Permaculture Speed Dating / Urban Permaculture Discussion Questions

I wanted to share a series of discussion questions broadly related to urban permaculture and having a cooler city in the summer.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Kosovo three times over the last year or so, twice for permaculture teaching with GAIA Kosovo and once for fun and planning. On the most recent trip I hosted an Introduction to Permaculture for GAIA Kosovo’s volunteers, visited Mitrovice and gave a presentation there and led a short workshop on the permaculture principles and urban permaculture at Termokiss in Pristina.

Termokiss sketch by Era Hashani

Broadening The Discussion

I always emphasise that while permaculture has a food production focus, it is ultimately about actively caring for both people and planet from a systems thinking perspective and that can be performed through more than just growing food. Urban permaculture activities have a very different context than those in rural or suburban areas. Often there are significant issues regarding pollution as well as social and structural problems that need to be responded to, often as a parallel problem to establishing food production projects. I feel a great responsibility to present permaculture as an entry point into many different activities – not everyone wants to grow food, but everyone can be empowered to care for people and planet.

Patterns and Details

Preparing for this workshop I was reminded about the importance of patterns and details and how that can help us understand challenges and respond to them. While I started writing questions about Pristina, I knew that the same discussions would be just as relevant in Linz, or Adelaide. Pristina, Kosovo is one of the most polluted cities on the European continent, water security is an issue, corruption is still a major problem, there are significant issues around equality between different religious and minority groups and the post-conflict status of Kosovo as a nation is unclear. While Pristina has its own particular history and combination of present day problems, it is important to acknowledge that issues of pollution, water and food security, inequality, corruption and conflict histories are present everywhere in the world. For example littering and air pollution were previously significant problems in Australia until social norms and regulations changed, yet its frontier wars and history of Indigenous genocide and social inequality are mostly unacknowledged. It is easy to look at the problems or solutions of other places and presume that one society has everything fixed or another one failing. There is always something to improve and ways to learn from other people, just as there is always progress and ideas to be shared.

Customising a Workshop Design

We weren’t sure how many people would attend the Termokiss workshop and had there been a bigger group I’d have invited them to participate in a “Permaculture Speed Dating” exercise. In this format I would have given a very short introduction to permaculture and then divided the group by birth month. Then for example I would have asked all the people in January to choose an urban permaculture question related to “Observe and Interact” and to then discuss it with one or more other people. After 5 minutes they would then swap onto the next principle, so that by the end of an hour everyone would have worked through all of Holmgren’s design principles.

The group of participants I was presenting to was small and pretty fluid as some people had to leave and more people arrived. This meant that I ran a longer discussion based introduction to the principles and ethics. Following the presentation side of things I invited the participants to select a question from the list below and to discuss it in small groups. Once we regathered I asked participants to think of two actions they would do to practice the permaculture ethics, one for the next week and one through the summer. This final reflection was a very empowering experience as for example, one person said they would try to grow a plant for the first time in their life, another wanted to try making seed bombs and some of the people from Termokiss were going to start a seed library.

In many ways it was lucky that we had a smaller group as I think the questions would need to be refined to suit a limited time frame. Alternatively they could be reworked to host 4 or 5 stations of speed dating but still with urban permaculture related questions.

The Questions


  • In the Summer, what places in your home and the city feel cooler than others? Why?
  • Do you know if the soil near your home is healthy or not? Even if growing food or medicine for humans is not a good idea you can still grow a garden that provides beauty, shade, good smells as well as homes and food for wild animals and insects.
  • Do you know the names of your neighbours? Do you think any of them might need extra help during very hot weather?


  • You can use solar and wind power without expensive technology. How can you catch or block the sun and wind to make your home or workplace more comfortable this summer?
  • Have you ever tried saving seeds from trees or food plants? Do your grandparents save seeds? Have you ever swapped seeds? Seed saving supports biodiversity, can save you money and helps maintain traditional / heirloom plant varieties.


  • What changes could you make to your home or community that will have benefits this summer and in the future?
  • What benefits do you get from nature? Beauty, clean air, water, food, places to play, sunshine? What can you do to help nature provide these  resources and services?


