representative excerpts from earlier and later in his career:

“Design is often thought of as a process of synthesis, a process of putting together things, a process of combination.

According to this view, a whole is created by putting together parts. The parts come first: and the form of the whole comes second.

But it is impossible to form anything which has the character of nature by adding preformed parts” (Alexander, 1979, p. 368)

…then, 33 years later:

“To grasp the nature of the subtle structure [of wholeness] fully, we must learn to avoid the danger of trying to see [wholes]4 made up of parts. Present-day conventional wisdom (perhaps Cartesian and mechanistic in origin) tells us that everything is made of parts. In particular, people believe today that every whole is made of parts. The key aspect of this belief is the idea that the parts come ‘before’ the whole, in short, the parts exist as elements of some kind, which are then brought into relationship with one another, or combined, and a [whole] is ‘created’ out of these parts and their combinations as a result.

I believe accurate understanding of wholeness is quite different.” (Alexander, 2002a, p. 86)

Now consider this statement, which starts to clarify what he means by quite different:

“This [approach to design] is a differentiating process.

It views design as a sequence of acts of complexification; structure is injected into the whole by operating on the whole and crinkling it, not by adding little parts to one another. In the process of differentiation, the whole gives birth to its parts: the parts appear as folds in a cloth of three dimensional space which is gradually crinkled. The form of the whole, and the parts, come into being simultaneously.

The image of the differentiating process is the growth of an embryo.

It starts as a single cell. The cell grows into a ball of cells. Then, through a series of differentiations, each building on the last, the structure becomes more and more complex, until a finished human being is formed.

The first thing that happens is that this ball gets an inside, a middle layer, and an outside: the endoderm, mesoderm, and ectoderm, which will later turn into skeleton, flesh, and skin, respectively.


Then this ball of cells with three layers gets an axis. The axis is laid down in the endoderm, and will become the spine of the finished person.


Then this ball, with an axis, gets a head at one end.


Later, the secondary structures, eyes, limbs, develop in relation to the spinal axis and the head.


And so on. At every stage of development, new structure is laid down, on the basis of the structure which has been laid down so far. The process of development is, in essence, a sequence of operations, each one of which differentiates the structure which has been laid down by the previous operations” (Alexander, 1979, p. 370-371)

So how might this apply in practice to a given design process? As Alexander then explains:

“At the beginning of a design process, you may have an idea that the open space should be ‘more or less over here,’ and the building ‘more or less over there.’ Neither the pattern for ‘open space’ nor the pattern for ‘building’ is very precisely defined at this stage. They are like two clouds, whose size is imprecise, and with imprecise edges. It is not even perfectly certain, at this stage, that the cloud called ‘open space’ will be entirely open—nor that the cloud called building will be entirely roofed. What is happening, is that you place these two clouds, roughly, at this stage of the design, with the full understanding that the design is accurate only to within the order of magnitude of the clouds themselves, and that all kinds of details which are smaller in scale, may be changed later.

Later in the process, you may be placing the ‘entrance’ to the building. Again, the pattern which you call the entrance is a cloudy volume, about the right size, clear enough so that you can pin point its location, with respect to other larger clouds, and to show its relations to the things next to it, but no more exact than that.

And, yet another stage in the design process, you may place a column. This column has a height, and a rough size—but again, at the time you place it first, it has little more. Later, you make the column more exact, by placing the edges of the column, its reinforcing bars, its foundation, and so on.

Whenever we want to make one of these vague cloudy patterns more precise, we do it by placing other smaller patterns, which define its edge and interior.

Each pattern is an operator which differentiates space: that is it creates distinctions where no distinction was before (Alexander, 1979, p. 372-373)

I find it curious that permaculture authors (including those cited above) don’t acknowledge Alexander’s critique of their core understanding of design,5 not to mention his extensively documented and detailed attempts to flesh out and apply his alternative understanding.6

Don’t these seem like worthwhile ideas to explore and try out? The idea of design as a differentiating process? The idea of design as a program or sequence of injecting structure into a whole, moving from larger wholes toward smaller wholes? The idea that each smaller whole is placed, shaped, oriented and sized according to its relation to the wholes it sits within, and the wholes that surround it and overlap with it? Indeed, how else are we supposed to design from patterns to details?7

Same End, Different Means

As it happens, Alexander’s approach and the permaculture approach agree on the end they are aiming for. Compare Alexander’s…

“…it is important that we, as a people on Earth, learn to create our towns, buildings and landscapes so that they too – like nature – are living structures, and that so our artificial world is then a nature-like system” (Alexander, 2002b, p. xvi)

…with the two definitions of permaculture this article started with.

While permaculture focuses more on the agricultural productivity of such systems and Alexander more on the built environment8, there is a common striving toward landscapes or systems with deep natural character (i.e., that “mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature” in the statement from Holmgren, or that are “living structures” in Alexander’s).

Going further, both Alexander and permaculture share the contention that we can only approach such systems through a process of conscious design.

