Steve Whitman

We try to bring an approach to our work that has an understanding of the interconnection of things. We’re thinking about people, and where the materials that made the building come from, and where they go afterward. We considered the parallel to Permaculture, and delved into that with Steve Whitman. Steve is a professional planner and educator who is passionate about connecting with people and absorbing ideas that make places more resilient. This work has brought him all over the world, and connected him deeply with communities across New Hampshire.

A design tool for spaces large and small

Steve found permaculture when he was a new homeowner trying to find a system for decision-making on his own property. “I was interested in sustainability. There wasn’t a lot of discussion in my circles professionally, so I was having to look elsewhere, in some cases outside of the country,” he says. Then he started to run into “this weird word” when he was teaching with the Global Ecovillage Network.

Permaculture is an unwieldy word that covers wide-ranging ideas about the relationships between natural systems. And yet, as Steve explains, it’s also simply a design practice that rewards you for taking time to observe and incorporate feedback.

Whether you’re planning to grow vegetables on your deck or build a housing development like the Nubanusit Neighborhood & Farm in Peterborough, N.H., a permaculture design includes the folks who are involved and their understanding of themselves and the site. This means no two projects are ever the same, and the possibilities for intersection with architecture and planning are expansive.

“What if we could give a developer a laundry list of goals to choose from?” he speculates. “So you don’t tie their hands from a creative perspective or limit their ability to be successful for whatever their goal is for the property, but you say, ‘It’s important that we don’t just look at stormwater. We also look at air quality, we think about habitat, we think about food, we look at a fuller range of ecological functions.'"

From silos to systems-thinking, across New Hampshire

Architecture and planning are tied to the town’s master plan (a 10-year vision for how a community wants to grow), building codes, and land-use regulations. These public rules and decisions sustain orderly growth, but along the way, they also separate choices about land use, services, infrastructure, and natural resources into silos.

“As a result, and I think as planners we have helped perpetuate this, we systematically deconstruct communities. We deconstruct the natural systems; site by site we break them down, we separate them, make them less effective,” Steve says.

The example of stormwater is an increasingly urgent issue—and expense—for Granite State communities. We’re seeing more rain gardens, bioswales and permeable pavement to manage stormwater surges. But a permaculture approach would look at the stormwater not just as a problem to be managed, but as resource to be tapped. ”There are a number of functions that it can accomplish. We typically have stormwater here, landscaping there, a community garden over there—why can’t they be integrated? You don’t want to grow your greens where you’re putting your stormwater, but you can be growing berries and other kinds of fruits while providing habitat and other benefits.”

Steve tries to bring this perspective to his work with Resilience Planning and Design. He’s regularly working alongside hands-on volunteer boards and committees across New Hampshire. Some of this perspective is being incorporated into planning in places like rural Newbury, with an aging population and 53 percent of housing stock as second homes; in Franklin, where non-profit PermaCityLife experiments with permaculture-based approach to economic development; and in Dover, where Steve helped lead the first-ever effort to integrate natural, cultural and social resources into a brand-new  “Stewardship of Resources” chapter of the master plan, focused on complete community resilience.

Bringing permaculture back home

In our work, we’re often back where Steve was at the beginning of his story, considering a single plot of land. The learnings here are broad on the surface, but also have a lot of depth as we consider our work connecting the built environment and the human experience.

All of us here are on one end of the spectrum, where we’re trying to learn more and absorb  more of these ideas every day. We also work alongside friends and neighbors who are more comfortable with the way we’ve always been taught to do things. And then there are folks in between who might be interested in more conversation. Maybe instead of defining it by a big word—which is how we have to talk about things that cover a lot of ground—can we go out there and live it? Can we take big strokes and teach people about permaculture, and also make little vibrations happen so it spreads out?

Steve inspired us with a closing thought.

“I would say all three—the built environment, the natural environment, and the people—have to be present in the conversation about design. If one isn’t, it’s not going to work. If the built environment and the human pieces are in harmony with each other, but the ecological piece has been forgotten, it’s not going to be a long-term solution. And the same would be true in any combination. And I find the times where I get stuck, professionally but also in many areas of life, are the times where I’ve forgotten one of those. It always comes back to having a systems perspective, really seeing things as interrelated but knowing that they each bring important parts to the design process and to the conversation, whatever it may be.”

More places and ideas from our conversation:

●     Northern Forest Center works in communities across northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and part of New York, “envisioning a future for the Northern Forest where a healthy forest supports a strong, locally based economy; the economy supports thriving communities and people. And the people who live in the region safeguard the forest.”

●     New Hampshire Fish and Game will help you be a better habitats guardian for the state’s fish, wildlife, and marine resources. Check out their maps!

●     Greater Seacoast Permaculture explores these topics through a wide-ranging films, books, and events series.

●     Moose Mountains Regional Greenways connected their Conservation Action Plan to local master plans in seven towns north of Rochester.

●     PlanNH connects architects, planners and other building professionals, often touching on resilient design



Tags: Portsmouth Planning, Portsmouth Design, Permaculture