  • Have you ever calculated your ecological footprint? Do you know how much water and energy you use each year?
  • Do you feel better when you are in nature filled places?  How can you plan your week to spend more time in nature?
  • How often do you buy drinks in plastic bottles? Can you reuse a bottle and drink more water this summer?


  • Are there vacant pieces of land, or cracks in the pavement where you could plant a garden? Trees and garden areas help keep the city cool as well as providing many other benefits such as beauty, controlling storm water and food and homes for wildlife.
  • Can you use the wind to cool your home?  In hot weather it is often better to keep your windows closed and shaded during the heat of the day and to open them up in the cool of the evening.
  • How do you look after the precious water you use in your home?  Choosing the most eco friendly detergents and soaps you can find and avoiding throwing chemicals away in drains can help keep Kosovo’s waterways clearer.


  • Often we need to use polluting energy to power appliances or drive somewhere. What can you do to get the most out of that energy use? (eg. car pooling, cool just one room of the house, keep refrigerators in cool places)
  • The best way to keep plastic bags out of the environment is to not use them in the first place. Have you ever tried refusing a plastic bag when shopping? What was the reaction from the shopkeeper?
  • What do you reuse or repurpose? Old bubble wrap packaging can be used to insulate windows from the summer sun and winter cold. Socks and scrap fabric can be sewn to make “snakes” that block draughts in cold weather.
  • How do you save water in the home? If eco-friendly soaps are used, “Grey Water” from your shower or bath, and from clothes washing can be used to water gardens and houseplants.  Alternatively this waste water can be used to flush the toilet.
  • What happens to your food scraps? Can they be composted and used to feed the soil in a garden? Food waste which goes into normal trash attracts pests and releases methane, a greenhouse gas. Using waste food and other biological waste to make compost means that plants can be fertilised without chemicals. Paper and cardboard scraps can also be mixed with the food waste.


  • Think of your favourite natural place. Maybe it is a forest, a park or a garden. What patterns and ideas can we take from nature to inspire a beautiful, cool and clean Pristina and Kosovo?
  • Imagine the place where you live and how it feels at different times of the day or the year. How does the movement of the sun and wind affect how warm or cool your home is. Do you use your home differently between summer and winter?
  • Environmental problems in Pristina are very similar to problems in the rest of the world. Do you know of how other groups have responded to build community gardens, clean up water ways in their local area? What ideas can you copy from other places and what challenges are unique to Kosovo?


  • It is possible to do things alone, but much more effective and fun when we work together. Can you think of a neighbour, family member or organisation you could team up with to make positive changes in your local community and natural environment this summer?
  • Can you think of ways to connect parks, gardens and the outer areas of Pristina?  In order to support a healthy population birds, animals and insects need pathways to travel along. Where would you put nature pathways in Pristina?


  • Have you heard about seed bombs? They are balls made of clay, soil and local wildflower and tree seeds which will begin to grow after a rainstorm. Throwing seed bombs into abandoned land can help nature beautify ugly parts of the city. Where would you throw a seed bomb?
  • Can you think of places where you could plant a tree or other plants for the future? If the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second best time is this year. Trees take a long time to grow and need the company of friendly plants in order to be healthy.   


  • What are your skills? What do you want to learn? Can you work with friends to start a learning exchange?
  • Can you name five or more plants that grow in the city?
  • What can you do to help the elderly, the very young, those with disabilities or ethnic minority groups?  Air and water pollution, extreme heat and cold will have bigger impacts on certain groups in society who are already struggling and vulnerable.


  • Are there tiny corners of the city where you could grow a garden? Guerilla gardening and moss graffiti are ways to temporarily beautify your neighbourhood and provide benefits for wildlife.
  • Edges of ecosystems eg. alongside rivers, are places of richness and diversity – materials gather and there are specific microclimates. Around the world (not just in Kosovo) roadsides seem to magically gather trash. Can you choose a street to care for?
  • In high summer walls and roofs exposed to the sun will heat up and make a building more uncomfortable. Is it possible to use climbing plants to shade the place where you live?


