PAP 48 : The French permaculture landscape; some benchmarks

Lamia Latiri-Otthoffer, March 2021

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

In order to ensure the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 60 planning professionals have joined together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in regional planning policies.

This March article, written by Lamia Latiri-Otthoffer, in charge of « Agriculture and Innovations » at La Bergerie nationale de Rambouillet, presents the reflections of a group of experts, practitioners and farmers whose skills and experiences were questioned by the Paysages de l’après-pétrole collective for a film project intended for technical agricultural education. In contrast to the numerous Anglo-Saxon publications, little research work is available in France. Current programmes are exploring the societal and economic implications and motivations of those who practice the permaculture paradigm. According to these researchers, permaculture is part of systems ecology, because of the complex systemic concepts used by landscape geography, cybernetics and ethnobiology.

What is the scope of permaculture today?

An innovative system within the various agroecological models, permaculture is often considered as an alternative process of ecological food production in the city or in the countryside. In France, permaculture projects or micro-farms in organic market gardening on small surfaces 2 have been creating diversified agricultural landscapes 3 that are favourable to the maintenance of biodiversity. Their anchoring to the soil is also territorial and social. Permaculture is not only another way of gardening, but also of conceiving and thinking about the world. Permaculture aims to rethink urban structures as well as agricultural systems on unconventional epistemological grounds. A ‘positivist’ response that is ethical, philosophical and technical, its consciously designed landscapes mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature 4. « The individual, his habitat and his mode of organisation are at the centre of the permaculture project 5. Whatever its scale, it aims to establish an economic and social system that breaks with the current system by its desire to preserve nature, but also to promote sharing, mutual aid and different forms of governance. On the agricultural level, ecosystem services and agro-ecological management of the soil, inputs and landscape free the system from fossil fuels and phytopharmaceutical products. Permaculture is also introducing its model into the field of urban and architectural innovation. Creating rich, complex and self-sufficient landscapes, the act of production based on local resources promotes the ethical values of happy frugality at the scale of the social system 6. Under this banner and based on low-tech approaches, Philippe Madec and a group of architects-urban planners intend to develop ecological territories that consume little agricultural land and require less energy for maintenance. Denouncing the monofunctional zoning that multiplies energy waste and pollution by dissociating places of production, work, housing and commerce, these planning professionals intend to put housing back at the centre of sustainable spaces for harmonious living together 7. Happy frugality requires innovation, invention and collective intelligence 8. In this context of intellectual effervescence, several hypotheses are being explored to integrate urban, agricultural and societal issues into a model that allows for better living together on a local scale and its positive impact on a global scale.

Urban ecology: how to create a different society? Permaculture as a paradigm for rethinking the city and ways of living.

Permaculture transforms the relationship between the urban and its ecosystem. Its paradigm therefore questions the ways of living, building and developing living spaces. In contrast to the modern vision of the fragmentation of functions, these are to be rethought in terms of links, links which will allow the reduction of energy expenditure in new constructions thanks to local spatial and material resources. For E. Pezrès, « What permaculture allows is to immediately and visibly re-establish this living link between man and nature in order to produce, within an immediately available radius, the cycle necessary for community life… It is a question of representing, practising and therefore rethinking the world from the point of view of the link and the relationship to the ecosystem. Urban planning must include not only housing, but also the possibility of feeding oneself in a certain socially shared « good life ». In opposition to the globalisation of commercial exchanges and its costs in terms of energy, permaculture seeks to establish locally a comfortable life from the point of view of food, buildings and social organisation. The result is a wide variety of eco-neighbourhoods, eco-homes and eco-hamlets that are springing up all over the place, offering new ways of living together. Together with a multidisciplinary team, Anne Goudot describes how these communities are trying to create a different kind of society in these permalieux 9. The ecopist research project explores these third spaces: « How, on my own scale and on the local scale of my social dynamics, can I try to act as a lever for the world to change, starting with changing myself and those close to me? (…) This is a very diverse, ebullient alternative landscape, on which there is relatively little scientific work, which is often monographic. The difficulty is that these are places where we are trying to create a different kind of society, and so we are going to work on all aspects of social life, the way in which we work, the way in which we live together, the way in which we govern, and so there is a complexity in these places because we are reviewing all aspects of society (…). And then we are interested in the way in which they are networked, in which they are meshed together, with the question of social impact in the background (…). We are interested in the phenomenon of nomadism and woofing linked to these places, and so I became a researcher and woofer myself…". « In all these spaces, permaculture introduces a form of resistance to the invasive model of consumption, experienced as destructive of both natural environments and social solidarity. Some places refer to the struggles of May 68, others find their foundations elsewhere. « What makes groups cohesive can be quite different, as can the way they want to change society, even if there are common values. There is an expectation of scientific research to help these collectives reflect and understand their societal impacts 10.

