Pattern Languages bridge the gap between theory and practice

       Every time I come across the "pattern" topic in the permaculture curriculum I am both compelled and confused by it. Sure, the cool pictures and "everything is interconnected" message are appealing in their own right, but I've always thought that patterns were these mysterious keys that could help unlock the tools for developing good designs for various systems. Like the weathered but competent knowledge of an old timer farmer-type, who cannot exactly explain why he knows this or does that, but it's simply "how things are done.

The birth of a concept

Since the publishing of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander in 1977, a handful of enthusiasts have taken an appreciation not only to the content of the book, but also the process by with Alexander and other Architects approached when thinking about how humans could design better cities.
 Alexander and his colleagues traveled the globe in search of patterns, specifically patterns of human settlement, that could be defined as successful by “making people happy” and improving their experience of a city. Patterns that repeated themselves became noted and if they appeared universal, that is, to exist despite cultural, religious, economic, and other differences, they were declared fit for the publication.
Thus, Alexander's definition of a pattern, one that is, "A pattern is a careful description of a perennial solution to a recurring problem within a building context, describing one of the configurations which brings life to a building". (Alexander et al, 1977) provided others with a compelling template for future design.

Most compelling about this proposal is the idea that the individual patterns Alexander and his team observed were like individual words – and like a language they were flexible in how hey were used. The idea of assembling the patterns and also noting the connection of one pattern to a next allows any designer to craft their own language of patterns. In Alexander’s words:

“…a pattern language is about patterns being like words. They stay the same but can be combined in different ways like words in a sentence. They can be used as in a network where one will call upon another (like a neuron network). When you build something you can put patterns together to form a language. So a language for your house might have patterns about transitions, light, ceiling height, connecting the second floor to the ground.

A community might put together a language including patterns about public and private spaces, cars, pedestrians and parking. Using languages helps you to visualize and think about what will really make you comfortable, really comfortable.

Good languages are in harmony with geography, climate, and culture. “

Alexander’s work is a incredible testament to the potential to name and articulate these patterns. He and his team did a rather detailed analysis and assessment in their inquiry, with several notable features:

1) The scholars traveled the world and looked for patterns which repeated themselves "across context"
2) Patterns were rated based on how accurate the authors believed them to be
3) Patterns were arranged from larger scale to smaller scale. Thus a reader could think of patterns on a city-wide scale, down to the details of light or trim in the room of one building

Pattern Languages & Permaculture

The concept parallels Permaculture thinking, which seeks to observe ecosystem patterns and apply them in landscape and farm design. In Alexander’s case, he was focused on cities and people's relationships to the spaces in them. Through this lens he created a complex network of good ideas & templates for urban planners and architects.
Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, notes a similar benefit to pattern thinking in his book "Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability"

“Whether we are designing a garden, a village, or an organization, we need a broad repertoire of patterns of relative scale, timing, and geometry that tend to recur in natural and sustainable human systems…

…Further, we need to relearn pattern recognition because cultural innovation, especially media technologies, have scrambled the pattern thinking that was common in pre-industrial societies. This loss of ability to see, hear, and otherwise recognize the patterns of nature may be our greatest impediment in our attempt to adapt to the realities of energy descent…"

We do indeed have a long way to go in improving our abilities to see and implement patterns, one of the challenges being the inherent variability in scale. The principle "Design from Patterns to Details" which Holmgren propose in the same book always makes me think of tooling around on Google Earth, where a user can zoom into a site or landscape feature and with equal ease zoom out to see the large hillside, watershed, or land base the site is a part of. As farmers and permaculture designers, we need to hone these skills to the point where we are making decisions about water systems for our livestock or mushroom log soak tanks while being able to consider the decision in the context of the landscape hydrology, and larger network of streams, rivers, and lakes we are a part of.

While individual farmers, permaculturists, and others may be a ways off from devoting life, as Alexander did, solely to the pursuit of naming patterns in natural and human-designed agricultural systems, we can begin at least by naming the common experiences and observations that support our success. Farmers who cross paths at the local bar or a conference do this all the time, comparing notes about how they did this or what they learned from that. We could consider pattern languages for a number of key systems, for example:

Poultry Forage Systems
Rotational Grazing of Ruminants
“Mycoscaping” or Managing Fungus in the Landcape
Catchment & Storage of Water

And so forth.

            The benefit of such an exercise is to help dispel a complex concept or body of knowledge into more sizable chunks. Or, as Dave Jacke writes in the introduction to his pattern language, “A Forest Garden Pattern Language,” (Edible Forest Gardens, Vol 2, Pg 63)

It crystallizes many issues and ideas….It serves as both a resource for deisgn ideas and inspiration, and a springboard into the following “how-to” chapters.”

