Suburban Permaculture as Missional Living

A few months ago I mentioned that I was seeking to focus my attention for 2014 on three streams of thought (and practice), and the interaction and overlap between them. Those streams were missional thinking and practice, the spirituality and practice on nonviolence, and the principles of permaculture. You can find the original post here.

In this post, I’d like to tease out some of the connections—especially in the overlap between missional thinking and practice and the principles of permaculture—by way of an idea that I’ve been thinking about for a number of years now. The idea has not come to fruition for at least a couple of reasons (that I won’t go into here), but I wanted to put the idea out there both as (what I think is) a good illustration of what I’m talking about, and for anyone who might be interested in trying to implement something similar.

I attend a church in the north-west of Sydney—a typically suburban area that is now seeing a rapid increase in medium-density dwellings (townhouses, apartment complexes, etc.). It’s what you might call an upper-middle class kind of place, with people typically having reasonably well-paying jobs, large mortgages (on large houses with tiny yards), and many demands on their time. It’s the kind of area where it’s easy to get wrapped-up in your own little world and not really know your neighbours, and where you can scratch all your consumeristic itches at the mega-malls and ‘homemaker centres’ to your heart’s content.

My church would be the perfect place, I think, for a community garden. We have a large (currently-)grassed area which would be absolutely perfect for it!

To begin with, this area could house a reasonable number of traditional garden beds, as a place where people from the community could come and grow their own fresh produce. Many residents in the area have tiny little yards (that probably don’t even qualify for that name), with many having no yard at all. If set-up and promoted well enough, I believe that this sort of place could pick up a reasonable amount of interest from people in the community who would: a) love to be able to grow some of their own organic food, b) be interested in getting themselves and/or their kids outside and their hands dirty, and c) be interested in getting together with other people in their community to help form new friendships.

In terms of the set up for the area, I would see it as an opportunity to take people on a journey into the world of permaculture through an easy entry point. It would be set up with some traditional garden beds, compost heap, and a worm farm or two near the entry point (the first thing to catch the eye of people coming in for the first time), moving on to a couple of mandala gardens with, perhaps, a decent-sized herb spiral to the side, and moving again into the beginnings of a genuine food forest (as a place to demonstrate deeper permaculture thinking through plant guilds, stacking functions, ‘closing the loop’, etc.).

From here, I would suggest seeking to bring in an experienced permaculturist, perhaps once-a-month, to talk about the principles and practices of sustainable small-scale food production, and maybe also to begin talking about ideas such as the ‘slow food movement’ and the like.

The next step, though, is where, I think, it starts getting exciting.

What I would really love to see is for a place like this to become a kind of hub for training up and sending out people into their townhouse and apartment complexes equipped with skills in innovative small-space permaculture design (or whatever you would like to call it). The idea would be to see people enthused to get together with their neighbours to devise ways of taking such complexes on a journey of becoming self-sufficient and sustainable (in terms of fresh produce) and fostering community. Apartment balconies could become places where each resident grew one item, which would then be shared and traded with neighbours who were growing something else. In this way, no one household/family would need to grow everything they needed, but could form co-ops with their neighbours so that each had something to contribute and each could share in the diversity of what others were producing. This could spread to common areas in these complexes becoming places where plants were grown for their usefulness, not just for their aesthetics.

The (to my mind) natural extension of these ideas would be to see neighbours sharing meals together to celebrate what they have done together and the friendships that have grown alongside the food.

In regards to the ‘missional’ element of this idea, I see it in regards to the local church becoming a ‘sending point’ for people into the community with creative ideas for fostering community and trust and a sustainable future together. The plan is not predicated on some cynical plot for getting ‘bums on seats’ in the Sunday services, but rather in helping draw people together in the community to share food and laughter and life with one another.

It’s my belief that brokenness manifests itself in different ways in different communities, and I see it in my own community (and my own life) in terms of isolation and detachment from those around us, as well as in the consumeristic drive that results in ‘convenience’ over sustainable living. The idea outlined above, I believe, could be one way of seeking to address this sort of brokenness, with the church seeking to become a valued and trusted partner in the community that is working for wholeness and wellbeing. This, to my mind, is precisely what the  local church should be doing.

Of course, the sort of thing I describe above would be implemented over a number of years. It would take time to see these things happen, and there would need to be thought towards short-term ‘wins’ as well as planning for the longer-term goals. It’s also something that would take a fair bit of experimenting; some ideas would work, others would become lessons learned for future reference. Of course, these just happen to be permaculture principles. The same principles that undergird sustainable agriculture also happen to be good ways of thinking about human communities and social interactions, and that’s precisely why the overlap here is so exciting!

Now, I realise that some people might see what I’m describing here as some sort of ‘communist dream’, but it’s simply one way of trying to deal with the destructive individualistic and unsustainable society that I find myself in. If you’d like to run with this idea, please do! I don’t ‘own’ it, and I don’t want to restrict the possibilities in any way. If you’d like to chat more about it, please let me know. I’d be only too happy to kick around ideas with you as you think about implementing something like this in your own community (or through your own church). Finally, if you are already doing something like this, I’d love to learn more from you!

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

7 thoughts on “Suburban Permaculture as Missional Living”

  1. Hi JD,
    Love your thinking here. You may want to speak to my dad (I’m sure he’d be happy to have a chat). He has a Cert IV in Permaculture (as well as being a landscaper/horticulturalist) and works for TAFE outreach in Western Sydney doing a very similar thing to what you’re proposing. Basically, in Tahmoor and Macquarie Fields, there are a couple of Uniting Churches with community gardens – once a week, dad goes out there and teaches whoever comes along about how to create a decent veggie patch, using permaculture ideas. The aim is to work with people in lower socio-economic areas, to help them to become more self-sustainable – but this kind of living is certainly translatable to the Hills district. Let me know if you’re keen for a chat with him and I can pass on his mobile number.
    Cheers,
    Gretski

  2. Josh,

    Still we have not met. Still you continue to think my thoughts.

    I am doing some similar things for similar reasons looking for very similar outcomes.

    We must have a coffee one day – It’s your shout!

    Brian

    1. Yeah, I have, Shane, but there’s various reasons why it’s just not going to happen—at least in the short-term.

      That’s ok, too.

      I’ve wanted to get it up and running before blogging about it (to be able to speak from experience, rather than just having some crazy idea), which is why I haven’t posted about it before. But, due to the fact that it’s not going to happen any time soon, I thought I’pd put it out there for others to have a think about and perhaps to inspire some creative thinking around these ideas.

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