Where we live and what we eat: A project investigating the possibilities of permaculture to create sustainable local food systems

Last changed: 29 October 2021
Photo of Anita Norman.

Reliance on the global food-supply chain, particularly for urban areas that do not produce food locally, is laden with risk of disruption and delay. A project financed by SLU Urban Futures is investigating a different way of thinking about how communities grow and consume food that is more self-sufficient. Community-based permaculture offers insights into how we can produce locally-based food with multiple co-benefits for the environment, society and the health of urban communities.

Anita Norman, researcher at the Department for Wildlife, Fish and Environment in Umeå, is leading the project Community-based permaculture (cbp) for sustainability, health, equality and culture: a model system in northern Sweden. The first phase of the project aims to develop a survey to investigate citizen and stakeholder interest in establishing a permaculture techniques throughout the community of Rundvik, located in Nordmalings Kommun in Northern Sweden.

Taking the principles of Permaculture to Rundvik

Permaculture takes a whole systems approach to agricultural design, working with nature and natural ecological processes. Working with the features of an ecosystem and climatic conditions can help improve agricultural productivity without the addition of harmful chemicals or destroying the natural environment.

-I live in Rundvik myself and I have started to grow food in my garden using principles of permaculture. Permaculture has a lot of potential in climates like those of Rundvik, where there is a short, but intense summer and a cold, dark winter. Working with natural processes and species that flourish within these conditions open up possibilities for local food growing.

The harsh growing conditions of Northern Sweden, with huge seasonal variations in temperature and day light, create a challenging environment to grow food. There is a lot to learn from the permaculture approach that can help adapt food-growing to these ecological and climatic conditions. Permaculture uses zoning, which is a way of designing and managing production to maximize energy efficiency. Taking a whole systems perspective, permaculture practices are generally divided into 5 zones, placing those food plants requiring more energy and nurturing closest to the human dwelling.

Anita’s vision for community permaculture in Rundvik uses these zoning principles. An eventual permaculture project would support residents to grow vegetables and annuals in gardens (zone 1), whilst common spaces would host polycultures based on perennials (zone 2), and foraging activities would occur furthest out in the surrounding forests (zone 3). Together these zones would create a community-based permaculture system that would produce food using the local green spaces, the volunteers in the community, and the knowledge of locals in finding foraging spots.

A community project

Food production is one element but what if the permaculture concept can bring people together in different ways?

-Growing food in my garden is great but permaculture can be bigger than that. There are so many other benefits with a project like this where you can involve the community. The whole idea with community-based permaculture is more than growing food, it is also about bringing the community together around ways of living, working and socialising.

The relationship between people and the land is central to the concept of permaculture, and this holistic perspective rests upon the engagement of both individuals and the larger community.

Anita’s ambitions for an eventual larger project would focus on a community-based style of living, where people can share tools for gardening, common spaces for growing, and expertise through food-growing networks.

If we consider a traditional suburban neighbourhood, where each person lives a separate life on an individual property, it makes it very difficult to socialize and get to know your community. However, the principles of permaculture rely on a common approach, where people share resources and support each other in times of need, which can be beneficial for successful food production but also creating a sense of community.

The idea behind this project focuses on integrating the human community with the ecological system, which is hoped to create community-building that is inclusive of all ages and diversity within the population. A strong focus on the culture of participation in the community is hoped to encourage the sharing of local skills and knowledge, and have participants be autonomous and democratic decision-makers.

The project brings together ideas for ecological food production and sustainable urban planning by merging where we live with what we eat.

Bringing expertise and knowledge together

Anita’s expertise lies in genomics and wildlife, which provides one perspective to this interdisciplinary project.

-The project team brings together expertise in social sciences, agricultural sciences, as well as ecology and genomics. There are many other perspectives that would be useful to this interdisciplinary project, which has political, biological, nutritional considerations.

Working with an interdisciplinary research team is key to understanding the complexity of the socio-ecological systems. However, a broader collaboration with non-academic actors and support from the community actors is also essential for the realization of permaculture in Rundvik. Anita is already in contact with Nordmaling Kommun and hopes to include more actors and local businesses as the project develops.

-Local knowledge is so important to a project like this and there is a wealth of untapped existing knowledge within the community about growing food, local species and foraging that would be hugely beneficial for understanding the area and supporting a permaculture community.

The initial survey will help gauge people’s willingness for establishing permaculture in Rundvik and help gain a better understanding of the knowledge and skills that already exist within the community. The development of the project beyond the scoping study will rely on cross-disciplinary collaboration and integrating local knowledge and expertise into the fabric of the project.

A project at the intersection of Food & Cities

The project is not about creating an entirely self-sufficient community but about investigating how it is possible to diversify the local food system with locally produced food, which reduces reliance on the global food supply chain. Food shortages and disruptions to food transport because of the pandemic have highlighted that we cannot rely solely on getting our food from far and beyond.

The relationship between urban communities and rural areas is captured in the principles of permaculture that connect human dwellings to food producing ecosystems, rethinking how we use our public spaces in a more useful way.

Ultimately creating sustainable local food systems relies on the energy, effort, awareness and knowledge of our communities, and working together with the people, stakeholders and the ecosystems in which we live.