Jenny Pell: Seattle’s Food Forest/Bonfire Heights 2012

By lambert strether, who blogs at Corrente.

Last year, we posted on food forests, and particularly on the Beacon Hill public food forest in Seattle. Here’s a recent long video from Jenny Pell, the permaculturist who designed and implemented Beacon Hill, which gives lots of concrete (and inspirational) information on that project, other urban food forest projects, and permaculture design philosophy generally.

Since the nature of “public purpose” and its relation to the State has been a topic of interest lately, I’m going to go through and pull out some snippets on how Pell interacts with the municipal government and other public entities (for example, utilities). There is also a wealth of horti- and polycultural thinking here. If you listen, you’ll also hear a “macro-ethic,” as Michael Hoexter puts it today, but that is a post for another day. So this is a good post for spring! Really gorgeous images, too.

[3:15] In Seattle, for example, there used to be ordinances that didn’t allow you to grow food on the streets because those plums might land on your car, and who wants a plum on their car? So we’re deferring our own health and nutrition to the cars! I’m done with that! So I am working with the city to help legalize, for example, growing food in the planting strips. So in the year of 2010, we had the Year of Urban Agriculture in Seattle, and one of the new laws they passed was that you can grow food in your planting strip. And you can sell good that you grow in your back yard and in your planting strip and seeds and other value-added products.

[10:35] The goal [of Beacon Hill] was to mitigate storm sewer run-off. We have, in a big storm surge, it overtaxes our sewage system, raw sewage goes out into the Bay, and it damages the salmon run. We are Federally mandated to fix this problem.

[12:49] So in the food forest project … I actually designed a bus stop edible guild of plants, so that people standing at the bus stop can eat berries that are seasonally going to be delicious.

[14:22] In one design course, a few years ago, some students for their final design project decided to take on this Parks property, where just for fun, to showcase what they’d learned in a year, so they went ahead and wrote a Department of Neighborhoods small and simple grant, and they won a $22,500 award, to do a design on [Beacon Hill]. … And so we had to do a public outreach process….

[19:35] Public utilties are a huge organization with an incredible amount of power. They have a lot of land, they have a lot of money, they have a lot of responsibility, and they’re used to getting their way. … My first meeting with public utilities was up on the 45th floor with me and the landscape architects, and one of the heads of the departments there, quite high up in the organization, and her opening comment was: “Do not mistake me — [smacking her finger on the table] — We will not allow a loose association of peasants to manage this project.” Opening comment. … So I went to my insider guy, and I said “What do I do?” …

[34:18] In Seattle we said to developers that you can get a whole extra floor if you put a greenhouse on your roof.

[34:35] People that want to keep bees the city, they have to have the pollinator landscape that goes along side it. So when they get the bees, they also have to get a permaculture design.

[35:10] We changed the rule from three chickens to eight chickens in the back yard.

[42:39] And so I went to the city to facilitate this discussion of “You’re going to start getting these projects landing on your desk, what are you going to do? Say no?” You’re cutting staff and budgets right and left for management of the commons, you can’t keep up, and now you have citizens coming and saying “We want them to do our own things with,” how are you going to do that? In this peak moment. What’s your job here?

[44:30] So what Brad did, was he illegally cut curbs and built basis in that dry-landscape sidewalk, so every time it rained, the rain would be diverted off the curb, and into these little tree wells [so he recaptured storm runoff for his garden]. … Here’s one man’s vision of how to re-incorporate water into a landscape that some ridiculous urban planner decided that in the dry desert we’re going to design our city so that our water goes away absolutely as fast as it can and doesn’t stay here. … In Brad’s city, any new construction must have a grey water stub-out, it is required by law. It’s a forty-dollar permit to cut your curb. So they encourage people now to do it. So one person’s little civil disobedience act turned into legislation.

[50:00] What do we want the city to do, to support us in these efforts? We want them to support food production on different types of properties. We want more urban farming and small business classes. How does the city participate in that? We want to map and publicize all the potential garden sites. Portland did that. Portland did a study of all the available land, and there was acres of it in the city. And it was not allowed to have farming done on it. So the group that mapped it followed throgh and then removed that law. We want a separate meter for agricultural water. When you pay for water, you’re also paying for sewage. This is not going to the water treatment plant! This is going in the ground, where we’re recharging the water table in our cities, so how do we get them to have a separate meter for ag water in the city?

