When people discuss permaculture design, one of the first aspects mentioned are zones, followed by sectors (or vice versa). In some books, articles and PDCs, zones and sectors are written about in ways that are most relevant to rural settings. When we think about applying permaculture to the city, we need to adjust the concept of zones and sectors to fit the scale, and realities of vibrant urban living. When I first discovered permaculture and for several years after I attended my Permaculture Design Course with Earth Activist Training, I continued to live in rented spaces in cities, with little or no access to my own space. I found it challenging to figure out how to design a permaculture life without owning a large tract of land. This article is about how to think differently, on a city scale, about zones and sectors so that you can plan for a season of amazing urban permaculture design and practice whether it be in a small-space, no space, or community space!
The use of zones in permaculture is a useful way to organize our space and our lives so we can begin to design it regeneratively. It seeks to describe the intensity and frequency of use of varying spaces and is typically outlines as:
- zone 0 – the home (sometimes described as oneself, with the other zones changed for scale)
- zone 1 – home garden
- zone 2 – Orchards (also where small animals might live)
- zone 3 – pastures, larger livestock
- zone 4 – managed forests and wetlands
- zone 5 – the wild
People play with the zones to make useful for different scales but you can see this classic template, modified from David Holmgren in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, is not so useful for those of us in cities.
Permaculture Activist magazine (now Permaculture Design) suggested urban zones be based on the use of fossil fuels in transportation. I find this useful as movement around cities, particularly large cities, affects the frequency and intensity of use of spaces. Here is an outline of their vision (from the very useful article Zones and Sectors in the city):
- Zone 0: Home.
- Zone 1: Walking distance (“pedosphere”).
- Zone 2: Bicycling distance (“cyclosphere”).
- Zone 3: Reachable by public transportation or by a short drive.
- Zone 4: Driving distance.
- Zone 5: Reachable only by plane or other long-distance transport
I like this conception of urban zones and think it is useful, although it does not speak to everyone’s experience of city living or the methods of transportation to which they may have access. Living in a small city vs. large city can drastically change this use of zones, as can living in a city centre vs a suburb. Also, what if someone cannot walk or bike? Or doesn’t own a car? I do aim to only drive in zone 4 (3, if it is outside the city) so I think it is a very useful and important way to think about regenerative design in this way.
Having said that, I conceive of zones slightly differently but still along the lines of frequency and intensity of use. I think it is very important to leave zone 5 as the wild and to also incorporate places in the world you will never visit but that impact you and, especially if you are North American, YOU impact. I also think it is interesting to ponder how the use of the internet and social media affect zones, especially the “community” and “people” zones.
Here is my proposal for zones in the city:
- Zone 0 – you and your home, chosen family (this includes kids, partners, close friends, lovers, etc)
- Zone 1 – Spaces used everyday (your yard, garden, possibly a park, maybe you go to a cafe or library everyday)
- Zone 2 – Spaces used 3-5 times a week (a community garden or community food forest, a coffeeshop, your workplace, perhaps your local library); often easily walkable, within reasonable cycling distance or on a direct transit route
- Zone 3 – Spaces visited about once a week (a farmer’s market, your CSA, a art studio where you take classes, maybe a park where you spend your weekend, a place where you volunteer, etc)
- Zone 4 – Spaces that you visit about once a month and/or that are important to your life but not a frequent part of it (a local permaculture or organic farm, out of town friends or family, a managed park or conservation area, community organization mtgs). Also if you happen to regularly visit another city or country (even annually), I would include it here not in zone 5
- Zone 5 – The wild as well as parts of the world you will never visit. I think it is crucially important to think about zone 5 to consider how our actions affect wild areas AND affect people throughout the world that who we may never meet in places we may never visit.
This can be played with to make it work for you. Once you have a sense of your zones, write them out using five concentric circles with zone 0 in the middle. I recommend making a diagram about your present life and a diagram about how you hope to redesign your life/spaces. You can divide the diagram into different sections such as food, outdoor spaces, community, and people.
Generally in permaculture the most intensively and frequently used spaces as the ones that you develop first with your design plans. However, this doesn’t mean that you can or should only focus on yourself and your home. Many urban dwellers interact with our neighbourhood gathering spots every single day, so we need to give those areas our attention, time, and energy.
Sectors are a design tool that helps you think about the different energies, sometimes thought of as ‘wild’ or uncontrollable energies, that make their way through your spaces. I recommend doing a sector analysis on zones 0, 1, and 2, if possible (you may have little control over some of the zones).
Energies typically mentioned in permaculture guides:
- wild animals
- fire in some places
I also add human-created sectors:
- family members (including children)
- neighbours (including children)
- domesticated animals (yours or ones in the neighbourhood)
- city bylaws and staff
- community/activist organizations
- community ‘helpers’ (teachers, librarians, bus drivers, etc)
- ‘the public’ (the people in your city)
- OPRESSION (how does racism, sexism, colonialism, class bigotry affect the energy of our spaces)
It is important to think of how these different energies, not directly controlled by you (even your children, let’s be honest), affect and use your spaces. They need to be considered when designing space. You need to know where the sun shines and at what time of day before planting gardens but you also need to know where your children like to play. These categories are not bound and they all interact with one another. In a city two crucially important and entangled sectors are city bylaws and neighbours.
It’s important to think about the flows of these energies not only the natural ones (wind, water, etc) but the human-created ones (children, domesticated animals). What energies flow in and out of your spaces and how can you design for and with them? Personally, I try to mostly think about how to work with these energies not to stop them. We might think we can block a meddling neighbour with a fence, but that is partly an illusion and might also block the flow of other energies (wild animals, for example).
Flexible, dynamic design
People can be rigid with how they use permaculture tools and practices. Thinking through zones and sectors is an important design tool, helping you to uncover patterns and assisting in the visioning process that is so crucial to any good design. Use it in ways that help you and make sense for your life. Redo your zones and sectors regularly and think about what has changed and what has stayed the same (and WHY).
In my heart I am still a high school dropout who dislikes authority and rules so I need to state that these are guidelines not rules. Use zones and sectors in flexible ways to help create vibrant, regenerative urban spaces!
If you want to share, I would love to see your zone diagrams and I’m sure others will find it valuable. Post them in the comments or email me.
Thank you for your post, very interesting. The one thing that I love about permaculture is that it is not static or stagnant. It is a discipline which is constantly evolving and people such as yourself add to the knowledge and put ideas out there. Like yourself, I believe that the permaculture principles can be used better and the community can flourish if they are quick to adopt and adapt. Cheers, Lee.