In agriculture, permaculture is based on the inherent capacity of the environment to produce in a resilient and sustainable way, when it is properly managed

Agricultural activity is central to most of these eco-landscapes or permalieux. It takes many forms. Permaculture farms can be less than one hectare in size, with a protean legal status and a diversity of activities that complement food production 11. These singularities are often rooted in old thinking. As François Léger reminds us: « Permaculture is part of a way of thinking that was born fifty years ago and presents a fairly fundamental break with the ways of thinking about agriculture and the relationship with living things. From the outset, it takes the agro-ecosystem, the system as a whole and the links between its various components, whether human or natural, as its object of reflection. Seen in this light, permaculture does not have the same focus as conventional agronomy. Permaculture is interested in permanence, or, for F. Léger, the sustainability of the system, which is the basis for the development of a sustainable system. Léger, the sustainability of the system, its capacity to maintain itself by conserving all its properties, and its resilience, which allows it to face external aggressions. This approach is clearly similar to the concept of autopoiesis developed in modern physics, which is the property of a system to produce itself permanently and in interaction with its environment, and thus to maintain its organisation (structure) despite its change of components (materials) 12. To achieve self-sufficiency in terms of available materials and energy, the tree is a structuring element, linked to other interacting agroecological infrastructures within the same space. The ‘immune system’, as F. Léger puts it 13, must be in the best possible condition. It is a question of containing difficulties at a bearable level, of knowing when a problem can become unbearable: « The central idea is that we accumulate energy without increasing the entropy of the system: in other words, to increase the capacity of the system to accumulate energy and to reject the minimum. When one is in a ‘commercial’ activity, the system will export materials and energy and this is where the system must have the capacity to capture energy itself to compensate for the outgoing energy flows 14. This concern has a direct consequence on land use planning, which is not taken into consideration in the modern system. For F. Leger, it is becoming clear that ‘one cannot allocate the entire territory under one’s control to production and export, there are parts that serve to restore the energy state of the system in order to maintain it (…). The two dimensions, energy accumulation and export compensation on the one hand, and the idea of an immune system on the other, will lead to a highly spatialized approach to locating the various components so as to be able to ensure these two functions. The tree will be the keystone of the permaculture project, (…) which will result in very agro-forestry practices 15« . Permaculture landscapes will therefore be denser, more diversified, and more tree-rich according to local soils, climates and biodiversity.

Permaculture and the economy, an equation with several unknowns?

The object of agronomists is production, now under environmental constraints. Permaculture, on the other hand, is concerned with the long-term sustainability of the system. « On the one hand, we have people who follow a logic of optimisation under constraint, and on the other hand, people who follow a logic of viability. (…). Classical agronomy is based on an accounting logic where only financial capital is considered, and the wealth produced by production contributes to increasing it. Permaculture, on the other hand, considers natural capital as an asset and therefore pays particular attention to the processes that allow it to grow. This is a very big difference between the two approaches. (…) If we were to draw up a profit and loss account, respecting the principles of permaculture, we would have to consider not only financial capital, but also natural capital and social capital (…) because there is the idea of a way of living for oneself and a way of living in society and the permaculturist builds common goods that are shared with others and it is this construction of the common good that will allow the extension of models that break with the dominant model » 16. These observations require us to look beyond the figures to understand the choices that are made: « What is interesting is to look not only at performance in absolute terms, but performance in relation to people’s expectations (…). What is notable is first of all a life choice and I would almost say a political choice, how I position myself in the city, even if this city is the countryside. What is interesting is to see if these people do not represent a new category of economic agents who pursue goals other than those that can be translated into quantities of money 17. Permaculture thus calls for a political economy capable of evaluating, beyond a gross quantity of production estimated in monetary terms, its qualitative dimension in terms of social construction.

