The following sections are excerpted with permission from Chapter 1 of Toby Hemenway’s new book The Permaculture City, published by Chelsea Green.
When a permaculturist sees words such as “function” and “synergy,” it sets off lightbulbs in his or her head. Function, for example, indicates a relationship, a connection between two or more elements. A road functions to move traffic, thus the road has a relationship with vehicles, and it mediates the movement—that is, it makes connections—between the traffic, its origin, and its destination. Knowing a function, in turn, leads us to identify the items and processes necessary to fill that function and also points to the yields created when that function is filled. Thinking in terms of functions, then, is a powerful leverage point, because it identifies needs, yields, relationships, and goals, and it helps us spot blockages, missing elements, buildup of waste, and inefficiencies in the various flows and linkages that are part of that function’s workings.
This means that when we look at cities, their residents, and the other components of urban life in terms of their functions, we can spot the factors that influence how well they are able to perform those functions. Then we can study, understand, and direct those factors and influences in ways that will create and enhance the functions and properties of cities that are beneficial, such as community-building public plazas, parks, and structures; open and supportive marketplaces; and habitat-creating green space; as well as human elements such as responsive policy processes. We can also spot and damp down the negative factors. Once we’ve done this, the next step is to evaluate, to see how well our changes have moved us toward a more livable, and life-filled, environment. That is the heart of design.
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