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Design Criteria

5 Ways to shortcut the “year of observation”


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You’ll hear it repeated a lot in permaculture circles that the best thing to do before even starting the design for your site is to spend a full year living on the land. In that time you’ll be able to observe and gather information about how things change and transform during the different season and you’ll gain insights that you’d never be able to without this “year of observation.”

I agree that it would be great if you were able to do this, but I live in the real world where no-one has a year of time before they can start advancing their design and implementing systems. They need the results that will turn into income, food, or water harvesting as soon as possible. 

I’ve worked in regenerative design for years and I’ve even started my own projects a number of times, but I’ve never been able to spend a year on the land before starting to implement a design. I have however found a lot of ways to shortcut the process that come with a ton of their own unique benefits. 

So here I’ll explain some of the most effective techniques that I’ve used to fast-track a lot of the observation and information gathering process of design and that’ve helped me to gain insights that even a year of observation on the land couldn’t give you.

The aim here is to give you the confidence to make big decisions for your regenerative design and on your land without having to wait a long time.

These are the steps you can start right away. You don’t even need to own the land yourself to get started. 

The best part, in my opinion, is that these tips will also help you build community and friendships in the process by connecting you with the people who’ve lived around your area for a long time and by learning from their knowledge.

  1. The first and most important place to start is to get to know people near you who’ve lived in your area their whole life. Ideally the current or previous land owners themselves will be able to tell you what they’ve observed over the years and decades that they’ve lived there. You’ll especially want to hear about extremes and freak events that made a big impact on the site or on the house. Were there any major storms, floods, droughts, or earthquakes? How did they affect the land and what did they do to recover from them? Have they noticed any major pattern changes in the last few decades? No single year of living on the land could tell you as long a history as the people who’ve lived a lifetime there. In my case here in north eastern Spain, the locals talk a lot about how it used to snow two or three times in the winter and the mountains were covered in white all season. Now it’s rare to see even a single snowfall and the mountains only have snow for about a month in the winter. You might be able to find information like this from other sources, but hearing it from people who’ve lived it adds a whole other level of depth to the understanding.
  1. Learn to read your landscape. It turns out you don’t have to be present in a major weather event or a natural disaster to be able to detect the impact that it’s had on your site if you know how to identify the signs. Fires leave layers of ash and charcoal in the soil. Floods create erosion patterns and gullies perpendicular to the contours of the land and leave debris at the highwater mark. Earthquakes can move boulders and can even leave crevasses in the earth and disturbances or collapses in the architecture of a town. Plagues of insects or illnesses in the environment can stunt or kill off whole species. It takes some training to know what you’re looking for, so try to find someone to guide you in the beginning, but the signs are always there. Learning to read the landscape adds a whole new level of excitement and discovery to your nature walks wherever you go too. 
  1. Ask local law enforcement, emergency response services, or local government what the biggest risks and disasters have been in your town in recent years and how they responded to them. This can also offer important insights into other things like local dangers and security issues, the preparedness and resiliency of your area in the face of emergencies, and whether your town can act cohesively together when it counts. You may learn that your local culture is very individualistic and everyone looks after themselves in a crisis, or that there’s a strong sense of unity and people band together to help one another when it really counts. This might even lead to finding a way to contribute to important community services like volunteer firefighting, joining a neighborhood watch, or simply registering yourself as a potential volunteer in the case of an emergency. 
  1. Go to your local library or if you’re lucky your town might even have a local museum or local historian you can visit. Read up on the history of your place and try to understand how it’s changed in recent years/decades. I’m fortunate that where I am, the history of every little town and region here in Catalonia has been recorded for hundreds of years and there’s even archaeological remains of some of the earliest human presence on the continent from prehistoric times. But even if your region doesn’t have records like this that are easy to find, try going back as far as you can to gain insights into how people lived before fossil fuels and advanced technology homogenized how we interact with the land. Even if you have little ambition of returning to such simple and primitive ways of living, it’ll give you some insights into what people relied on and what resources they leveraged to build their lives, communities, and the culture that came from these relationships. 
  1. Building a plant database for your site is another great way to gain insights that could only otherwise be gained by spending a lot of time on the land. As you get to know the major species of plants and wildlife of your area you can make predictions as to what the soil is like there, how long it stays hydrated and how much sunlight it gets in different areas. All plants and creatures have specific requirements to survive and knowing what grows where and what its needs are can impart a wealth of information. 

If you’ve already put any of these techniques into practice and would like to share your progress with like-minded people who are also working on building their own regenerative lifestyles, join our Facebook group today

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What insights have you learned about your site from this guide? Did you think of any shortcuts to the information gathering and observation stage that I missed? Are there some important questions that you’d ask to the list? Let me know in the comments.

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