Permaculture, a search for meaning?

The period of historical pandemic that we are going through opens the debate on the future that we want for our planet. For those who « test » living in eco-houses or live from their micro-farms, the essential thing is to connect with their surroundings, their neighbourhood, to form a community while remaining anchored in their local area. « I think it’s really quite important to listen to what people are telling us, about what they want to be, how they want to be in society, and what society they want, and to evaluate their economic performance by being able to integrate these non-market dimensions 18. The remarkable performance of permaculture systems is based on the positive interaction that takes place between species planted on the same piece of land. This productivity is induced by mimicking the links that ensure coexistence between wild species. There is a proven link between the ways of producing and the quality of the products both in terms of taste and health. The movement of these alternative facilities coincides with a general demand in society for food quality 19. Bonds of trust and solidarity are being built between people who intend to commit themselves to a form of world ecology. Good food reflects good practices, which are environmentally virtuous and beautify the landscape for the pleasure of all. These foods exchanged between humans come from an understanding of the productive role of biodiversity. From the gene to the landscape and the issue of climate change, these systems, however small, respond to systems thinking. The biomimetic hypothesis of permaculture posits that we have a duty to conserve nature not only because it is useful, but because it is a part of ourselves. « Permaculture has given me another vision of the world and it has answered precisely this desire to have a positive impact on my environment, (…) to regenerate my environment and that we find somewhere a role in a society and an ecosystem at all levels, at all scales (…). There are issues that we need to question, on ecology, on questions of food sovereignty, how we can be resilient in our territories, by having agricultural production that is localized, that is not outsourced to other countries (…), to reappropriate certain lost cultures, through our agricultural history, that we can recreate meaning. Economic meaning, social meaning, (…) for me it’s citizen politics in the noble sense of the word 20. Johann’s motivation is widely shared by those who enrol in permaculture training. « The project leaders are generally people with an average age of about forty. Most of them have changed careers and come from radically different backgrounds. (…) At some point, they have things in their lives and in their jobs where it no longer fits ethically. They question themselves and do not necessarily know what to do or where to go. They want to rediscover an activity in which they take pleasure, in which the economic dimension is also reviewed, i.e. to have an approach to the economy that is no longer totally centred on money but primarily on exchanges 21. Sharing values that put humans back in their rightful place, breaking the cycle of a lifestyle disconnected from nature, rediscovering the pleasure of making, sharing, and tasting the generosity of living together in a healthy and beautiful environment, it is around these values that some people turn to permaculture to translate these aspirations into a life project and a professional project. Not belonging to the agricultural world, with a different vision of what agriculture can be, they have difficulty in accessing installation aid, bank loans and land. They therefore often resort to parallel systems of participatory financing. Two models currently coexist in agriculture, two ways of thinking about the food and urban landscape. One is anchored in the territory so that nature can flourish in complex landscapes offering diverse and interdependent ecosystem services to humans and the living world as a whole. The other, virtualised on the financial markets, produces flattened, monotonous landscapes threatened by sterility. By ‘disenchanting’ the world in order to better control it, technical modernity has imposed itself everywhere by destroying the living world. Reconnecting with the living within us and around us leads us to renew the productive techniques of agriculture, but also and more fundamentally, to rethink the social order and the links that constitute us as a species. The alternative farming approach is nourished by a political intuition, as explained by practitioner-researchers such as E. Pezrès, F. Leger or P. Madec. By intuitively testing and knowing how to use the ecological and biological mechanisms at work in the living system, permaculture combines the technical mastery of the act of production with the ability to build the habitat and to transform one’s relationships with others. This intelligence is ecological at the landscape level and socio-political when it comes to social and economic commitment to the collective. Announcing a world that could become viable and liveable, these systemic approaches bet that a global coherence could unite human worlds to enable them to face the challenges of the present.