[53:25] Hire a good Czar to put it all together. Of the twelve action items we recommended to city council, they invited us back to council chambers to go into more detail, and in the last two years they’ve already enacted seven of them.

Most of the talk isn’t focused on the role of the State at all. Nevertheless, the interaction between State and permaculturalist was continuous. So it’s interesting that Pell, despite her strong beliefs in a confluence of peaks, and hyperlocalization, has nothing to say on how the State will change when, say, gas peaks at $10.00 a gallon. Does the state whither away? If not, what? Do states and nations go away, leaving only the cities?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Birch

    “Do not mistake me — We will not allow a loose association of peasants to manage this project.”

    ’cause peasants haven’t had autonomy over their own land for hundreds of years. Why go back to a functioning system now?

    1. jrs

      Yea little tin pot dictators and their fiefdoms, still she’s lucky they were public utilities, I doubt she would have gotten as far with privitized ones.

    2. different clue

      Well . . . a loose association of peasants could disguise themselves as a civic organization with rules and elections and officers and Robert’s Rules of Order and everything. And the visible elected head or heads of the loose association of peasants ( under civic organization disguise)
      could interact with the Public Utility and carry forward the management plan/actions which the loose association of peasants has decided on after due democratic deliberation by the loosely associated peasants themselves. As long as the Public Utility Interface Person doesn’t have to see or smell the peasants beneath the civic organization disguise . . . its all good.

    1. Tad Ghostal

      Agree. It’s a cringe-worthy moniker for executives in any role, but particularly disturbing and inappropriate for public servants.

    2. jrs

      It’s enough to make one think we need a revolution … like maybe the Russian one. Really though, whatever it’s results, that revolution happened for a reason, the unlucky stayed for that fight, the lucky had already fled to the U.S., tons of people fled to this country just to escape the actions of Czars. And that is what is meant when our oh so lovely politicos talk so lightly of “Czars”.

      1. different clue

        There is no where left to flee to. No place is going to accept a Hundred Million Americans . . . or a Hundred Million Anybody.

        So that Hundred Million Americans can either stay here and surrender. Or stay here and resist or fight or obstruct or undermine, one way or another.

  2. different clue

    This is the sort of post which deserves to be filed under a topic name on the middle right side of the screen. That way if people remember seeing “something about that” somewhere on Naked Capitalism, they can easily go back and find it under the targeted topic.

    The topic could narrowly be called Permaculture, or it could be called more broadly . . . Growing Food. That would allow for including posts in SRI, Intensive Gardening, Aquaponics, etc. etc. as those posts start to build up here.

  3. JJW

    This is a great post. I am heartened to see this type of activity going on in cities. If you are not concerned by the precarious nature of our current food supply (including the depletion of topsoil and aquifers, concentrated ownership of seed stock, etc.), then you are not paying attention.

    Considering that grass clippings are our nation’s largest agricultural product with virtually no value, or how horribly polluting lawn mowers are, or that we use ten times the amount of chemical on ours lawns versus farms, or that the average grocery store stocks a 3-5 day supply of food (I could go on and on)…it makes sense to at least know the basics of food production, and what better place than your backyard? If you do not have a yard, I’ve seen community garden in every major city I’ve visited in the past decade. If your community does not have one, then get involved and start one and meet your neighbors.

    The time has come to widely embrace urban agriculture and permaculture. And to build community.

  4. Stephen Nightingale

    If Seattle is a bit too left-coast for you, they’ve been doing this in Todmorden since 2008.

    Todmorden has a population of 17,000. It is not immediately obvious to a visitor what there is to recommend the town – it’s not the climate, there is no coast, manufacturing departed long ago, and as quaint and pretty English villages go, it is probably not in the top one thousand.

    Nevertheless, Todmorden is now talking up “vegetable tourism”. It is a destination where visitors can see just what can happen when a group of dedicated local people decide to “liberate” public spaces and repurpose them for growing food. It is a curiosity, but, just maybe, it’s the future. The Incredible Edible Todmorden movement is turning public open spaces into edible nooks.

  5. Lambert Strether Post author

    One of the most awesome permaculture videos ever, IMNSHO. A trove of information. Perhaps I framed it wrongly by raising the question of the state. It’s richly multi-layered, much like a polyculture.

    So I am glad to see a few commments at least!

  6. Lambert Strether Post author

    On “Czar.” First, did anybody catch Pell’s bio? She’s Russian.

