Permaculture principles, subject of series, can guide valley planning


Last month, a new education and film series focused on permaculture and regenerative farming kicked off at the San Geronimo Community Center, with a talk by Juliana Birnbaum, author of “Sustainable R(Evolution).”  The standing-room only crowd was treated to a free taco dinner and entertainment by Connor McGuire’s fiddle music before settling in for the talk.

Juliana spent a decade researching sites that could serve as models for sustainability demonstration projects. She and her co-author, Louis Fox, visited countries in Central America, Europe and the Middle East. But her presentation in the valley began with examples from the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center—which, beyond having one of the best established organic gardens and orchards in California, also has a water institute, a wildlands restoration project, a resilient community design program, and a greywater and compost toilet project—and Commonweal Garden in Bolinas. That 17-acre site features bees, culinary and medicinal herbs, grains, greywater and solar heating systems, aquaculture, natural buildings and more. 

Permaculture is a design science rooted in the observation of natural systems. It teaches how to design ways of living that have the stability and resiliency of natural systems, providing positive solutions for creating and managing systems for food, medicine, water and shelter. Juliana showed examples from around the world of how its core ethics—earth care, people care and fair share—are practiced with land use, buildings, tools and, of course, farming. 

Beyond developing systems that are simply sustainable over a longer term, permaculture holds the promise of actually regenerating communities and ecosystems. Its methods increase biodiversity and directly draw carbon out of the atmosphere through strategies like soil building, no-plow farming, biochar and reforestation. The before and after pictures of permaculture projects can be striking, demonstrating how damaged landscapes could be transformed into thriving environments.  

A new group, called Vision SGV, is hoping to inspire the community to develop a similar vision for the San Geronimo Valley Golf Course and elsewhere in the valley. It’s mission is to inspire and ignite support for having an ecological learning center and community farming in the heart of the valley using regenerative farming and carbon sequestration practices to reclaim the commons, rediscover our agricultural roots, respect the ecology, regenerate the land and water and reconnect us with each other.

This vision would be integrated with a larger community vision for the golf course land. It is intended to complement and integrate open-heartedly with other desired uses, as a part of the larger vision generated through a community process.

Permaculturists focus on fractal patterns because their distinctive structures allow a deep interlock between systems, increasing the “edge effect.” The edge—where two elements meet—is key to regenerative design, because of the expanded possibility for the cycling of materials and information, allowing for more synergy. It is this quality that makes permaculture the ideal addition to any vision for the future of the golf course. Whether it is creek restoration, park facilities, wastewater, a continuation of golfing or housing, permaculture is the principal that can knit these uses into one community commons that restores the land while providing for both the ecological and human needs.

Juliana sees her work as prescient for her own community. “I realized today that the reason I did all of this work was really for just this moment, to be able to have the chance to bring these ideas home and hopefully inspire my own community to implement them right here,” she said.

The next Vision SGV event will take place on June 28 at the San Geronimo Community Center, featuring Penny Livingston Stark, a distinguished leader in the permaculture movement who has guided the development of Commonweal Garden for the last 10 years with her husband, James Stark. This is a rare opportunity to hear her speak before she leaves West Marin. For more information, go to


Wendi Kallins is a Forest Knolls resident and program coordinator for Safe Routes to Schools.