Design for the Human Life Cycle
Photo: Craig Mackintosh
It seems to be a common failing in a society that is so peer-oriented, that people rarely seem to design and plan for the changing needs of the full human life cycle. It is easy to relate to the here and now, and the needs of our immediate, short-term future. As permaculture designers we need to consciously develop our awareness of the needs of the full human life cycle so we can plan systems that will be socially as well as environmentally sustainable.
Most of what we read and see in both alternative and main stream media is oriented towards the ‘prime of life’, mid 20’s to 50’s, but what of the changing needs of growing children and youth, the realities of aging, and of the health and physical disabilities that sometimes don’t wait for old age before they change our lives? Have we forgotten that we will grow older, that our parents might like to retire in a permaculture village, that children have many changing social as well as physical needs as they grow from infancy through to adolescence? I wonder if it is partly a result of the breakdown of the extended family that has narrowed our vision. I meet so many people that don’t even know their grandparents, let alone have regular contact with older or younger generations, so how can they realistically design systems for aspects of the human life cycle that they have no experience of?
We must be careful not to socially monoculture our permaculture systems. As a teacher I try to encourage awareness of the trap of forgetfulness: forgetting about growing and aging and changing needs. The realities of forgetfulness are already becoming painfully obvious in many alternative circles, especially in rural areas where there has been a steady migration of young couples from the frustration of urban living to purchase a little piece of paradise in the hills and start a new life. Most have moved to marginal farm land remote from town, either as single family units or as small communities sharing the land.
The tyranny of distance has forced a number of people back to town for various reasons. Lack of access to basic social support systems, such as day-care, has made childraising difficult for remote rural mothers with preschool children, often compounded with a lack of social contact with other women and small children back in the hills, the nearest neighbours frequently being kilometres away over bad roads. The situation might be relieved for some years when children go to the local bush primary school and are happy to play around on the farm out of school hours, but when high school begins it can mean they spend several hours a day in a school bus and have little opportunity to socialise out of school hours with town friends or pursue special interests like dance, music lessons and sports. Many young people are growing up to resent their isolation and some to reject the ideals that took their parents to the bush. I seem to meet an increasing number of families and single parents who are moving back to town for the sake of their children, which ironically was often the reason for moving to the country in the first place.
Designing for the human lifespan requires a multi-level approach which applies to individual house and home garden design, as well as to both the physical and social design and planning of hamlets, villages and bioregional infrastructure and services.
Take the young family and needs of both parents and small children. Many women find that life, apart from child caring and housekeeping, stops when they have their first child. This can be relieved with appropriate design in and around the home. When I had my first child I was operating a herb nursery, so a play area in the nursery enabled me to continue the work I loved and share it with my child at play. A second play area in good view from the house next to the veggie garden provided an additional area for outdoor fun and productive work. It is important though, to look further into the future of growing children’s changing needs and those of the parents, in particular the productive, creative and social aspects of life and the ability to earn a living.
On the household level things can be done to enable an aging person to retain their independence and remain living in their own house much longer with small modifications such as fitting support hand rails near toilets, in showers and baths and numerous other little things that make the house environment safe and accident free. Accidents in the home is one of the major problems and risk areas of the aged.
A hand rail in the bathroom or sand pit in the nursery may provide short term solutions for transient situations on the home front but don’t address the needs for social interaction within the broader neighbourhood context. It is really only on this broader scale that effective design for the full human life span can be achieved.
From previous work I have become acutely aware of the importance of social design and its integration with the physical environment. Here are some of the key factors that I am attempting to address in the design process.
- The provision of functional meeting places to bring people together. These will include a village square with small business premises, outdoor cafe, outdoor informal meeting areas and children’s playground within easy pedestrian access of co-housing areas designed to suit elderly and single parent residents. One or more community centres with laundry facilities, kitchen, outdoor B-B-Q eating/meeting areas and children’s play area. Picnic and campfire areas on prime locations near dams which are good for swimming and with open space for games and outdoor community events.
- The patterning of foot, bicycle and motor vehicle movement. Movement throughout the village will focus on a substantial network of foot/cycle ways connecting residential with recreational and community areas. The foot/cycleways are being designed to provide a more direct access to key village social facilities than the road network. With less emphasis on the motor vehicle the village becomes safer for everyone, especially children and the aged. Also people will have more opportunities for casual social interaction as pedestrians than in an environment designed for motor vehicles.
- Provision of a range of living environments from the half acre rural residential allotments in the hamlet to the village options of: regular suburban eighth and quarter-acre lots; Village Homes-style housing of sixth to eight acre allotments with small private enclosures on the street side and open front yards merging onto a common strip with foot/cycleways running between the blocks; co-housing areas with a common house and car-park and foot access to smaller semi-detached and individual housing; larger allotments for expanded-house rental accommodation and for elderly people requiring care.
- The range of living options and provision of rental accommodation in addition to home owners will enable a greater diversity of age and social groups to find an appropriate niche. These options will also allow people to change residence as their personal housing needs change and still remain within the same community. One of the problems with housing monoculture is the social dislocation of having to move away from a neighbourhood and one’s friends.
- The relationship of community space activities and housing options. For example the co-housing and expanded house areas will be centrally located to community gardens and orchard as well as community facilities and/or the village square so that elderly residents can easily access key social areas, and people who want to garden have opportunities close by. The other village allotments, where the gardener or family might choose to live, are adjoining more extensive community orchards and open space facilities.
- To ensure individual privacy within an environment which provides a range of opportunities for social interaction.
- To maintain a realistic balance between residential areas, functional, recreational and productive community space and areas for wildlife and native forest and to place these various aspects in relationship with each other so that they are all readily accessible.
This article by no means attempts to give a comprehensive overview of design for the full human cycle. There is so much to be said about the needs of youth and adolescents, about early and late childhood, about the prime of life and ageing, about single adults and sole parents, about the transition period between teenager and adulthood, where and how these stages of the human life-cycle interact with each other and how their needs and interactions can be facilitated by appropriate and sensitive design. The important thing is to develop our awareness of the human life cycle and how they relate to the design of sustainable living environments. These are issues that are just as essential to good permaculture design as water management, windbreaks and food production.