A pattern based approach to participatory ecological design

Landscape regeneration in Southern Africa

Name: Joanne Tippett

Course: Landscape Restoration and Management

Tutor: Dr. Handley

Date: April 30, 2001

PhD Supervisors: John Handley, Joe Ravetz, Jeff Hinchcliffe (Mersey Basin Campaign)

Submitted as course work for Masters in Economic and Social Research

University of Manchester

School of Planning and Landscape


Abstract 1

Introduction_ 2

Landscape Dynamics and Context 4

DesignWays Process – Overview_ 7

Participation_ 8

Presentational Tools 9

Process 11

Decision making 11

Patterns 13

Patterns and Participation 17

Patterns and Process 17

Difficulties with the approach_ 18

Conclusion_ 18

References 19


SuNstainable DesignWays is a communication and educational tool, developed by the author to apply ecological design principles at multiple levels of scale. During two years of pilot trials in Southern Africa, it evolved into a participatory methodology for applying principles of sustainability. This work was carried out in the context of severe landscape degradation and conditions of extreme poverty.

An understanding of patterns provides an essential link between insights into the interconnected nature of ecology and design. In the DesignWays process, principles of living systems biology act as a metaphor and basis for design, especially the way that ecological processes are embodied in patterns. Ecological design is a process in which societal forms of production, housing and infrastructure are integrated into the landscape. Spatial arrangements and patterns play a key role in mediating flows of material and energy and in determining the long-term environmental effects of these developments.

The DesignWays process embodies three principles: effective participation through envisioning and planning for the future, a transparent and innovative design process and use of patterns and systems theory as the theoretical framework for design. The paper will address these themes, illustrated through examples from projects in Southern Africa, and draw on systems theory to illuminate the theoretical underpinnings of the design process.


PERMACULTURE    By Chief Maama Masopha

Working with nature is my hobby,

Working with nature is part of my life.

Permaculture, where were you

When we lost the vegetation we had?

Permaculture where have you been?

Now that we are starving,

Why did you delay to be known,

While we have many specialists?

My country is now bare.

Who can we blame?


Herbs are diminishing,

Drought has taken advantage.

Where shall we get the herbs?

What will the herbalists do?

Importation is becoming our motto.


Our soils are very poor,

Their good structures are gone,

Their textures are destroyed,

Yet you are present and silent.


 Why did you hesitate so long to be applied in Lesotho,

Yet you are known by the world?

Chemicals have spoiled our soils,

The ecosystem is disconnected,

People and animals are suffocated,

Chemicals are very expensive,

Farmers cannot afford.


How can we solve this problem?

For how long do we ask for funds

From countries which have the same problems?

Why can’t we change?

Not only the attitudes of people,

But do.

Many of the social and environmental problems we face will not be solved without a fundamental re-thinking of how we interact with the environment.  In this endeavour, the skill of ecological design [1] is becoming increasingly essential. SuNstainable [2] DesignWays™ is a communication and educational tool, developed by the author to apply ecological design principles at multiple levels of scale (Tippett 2000) . During two years of pilot trials in Southern Africa, it evolved into a participatory methodology for applying principles of sustainability. This work was carried out in the context of severe landscape degradation and conditions of extreme poverty.


Research into this process is characterized by the following assumptions: sustainability [3] offers a valid and important conceptual framework for planning and design, public participation in this process is advantageous and a trans-disciplinary [4] approach is essential to understand the complex issues involved in sustainable planning.

Landscape Dynamics and Context

This tool was developed in the rural areas of South Africa and Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom completely landlocked by the Republic of South Africa. Lesotho has a high dependency on foreign aid, importing 90 % of its food and with few exports apart from manpower for the mines of South Africa. The high veldt landscape is characterised by grassland with shrub and tree cover, with denser tree cover in riparian zones (Schmitz 1984) . Alpine wetlands contribute to biodiversity in the highlands. In both countries the landscape is experiencing ecological decline, severe erosion and desiccation. This was particularly extreme in the lowlands of Lesotho, where a large proportion of the population is concentrated and very few patches of native vegetation remain. The few trees are largely composed of (non-native) eucalyptus and pine, species that are promoted by government and foreign aid forestry programs, and which are unpalatable to livestock. Water erosion, leading to sheet and deep gully erosion, is the most visible form of land degradation.  In the dry winter months, wind erosion dominates (Grab 2000) , and dust storms in the lowlands of Lesotho are common occurrences.

