What is a Pattern Language, Anyway?

by Steve Gabriel

Every time I come across the pattern topic in permaculture literature I am both compelled and confused by it. The cool pictures and "everything is interconnected" message are appealing.  As is the thought that patterns are 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 time farmer-type, who cannot exactly explain why he knows this or does that, except that is simply "how things are done." 

The birth of a concept

In 1977 A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein was published. Alexander and his colleagues traveled the globe in search of patterns. They specifically look for patterns of human settlement that made people happy and improved their experience of a city. They noted patterns that repeated themselves and appeared to exist universally regardless of cultural, religion, economic, or other differences.  The patterns were rated based on how accurate the authors believed them to be. Also patterns were arranged from larger scale to smaller scale so one could think of patterns on a city-wide scale, down to the details of light or trim in the room of one building.  What emerged out of their observation 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.”

As well as:

“…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. “

Pattern languages and permaculture

Alexander and his colleagues created a complex network of good ideas and templates for urban planners and architects though pattern language observations of people's relationships to the spaces in cities.  Similarly permaculture co-founder David Holmgren, notes the benefit to pattern thinking in his 2002 book Permaculture: Principles and 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. Holmgren describes in his book the principle Design from Patterns to Details which 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 around the site.  As designers of permaculture systems, we  could use these readily available tools to help us make decisions about water systems for our livestock or mushroom log soak tanks that include consideration of the landscape hydrology, and larger network of streams, rivers, and lakes in which our site is situated. 

While most of us will not devote our life, as Alexander did, 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 and compare our observations with others. What pattern languages do we observe from some of these key systems?

  • Poultry Forage Systems
  • Rotational Grazing of Ruminants
  • Managing Fungus in the Landscape (Mycoscaping)
  • Catchment & Storage of Water

Documenting and sharing patterns may help dispel a complex concept or body of knowledge into more sizable chunks. In the 2005 Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design And Practice For Temperate-Climate Permaculture Dave Jacke write this about their forest garden pattern language:

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

Peter Bane also described a pattern language of garden farming in his 2012 book The Permaculture Handbook. It aims to provide an aid to designing permaculture systems on urban and suburban properties and for the creation of garden farms at whatever distance from city centers.

These languages offer some key considerations for future language development such as including a collection of patterns from large to small in terms of scale; acknowledging the reality that design is not linear but a network of ideas and concepts; providing a context, a problem statement, and a solution statement; and recognizing that patterns exist independently, in connection to other patterns, and in connection to other pattern languages.

Pattern languages may offer opportunity for bridging the gap between theory and practice; allow us to take what we learn from books and workshops 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.

Pattern languages moving forward 

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, though, do not have that benefit. Examples from indigenous cultures might be useful but they are limited and generally lack an understanding of what really works in post-modern agricultural ecosystems.

An alternative approach for permaculture practitioners could be to look at preceding successful pattern languages and build upon their strengths in creating additional pattern languages. Then, most importantly, share languages with the intent that open discussion will develop a language over time that gets stronger and more transparent in its message. Further, this could help ensure that languages are grounded in research and positive affirmation from numerous sources.

Suggested approach to developing permaculture pattern languages

A great primer to read before attempting to draft a permaculture pattern language is Dave Jacke’s analysis of pattern and pattern languages in relationship to design and permaculture in the 2005 Edible Forest Gardens, Vol. 2: Ecological Design And Practice For Temperate-Climate Permaculture.

The specific context and limitations in developing the pattern language should be expressed clearly. A permaculture pattern language should also include:

  • 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 practitioners draft language patterns for further review and validation, they and others may assemble and link them together. Patterns as a language should be arranged in order from large to small in scale, and grouped as appropriate into similar themes. We might imagine a group of languages that help landowners, farmers, and gardeners more efficiently assemble elements and the connections between them. 

Join my pattern language efforts

Crafting drafts of pattern languages offers an exciting and creative way to describe our permaculture experiences. Following this documentation approach with meaningful discussions about our observations will help us and others learn. I hope you will join me in writing a pattern language of your own someday!

Last modified: Friday, January 17, 2020, 8:24 PM