  • What was summer like when you were a child? How has the weather changed over recent years?
  • What do you want your life to be like in the year 2031? Will you have a family of your own? Will you live in Pristina or somewhere else? How will climate change affect your dreams? What can you do now to make Pristina cleaner and cooler and at the same time mitigate global climate change?

Principled “Horoscopes”

My partner’s arts collective Time’s Up develop physical narratives of future scenarios. Or to put it another way, that means they imagine a possible future based on current trends and build and decorate a set that illustrates that story world. Visitors to the space are invited to walk through the exhibition and explore the spaces and details (rooms, audio landscapes, furniture, posters) of a particular imagined future in the fictional harbourside town of Turnton in the year 2047. Over the past fortnight Time’s Up have been installing the most recent incarnation of the Turnton world into the Angewandte Innovation Lab in Vienna, Austria.

One major artefact that Time’s Up develop to explain the ecologically damaged but socially improved world of September 2047 is a newspaper. While it might seem odd that “old-fashioned” technology such as newspapers exist in the future, it is suggested that as the concept of newspapers has endured many centuries so far, it is likely they’ll still exist in 28 years.

Making a newspaper means filling the newspaper out with articles, advertisements and things like comic strips and crosswords. While the core members of Time’s Up write many of the stories, they also invite their broader community of collaborators to contribute material.

Newspapers often include horoscopes and Tim suggested that I contribute that content. While I am quite interested in planetary alignments and transits and their implications for how to plan gardening and personal activities I am not an astrologer! Instead we decided to use Holmgren’s 12 principles and use them as the basis for each sign’s text.

I tried to make the texts somewhat instructional about social permaculture and to provide permaculture ideas by stealth. I do hope that in the year 2047 our world is far more ethical and ecologically minded than it currently is.

I also helped out with the setup of the exhibition (filling holes and ageing sandbags) and made details like care labels from the future for some of the textile based elements.

Offering to contribute to the exhibition follows on from one of the outcomes of my plant woman design which was to get involved in more collaborative art making.

One of the reflections that we had was that maybe in the year 2047 there are no horoscopes in newspapers but just permaculture advice? I actually like the idea of both the astral bodies and permaculture getting the recognition they deserve. Regardless, if you’d like to find out your sun sign’s permaculture advice for Friday 13th September 2047 please read below.

Aquarius / Observe and Interact this week the planetary alignment encourages you to start making plans. Over the past year you’ve had ample opportunity to observe the winds that blow through your life, and forces emerging from within yourself and the people around you. Step into action, but now with an awareness of what to block and what to invite into your life. 

Pisces / Catch and Store Energy Pay attention to what fuels you. Self care can take many forms: healthy food, time in solitude or community, engaging with water or natural systems.   By reenergising yourself now and for future needs you will experience abundance that can be shared with the many lives around you. 

Aries / Obtain a Yield Seeds of projects that you planted earlier in the season are ripening. Now is a great time to make your harvest, to record ideas and understandings and to distribute the outputs to others. This is the time to ask for what you need and deserve and to make sure others are receiving what they need too.

Taurus / Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback The universe is giving you feedback at the macro and the micro level. What is emerging for you and what is being eroded? knowing how to change your behaviour now will have great impact in your own life and for generations to come.

Gemini / Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services Collaboration is sweet, but ensure that your relationships are valued and given the attention they deserve. Who do you want to stick around in your life? What makes them tick?

Cancer / Produce No Waste You are assessing the elements of your life right now, what is flowing in and what is flowing out.. What may seem worn out and stale may still serve another purpose even if you aren’t the one who will see it.  

Leo / Design from Patterns to Details Big picture patterns are just as important as how the details play out in your own life. Working across time and space means you can understand your part in the whole and what makes you whole. Where are the overlaps? how do you know where the world ends and you begin? 

Virgo / Integrate Rather Than Segregate You’ve been isolating yourself from the community and living world around you.  Making the initial steps to participate and interact can be overwhelming but remember that everyone else is striving for connection too. 