Figure 1 Typical erosion in Lesotho

As Wood and Handley (2001) have pointed out, landscape change is a process linked to human activity, and landscape dynamics trace “the relationship between humankind and the natural environment”, a relationship which must be understood in an attempt to improve the productive capacity, character and ecological integrity of landscapes. There are many drivers of landscape change in Lesotho, including an increased level of unemployment amongst men who can no longer find work in the mines in Southern Africa and the breakdown of traditional grazing management as the chieftainship structure is eroded and replaced by a largely urban political elite. These social pressures are compounded by an increase in the use of herbicides and tractors (initially funded by aid projects), which clear large areas of native vegetation for intensive agriculture, often leading to intense erosion of the fragile soils on steep slopes. A generation of farmers have lost skills of organic farming and working the land without pesticides and herbicides. The need for the use of pesticides increases with the diminishing native vegetation, which otherwise provides some natural control of pest population, and the loss of many traditional open-pollinated seeds, which are more hardy. Economic pressures on farmers are increasing, as they find it increasing difficult to afford pesticides and hybrid seed. Many of the farmers we worked with were delighted to learn low cost ways of managing their land using local and traditional resources.

Many of the pressures on the landscape and the remaining vegetation stem from people attempting to meet basic needs, such as wood for cooking and heating (exacerbated by the extremely cold winters).This pressure has lead to a high level of deforestation, with overgrazing preventing reforestation. With a reduction in traditional uses of native grasses for thatching and basket weaving, there is an increase in the burning of these coarser grasses and the reedy vegetation around alpine wetlands, in order to increase the growth of grasses palatable for grazing.

In the Rustenberg area of South Africa, the drying up of the land and reduction of sources of water is leading many large scale landowners (largely white Afrikaner farmers) to abandon the area for agriculture, leaving a population of semi-illiterate former farm workers, often with few skills in managing the landscape as a whole, though with some knowledge of traditional land use practices still remembered and in use, largely amongst the older generation [5] . There is extreme rural poverty and few sources of employment in this dry and harsh climate. There are more areas of native vegetation extant, and less obvious signs of erosion than in the hills of Lesotho, but sheet erosion and reduction in productive capacity of the soil is a severe and growing problem.

Both landscapes are what Savory (1999) classifies as ‘brittle’, with erratic rainfall, mainly falling in the summer months. Rainfall can be torrential, increasing erosion, or very sparse. It is postulated that deforestation on mountainsides and global climate change will increase the extremes of high rainfall and drought conditions. In Lesotho, water has played an extremely important political role, due to the creation of the Lesotho Highland Development Project to supply water to the industrial area of Gauteng in South Africa. This major dam and water redistribution project will have severe ecological and practical consequences for the areas and populations downstream and around the dam. Roughly 70 cubic metres per second are transferred from the Katse Dam through major tunnels in the mountains to South Africa (Grab 2000) .

In both countries, there was a widespread belief that there were very few problems in Western countries, a belief fostered by insensitive foreign aid projects, which tend to highlight local people’s sense of their country being ‘undeveloped’ and in need of Western aid to help solve their problems. This attitude is exemplified in the following quote from the textbook Development Studies for Lesotho:

“Countries such as England, The United States of America, or Russia, are called developed countries, because they do not have as many problems as the developing countries have” (Nkome, Mgijima et al. 1985, pg. 6) .

Many of the development projects that have been undertaken in Southern Africa have focussed on large-scale infrastructure projects which have neither worked to preserve the local traditional culture, nor developed small-scale centres of local economic growth. An understanding of the interrelated pressures leading to landscape decline in these areas lead us to a realisation that an attempt to address landscape regeneration required a holistic view of the ways in which human needs were being met in the environment. It also required solutions to meet those needs in a way that would reduce the pressures on the surrounding landscape. This was exemplified in the projects we worked on in South Africa, at the Tlholego Development Project. "Tlholego is a rural sustainable development project, …which is situated on 120ha (300 acres) of land outside Rustenburg in the Northwest Province of South Africa. Over the past ten years the TDP has become internationally recognized as a reference site for ecological design and sustainable living in a Southern African context" (www.sustainable-futures.com).

One of the projects we worked with was to design a model rural homestead with local farm workers, which could be built with local labour, largely from local materials. These homesteads could not only meet the urgent need for housing, but also for water collection and reuse, passive solar heating, recycling of household wastes (compost and manure) into fertilizer, and food grown without costly pesticides in the land surrounding the house. Such a meeting of needs required ecological design, integrating human settlement into the landscape.

Figure 2 Model rural homestead

During the two years we spent in Southern Africa, a process was developed to engage people in the process of design, integrating ecological principles with landscape ecology. This development stemmed in part from the difficulties encountered in teaching ecological design in the way I was used to in the West (UK, Germany, California). Most of the ways I was used to presenting information about ecology had very little meaning to my colleagues in Southern Africa. For example, suggestions that people think of a forest as a model, or to think of the whole being more than the sum of the parts, were not met with the easy acceptance I was used to from my teaching in Western Europe or America. This forced me to think deeply both about what I really meant and why these principles were important, taking me beyond my facile acceptance of principles at their face value, and leading me to think of ways in which to communicate these concepts in a meaningful and engaging way.

Much of what I learned has practical implications for design processes in the West, where many design projects make a shallow gesture towards ecological concerns, but fail to address fundamental issues of redesigning human settlements and industrial infrastructure in a way which is compatible with sustaining the ecospheric functions and narrow range of environmental conditions on which economic activity rests.

