Urban yards are rarely big enough to encompass more than permacultural zone 1 and a modest zone 2, the areas of intensive use. Larger zone 2 and
zone 3 functions such as orchards and woodlots usually won’t fit. But your neighbors’ yards can be your zones 2 and 3, just as your yard can be part of
theirs. Most mature fruit trees bear too heavily for any but the most fanatical fruit lovers to consume, leaving most of us with the choice of letting fruit rot or
giving it away. As Bill Mollison says, where you have fruit, you have friends. For millennia, food has been at the center of community creation and rituals of
friendship, and sharing it is one of the most natural ways for neighbors to meet and trust each other.
The sharing goes well beyond food. Resources such as mulch and firewood, normally grown in zones 3 and 4, can come from your neighborhood and
nearby parts of the city. These places are the city-dweller’s outer zones.
I was surprised to find that mulch, fertilizer, and other organic matter are more abundant and easier to come by in cities than in rural areas. To get
manure when we lived in rural Oregon, I had to drive to a stable three miles away or to a more distant chicken farm, load the manure myself, and pay the
farmer. The supply was hit-or-miss, as neighboring farmers and gardeners competed for it. Mulch was equally hard to find because anyone generating
wood chips, leaves, or clippings would simply dump it on their back forty, where no one could use it.
But in the city, I don’t even have to leave home to get organic matter—I can have vast amounts of mulch, manure, and compost materials delivered right
to my door. That’s because organic matter in a metropolis is considered waste. It is a surplus that must be disposed of. It can’t just be piled up in a tiny
yard; there would soon be no yard left. Anyone creating more than a modest amount has to pay to haul it to the dump. So a person or business that
generates organic matter is usually pleased when someone will dispose of it for free. When my neighbors and I, hearing the clash and roar of the wood
chipper, ask the tree-trimming crew if we can have this fresh mulch, the arborists smile with relief. We’ve just saved them a hundred-dollar dumping fee,
and they will gladly drop ten cubic yards of freshly chipped wood and leaves in our driveway.
We also get free manure from a rabbit-rescue nonprofit agency in town. Zoos are another source. Restaurants and grocery stores disgorge food
scraps by the cubic yard. And don’t get me started on the volume of coffee grounds in cappuccino-crazed Portland. Spent coffee is excellent compost
fodder, particularly for a worm compost bin, which is a space-saving soil technique perfect for urban houses and even apartments.
The flow of free and cheap resources of all types in the city is vast. Websites such as Craigslist and FreeCycle can apprise us of the abundance out
there in urban zones 3 and 4. Now we begin to see that in urban zones and sectors, elements and flows are dictated more by humans and commerce
than by biology and landscape, and their cycles are at least as complex and productive as those of large yards and farms.
My own introduction to the uniqueness of city zones and sectors came at a workshop I gave at the Los Angeles Ecovillage, an ecologically based
community in a neighborhood of apartment buildings, freeways, and stores in East Los Angeles, on the edge of the downtown core. After introducing the
concepts of zones and sectors to the class, I asked them to think of some specifically urban sectors. (Remember that sectors are forces and influences
coming from off the site, such as wind and sun, that affect a landscape design.) Someone immediately described the “billboard sector.” Behind the
ecovillage yard loomed an enormous billboard that faced nearby Highway 101. It cast deep shadow over the backyard for much of the day, and at night
was ablaze in a battery of sodium-vapor lamps. Because of the billboard sector, the student explained, they had been forced to garden in the front yard.
Another student piped up, “That makes me think of another sector!” She explained that when the community moved their vegetable garden to the front
yard, they had planted tomatoes along the sidewalk. But an elementary school sat across the street, and a half-dozen times a day, hundreds of children
would boil out of their classrooms and swarm past the yard. Every tomato showing the slightest blush of red was snapped up. The ecovillagers rarely got
tomatoes. “We forgot about the schoolchild sector,” the woman announced.
In response the ecovillagers evolved a clever strategy, which was to plant tomato varieties such as Green Grape, which never turns red but sports
delicious green fruit. Black Krim, which ripens to an unappealing green-purple with black stripes, was another choice, along with White Wonder, Kentucky
Yellow, and others that won’t display the iconic tomato redness. The kids remained clueless, and the tomato harvest was safe. In this way, the schoolchild
sector was deflected, just as any sector’s energy can be blocked by good design.
A suburban front yard in southwest Houston, Texas, designed by Kevin Topek of Permaculture Design, LLC. Plantings between sidewalk and street to
create habitat and privacy. These native and drought-adapted species need little maintenance and a minimum of water. Species in the foreground include
Mexican Turk’s cap, almond verbena, bulbine, rudbeckia, ruby grass, cassia, and thryallis. PHOTO BY KEVIN TOPEK.