Libra / Use Small and Slow Solutions This is not the time to move hastily or overcommit. You no longer feel the need to rush but neither do you want to waste time. Remember that the small actions that you make now are part of a bigger emergent process.

Scorpio / Use and Value Diversity Stop trying to see the big picture of your life as a singular thing. For a different viewpoint, think about the many different parts that come together to make your whole. How do they relate to each other? In particular consider how to diversify flows of information.

Sagittarius / Use Edges and Value the Marginal Consider the border between your comfort zone and the great beyond. What influences, friendships and opportunities lie in this sweet spot of adventure and challenge? Respect your curiosity and take the risk to expand your horizons just a little bit.

Capricorn / Creatively Use and Respond to Change Take the time to acknowledge the changes that are unfolding around you at small and large scales. How can you best respond in order to take advantage of the changing tides? Look around and see who you need to collaborate with at this moment in history.

Time’s Up’s exhibition Change Was Our Only Chance is at AILab as part of the Vienna Biennale until September 27, 2019.

What is freely given and what is stolen


The Maths Captain and I finally put our electric motor to the test and took The Runcible Spoon, our long-refashioned sailboat over three hours and 12 kilometres up the Danube to Ottensheim for Ottensheimer Cremeschnitte (not just any Konditorei cream slice, but one with a special dash of redcurrant jelly). E-motoring back down to Linz with the current took just an hour and ten minutes but even so, such a journey is a little tedious when you’re not sailing but especially when you discover the cooking gas is empty and you can’t cook an adventurous cup of tea in the tiny sailboat “galley” on the floorboards. (Boat tea is the best-tasting tea ever).

The journey back was made far a little more exciting as I had collected fallen twigs covered with lichen at the mouth of the Rodl river where we anchored. On the return journey I used The Maths Captain’s knife to scrape off the lichen into a little beeswax cloth, ready to dry and process as a dye for wool. A lovely acquaintance of mine who teaches nature connection cautions her students to only gather and forage what nature is giving freely. Normally, I’d leave lichen on trees and rocks as that is where it is doing lichen services like photosynthesising, rock decomposition, soil formation and looking lovely as well as being a bio-indicator, but a recent storm had shaken these dead twigs and small branches off to the banks of the Danube and Rodl and were about to be washed away into a very big and commercial river. A gift indeed.
Even though I somehow knew that lichen could be used as a plant dye, I didn’t exactly know how the colour should be extracted and it turns out that C+ lichens (I made a test with bleach)  can produce a pink-violet colour when fermented over months with ammonia, or historically, stale urine.

So, I’m drinking a tea and considering collecting my urine in a pickle jar, and letting it stand in a warm place in order to ferment a tiny batch of lichen dyes with.  I’ve done a wee bit of research (hah!) about the many pre-industrial chemistry uses of urine and how stale human and animal urine (ammonia) were commodified and used to process leather, whiten and soften laundry, whiten teeth and make Saltpeter for gunpowder. Here in Linz I live near Lederergasse and Ludlgasse (Leather and Piss Streets) and frequent Gerberei, a lovely cafe named after the tanning industry that existed in this corner by the Schlachthof (slaughterhouse / abbatoir). Nowadays, a couple of kilometres away is the Chemiepark where Borealis uses huge amounts of natural gas and electrical energy in the Haber-Bosch process to extract ammonia and amongst other uses, produce nitrogen rich agro-chemicals.

So here we are in the modern world where urine, a freely surrendered resource, along with commercial fertiliser runoff ends up polluting waterways as ammonia naturally forms. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison describes a pollutant as any output of a system not being used productively  by other parts of the system. Permaculturists and other organic gardeners are onto this and often use fresh, diluted urine as a natural way to add nitrogen to the soil, combined with carbon rich matter in compost heaps.  Of course, if using a composting toilet makes sense, a urine diverting toilet seat makes it even easier to gather the flow of urine’s nutrients.
Thinking about processing my 20g of dried lichen with my own, stale urine, and wondering what pink or violet accent colour I can incorporate into a knitting project is obviously just a starting point for a number of distractions including other natural dyestuffs (indigo! black beans! avocado pits!), the ethics of foraging and wild food and colourstuffs and whether I should ferment the carrots sitting in the fridge.  Often though, these distractions contribute to a line of thinking about how dependent our lives are on globalised, late-stage capitalism and fossil-fuel dependent industry