DesignWays Process – Overview

"Green plans are also about rescuing the concept of planning from the scrap heap of history. ...I realize now that, in terms of the environment, the difficulty with planning was that we were not looking at the problem on a large enough scale. We did not have a structure that was comprehensive enough to do what had to be done: approach the problem with the intention of solving it" (former Minister for Resources under Jerry Brown, Governor of California, Johnson 1995, pg. 1) .

The DesignWays process provides an approach that integrates landscape planning, ecological design of human habitations and productive infrastructure within a goal of improving social capital and organisational structures. It encourages strategic planning. Planning integrates three main processes: creating a vision and setting goals for the future, designing ways to achieve these goals, and managing the process of actions towards these goals over time. Design is the creative process of developing new ideas and possibilities and integrating them within the context of a particular organization, place and time. It is the active process of engaging with the environment and others to achieve desired outcomes. In the DesignWays methodology, management is seen as flexible, taking into account changes in context and in the goals themselves over time, influenced by the concept of 'adaptive management' [6] .

In DesignWays consensus-based heuristic guidelines act as an organising structure for decision making, whilst the participatory process encourages people’s own interpretations and expression of values in design. The generic principles are distinguished and made particular by grounding design ideas in the particular context of a place and group of people. The DesignWays process provides a way to integrate the generic, essential principles that a sustainable plan requires, with the contextual, value-dependent, historically valuable aspects of a particular place, community or development.

The ethical basis of the DesignWays method lies in exploring connections, encouraging creativity and articulating a coherent approach to encouraging ecological sustainability and meeting human needs. Its practical approach embodies three principles: effective participation through envisioning and planning for the future, a transparent and innovative design process and use of patterns and systems theory as the theoretical framework for design. The remainder of this article will address these three themes, with examples from the work that the author and her partner, Buddy Williams, an ecological architect, carried out in Southern Africa.


"Sustainability will only be possible if, among other things, greater consciousness is arrived at of the implications of particular lifestyles. For such a consciousness to emerge, human beings, at the individual and community level, must begin to truly feel that the Earth's health is a shared common concern, that this planet is our only home, and that our urban ways of living need to be radically reconsidered if environmental damage is to be halted. For this radical shift to take place everyone will have to feel part of the solution as much as part of the problem. ...Involvement is the key to the development of sustainable human settlements" (Ruano 1999, pg. 23) .

Human creativity represents a vast, and often under-utilised, resource. In searching to improve quality of life, the most powerful tool lies in encouraging people to engage their own inventiveness. While there is widespread awareness of the value of engaging participation in planning processes (e.g. Handley, Griffiths et al. 1998; Linehan and Gross 1998; Darier, Marchi et al. 1999; De Marchi, Funtowicz et al. 2000; McFarlane 2000; Rijsberman and van de Ven 2000; Roe 2000; Trenam 2000) , there are many difficulties in engaging effective participation. Engaging local stakeholders in the process of planning and design itself can be an effective way to increase the value of this participation, both in the quality of the final plans and in the value of the involvement for the participants.

The more people are involved in decisions about future developments at various levels of scale, the greater will be the cumulative positive effect on meeting human needs in a sustainable way. Involving people from a particular place in the design process increases the local character of the design. Chances of success are increased due to knowledge of local context and resources and the increased sense of ownership and commitment, which is engendered by such involvement. Increasing participation in design requires a transparent design process, which can be understood and followed by many people (Rowe 1987) . The characteristics of the design process are discussed in the next section.

An important aspect of participation in the DesignWays process is the learning of skills. These range from strategic planning, to creative thinking, to group communication skills. By actively engaging people in thinking about the future of their area, it is possible to develop what practitioners of systems thinking call a ‘learning organisation’ (Senge, Kleiner et al. 1994) , one in which inquiry into the future builds skills in all participants, thus broadening the possibilities for creative solutions and increasing the practice of ongoing adaptive management to move towards those solutions.

DesignWays encourages participants to ask - 'what is it we are really trying to do, and how can we design a better way to do it?'  Creative thinking techniques aid the development of 'out of the box' thinking and innovative ideas (de Bono 1992; Buzan and Barry 1993) . The focus is on the quality of communication, searching for areas of agreement and consensus, developing a wide range of ideas and options and encouraging each person to contribute ideas through the stages of the design process and the tools used to engage participation.

The strength of this approach is exemplified in the work of Shirley Sifunda, a community information officer with Ecolink [7] in South Africa and a student on two of the DesignWays courses taught by the author at the Tlholego Development Project near Rustenburg, South Africa. In her presentation to the International Permaculture Conference in Perth, Australia in 1996, she talked about using this process to encourage 500 women in an impoverished region of South Africa near Swaziland to grow food and develop an income from the resources in their villages. They then turned to the task of reclaiming a degraded hillside, designing and implementing a productive agro-forestry system, with trees for fuel and fruit, as well as herbs for medicine and animal fodder. She also talked of her work teaching prisoners the skills of design, and the increased sense of hope for the future engendered by this process due to the awareness that they were learning skills that could improve their surroundings and possibilities for employment. As Sifunda (1996) states, "[DesignWays] is a useful resource because it shows us how to identify community needs and how to create job opportunities".

