What is Regenerative Garden Design?
The term regenerative garden design is not something new or unique to the way of practicing and designing gardens. In many ways it’s a term built from the multiple fields and disciplines that I’ve come in contact with over the years. There are three major contributors: the sustainability movement in Architecture, the permaculture movement in agriculture, and the work by John T Lyle on the regenerative design institute.
Disclaimer: While I will be citing as much information as possible at the bottom of this article, the information below is for the most part my opinion and review of each source and should not be taken as the authors intentions 🙂
My journey started in 2012 when I started my Masters in Architecture in Canada. From the very beginning I was attracted to sustainability and was quite excited for a dedicated class on the subject in the first year. Without going into too much detail, the class and the resulting three years at that university were a huge let down and I found myself completely disheartened with the whole subject of not just sustainability but also architecture.
There were some positive moments in my time there. First was the scope of new disciplines and research being done around the world by amazingly talented and creative people/groups. I heard about the work of Incredible Edible from TED talks, read ArchDaily articles on the Highline in New York, and watched videos on traditional Finnish log buildings. What inspired me the most way all the different way that people around the world were achieving such beautiful and alive projects and yet still seemed connected.
The second moment was when I attended a conference by the Living Future Institute on the Living Future Unconference in 2014. The conference was a collection of hundreds of talented professionals in sustainability from all manner of disciplines who focused not on the reductionist ideals of minimal impact but on the positive impact of the human built environment. Before in my studies I had achieved a Green Associate level in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) but saw it not as a way of achieving sustainability but more of a branding for increasing product value while doing a negligible difference to ecological impact. The Living Building Challenge on the other hand was a revolution for me in that a building doesn’t need to reduce its footprint but instead create a positive one, create a building that repairs the landscape instead of damaging it.
Up until this point my journey into design has been from the top down approach, that done by paid professionals behind screens, hundreds of kilometers away from their projects and thousands of kilometers away their impact. And I wasn’t convinced.
In 2014, I ventured down to Central America for six months with a fairly simple goal in mind: “what can I learn?” I ended up at a seed Ashram of the east coast of Costa Rica for a month living in the jungle and learning to build endemically with bamboo, but it wasn’t until I took my PDC (Permaculture Design Certification) with Scott Pittman that I really began to learn from the “grassroot movement”. Permaculture was something completely different from my architecture days as it stressed the observation and slow implementation for understanding its impact. It also took into consideration a lot more than the egos of the architect and the people they were designing for, and brought new focus on the earth and its other inhabitants.
After 2014 I traveled for two years working on farms in Canada, Spain, Morocco and Turkey. Learning more about permaculture and its encompassing fields of studies and reading, always reading, on everything I could get my hands on. Along this way I also dove a little more into the politics of permaculture and visited farms on similar but conflicting doctrines, such as Biodynamics and Organic Label. What this exposure taught me was to be hyper critical of all the information I was getting and spend time testing, researching and validating what I learnt. While I still follow and practice much of the information learnt in Permaculture I’m now a lot more careful of how I use the word in my work, I’ve seen it used more as a brand or label by many to justify something they do not quite understand, very similar to how Sustainability was used in Architecture.
Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development
This last part is a little out of order as the first time I came across John T Lyle and his book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development was right at the start of this in 2012 when I picked up the book in the University Bookstore before leaving it on my shelf to collect dust for several years. Several years later I finally pick it up and read it the first time and realized that the answer to a lot of my big questions had been tucked away in its pages this whole time.
What I learnt most from this book was the distinction between the process of design and result of design. Throughout this journey I bounce between being inspired by the process of sustainable architecture or permaculture while ultimately being disappointed with how the label is being applied to their corresponding physical manifestations. It took years before I could come to understand that both words, sustainability (sustain & ability) and permaculture (permanent & agriculture), were expressing solidified and unchanging states but what I was looking for was something that expressed how to achieve such a state.
The book introduced the idea of regenerative design which Lyle uses as an umbrella term to include any process of development that is seeking a sustained state of human cohabitation. He talks about the current state of paleotechnic society where technology is only understood as a through put process of material-produce-waste and how we will eventual reach what he calls a neotechnic society where technology is a circular process from one product to another. The period between these two states is where regenerative design comes in to bridge the transition and change the way people think about technology and material use. What I find most interesting about term is that while it gives many examples of technologies that would be considered regenerative it never settles on a form, and even now over a decade after it was published there is very little in the branding ideology that I’ve seen with sustainability and permaculture.
But what does this have to do with gardening?
In the garden we have the most literal relationship between humans and their ecology. In the paleotechnic society the garden is just a resource to be used and turned into waste, but in the neotechnic society the process of material recycling means that nothing is ever gone to waste. For people living with gardens this idea is most easily understood with a compost. Composting is a truly neotechnic technology as it means that the waste from one system (kitchen) is the resource of the next (compost) and the waste from that is used as a resource in the next (veggie garden). And around and around we go. There are still lots and lots of layers to understand for this cycle, such as human waste, water production and capture, nutrient cycles etc. But it such a simpler concept to grasp rather than trying to explain embedded carbon footprint in production.
But regenerative garden design doesn’t stop at just the compost. Carbon cycling is just one of hundreds of systems at work in a proper garden. There are water cycles, understanding rain collection and grey water use. There are nutrient cycles, promoting microbiology and building the soil food web. There are season cycles in light and temperature, creating micro climates and leaving areas for higher trophic species. And any good garden design will have multiple ways for these systems to occur so that they become resilient, connected and adaptive. John T Lyle talks about the need to aggregate these systems rather then isolate. He talks about simplifying the relationship down for easy understanding and intervention while never disconnecting the system from all the others around it. While it is simple to talk about a composting system between the garden and kitchen there are in fact hundreds of other relationships that go into that system which can individually be examined, manipulated or designed.
That said, the most important part of regenerative garden design is using a terminology that inspires the correct mentality for the process of human cohabitation. The word ‘regeneration’ brings to mind ideas of restoration, renewal, self repair, growth and resilience. These are words that imply a process or circular transition between states rather than offering a single frozen state. When you design with regeneration in mind you are designing not to achieve a perfect state, but to create a system that can learn, grow and adapt to changing conditions and requirements. This in its self means that the term regenerative garden design can never become a label because there would never be final state to it. The garden is designed to continually shift and change with the seasons and years and allowed a part in the conversation of its current form.
Lyle, John Tillman. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development. New York: John Wiley, 1994. Print.
Mollison, B. C., and David Holmgren. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements. Tyalgum, N.S.W.: Tagari, 1987. Print.