Even when we claim to be self-reliant, back to nature or simplifying our purchasing patterns by say, dying and making our own clothes, cleaning with vinegar and baking soda, minimising packaging, or “frugally” cleaning the oven with just ammonia rather than an over-priced commercial oven cleaning product we remain entangled.  We still need to get those basic ingredients from somewhere, even if they come in bulk or are traded in a non-monetary economy – they are still dependent on the industrialised system. What on earth will we do if this brittle system breaks?  It’s enough to make me hoard baking soda and consider cleaning the oven with stale piss – though of course, in that potential scenario there would be no electrical grid to supply my apartment kitchen with power, so I wouldn’t be able to use the oven, clean or dirty.  I think I would happily keep my standards low – the oven hasn’t been properly cleaned since I started my Masters degree and will probably stay that way for a few months more.

Even with gas canisters stockpiled, my little gas camping stove would of course eventually fail both for boat-board cups of tea and to cook in an emergency, power rationed scenario. Mindful of redundancy I am waiting for a Kelly Kettle to be delivered, ready to optimise summertime boating adventures, brew freshly gathered wild herb teas, grill a cheeky sausage and take advantage of the pinecones that were also shaken down in last week’s early “summer” storms. There is a fine line between doing things for general self-reliance and “deep prepping” and that is probably when you stop doing it for fun and satisfaction and are motivated by fear alone.

The box of pinecones I have gathered for the storm kettle is nothing in the big scheme of energy vulnerability and possible futures both good and bad.   It is one thing to make a pot of herbal tea or have an off-grid home, but how would roads be repaired, materials for infrastructure quarried and foundations for bridges dug in a low-energy future?  And I think here not only of a low-energy future in the framing of peak-oil, but also in terms of low-energy when energy distribution fails, demand becomes too high or the global financial system reveals its inherent fragility.

I can use pinecones to heat my tea, but even electrically powered digging machinery requires vast forms of electricity from a stable system. Without energy to power industrial tools, we go back to manual, human labour, without a functioning economic system that exchanges value for labour, our societies could easily return to a large-scale slavery model.  It is tempting to think that forced labour hasn’t existed since the abolition of slavery and serfdom. However, slavery and indentured labour is still present in the modern world and touches us indirectly through the goods we buy and services we make use of.

This Twitter-story by on racism, incarceration and labor exploitation in Louisiana, USA reminded me of the yet another way that slavery is present in modern life, though one that is far more mandated by the state than drug and food growing, the sex-industry or shellfish-production.  William Gibson is reputed to have said that the “future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” and with that in mind I began to chase down leads on the potential return to slavery in a peak-oil, low energy world, including a call to move away from “energy slavery” to participatory democracy and appropriate technology from Ivan Illich.

I think that where my thoughts have been going with this is that 20g of lichen, my own urine and pinecones could all be considered as “gifted” resources along with the gifted labour of friends have helped us to restore the boat, whereas exploitative use of nature and humans can only be thought of as extraction and theft. But at what point does foraging of nature’s gifts or cooperative and volunteered labour practices step into misuse?

I am reminded of the permaculture ethics and how directly they relate to Principle 5 to Use and Value Renewable Products and Services of co-founder David Holmgren’s interpretation of permaculture principles. In  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability Holmgren discusses valuing ecosystem services, wild products, water and working animals but doesn’t directly include valuing the labour of human inputs into a system.  The People Care ethic and _efficient_ design is inherent to permacultural practice, so maybe “avoiding the need for exploitative labour practices and slavery” doesn’t need to be said or considered in the immediate systems such as homesteads we have the opportunity to design, we should be careful though. Like so many things though this reminds me of why we need ethics-based approaches like permaculture at a higher and more widespread model so that we design societal culture futures to avoid widespread slavery too.