Visual of Jacke's Pattern Language, by Ethan Roland (click to see larger)
            The idea that Pattern Languages offer a template for bridging the gap between theory and practice is compelling. Or, another way to think of it – how do we take what we learn from books, teachers, and classrooms and apply it to our daily grind as we labor on the landscape?

            The maps, sketches, and notations that are part of successful design of systems are also well supported by Pattern Languages, which offer a checklist against design work.

            More recently, a second pattern language emerged via Peter Bane, a Permaculture designer and teacher who wrote The Permaculture Handbook. Peter’s language is named “A Garden Farming Pattern Language” and offers “an aid to designing Permaculture systems on urban and suburban properties and for the creation of garden farms at whatever distance from city centers.”

            Both Jacke and Bane’s languages offer some templates for future language development: they both arrange the collection of patterns from large to small in terms of scale. Both also acknowledge the reality that design is not linear but a network of ideas and concepts. And both offer a provides some context, a problem statement, and a solution statement. Patterns exist independently, in connection to other patterns, and in connection to other pattern languages.

Pattern Languages moving forward

            I have some proposals for developing pattern languages. First off, the idea that many Permaculturists might simultaneously be developing pattern languages for subjects I am less familiar with to share with the network is exciting – but the challenge remains to offer these synthesis as a proposal – that is, something to be offered as a gift for feedback from the community.

            Alexander and his team traveled the globe to see if proposed patterns did indeed appear “across context.” This is a reasonable pursuit in studying cities and buildings as they have been developed in various forms for thousands of years. Permaculture and other integrated agricultural systems don’t necessarily have that benefit – at least in the modern context. We have examples from indigenous cultures to draw on but still lack an understanding of what really works in post-modern agricultural ecosystems.

In addition, we do not want pattern languages to be simply lists of good ideas. They should be grounded in research or at least positive affirmation from numerous sources. “Crowd-sourced” and “Participatory” are words that come to mind. As we author these languages we must proceed with a humble caution, and design methods for collecting feedback so that our pattern languages can evolve. This is true for much of Permaculture, where ideas come from advocates often without the ground-truthing to back it up.

A template to follow

            In Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke provides an excellent analysis of pattern and pattern languages in relationship to design and Permaculture. This section of text is a “must read” for anyone thinking of writing their own pattern language. It is important to build knowledge on the basis of other knowledge, and thus we need to look at preceding Pattern Languages and build upon their strengths and weaknesses.

For starters, we can use the following template when writing an individual pattern:

Name: of the proposed pattern
Context: describing the circumstances in which the problem is being solved
Problem Statement: describing the issue to be revolved
Solution: Offering single or multiple solutions and relevant commentary

As patterns are assembled, they can be linked together. Patterns as a language should be arrange in order from large to small in scale, and grouped as deemed necessary by the author into similar themes.

The specific context and limitations in developing the pattern language should be expressed clearly at the beginning. And finally, the methods for encouraging the language to exist as a participatory effort should be described.

Imagine a group of languages that help landowners, farmers, and gardeners more efficiently assemble elements and the connections between them. Imagine the potential to discuss and develop a language over time that gets stronger and more transparent in its message. Toward this end, I am offering to begin develop two pattern languages, which I will gladly share with anyone wanting to participate in their development.

Book website
The first will be part of an upcoming book I am co-authoring with Ken Mudge on Forest Farming. (www.farmingtheforest.com) The pattern language is in the beginning states and will offer patterns for the practice of Forest Farming in the Eastern Hardwood Forest type. We will be consulting with case study farms we visit as well as through an online directory of forest farmers we are creating to discuss and receive feedback so that the language may be further developed.

Second, as part of the culmination of a grant I received to study ducks through NE-SARE, I will begin to offer a pattern language for raising ducks. I have found that duck rearing is considerably different from chickens and other poultry and see a pattern language as a good method to distinguish those differences.

Pattern Language writing offers an exciting and creative way to describe our experiences and have meaningful discussions about our work in such a way that is documented so that we can grow as we learn. Like many things it is the process of crafting a language that is of most benefit; indeed the end product is merely a synthesis of that process.  I hope you will join me in writing a pattern language of your own someday.


Post from Ithaca's Food Web

Ithaca's Food Web is a great blog from Allison Fromme - thanks for the write up! 

"The ducks did eat the slugs, but the weather last summer was unusually dry, so the slugs were not as problematic as previous years. Steve says his biggest surprise was that one breed, the Muscovy, ate both slugs and the mushrooms -- not ideal if you aim to sell mushrooms. "The heritage breeds (Cayuga and Swedish blue) were notable foragers, often exploring the forest floor before heading to the food trough," he says. "