Presentational Tools

A challenge inherent in any strategic planning process is to make the process engaging and complex data relevant and meaningful. This challenge lead to a focus on the media used to engage participation. Techniques of Mind Mapping â [8] were integrated with the use of media with movable parts that can be manipulated by participants. Such a use of ready-to-hand, movable parts is common in Participatory Rural Appraisal (e.g. the use of beans to show weighting in matrices for assessing resources in a community).

"The emphasis placed by [Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA)] methods on diagramming and visual sharing is particularly noteworthy… in a PRA based on the visual sharing of a map, model or diagram, all who are present, -both insider and outsider-, can see, point to, discuss, argue about, modify and refine conceptual diagrams and representations. Those who cannot read and write are not excluded; everyone has a "visual literacy" which allows them to actively participate in the PRA process"  (Pimbert 1994) .

The fact that the ideas and concepts can be moved is important in encouraging people to seek out alternative connections and relationships between ideas. These visual, movable tools proved to be highly effective for engaging participation and deep discussion of goals and the application of design principles. The method of 'participatory diagramming' has been extended into research methodology in rural communities with promising results [e.g. \Kesby, 2000 #998].

Figure 3 Using the templates in design process

Presentational knowledge, the ways in which knowledge is distilled and ordered for communication, is not always treated as a significant factor in research into participatory stakeholder engagement. Heron (1992) has described presentational knowledge as the way we “order our tacit experiential knowledge of the world into spatio-temporal patterns of imagery and then symbolize our sense of their meaning in movement, sound, colour, shape, line, poetry, drama and story…. [It offers] a bridge between experiential knowledge and propositional knowledge” (Reason 1994, pg. 42) . With Tufte (1983) and Bertin (1981) I would agree that the way in which data is displayed can materially affect interpretation, and would add, from the experience of using this design process, that there is a non-trivial relationship between the forms of knowledge presentation and means of engaging participation and the results that are gathered. This concept has echoes in other fields:

“It is quite clear from the history of architecture, and the history of ideas for that matter, that developments in representational techniques- such as perspective drawings and the systems of geometry of Pascal and Descartes – have had a profound effect... Such developments have altered what we can represent, see, and therefore understand and imagine” (Rowe 1987, pg. 99) .

Of equal importance is the way that participation is encouraged, with participants actively engaged in writing and drawing ideas and placing them in clusters on large diagrams which represent the evolving picture of the group process. The use of Post-it® notes (or blue tack and pieces of card) for brainstorming allows a greater range of input in a group, as everyone has a chance to write ideas down. This method allows shy and quiet people to input into the process in a non-threatening way. Often the facilitator will gather ideas in and read them out. The anonymity of having ideas 'on the table' and dissociated from the author can both allow more controversial ideas to be aired and also facilitate a more constructive attitude to group discussion, as people are able to see connections between their thoughts and other people's, and are less apt to take a dogmatic and oppositional approach to defending their own ideas. This technique was developed from de Bono's (1990) concept that it is important to have people in opposing positions attempt to design a solution to these at a higher conceptual level, where seeming opposites can often be resolved, or alternatives found that meet both concerns. In some action research literature, such design is referred to as a dialectic process, 'which craft agreement out of disagreement' (Dick 1997) .

It can seem trite to say that it is important to 'put the Post-it® notes and pens (or coloured pencils) in the hands of the people'. However, the fact that people can write on the note pads both in set times and throughout discussion in an ongoing process, to record any stray thoughts or new concepts that emerge, is very important in encouraging participation and a sense of flow and inclusiveness in the process.


DesignWays was designed as a step-by-step activity in order to make it easier to deal comprehensively with complex situations. Each stage builds on the previous one, and feedback is used to reinforce lessons learned and make links among different aspects of the design (Tippett 2000) . There is an emphasis on fluid shifting between different levels of scale, so that participants learn to see their particular projects and areas within a larger context, and are able to cultivate ‘whole systems’ thinking through the stages of the design process. The use of a clear sequence with overarching patterns and principles provides a framework in which creativity is encouraged to flourish.

There are some stages of the design process that are enhanced by being carried out in a particular order, but for the most part it is the relationship between the steps that is important. This is similar to Checkland's (1991) understanding of the stages of soft systems methodology – the steps can be seen as a mosaic, which can be carried out in a variety of orders. It is the facilitator’s role to understand the reasoning behind the steps and the relationships between them in order to tailor the process to the context and requirements of the participants.

