Exploring Permaculture in Urban Environments: A Beginner’s Guide

permaculture design manual

Welcome to the world of permaculture, where sustainable practices meet urban living! In this article, we will delve into the world of permaculture and its reality-based application in urban environments.

Whether you have a small backyard, a balcony garden, or even just a sunny windowsill, there are numerous ways you can integrate permaculture principles into your urban space. Let’s explore how you can create a thriving and sustainable ecosystem right at your doorstep.

Understanding Permaculture in Urban Environments

It is reasonably safe to assume that Permaculture has seeped into the lexicon of modern language in the past twenty years and with good reason. As the name implies, there is a suggestion of permanence inherent in the word, and we all live in a culture wherever we reside.

Permaculture is an adaptable design science most often associated with larger lifestyle blocks and acreage, yet some of the most productive permaculture systems are hidden within the boundaries of the urban landscape.

Here at The Tropical Homestead we have a permaculture design applied over our 1/4 acre parcel of land. We started this process early 2015 and can now see the benefits of the hard work and effort we invested into the design.

There are several popular processes within the design system that people can get caught up on, and hopefully by the end of this article you will be a little wiser on what not to do in an urban permaculture design.

What is permaculture?

Permaculture is a sustainable design system that mimics natural ecosystems to create harmonious and productive environments. It emphasizes working with nature rather than against it. By considering the interconnections between plants, animals, and the surrounding environment, permaculture aims to create resilient and self-sufficient systems.

log in garden gives shelter to wildlife
Black pepper plant next to a log. Small lizards live in this area.

It incorporates principles such as observing, conserving resources, and maximizing efficiency. Permaculture encourages people to live in balance with the earth, promoting ecological harmony and regenerative practices.

Key principles of permaculture design.

Permaculture is guided by several key principles that provide a foundation for sustainable design and decision-making. Here are some of the key principles of permaculture:

  1. Observe and interact: Carefully observe the natural patterns and processes in your environment before making any interventions. Understand the dynamics and relationships at play. This means you sit and look. A truism… one hundred hours of thinking to one hour of work.
  2. Catch and store energy: Utilize and maximize the capture and storage of energy in various forms, such as sunlight, water, and wind. Store excess energy for future use. This seems logical, however observation will yield sun angles for plant growth, wind directions for protection for plants, and season rainfall directions to harness for beneficial purposes.
  3. Obtain a yield: Aim for productive systems that provide a surplus of resources, ensuring that efforts result in tangible benefits such as food, energy, or materials. Aim to be able to harvest from the system without depreciating the system.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: Constantly monitor and evaluate your systems, making necessary adjustments based on feedback from the environment and the people involved. The system will evolve and give direct feedback if you observe.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services: Prioritize the use of renewable resources, such as solar power and rainwater harvesting, and recognize the value of ecosystem services provided by nature. Recognize the value that falls on your land every day. A simple bird landing in a tree you planted and pooping onto the garden below is value. Plan to harness these behaviors.
  6. Produce no waste: Minimize waste by reusing, recycling, and repurposing materials and resources within the system. Foster closed-loop systems to eliminate or reduce waste generation. Look at everything the design produces as a useful resource. Any plant matter becomes mulch, excess produce becomes chicken food, all manures become fertilizer.
  7. Design from patterns to details: Understand the larger patterns and relationships within an ecosystem before focusing on specific elements or components. Design with an understanding of the whole system. This is easier said than done. It takes many changes to a design before an appropriate main-frame pattern can be finalized. Retain flexibility and a willingness to adjust the design when observations suggest it.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate: Seek connections and beneficial relationships between different elements of the system. Foster diversity and interdependence to create resilient and balanced systems. Consider interconnectedness as a system of support structures. Use natural links to provide resilience.
  9. Use small-scale, intensive systems: Optimize the use of space and resources by creating efficient, small-scale systems that maximize productivity and minimize waste. A smaller well-optimized system will outperform a larger more open design on a per square foot area comparison. The time invested in the design and interaction within it with all components allow for this to be true.
  10. Collaborate and share: Foster cooperation and sharing of resources, knowledge, and experiences within communities. Encourage collaboration and collective action for greater impact. There will be a wealth of knowledge in people around you. They may not even be aware of permaculture yet may have historical and cultural practices that can help greatly.

These principles form the basis for sustainable design and decision-making in permaculture, allowing for the creation of resilient, regenerative, and harmonious systems that work in harmony with nature.

Adapting permaculture to urban spaces.

This is often called retrofitting a design over an existing yard or property. This is where 100 hrs of thinking to 1 hr of work will be your friend. The recommendation we have for all readers after retrofitting a permaculture design over our property in 2015, is to be patient and observant.

It takes time to establish a permaculture system and if you get it wrong in areas, you can double the time before that area is productive.

rootball in garden for animals to use as shelter
A rootball from a tree that was removed, providing shelter.

In the image above, the rootball is from a tree that was removed, as it was planted well before the yard was put under permaculture design. The tree was in a very poor location as it shaded out prime food growing space.

Keep note of the sun angles for the entire year. This is vital for garden locations.

