Note: This research began with the working title, 'Gro World - Urban Permaculture' which has now been modified to 'Gro World - RUrban Permaculture'. The researcher has found strong links between Indian cities and their immediate rural surroundings. These urban villages produce food, milk and other services for the city. 'RUrban' refers to this symbiotic relationship. For a summary of the research please click on the following link: permaculture-_towards_a_sustainable_future.pdf


The growth of urban centres around the globe has had a critical impact on ecology. Some of the questions at the core of this research are:

  • Is there an ecological limit to economic growth?
  • Do we have the right to consider human beings as more valuable than other life forms?
  • Is there an option to treating forests as sacrifice zones for urban growth?
  • Can we afford to treat nature like an object, which is manipulated, commodified and sold?
  • How can we imagine a fertile healthy future for everyone?

This project explores aspects of human environment, its relation with ecology and our attempt for sustainable growth. The relevant fields of inquiry are urban ecology, sustainability, human plant interaction and biomorphism. The research explores ways in which we can transform our cities into productive, healthy, edible and playful green visions. In recent years there has been a growing public movement to bring ecology into urban environments where most people spend their time. While, this is important, people are still grappling with the problem of a balance between 'growth' and conservation and this is not limited to emerging cities in the developing world. The thrust of this research and thereby this project is to explore methods to initiate collective public action in this direction.

Some of the reasons for this project are as follows:

  • By the end of 2008, half the world's population will be living in cities for the first time in history.(according to a UN report)
  • Cities are becoming increasingly polluted, unhealthy and disconnected with other life forms.
  • Urban problems include inequality, acute hunger, unemployment, crime, inflation, urban sprawl, rising poverty, expensive health care, increase in population and imbalanced education system.
  • Declining resources in many parts of the world has met a rising population. The result is starvation, drought, refugees and resource wars.
  • Food crisis is further compounded by changing food habits, increased use of pesticides, herbicides, biocides; rapidly deteriorating soil quality, increasing oil prices and use of agricultural land to grow corn for ethanol.
  • There has been an acute drop in forest cover and a sharp increase in desert area. Each year, we lose 20 billion metric tons of topsoil, emit 20 billion metric tons of carbon-di-oxide into the atmosphere, and create two million hectares of new desert.
  • Traditional systems are a crucial resource and can offer us remedies. Sharing and learning from each other is important and challenges can be seen as opportunities.

The objectives of this phase are as follows:

  • On-line and literature survey of state of the art in urban gardening and permaculture (global perspective)
  • On-site research and comparison of urban gardening in the Benelux and India
  • On-site research of Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, focusing on preserving and increasing biodiversity
  • Design for urban gardening prototypes and kits
  • Article for the Luminous Green publication on the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary
  • Participation in the Research Gathering in October 2007
  • Participation in the groWorld design session in April 2008
  • A written report in the prescribed format

For details on the methodology of this project please click on permaculture-research-methodology.

The findings of this research would be relevant in regions having a strong tradition of agriculture: China, Japan, India, Guatemala, Costarica and Peru, to name a few. And, through a comparative analysis of the urban character, gardening trends and culture of Europe and India, this research aims to bring out aspects which can inform a sustainable growth pattern, in other regions as well.


Permaculture is an integrated, evolving, multidimensional and creative design response to a world of declining energy and resource availability with emphasis on design processes drawn from nature. While reflecting the ongoing evolution of our knowledge systems, it incorporates holistic thinking and systems of management. It is also applicable to other aspects of human settlements, business enterprises, political and economic systems, learning environments, health and child rearing. For more on this topic please see history of permaculture

Urban Permaculture

In urban situations, space is limited and various regulatory restrictions exist when it comes to gardening or having backyard animals.1) Some of the concepts that people have used in urban settings are discussed below. These are a mix of approaches, ranging from gardening to co-ownership. Further, cities in the west are governed by different social, political and physical qualities than those in the east. Despite this, the examples discussed here share a common vision of “no loss” and an aspect of “community”. For more on this topic please see urban permaculture concepts.