Similar to appreciative inquiry methods (Bushe and Coetzer 1995; Carnegie, Nielsen et al. 2000; Fry 2000; Gergen and Gergen 2000) , the focus is on valuing the positive aspects of the situation, and looking for a vision of what people would like to see. A higher degree of creative thinking is encouraged when people focus on the positive, instead of on problems and limiting factors (frequently the starting point of planning processes, and indeed the initial starting point for action research as set out in Checkland's (1991) book Systems Thinking, Systems Practice,). Thus, it is important that a consideration of problems and limiting factors are kept until after there has already been a considerable degree of work on brainstorming ideas and creating goals. This stage can then be used to brainstorm more creative ideas, as solutions to the problems, once participants have improved their skills of creative thinking.

Decision making

Decision making in this process is designed to help deal with potentially conflicting aims and to increase the tendency towards sustainable solutions. During the phases in which creative brainstorming is the main focus, there is an attempt to suspend judgement, such that new ideas can emerge, and even improbable ideas can be probed for their underlying meanings and value without being immediately discarded. Decision-making in this process is used to build a rich picture of the concepts that have been generated and how the participants relate to these concepts. Four considerations are taken into account:

·        Does this advance the groups’ goals and values? How important is it to these goals?

·        Is this moving towards sustainability?

·        Is this likely or possible given the limiting factors and problems in this context?

·        How does this fit in with a strategic plan for advancing goals and moving towards targets (e.g. economic feasibility, cost effective decision for investment)?


Figure 4 Integrated decision making

The DesignWays process aims to help people design systems that increase coherence (in the sense of a consistent and logical connection (Goldsmith 1993) ) among their actions, values and sustainability. Some of our most important work in Southern Africa consisted of providing an opportunity for people to think through their values, and to clarify what is deeply important to them. This was particularly important in a rapidly changing social context, in which many traditional values have been denigrated in the face of development projects which tend to give a message that traditional ways of managing resources are primitive, and thus are in need of being 'developed'.

The DesignWays process encourages a focus on common goals and values. It also gives people tools to see how they can enhance those values and improve the quality of their lives at the same time. As Savory (1999, pg. 91) states, “Common sense tells us that making a decision that is not in line with our values is illogical. But that is precisely what humans have done throughout history”.

Consideration of values and goals is an essential prerequisite to the decision making process. This is a skill which Savory considers very important in creating a sustainable future, citing many well meaning projects which have not fundamentally evaluated their decision making process, and have thus failed to enact deep seated change. This realization lead to the development of an alternative decision making model in Holistic Management (Savory and Butterfield 1999) , a model which has profoundly influenced the development of DesignWays, particularly through the work of the Participatory Land Use Management (PELUM) team from Zimbabwe (see UNESCO 2001) [9] .

As well as encouraging a focus on common values, multiple layers which look at different aspects of decision making allow for a richly textured picture to be built, encouraging an exploration of conflict and the challenges inherent in developing new ideas. The information gathered during the analysis of problems and limiting factors is built into the decision making process, so that the limits and problems which do exist in a situation can be used as a filter to determine practicable actions.

The Western educational system (and, as a colonial residue, a common model for education in Africa) has not equipped us to understand long term effects of our actions on the larger system of the Earth and it’s systems at different levels of scale. The educational component of the DesignWays approach is therefore essential. It focuses on The Natural Step [10] framework, providing a shared mental model for understanding sustainability, which offers clear framework for assessing projects against a long term goal of sustainability [11] (Holmberg, Karl-Henrik et al. 1996; Martin, Cook et al. 1999; Carnegie, Nielsen et al. 2000; Jonsson 2000; Robert 2000) . Envisioning exercises that ask people what is needed without the framework of a shared understanding of sustainability often generate ideas, such as widening a road in order to decrease commute time, that in the long run will have a negative impact on sustainability. Due to the narrow focus of design, such an approach may not solve problems in the long run.

The integrated approach to decision making, which is used to decide which elements of the design to work on in further detail, is also built into the ongoing cycle of management. Further decisions are assessed against criteria developed by the community for decision making, as well as against a clear and agreed–upon framework of sustainability. This provides an on-going assessment of progress.

The DesignWays process provides tools for assessing the effects of our actions on long-term sustainability. With a strategic focus on waste reduction and savings, resources are freed up that can be invested in longer-term productivity and possibilities discovered through the design process. An example of this can be seen in the work of Mike Masuku, a community development officer with Ecolink [12] and a graduate of two DesignWays courses taught by the author in South Africa, who uses the process to integrate the needs of poor rural schools in South Africa. By assisting schoolteachers and students to design and develop organic food gardens and forestry on school grounds, he is able to combine ecological restoration with improving nutrition and greater opportunities to learn practical skills. As Masuku (1996) says, "People will no longer have to waste all their money on food, they can save some through permaculture. Permaculture [13] is a solution to a major problem in South Africa, especially in the rural places that we are working in".