Note the water flow during heavy rain. This is important for harvesting and maintaining nutrients within your system.

Look where the predominate winds come from each season. Are they strong enough to generate power? Will they damage plants? Observe and design to make use of it.

What hard structures are available as growing elements, or shade structures, do they create micro-climates to take advantage of?

Designing Your Urban Permaculture Oasis

There is no single permaculture design that can be applied to any two blocks. Every situation will be different, so taking stock of what you have available to work with is the first step to a stable design.

orchids growing on hollow log
This log supports orchids as well as creating shelter for animals.

Assessing your urban space for permaculture potential.

Assessing your urban space for permaculture potential involves observing and understanding its unique characteristics. Consider factors like available sunlight, wind patterns, soil quality, and water sources.

Determine the space available for gardening, such as rooftops, balconies, or small plots. Assess the microclimates within your urban environment, identifying sunny and shaded areas. Use rooftops intelligently; inappropriate techniques can and will cause damage to the structure below.

By evaluating these elements, you can maximize the potential of your space, selecting suitable plants and designing efficient systems that align with permaculture principles.

Zoning and sector analysis for urban areas.

If your land area is small, this is not a subject to be concerned about. Zones are areas of space where appropriate elements reside. You don’t have a tall food forest at the back door if you want a herb garden of veggy patch close by.

This article is not large enough to describe all zones and sectors, but we can say that the average urban property will have a zone one and possibly a zone two. The typical land areas involved are just not large enough to pretend to have more, and this is a danger for the novice designer. Imagining more zones into your system does not equate to an optimal design for your situation.

Maximizing small spaces with vertical gardening and container systems.

This is an area where the small system can shine. The educated permaculture designer will see the opportunity for vertical growth. Taking sun angles into consideration, you can potentially double the production of a given area.

Containers and pots are relocatable for moving to catch sunlight. They allow food to grow above hard surfaces like pavers and concrete. They also allow seedlings to be started indoors before normal growing conditions arrive.

Utilizing rooftops, balconies, and windowsills for urban agriculture.

It is important to consider the opportunities that windowsills and balconies present. A factor to be mindful of is the sun hours for these locations. We don’t recommend planting in a heavy shaded area in temperate zones. If there are enough sun-hours, then consider the weight of the plants vs the structural integrity of the balcony itself. Consider where the water will go when you water the plants.

Rooftops can sometimes host gardens, but we advise checking with the appropriate people to confirm that the rooftop can take the weight and the regular watering without compromising the building below.

Incorporating permaculture into community gardens and shared spaces.

Incorporating permaculture into community gardens and shared spaces fosters collaboration and sustainable food production. You can collectively maximize space efficiency with techniques like vertical gardening. Implement water-saving methods and encourage composting for soil health.

You can collaborate and organize educational programs and skill-sharing workshops and also establish fair harvest and distribution systems. This all helps to foster a sense of community ownership and responsibility to help transform shared spaces into resilient, sustainable oases that benefit individuals and the collective.

Creating Sustainable Food Systems

Growing your own food in urban settings.

In the troubled times we find ourselves in, growing your own food just makes sense. With the food prices ever rising, if you can get a garden started, every ounce of produce you grow eliminates the need to spend and purchase that item.

Growing food also allows you to choose what and when you grow. The urban setting is a great place for this to take place because you can concentrate your efforts into a smaller space, therefor making it more productive.

The ideal design for the urban setting is one that allows maximum return on the space available, even to the point where a true harvest can be had, allowing for preservation of food for later times. This gives a buffer for times when seasons don’t work in your favor.

Choosing suitable plants for small spaces.

This is a very important topic.

I have a recommendation to make here, and I suggest you consider it. Please avoid attempting to grow plants and vegetables that are not suited to your climate or zone.

Ignore the offerings at the nursery where the seedlings are on display. While some, maybe even many, of these plant varieties may grow and produce something, we advise you to stick with known varieties that are hardy and productive. Nurseries are in the business of selling plants, not supplying you with a stable food supply.

The whole idea of permaculture design is to build resilience and self-sufficiency into your lifestyle, so expecting to gain a crop of pineapples in Alaska is probably not a good plan.

Consider the size of the plant or tree. Every plant will cast shade so be very mindful of this simple fact. A small space cannot handle many tall plants without compromising the available area for vegetables and herbs.

Permaculture techniques for urban gardening, such as companion planting and succession planting.

In a small space, there are layers. The garden surface is just one of many. Root crops such as peanuts can be planted below peppers, and while creating a groundcover and nitrogen-fixing for the peppers, they can give a harvest. Both of these plants can be under the crown of a small fruit tree, with sun angles having been considered before planting any of these.

In a raised garden bed, you can sow the seeds of a crop before the plants already growing have finished. You can get several crops from a small space with this method.

Implementing efficient watering systems, including rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation.

Collect your rainwater. It is a valuable resource that will leave your property if you let it. Plan around the overflows of any water collection system you have with the excess water flowing onto fruit trees or any plants that enjoy moist soil.

Composting in urban environments: vermiculture and small-scale composting options.