The two approaches part company, however, when it comes to specifying the essence of this process – the means to the end.

For permaculture, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are to be achieved by a process of assembling or combining parts or elements into whole systems:9


For Alexander, systems and landscapes with the character of nature are achieved by a process of differentiating wholes into parts, as inspired by the process by which an organism comes into existence:10


Summary & Conclusion

Permaculturalists have formulated principles and patterns intended to capture key aspects of healthy natural ecosystems. They have then attempted to mimic these principles and patterns in the systems they design.

Details aside, a common theme to how design is defined in the permaculture literature is as a process of element assembly.

This is a process of starting with parts then creating wholes by addition.

Christopher Alexander argues that if we want to mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, we must understand and copy the patterns and relationships inside the process by which nature produces these patterns. We need to mimic the means as well as the ends.

He then proposes that the key to nature-mimicking design process isdifferentiation:

“The key to complex adaptation… lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole” (Alexander, 2002b, p. 197)

This is a process of starting with wholes then creating parts by differentiation.

This radically different understanding of what sound design process is challenges a core idea in permaculture.

I encourage permaculturalists (including myself) to wholeheartedly accept this challenge. Let us engage with it, understand it, discuss it, try it out, reach some sort of clarity on what we make of it, and whether we see any value in it.

Further, let us not forget that this challenge comes not from someone totally outside or foreign to permaculture. A small portion of Alexander’s thought and writing has already infused and enriched permaculture. Yet somehow we have missed perhaps the most important thing he has to offer us. In other words, we have barely started the important work of exploring and assimilating the riches he has to offer. I for one can’t wait to see where his thinking takes us next.

In conclusion, permaculture is defined as a process of consciously designing agriculturally productive, nature-mimicking landscapes. Conscious design impliesconsciously questioning our understandings of what design is, and where necessary, making improvements. In Alexander’s work, we find somebody we already like showing us a way forward.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A Pattern Language. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (1979). The Timeless Way of Building. Oxford University Press.
Alexander, C. (2002a). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book One: The Phenomenon of Life (Vol. 1). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Alexander, C. (2002b). The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life (Vol. 2). The Center for Environmental Structure.
Bloom, J., & Boehnlein, D. (2015). Practical Permaculture. Timberpress.
Hemenway, T. (2015). The Permaculture City. Chelsea Green.
Holmgren, D. (2002). Permaculture: Patterns and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Melliodora.
Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari.


I thank David Holmgren, Dave Jacke, Rosemary Morrow, and James Andrews for their supportive and insightful feedback on an earlier draft of this post.


  1. Shortly after this statement, which is Holmgren’s summary of a definition in wide use by permaculture teachers in the 1990s, he goes on to explain that “For many people, myself included, the above conception of permaculture is so global in its scope that its usefulness is reduced. More precisely, I see permaculture as the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision.”
  2. Mollison adds mention of maintaining the system once designed and implemented.
  3. The sequence here is unambiguous – 1. components, 2. their assembly 3. pattern assembly of the whole. Start with details and move toward patterns.
  4. Here I have replaced Alexander’s preferred word “center” with the more familiar word “whole” which comes closest to his meaning – but see Alexander (2002a) pp. 83-85 for an explanation as to why he prefers the word “center”
  5. See for example The Timeless Way of Building (1979), A Pattern Language (1977),The Nature of Order – Book One – The Phenomenon of Life (2002a)
  6. Which is the common thread of his entire written corpus
  7. Interestingly in the chapter exploring his design from patterns to detailsprinciple Holmgren (2002) cites Christopher Alexander’s (1977) work on pattern languages as an inspiration for focusing the chapter on steps toward a pattern language for permaculture site design. Yet as is the case with all other permaculture references to Alexander I am aware of, Alexander’s underlying concern with healthy design process as itself a patterns-to-details or whole-to-parts sequence of differentiations is not discussed
  8. Though keep in mind that in the very next sentence after the definition of permaculture Holmgren cites (see the start of this post) he continues to say “People, their buildings and the ways they organize themselves are central to permaculture” (2002, p. xix).
  9. I haven’t found mention of an inspiration for this approach in the permaculture literature, as in an indication as to why this particular approach was chosen as the dominant or default approach. As best I can tell this approach was plucked out of the cultural milieu by Bill Mollison, equated with permaculture design, and subsequently accepted and propagated throughout the permaculture literature ever since
  10. While my focus here is to clarify the distinction between these two approaches to design, which are at first glance mutually exclusive, in a future post I’ll flesh out the fact that working from parts towards wholes via addition has its place. It becomes problematic when we (unconsciously or otherwise) let it dominate our approach to design. Like Alexander, I believe that if anything its place should be secondary and subordinate to working from wholes towards parts via differentiation, if, that is, we desire to mimic the way natural processes generate natural systems. But my main point is that it is not a case of either-or but (yet again) a case of both-and. In a healthy, holistic design process the two approaches exist in a complementary dance (where the whole-to-parts approach leads the dance).



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