Patterns are configurations of relationships, which are expressed as repetition and similarities in space (form) and time (development). An understanding of patterns provides an essential link between insights into the interconnected nature of the world and design (Tippett 1996; Tippett 2000) . A pattern language, or set of organizing principles, acts as a tool for thinking about sustainability (Tippett 1994) .

Alexander et al (1977) developed the concept of the use of patterns in design in their seminal book, A Pattern Language [14] . An infinite variety of designs will arise from using the same basic pattern language, as the design process is such that local values, resources, historical uses, and ecology will profoundly affect the outcome of the design process. Like the DNA in our cells, which uses four simple components (ribo-nucleic acids) in a pattern language, a vast array of possibility of form and development can be formulated from a simple language.

In developing the DesignWays process, I delved into the application of principles of living systems biology (e.g. Margulis and Sagan 1987; Maturana and Varela 1987; Lovelock 1991; Allen and Hoekstra 1992; Capra 1996) as a metaphor and basis for design. I explored the way in which ecological processes (such as growth and development, exchange of energy and materials, self-maintenance and preservation of identity) are embodied in patterns.

There are three aspects to the practical use of patterns in this design process:

  1. Developing a pattern language as a toolkit for design, building an understanding of the links between processes and patterns in a way that is easy to remember
  2. A way of seeing connections and similarities across different levels of scale, integrating systems theory concepts into the design process
  3. A way of embedding ecological design principles into a metaphorical structure, as both a heuristic tool and a shift in ways of understanding and conceptualising systems

Building on the work of McHarg (1992) and Lewis (1996) , the pattern understanding is applied in layers, including: existing land forms and geology; wildlife habitat; methods of production, or how we meet our needs as a society; areas and spaces of social interactions, movement and activities; and organizational structure, money and economic systems. The same principles can be applied at different scales, and each design is recognized as a part of a larger whole. Ntate Maama Masopha, a farmer, chief and poet in the village of Sefikeng, Lesotho, explored the integration of innovative water harvesting techniques and inter-cropping of herbs, multi-purpose trees and vegetables on his small farm. With this understanding of patterns, he was able to see how these techniques could be applied on a much broader scale to the entire rural area around his village, and thus contribute to a thriving rural economy in an area that is currently economically depressed and ecologically impoverished.

Figure 5 Field trip to Ntate Maama's farm

In Ha Souru, Lesotho, we were able to apply an understanding of the interaction of landforms with water flow to design low-tech water harvesting systems that enabled orchards, nitrogen fixing bushes and herbs for pest control to be integrated with vegetable farming in the Ketso ea Bua (Action Speaks) project (Tippett 1998) . This agro-forestry system provides income and supplementary food for nine men. The design was developed as the farmers learned more about the connections among pesticide use and increasing health problems, and the role of trees in preventing soil erosion and increasing water absorption in the soil.

As Lyle (1994, pg. 28) , an influential ecological designer pointed out, "The thought required in understanding, planning, designing and managing human ecosystems is necessarily multidisciplinary.  It requires teams of people knowledgeable in a range of different disciplines. Even more importantly, it requires the ability to define connections among disciplines and to organize the disparate fragments of information into coherent wholes”. This task is easier said than done. Many researchers have pointed out that any change in how we build and design human systems will require a fundamental shift in how we conceptualise both ecosystems and human’s interactions with them [e.g. \Capra, 1982 #987; Bateson, 1979 #65; Lewis, 1996 #872; Rosner, 1995 #860; de Groot, 1992 #932; Rijsberman, 2000 #889; Nattrass, 1999 #1013; Robèrt, 1991 #1053; McHarg, 1992 #713; Shiva, 1989 #776]. This realisation lead me to study more about cognitive science, and to the concept that how we think may be a major factor in determining the ability to conceive of creative solutions to environmental problems. The concept of embodied realism and the metaphorical [15] structuring of thought have been influential in the development of pattern understanding in the DesignWays process.

As Lakoff and Johnson (1980, pg. 3) pointed out in their seminal book on cognition, "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." The way that metaphors can help to structure thought is highlighted in the following quote:

" The processes of categorization are now being shown to involve metaphor at the most fundamental level, implying an organization of knowledge by cognitive models. Thus the "conduit" metaphor, implicit in much discussion about communication, maps knowledge about conveying objects in containers onto an understanding of communications as conveying ideas in words” (Judge, Anthony et al. December 1991) .

The DesignWays approach uses living systems biology and system thinking as a framework and metaphor to enhance our ability to learn as individuals and organizations, with the proposition that a creative and abundant future will be made possible through an ability to 'think like an ecosystem'. . If the aim is to design in a way more consistent with living systems, it is worth asking - what is life?, as did  the Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela (1987) . They found that the answer was inextricably interwoven with the question - what is cognition?, implying a deep relationship between the process of interacting with the environment and the development of living organisms. The metaphor underlying this process is a search for the ‘pattern which connects’ (Bateson 1972) . The patterns which embody ecological processes and mediate flows of material and energy and development of systems at multiple scales may also act as models for interweaving social, economic, biological and geological processes, in a way which makes ecological knowledge applicable to design. In this endeavour, patterns are observed at different levels of scale, from the biosphere, to an ecosystem to ecology, an organism and a cell, and similarities are related to processes which inform them.