    Also, and in fact, “Czar” seems an awfully odd construct and is directly on point to the question of the State. Now, there’s a great emphasis on buy-in from groups… But I’m also not seeing anything like represenative democracy or a general assembly… So permaculture (like MMT, if it comes to that) lacks a (coherent) theory of the state. Perhaps (like MMT) all that should be required of it is, as it were, an API to the State. A lack is not necessarily a lacuna.

  7. Paul Tioxon

    A lot of this good energy started for me with Earth Day, which was inspired by hippies of course and a landscape architect named Ian McHarg, who wrote a book that defined much of the ideas presented here: DESIGN WITH NATURE.

    Now, a lot of older people, such as my father had back yard gardens in the city. And younger people, such as myself got into gardening and urban reclamation as a much cooler thing than my dad, who just grew tons of food out soil and rain and seeds. Needless to say, gardening, community gardening, horticulture or permaculture are all part of a wave of cultural transformation with practical and political consequences. Right now, decades of efforts for hundreds of gardens in Philadelphia are under political attack by rezoning. Of course, the city needed to update its zoning code, being pretty old, like totally my age, that old… OMG!!! But, not only are there cool and old time gardens but also, the School District of the city has the coolest High School of all time, Saul Agricultural HS, a working farm, run by high school kids. And no, it is not a super cool 60s program run for delinquents or minorities. Saul has been around for a long time and is a educational treasure, as well as the foodstuff the kids produce there. All cities should have working farms as high schools, as well as high minded permaculture, oldster gardens and eco-activist green walls and roofs. We need some bio-diversity in our cities and neighborhoods.

  8. WoDie

    Here is an early example of “open source fruit”:

    Squire von Ribbeck at Ribbeck in Havelland

    Squire von Ribbeck at Ribbeck in Havelland,
    In his garden there stood a pear tree grand,
    And when autumn came round, the golden tide,
    And pears were glowing far and wide,
    Squire von Ribbeck, when noon rang out, would first
    Fill both his pockets full to burst.
    And then, when a boy in his clogs came there,
    He called: ”My lad, do you want a pear?”
    He would hail a girl that chanced to pass:
    “Come over, I have a pear, little lass!”

    Many years thus went, till the noble and high
    Squire von Ribbeck at Ribbeck came to die.
    He felt his end. It was autumntide.
    Again pears were smiling far and wide.
    “I depart now this life” von Ribbeck said.
    I wish that a pear in my grave be laid”.
    And after three days, from this mansard roofed hall,
    Squire von Ribbeck was carried out, `neath a pall.
    All farmers and cottagers, solemm-faced,
    Sang: ”Jesus, in Thee my trust is placed”,
    And the children lamented, with hearts like lead:
    “Who`ll give us a pear, now that he is dead.?”
    So the children lamented. It was unkind,

    As they did not know old Ribbeck´s mind.
    True, the new one is skimping niggardly,
    Keeps park and pears tree `neath lock and key;
    But having forebodings, the older one,
    And full of distrust for his proper son,
    Knew well what he did, when the order he gave,
    That a pear should be laid in his grave.

    From the silent dwelling, after three years,
    The tip of a pear tree seedling appears.
    And year after year, the seasons go round,
    Long since a pear tree is shading the mound.

    And in the golden autumntide
    Again it is glowing far and wide.
    When a boy is crossing the churchyard there,
    The tree is whispering: Want a pear?”
    And when a girl chances to pass,
    It whispers: “Come here for a pear, little lass.”

    Thus blessings still dispensses the hand
    Of von Ribbeck at Ribbeck in Havelland.



  9. Kevin

    I essentially like this.. I am circumspect and have my radar up for some of the people and ideas who piggyback on the cluster of projects around new sustainable-living initiatives and piggyback on the acknowledgment of climate change, but the directions they take it do not have an egalitarian mandate. Sometimes they have a mandate for the same old capitalism, Friedman and Rand shit.

    For instance, is there a similarity between “one man’s civil disobedience was retroactively legalized,” and disruptive startups saying “we disrupted a corrupt ordinance that was protecting taxi companies”? And if so, could the latter ride the wave of the former? Is there a similarity between massive devolution of power with an egalitarian focus, and Grover Norquist wanting to drown it in the bathtub?

    Responses to climate change or “peaks,” I predict is going to be seen as a gold rush or a bubble in & of itself, if there are pots of funding to be had, so we ought to be careful about snake oil and ulterior motives. I’m not trying to be a party pooper but there could be corruption or profiteering even in these kinds of positive, optimistic sustainibility worlds so it behooves us to be a little cautious.

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