Beyond numbers and definitions: Towards purposeful action

Scenario 1: On a recent visit to a remote farm in India, the researcher met a middle aged woman. After a brief conversation, the researcher asked the woman her age. The reply was, 'It might be between 30 and 50 years'. This was followed by a period of silence. The researcher reflected on how acutely we are attached to numbers and statistics. How they mean so much more than the real issue at hand.

Scenario 2: In recent conversations with Kobe Matthys, a Brussels based urban farmer, the researcher was told about a recent trend of, official permaculture courses which gives people the 'legal' right to call themselves permaculturists. The course requires individuals to pay 1000 euros. While the idea of education is not wrong, the researcher has strong reservations about 'controlling' the spread of an idea which at its core is about re-intepretation and open ended participation, for a sustainable living.

These two scenarios bring up an important issue about our affinity for brands, numbers and definitions. Yes we need them and can not imagine a world without them; but, they are not the end, they are tools for feedback, for self regulation, for differentiation and for efficient distribution of resources. In our competitive urge for 'growth' reflected by larger numbers and ever changing definitions, we seem to have lost our purpose. The purpose is action: collective, purposeful action for common good. Having said this, in this research, definitions and numbers play the role of triggers for real change.

Urban and Rural

Migration from rural to urban areas has been a global phenomena for centuries. Reasons for this include greater opportunity, secure income, a sense of freedom, a sense of being interconnected and being part of a privileged system. Cities can no longer sustain an exponentially growing population with exponentially growing demands. The imbalance has become more evident with a rapidly deteriorating environment and quality of life. Thankfully, villages in many parts of the world, still offer a healthy environment and an intact eco-system. There are hopeful signs of grassroot organisations which have successfully created local cycles of mutual cooperation in a self organised way. The Development Alternatives Group in Delhi, Barefoot College in Rajasthan, the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala are testimony to this. This is gradually changing the notion that villages are backward by transforming them into alternative models of sustainability. 2)


Europe and India _ farming comparision

Cultural peculiarities

Possibilities for urban permaculture kits


The idea of sustainability is a constantly evolving journey. The insights and lessons learnt have gone far beyond farming and ecology. Since, the nature of farming and land is highly interconnected, it affects every aspect of our society. The researcher would like to conclude with the following directives:

To learn, to care, to share and to give

Simple solutions can originate from any source, independent of age, status, experience or academic background. The issue of education, literacy and awareness is crucial for the success of any venture. Current systems have failed in making a distinction between education and literacy. We are trained to earn money and get a job. We are not told about the purpose of our life and how we can be of genuine value for our communities. The Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India is an important example where villagers are involved in educating the young. Children are able to translate their knowledge into local situations making the communities much more sustainable. There is no need for them to migrate to cities. Poverty and illiteracy are the greatest challenges facing mankind and such initiatives can inspire us to make a meaningful difference. With special focus on preserving eco-systems, bio-literacy can generate an appropriate response from every stakeholder. It is important to bring out the connection between a fertile soil, and healthy crops, healthy animals and healthy humans. Costarica is a good example here.3) Once we 'know' what we are going to 'lose', our perspective on things will change and we will take the right steps even if it amounts to changing our habits.

An important thread through this issue is the politics of information and communication; the question of, who can know what? Technology as an important participatory tool can be extremely effective even though prevailing tendencies have been to favour presentation over content; and replication over creation. An important example here is its use through e-choupals in rural Indian villages to increase crop productivity ('choupal' is a hindi term for a village gathering place). Further, since ‘change’ can happen remarkably quickly in an electronically networked world; there must be sufficient and critical debate over the impact and need for such a change. We must constantly re-evaluate and revalidate our responses and ideas of 'growth' and 'progress'. Ethics are important in such a situation and should be openly discussed through value-based governance. In cultural contexts, links with tradition should involve the use of past processes of change rather than the maintenance of past structures and patterns. Having said that, if a pattern needs to disintegrate and be left behind, we must let new systems be born.