All of the models in this process are understood to be metaphors. The proposition of this process is that a new metaphor for perceiving and interacting with the environment of a particular group of people and a project can be made to tend more towards sustainability. The metaphor for ordering information is derived from an understanding of 'new biology' and 'new science'. This is not claimed to be a truth - how nature is, but rather a fundamental shift in understanding of how we interact with the environment. The underlying principles of this process are, however, based on recent empirical science, and strive to incorporate what Lakoff and Johnson (1999) term 'stable truths' in a context of social construction of meaning.

Ecosystems can provide models for design, in a process termed 'Biomimicry' by (Benyus 1997) , an influential concept in ecological engineering as well as land planning (e.g. Todd and Todd 1994; Baschak and Brown 1995; Paterson and Connery 1997; Thompson and F. 1997; Carr 1998; Rijsberman and van de Ven 2000) .This metaphor is influenced by a current shift in thinking implied in much of the literature on sustainability, a shift from linear to cyclical thinking, such as is implied in the commonly mentioned principle all waste = food (e.g. McDonough and Braungart 1998) . Such a shift in thinking sees landscape elements as providing services, not simply as a commodity or resource to be exploited (e.g. Prugh, Constanza et al. 1995; Hawken, Lovins et al. 1999; England 2000) .

The metaphors are expressed in the DesignWays process in the communication tools, the graphics and the way of presenting information, as well as in the process and principles of design. In the development of the DesignWays process, an attempt has been made to apply current thinking in cognition and how people learn to inform the structure and form of the design tools and steps. The importance of different media has been recognised in diverse fields, which span from work with semi-literate people to work with people with high levels of formal education recognised (Arnheim 1969; Tufte 1990; van der Lugt 2000) . This can be seen in examples of research from fields as diverse as education and Aids awareness [e.g. \Black, 2000 #953; Darling-Hammond, 2000 #954; Kesby , 2000 #998].

Patterns and Participation

The use of pattern-based Mind Maps  to create a picture of the group thought process makes it easier to identify areas of agreement and what is important to the group. Participants on previous courses I have taught spoke a variety of African and European languages, worked in many different fields, and had a range of education from very little formal schooling to University degrees. The use of patterns in the Pathway process, however, facilitated co-operation and communication amongst them. Thsedimosong Farm School, which is being developed as a model rural school, was designed with the involvement of students, teachers, headmasters (from Thsedimosong and other schools in South Africa), parents and the staff at Tlholego Development Project. This broad base of participation not only led to a better design, it has also enhanced the sense of pride and ownership in the school and its future. Use of patterns in the design process helped to synthesise ideas from very different sources, for example integrating the students' wish for football fields with a border of orange trees that could make use of the irrigation of the fields and provide parents with shade and a favoured half-time snack.

Figure 6 Overview of Thedimosong School design

Patterns and Process

Rather than offering a set of rubber stamp solutions, the process provides a way of applying generic sustainability principles and concepts in a way that responsive to the goals and values of participants and the particular context. As Van der Ryn and Cowan (1995) suggest, solutions should grow from place, and this implies that solutions will vary in different contexts.

The concept of fractal scaling, and of using the same format in templates to analyse local resources as resources within the current whole under discussion, helps to foster the idea that sustainable design involves the application of self-similar patterns and principles at different levels of scale.

The skill of the designer lies in seeing connections, fostering an exploration of deep values, helping people to perceive their environment and place within, and respond to their fit within the local ecology more creatively.

Difficulties with the approach

While a comprehensive design process holds many advantages both in terms of engaging effective participation in planning and in increasing integrated consideration of sustainability issues, there are difficulties inherent in its broad scale application. It is a time consuming process, and requires a level of commitment on behalf of participants to learn new skills and engage in a high degree of thinking about long term options. There is a need for a skilled facilitator, who can not only bring an integrated systems perspective and know how to utilise expert knowledge at appropriate stages in the design process but also manage the overall flow of the process and encourage people to become involved.

It is possible to tailor the use of the DesignWays process to suit particular contexts. Often it is appropriate to engage broad scale participation only in certain stages of the design, with a smaller, core group or professional designer carrying out many of the stages. This can reduce the time taken to engage participation, but needs to be carefully coordinated with stages for comment on the emerging plans built into the process.

A further difficulty with this approach is that often participants wish to be given a blueprint for design, and are not aware of the need to work out design solutions for themselves in order to achieve solutions appropriate to the context. A lack of attention to learning the skill of how to design, rather than what tool-kit of solutions can be applied, is exacerbated by people's desire for a quick answer and often by short scale project timelines which encourage measurement of success in small scale intervals. Accreditation for skills learning, and creating formal educational units, such as accredited continued professional education credits may help to increase people's willingness to learn skills, as they would see that they are gaining valuable skills that have a role to play in other projects and work situations.


