Framing Permaculture as enabling Systems-Thinking for Sustainability: are our design tools, frameworks, ethics and principles fit for purpose?

This paper aims to explore and further develop the bridge between Permaculture theory and practice in the domains of design and education through a critical engagement with current usage of four commonly-used aspects of Permaculture thinking: design tools, design frameworks, ethics and principles. 

Permaculture is framed here as a process that seeks to enable a systems-thinking approach to sustainability. Using this lens, the paper explores the extent to which key facets of a systems approach, such as inter-relationships, subjectivity, boundaries and emergence are embedded within design and education practice. 

The investigation draws upon reflective writing, action learning and design work carried out over the three years of my own Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design. Concepts were also tested out through peer discussion and a particpatory workshop at the UK National Diploma Gathering. My evaluation of approaches focusses on three issues: their validity, accessibility and applicability. The latter points recognise the educational and practical value of embedding the potentially complex theoretical ideas that underpin Permaculture in accessible thinking processes that are useful and intelligible to students and practitioners.

The paper puts forward proposals for either tweaks or novel approaches to each of the four aspects, including a new non-linear design framework and a new categorisation of tools (including some tools new to Permaculture) with the aim of more deeply embedding a systems-thinking approach. These ideas are intended to make a novel contribution to the literature on Permaculture practice and to offer ideas of new ways of thinking and working to practitioners.


Andrew Reeves is a social scientist, teacher and community activist, whose work over the past decade has focussed upon community-level action for sustainability. Andrew was a co-founder of Transition Leicester, Green Fox Community Energy and the Leicester Permaculture Design Course.

As an academic, his recent research focuses on the evaluation of grassroots sustainability initiatives, and his teaching interests include project management, research design and the psychology of engagement with sustainability.

Andrew gained his Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design in 2015.

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