Towards long term view: a cultural anchor

'Jain monks are like grazing cattle; they never take too much from one place or person. They take small amounts and then move onto the next spot.'4)

We need to nurture a moral force: an anchor in every culture, which challenges convention. It could come from spirituality, religion, an inspiring story, a community or a genuine leader. Here religion isn’t about believing things. It is ethical alchemy, a form of investigation. It’s about behaving in a way that changes us and gives us intimations of holiness and sacredness. How can we transform the idea of control, dominance and self-importance to that of mutual respect and interconnection with other life forms? Anchors create an effective self-regulatory pattern in a system. India, with its spiritual heritage is an example of this collective idea of balance and harmony with nature. It has, till recently, worked as a counterpoint to the ongoing movement of 'fast' by offering a 'slow and deep' mind set. Greening up our excessive consumption without changing our habits will not work. We must consume less and we must slow down. We must also look at authentic solutions for reversing population growth. Such initiatives underline our responsibility towards a long term sustainable view. 5)6) From rural farming perspective, the negative impact of intensive industrial agriculture has been established. A conscious effort to step back and look at traditional farming methods is required. Organic farming is an important basic appropriate technology for rural areas, especially in the developing world and as such is a sub set of permaculture, which offers the most holistic method of farming and will move on from its current status as 'alternative response to environmental crisis' to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. From an urban farming perspective, personal kitchen gardens are most effective. If every individual in a city decides to have a personal garden, the impact can be huge. The future of food would depend on how we interpret, recontextualise and fuse traditional methods with lessons learnt from permaculture.

The power and spirit of 'we'

A gradual shift towards a ‘we’ and ‘us’ based culture from a ‘me’ and ‘I’ based approach is required. This is a difficult test for humanity with the diversity of agendas amongst individual humans. Can nations indeed come together and treat certain issues as sacred? Ideas of 'social capitalism', 'social entrepreneurship' and ‘co-ownership’ are hopeful signs. How can we systemically integrate the knowledge which continues to remain fragmented in different intellectual disciplines? How can we create an overview? Technology can be a tool but the real answer to this is having a passionate will. There is a definite need for co-operation, dialogue and collaboration between different cultures and contexts to develop a 'greater' self reliant system. Urban communities should join hands with rural areas to create a prosperous countryside, which in turn would support our future. Collective communities like India, today face a reverse trend with a shift towards a capitalist, individual based, self serving attitude. There is a visible rush to embrace the global marketplace and the impact can be catastrophic. A collective change of mind and heart is needed. Whether this will happen or not depends on each single one of us.

Legally sacred

We all depend on nature's bounty for our survival and prosperity. Translating global agreements on sustainability and biodiversity into legislation and action at the national and regional level is crucial. Land must be safeguarded from the operations of finance. This calls for reforms in the legal system where the rights of other life forms should be safeguarded. We must declare forests and other life forms as life supporting systems- a green insurance. A gradual and determined approach for recovering the land and celebrating the farmer is needed and the benefits of this shared with everyone. When people develop pride in their work, they feel accountable and responsible, and this results in purposeful change. This is an important aspect for community driven bottom up change. Certain religious institutions in India, like the International society for Krishna consciousness, lay special emphasis on organic farming and have a successful model to train people in bio-dynamic farming in their national centre in near Bangalore.

Towards purposeful action

We all have a construct, a conscious grammar about ourselves and the world around us. The idea of language is central to this. We need words, numbers, and definitions; but, they are not the end. They are tools for feedback, for self regulation, for differentiation and for efficient distribution of resources. In our competitive urge for 'growth' reflected by larger numbers and ever changing definitions, we could lose the purpose of collective, purposeful action. An example to illustrate this is the growing divide between 'urban' and 'rural'. Migration from rural to urban areas has been a global phenomenon for centuries. People in most parts of the world crave to be in an urban setting. It gives them a sense of pride and achievement apart from other tangible benefits. This contributes to continued unsustainable migration from villages to cities. There is a need to redefine the mental and physical construct of an 'urban' space and a 'rural' place and treat them as a unified whole. During interviews with inhabitants in Delhi, it was felt that most dwellers still treat the city as their work place where they have located themselves. Their home is in the countryside! This social phenomena of 'locating' oneself in a place rather than making it a home, is an important issue and needs to be addressed.