Following the successful piloting of the design process in Southern Africa, DesignWays has been further developed in two main arenas. The author developed a curriculum for an undergraduate environmental science course entitled Environment and Ecology at Dominican University in California [16] . The DesignWays process provides a mechanism for teaching students transferable skills, deepening their knowledge of how to apply disciplinary learning to real-world problems and provide practical plans and solutions. There is a potential role for academic institutions to facilitate broad scale planning exercises, which may be beyond the means of a local community to coordinate, both as a valuable learning tool for students and as a means of increasing interdisciplinary, applied research opportunities. Further research could explore the possibility of developing a core curriculum unit that uses problem –based learning with the theme of sustainable development to bring students from a broad range of disciplines together.

The author is currently conducting doctoral research into participatory design at the landscape scale, within the context of river catchments. This research will test the process within the Mersey Basin Campaign, and will look at the potential applications of this process as a toolkit for sustainable development. This research is important in the context of the European Water Directive, which requires member states to create participatory watershed management plans, and in the context of increasing emphasis on partnership models and public participation in local and regional development. Models of best practice and transferable principles for successful catchment management will be developed and disseminated to practitioners and academics. The Campaign envisages that following the research, the DesignWays process may be developed into a transferable toolkit for international dissemination through a possible partnership between Campaign, the researcher, University of Manchester, the City of Brisbane and the private sector.


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[1] Ecological design is a process of thinking about future options for a particular system (e.g. product or process, buildings, community, landscape area, geographical or organisational integration of these sectors) from the perspective of long term sustainability, which is based on principles derived from natural systems. It provides a means to operationalise a concept of sustainability in a particular context, facilitating long term and innovative thinking.


[2] Holocene Design (Joanne Tippett and Buddy Williams) coined the term SuNstainability because the term 'Sustainability' is often used without reference to ecology and the vitality of the biosphere. SuNstainable implies the capacity to continue within the sun-driven cycle of ecology, without which there would be no economy or society.

[3] Sustainability lies in the interplay of maintaining environmental quality, and promoting economic vitality and social equity. Sustainable development can be defined as: ‘a dynamic process which enables all people to realize their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth’s life support systems’ FFF (1998). Opportunities for Change, A response by Forum for the Future to the consultation paper on a revised UK strategy for sustainable development. Cheltenham, Forum for the Future.


[4] An interdisciplinary approach implies a focus on a problem from the point of view of several disciplines. A trans-disciplinary approach implies an attempt to create an integrative framework which can both allow for disciplinary skills and knowledge to be applied to a particular research question and further a systems point of view. What distinguishes systems is that it is a subject that can talk about the other subjects…it is a meta-discipline whose subject matter can be applied within virtually any other discipline (Checkland, Peter, pg. 5).

[5] Note that traditional in this sense refers to Tswana herding and crop growing practices, not to the indigenous land use of hunting and gathering of the KoiSan people, who were the indigenous dwellers in the landscape.

[6] C.S. Holling, C.J. Walters and associates pioneered adaptive management early in the 1970's. They advocated for “environmental assessment systems that are designed and implemented so that they can adapt to continual uncertainty and take advantage of surprise” Noble, B. F. (2000). “Strengthening EIA through adaptive management: a systems perspective.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review(20): 37 - 111. .

[7] See http://www.lowveld.com/ecolink/


[8] 4. A Mind Map® is a graphic technique for representing ideas, based on natural patterns and how we perceive information and think. The Mind Map Book Buzan, T. and Barry (1993). The Mind Map Book. London, U.K., BBC Books.

[9] PELUM, TDP and the author collaborated teaching a Permaculture course for the Berea Agricultural Group in Teyateyaneng in Lesotho in July 1995.

[10] The Natural Step™ is a practical communication and planning model for sustainability based on consensus-derived scientific principles, which provides a clear framework for strategic planning and decision making (www.naturalstep.org).


[11] For further discussion of criteria of sustainability, see Tippett, J. (2001). The Value of a Systems View of Sustainability Criteria. sumbitted as partial fulfillment for the requirements of Masters in Economic and Social Research at the University of Manchester, unpublished, see http://www.holocene.net/articles.htm. .


[12] See http://www.lowveld.com/ecolink/

[13] Permaculture is a design method based on ecological principles. The focus is on the creation of high quality, sustainable human habitats Mollison, B. (1990). Perrmaculture, A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future. Washington D.C., Island Press., Mollison, B. (1997). Introduction to Permaculture. Berkeley, Ten Speed Press. .  DesignWays was first developed for the application of Permaculture design principles, and has evolved with other techniques to form a practical methodology for applying principles of sustainability. 

[14] The author completed a graduate architecture studio on the concept of patterns in design with Alexander and Neiss, which was influential in the development of this process.

[15] "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another." (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, pg. 5).

[16] For curriculum