Anything that was once alive has the potential to be composted back to soil. This includes all plant waste your garden will generate, as well as all kitchen scraps. Paper, cardboard, and wood chips and shavings all become soil when composted.

There are many methods of composting, and the available space will dictate how you approach this, but don’t let the composting opportunity go to waste…pun intended.

Enhancing Biodiversity and Wildlife Habitat

Biodiversity is the stabilizing factor in a permaculture system. Life in your soil is paramount to growing food without chemical inputs, be they fertilizer or pesticides. Healthy soil is dependent on a myriad of life-forms that partner with the root systems of plants, and most of this goes un-noticed to us.

Above ground, plant selection allows us to design the beneficial pathways for insects and animals that will enhance, protect, and replicate our design over time.

Creating habitats for beneficial insects and pollinators.

Thoughtful positioning of protective structures for the animals and insects that we wish to be present is vital to maintain our partnership with them.

Habitat for biodiversity
Hollow logs offer protection for wildlife in the Permaculture system.

A simple log placed in a garden gives habitat to a slug-eating lizard. A hollow branch hung in a tree gives habitat to small birds and bats.

A block of wood with multiple holes drilled into it gives a location for beneficial wasps and hornets that help control grubs and caterpillars that can take out a garden bed of veggies overnight.

Attracting birds and beneficial insects to your urban permaculture space.

All birds have behaviors that are typical to that species. We live in NE Australia where we have several birds that hunt lizards and larger insects. By giving habitat as protection, we can keep a steady population of these small lizards on site without being concerned about the birds. The droppings these birds leave are welcome, as is the service they provide by maintaining the lizard population. It is a balanced system.

Insects will arrive if you have plants that they prefer. Hunting wasps are always on the lookout for new prey, so work with them and supply locations they use to breed their next generation. Don’t be concerned if they are not present when the design or system is new and immature. Build it and they will come, it’s a true statement.

Incorporating native plants for biodiversity conservation.

Native plants and flowers often host specific insect and bird species that have partnered with that particular plant. If that plant is not available, the animals disappear from your area. If we apply this to a large area, the animals could be under severe stress.

Within permaculture design we have the ability to choose what plants we place within the design, and to achieve a stable ecosystem we need to recognize the needs of all participants within the system.

We suggest not discounting plants that are not naturalized but firstly consider the benefits and attributes of natives if they can fill the needs and requirements the system will ask of them in the location you have in mind.

Designing wildlife-friendly features like bird feeders and insect hotels.

If you search for insect hotels and such online, there are plenty of images and ideas to borrow from. This is a great opportunity to re-use a few old items that would be candidates for a trip to the local tip. Remember that some items may have harmful components or treatments like paints and preservatives to stop rot.

Managing Resources and Waste

Incorporating recycling and upcycling into your urban permaculture practices.

Once you start down this path, the process becomes easier over time. As you grow more food at home, less packaging comes into your system from external sources. Consider this topic a journey, because it won’t all happen overnight.

As you fill out your design with structures for growing food, upcycle as many things as possible. An old bedframe makes a great trellis for growing beans.

Reducing energy consumption and utilizing renewable energy sources.

You don’t need to be involved with permaculture to see the logic in small scale energy saving devices. The most practical method of reducing energy consumption is to scale back the modern conveniences that clutter our lives. This is far easier said than done.

We struggle all the time with this topic and expect that you would be no different. The financial costs to implement renewables can be large if you wish to replace your lifestyle as it is now with renewables. Your location matters here as well. Exceptionally cold winters make this energy transition very challenging.

Implementing greywater systems for water conservation.

Re-use your water. Take care to consider the types of chemicals used in washing water if you intend to use the water on gardens. Again, the cost to install a hard system into your dwelling will be high and may not even be possible. Talk with a local plumber if this is your intention.

Utilizing organic waste for composting and soil fertility.

The more compost you can generate on site the better your garden will be. This eventually equates to better food, better health, lower living costs, and a more stable system in the garden. There is not one aspect of composting that is a negative, because it is modelled on the natural systems we see in national parks and the like.

Learning and Engaging

Joining local permaculture groups and organizations.

Google is your friend here. For the most part, “permies” are great people who are very willing and sometimes very able to help with your questions and challenges. Share your knowledge with anyone who is interested.

Attending workshops, courses, and community events.

These can be a great place to make connections. The cost for some courses can be high, so look for reviews from past participants to help guide you.

Exploring permaculture resources, books, and online platforms.

This is likely why you are reading this now. We have a lot of info on this site that is applicable to many situations. We do specialize in permaculture in a tropical setting, so bear that in mind. What is applicable to our situation may not fit yours.

Seeking inspiration from successful urban permaculture projects and case studies.

Finding case studies that are in your area can sometimes be difficult, as many people prefer to have a youtube channel hoping to generate a little income as they learn.

Your nearest permaculture organization will have garden tours if they are available.


Embracing permaculture principles in an urban setting opens up endless possibilities for sustainable living, connecting with nature, and creating thriving ecosystems.

By implementing the ideas and techniques presented in this article, newcomers to permaculture can embark on a rewarding journey towards a more sustainable and resilient urban lifestyle.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.