What is ‘Zone Zero’?
llustration by Cecilia Macaulay
Zone planning in permaculture design means placing elements according to how often we need to visit them. Areas that need to be visited every day (e.g. the glasshouse, chicken pen, herb garden) are located nearby, while places visited less frequently (grazing area, orchard, woodlot) are located further away.
In Bill Mollison’s book ‘Introduction to Permaculture’, zone zero is defined as being the centre of activity in a design. This may be the house, or in the case of a large scale design may be a village centre.
However some permaculturists have used the term ‘zone zero’ to describe the human element in permaculture design, claiming that the most important part of a design, the people, often receive little attention during the design process.
So how do we define zone zero in permaculture design?
Four experienced designers gave their opinion…
- Zone 0: the centre of human activity, for example, the house.
- Zone 1: close to the house, is the most controlled and intensively-used area containing the garden, work-shops, greenhouse, small animals, wood-pile, compost, etc.
- Zone 2: has typically larger shrubs, small fruit and mixed orchard, windbreaks, poultry, ponds, terraces, etc.
- Zone 3: contains unpruned and unmulched orchard, larger pastures or ranges for meat animals or flocks, and main crops.
- Zone 4: is semi-managed and semi-wild used for gathering, hardy foods, unpruned trees, and wildlife and forest management.
- Zone 5: is unmanaged wilderness – where we observe and learn; it is our essential place for meditation, where we are visitors, not managers.
David developed the concept of permaculture with Bill Mollison in Tasmania in the mid-1970s. He lives and works as a designer and consultant in Central Victoria, Australia.
I consider the human dimension in Permaculture very important. I have often said to clients they are the greatest asset and the greatest liability of their land. They are more important than any of the physical characteristics of the land in terms of its sustainable use and development.
But I am wary of the Permaculture concept becoming a ‘theory of everything’.
Perhaps ‘zone zero’ as encompassing human aspects such as psychology, philosophy, ethics, religion, family, love and conflict is an example of that tendency to take a very simple physical model and try to jam a lot of incredibly complex things into it.
I don’t really use the concept of zone zero much but I take it to mean the house. It provides the framework for the house design.
In my work I will do a lot of design in relation to earthworks and how the house sits on the site, the access in and out, the position of the greenhouse and so on. It’s really the province of architectural design, household management, food processing, eating, sleeping and so on. All the activities within that zone are more human–centred than the other zones.
But the zone refers to the house itself, not people, because the concept of zoning is a spatial concept. Zoning relates to physical design. People themselves are not actually confined in a physical sense. So it is quite a limited concept rather than it being an ‘over-arching idea’ that can encompass what permaculture design is all about. It is just one way of looking at things.
If you get to a point where you are actually seeing the zones as distinct systems that can be dealt with separately then the whole concept has become counter-productive. There is only one system and the boundaries are only there in a conceptual sense, though they may more or less coincide in a lot instances with things like fence lines and building walls, and so on.
I have been quite critical of the zoning concept over the years because it is a ‘single node development model’.
On complex properties such as village developments there are many activity centres, or nodes. Each one of these could have a series of zones around them.
The big issue in design is the interrelationship between those centres and the network that develops, and the links between things such as access and water supply. What I call a ‘network approach’ to design needs to be developed more in Permaculture.
Rosemary is a design consultant based in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. She has travelled extensively and taught courses in Central Australia, India and Vietnam.
In every class I’ve held, the need for personal change, both psychological and spiritual, has come up in discussion. We are unanimous that a new society is needed and that we simply must alter ourselves for that to happen. It is common for most people to want others to change. I have been fortunate enough to do courses which are specialised in conflict resolution and non-violent exchange.
The permaculture design course (PDC) as it stands, incorporates many possibilities for social and personal development, with topics on land access, land rights, ethical use of money and right to livelihood. In my own teaching I set down class rules in the first lesson based on humility, maximum cooperation between students and everyone’s right to be heard (and to be wrong) without ridicule. I encourage individuals for their gifts and potentials – trying never to compare one with another. I discourage negative language such as ‘but’ and accusing and adversarial behaviour.
Although I use these ideas in my classes, I take Zone Zero to be the building and its technology. I would not feel comfortable developing a unit of the PDC as ‘Zone Zero – the person and society’. I feel that important links to personal and social change come up at appropriate times during the course. Also I would not feel good about Permaculture jargon such as ‘Zone Zero’ for the person. I am happy to discuss people and societies using terms which already exist.
Robyn is a teacher and designer based in Lismore, Australia.
Coming to terms with the issues central to people and human dynamics is a difficult task for many. The complexity of people as individuals, as communities, and as cultures often presents a challenge that is all too easy to ignore. Yet people are central to permaculture. When individuals can cooperate towards a common goal the results will have a greater impact. From this perspective I see the term ‘Zone Zero’ as being most appropriate – all action commences from within the individual, all design is ultimately subject to the human factor of both designer and user. The practical realisation of permaculture is a result of applied philosophy, thought, information, empowerment and motivation in people.
Personally, I like to think of the home as the heart of ‘Zone One’, the house and garden being an integral and inseparable design unit – our personal living environment. There should be no great fears of coming to terms with the human element in design, it must be acknowledged and worked with in a sensitive and realistic way. Simply by applying basic permaculture design principles to people, on an individual and community level, we can learn so much about life and find a practical human ecology. People permaculture – Zone Zero stuff – doesn’t need personal growth or spiritual dogmas any more than any other element in a permaculture system. The principles of cooperation are a big enough challenge for most of us when it comes to human cooperation – what we need are some good tools to facilitate the process.
We all have our strengths and talents, the things we love to do – we need to find our human place in the system so that we can use and develop our skills and talents to the benefit of the greater community as well as for our personal sense of satisfaction and achievement. The complex webs of interdependence and functional cooperation that give natural systems their sustaining resilience can and need to be applied to the patterning of people and human environments.
Bill has taught and written extensively about permaculture for decades.
Periodically, people remark on the lack of ‘spirituality’ in Permaculture writings and courses, even on the lack of attention to a ‘Zone Zero’ or concerns with human interactions.
Yet all of Permaculture deals with the welfare and interdependence of living things; and it is all directed to right livelihood, beneficial interaction and a conservative lifestyle.
Permaculture is about living system design. It is not pop psychology, co-counseling, anthroposophy, or any particular belief system.
Permaculture has always been about skills and systems that are practised, and verifiable by any individual; it does not, and will not, teach purely individualistic beliefs – such systems are already taught elsewhere, and there are numerous courses on spiritual, therapeutic, or theological subjects available.
The strength and credibility of Permaculture lies in its projects.
In my experience, all cultures recognise Permaculture as a tool to extend their native understanding of what is observable, hence a tool to empower themselves, a way of thought that anyone can own.
We can teach philosophy by teaching gardening but we cannot teach gardening by teaching philosophy.
Fukuoka, Bahaguna and many acknowledged spiritual people would agree and have said much the same thing. We begin with the small and practical, and end up with larger concepts of the whole, including the human and spirited dimensions.
“Duty and work, well performed, are elevated to the level of sacrifice or spirituality in the Gita” (ancient Hindu scriptures).