It was more than a pang of jealousy when Starhawk mentioned her Earth Activism Training course. It was a deep longing to take all those principles, and then easily apply them right away, in my own neighborhood. Starhawk’s E.A.T. course is always incredible, yet somehow mystifying for those of us not yet “living off the land”. I’ve spent time with Starhawk on her many acres outside of San Francisco, and seen first hand her earthen structures, grey water systems, livestock, and community. I’ve even cradled one of her baby turkeys!

My plot of green acres is in the city of Los Angeles, where only some have a small bit of gardening space amidst the urban sprawl. Seoul Cheonggyecheon

This city is like squeezing Barney into skinny jeans: too many people + too much expansion = overcrowded, poorly planned chaos.  Local municipalities have recently been spurred to give rebates on rain barrels thanks to the drought, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “permaculture” even whispered in a hipster speakeasy. And last time I visited the LA Ecovillage, which is a cooler version of an apartment co-housing cooperative, their one solar oven wasn’t working.

In cities, most move into prefabricated spaces while daydreaming about passive solar. We run in manmade parks and imagine wild landscapes. We buy products (water, vegetables, seeds) that we could be obtaining naturally. And we often move frequently, unhappy with landlord price gauging, or simply a lack of sunlight through our bathroom windows. I still remember a New Yorker friend from college lamenting about how her one plant was turning brown on the windowsill of her bathroom, the only room with direct sun.

You’d think technology would have whipped geography’s butt by now and allowed us to work remotely. But the reason many of us are in the cities at all is because that’s where the best jobs are, as innovation needs idea factories full of people. The data on who is moving to cities seems a debated narrative told by the affluent and well-educated. Millennials, some argue, are not leading the shift to suburbs as past generations. (Highly educated young adults are still the most mobile group post-recession.) But according to a 2015 U.S. Census, 529000 Americans ages 25 to 29 moved from cities out to the suburbs in 2014; only 426000 moved in the other direction. A previous article in Time Magazine claimed that fewer people are buying single-family homes, while apartment units have reached their highest share of construction since 1973. We’re all a bit confused about what is going on.


Regardless of who is moving where and when, cities are still getting more packed. How do we consciously design ecosystems around ourselves that have, as Bill Mollison describes, the “diversity, stability, and the resilience of natural ecosystems” … while living in crowded cities?

How do we create food, shelter, energy and water systems that sustain AND regenerate the larger system? How do we work with nature in cities with infrastructures that seem dead set against it?

A great article by a grassroots organization called Planting Justice reminded me that the problem is often also the solution.

View every “problem” as an opportunity.  For instance, slug overpopulation is a duck deficiency. A shaded backyard in Northern California is an ideal place for the cultivation of shiitake and oyster mushrooms, rabbits, indian lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) and salal berries (Gaultheria shallon). Pollution and overpopulation in cities provides the excess “waste” nutrients and human energy we need to transform our cities into abundant and beautiful resources for food and energy.

Permaculture is a system where all the parts of the system are interconnected, working with nature as opposed to against it. Think you’ve got no room to grow? Here are FIVE inspirational ideas to jumpstart your Urban Permaculturism right now.pallet_garden_intro


Where there is a wall, there is a way. Vertical gardens are amazing space savers. Check out the wall first- is it sunny or shady? Researching your wall’s microclimate will help deciding between leafy greens or hardy herbs. Creative ways to build a vertical wall include using recycled pockets, wire to a cedar frame, hanging planters, stacked crates, and pallet gardens, such as the one pictured to the right.


Chickens give gardeners high quality fertilizer, provide fresher eggs than Whole Foods, and control flies, weeds and food scraps destined for the landfill. They are also sweet, entertaining pets. Step one is to find out if it’s legal in your neighborhood. Grist has a good explanation of how to google your municipal code. Chickens aren’t noisy; roosters are another matter, but most codes require a certain amount of space between roosters and your overburdened city neighbor.


These don’t have to take up a ton of space or money. Homemade Home Ideas has some ideas starting at $20, including windproof hoop houses, plastic bottle greenhouses, and geodomes!  I have a teensy greenhouse, and it’s absolutely fantastic for intensive cropping.


Chances are high that there is an unused space currently becoming a garden in your city. Check out Urban Farming for a convenient searchable map.


Rainwater runoff from your stormwater drains and water from your laundry can be rerouted to water your gardens and trees. This is an excellent way to reduce water usage by recycling into soil that naturally filters it, without adding additional strain to a community’s rainwater or wastewater systems. Shower and bath water, as well as water from your sink, can be diverted outdoors, and used for toilet flushing. Regulations vary considerably by locale, so make sure to check. Here’s someone who created a greywater laundry system for $30.  

Cities are the control board for hunger, poverty and pollution… but they are also catalysts for idea evolution. For more information on Starhawk’s E.A.T. course happening right now in northern California, you can check out:


And, as always, we look forward to your comments, ideas and links to other great urban permaculture initiatives! Have fun planning your spring initiatives!


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