Towards diverse, self organised, self reliant homes

Diversity contributes to growth, resilience and evolution of a system. We need conditions that make independent ingenious ideas possible. In India, hopeful signs of grass root organisations which have successfully created local cycles of mutual cooperation in a self organised way have emerged. These have actively disjoined their workplace from global competition and lived in harmony with nature. The Development Alternatives Group in Delhi, Barefoot College in Rajasthan and the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala are few examples. These initiatives have transformed villages into alternative models of sustainability displaying a strong sense of intelligence, humility and moral integrity. Through a community driven, hands-on approach, people have found a quiet solution to their future. Be it the children’s parliament in Barefoot or rural women who work as solar engineers and plant taxonomy experts in Gurukula, these places radiate with respect, joy and confidence. They feel warm, familiar, inclusive and inviting to everyone. Above all they feel alive, they feel like home. Through their work and character these people have added exceptional value to the place. The results have been slow but the impact is deep and unquestionable. The day each human being realises the responsibility they have and the impact they can make, we as specie will be truly worthy of being on this planet.

The researcher would like to end this chapter with a note of gratitude for every living entity which has made this journey meaningful. We stand united in our respect for life, for beauty and for the spirit of living.


The researcher would like to suggest the following threads for the future:

  • Looking at traditional systems of living, farming and education in India which are comparable to permaculture as a holistic approach. The researcher would like to research on Vedanta7) which is based on laws common to spiritual traditions worldwide.
  • Analysing the attributes of community based approaches in countries like India and how can we create such initiatives in western societies.
  • Rethinking our relationship with other life forms in an infinitely interconnected world and finding ways to develop compassion for one another.
  • Finding appropriate ways and methods to bring 'ethical' thinking and practical experience as a core topic in design education and education in general.
  • Creating an International Platform for Growth and Resilience, which tinkers towards a more inclusive, collaborative methodology through a system of integration. Informed by scientific research, practical experience and travel, the platform would act as an independent facilitator and arbiter of emerging knowledge domains. One of the initiatives could be to bring 'polar' groups together to find a common ground. These groups could include young and old; scientists and traditional farmers; environmentalists and corporate executives; capitalists and social entrepreneurs; secular groups with military regime heads; real estate developers with conservationists; politicians with middle class people and so on.
  • Creating tangible manifestations of human plant interaction to nudge it out of the speculative zone. How would a new relevant design practice emerge through observation of and cooperation with natural systems? The researcher envisions the emergence of a new field of research which merges aspects of urban ecology, design ethnography and life science.

The claims and insights in this research have been informed by the interviews, site visits and surveys conducted by the researcher. The surveys have been based on online research and published papers and books.


  • An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard
  • Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability by David Holmgren



  • Power of community: Produced by the community solution organization, the film explores the peak oil crisis with focus on community based solutions that reflect the values of cooperation, conservation and curtailment. The film captures the free fall of Cuba's economy in early 90's with the fall of the Soviet Union and its turnaround using drastic measures to become self reliant. It demonstrates the role of community in dealing with acute challenges. Every aspect of cuban life was affected by the 'special period', but no change was as far reaching as agriculture. Cuba was forced to switch to survival agriculture from the green revolution practices it was accustomed to. A drastic effort to convert every piece of arable land to organic agriculture was begin. An urban agriculture movement resulted where every vacant lot in the city was converted into an orchard. Under urban gardening, idle plots of land were identified, cleaned and turned into gardens by the community. The people cooperating and caring about each other were the main factors for the turnaround. With sustainable practices Cuba found that it took 3 to 5 years to rehabilitate the soil again. To increase food production the government worked with farmers to find local solutions. The result was smaller farms and cooperatives with a high degree of privatization and autonomy. These were able to use sustainable practices in a much more efficient manner and created new ways of decentralized growth under a larger umbrella. With a more stable method of land distribution and ownership, thousands moved to rural areas. The impact was also felt in the education, housing, transportation and energy alternatives realms resulting in improvised solutions from the people and the government which has not only created a unique model for all of us but also reinstilled faith in the power of simple steps taken at a community level.
  • Bill Mollison-Global Gardener Series 1-4
  • Bill Mollison-Funding the Revolution
  • Bill Mollison-Permaculture Design Course
  • Farming with Nature-A case study of successful temperate Permaculture
  • Permaculture- Sepp Holzer - Aquaculture-Synergy of Land and Water

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  • Last modified: 2008-06-13 21:58
  • by sanjeev