  • 2 Thesis by Kevin Morel, Viabilité des microfermes maraichères biologiques, une étude inductive combinant méthodes qualitatives et modélisation ; Université Paris Saclay, 2016.

  • 3 The concept of landscape is understood here as defined in the European Landscape Convention/Florence 2000.

  • 4 Bill Mollison & David Holmgren, Permaculture, principles and actions for a sustainable way of life. Ed. Rue de l’échiquier, Ecopoche, 2017, p. 31.

  • 5 Interview with Emmanuel Pezrès, architect-urbanist, 10 October, Rosny sous-bois 2019.

  • 6 Interview with Philippe Madec, architect-urban planner, 17 June 2019, Montevrin. Co-author of the Manifesto for a Happy and Creative Frugality,

  • 7 Emmanuel Pezrès, « Permaculture within urban agriculture: from garden to social project » Revue Vertigo, L’agriculture urbaine: un outil multidimensionnel pour le développement des villes et des communautés, volume 10, number 2, September 2010.

  • 8 For Rémi Algis, permaculture concepts are easy to understand individually, but require work to integrate into a landscape project « because it requires a complete reformatting of the software! Permaculture design generates looped systems, so you have little input, little waste and you have elements within that design that are interconnected, that exchange matter, information and energy, which is going to allow them to be extremely resilient. The fact that I have integrated this set of conceptual principles has forced me to change my working method. Rémi Algis, DPLG landscape architect, interview on 6 October 2020.

  • 9 Anne Goudot, anthropologist, University of Bordeaux, interview of 3 July 2019 on the site of the ecolieu le Mat, Balazuc-Averon.

  • 10 Anne Goudot, ibid.

  • 11 In the sample gathered for the film, the various legal arrangements combine a set of workshops for reception, processing, direct sales, training, eco-tourism, sharing of land and property, etc., calling for the definition of several statutes in order to be able to operate on the farm space in associative, collective or individual forms that take advantage of the multidimensionality and multifunctionality of the permaculture project.

  • 12 Lamia Latiri Otthoffer, Psychoanalysis of a sick landscape, Ed Baudelaire, 2018, p. 76-77.

  • 13 Interview with F. Léger, 4 June 2019. Bergerie Nationale, Rambouillet.

  • 14 François Léger, ibid, « The idea is that for a living system to hold up in the long term and resist the various aggressions that can affect it, it must be able to accumulate energy and lose the minimum amount.  »

  • 15 These three dimensions are shared by all the currents of alternative agriculture that began to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s, and in particular biodynamics, but also by the whole current led by people like Albert Howard, who gave a renaissance to organic agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s, etc. So there is an obvious kinship. In the same way, there is a kinship with agro-ecology, as it was to take shape at the end of the 1960s and 1970s with Altieri and Gliessman, and the natural agriculture of Fukuoka in Japan.

  • 16 F. Leger, ibid.

  • 17 F. Leger, ibid.

  • 18 F. Leger, ibid.

  • 19 Since the mad cow crisis and the horsemeat ravioli crisis, the list of scandals is growing longer and consumer confidence is waning.

  • 20 Johann, hop grower. Interview on 9 March 2020, La ferme des clos, Bonnelle.

  • 21 Agathe Roubaut, Trainer, Urbaterra/ UPP, interview 4 July 2019. Saint-Affrique.

Many images in the PDF document



  • Ariane Chabert, Expression combinée des services écosystémiques en systèmes de production agricole conventionnels et innovants : étude des déterminants agro-écologiques de gestion du sol, des intrants et du paysage, thèse Université de Toulouse, janvier 2017.

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