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 BLOG >> December 2019

Zone Analysis [Permaculture
Posted on December 4, 2019 @ 04:40:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Deep Green Permaculture has a section of their site labelled Permaculture Design Principles. I often refer to this resource when I need a refresher on some permaculture principle or idea. Today I needed a refresher on Zone Mapping so I went to this page:

4. Zones and Sectors – Efficient Energy Planning

And found this definition of Zone Planning.

Zone planning is a system where the location of an element in a design is determined by:

  • How often we need to use the element
  • How often we need to service the element

This is a basic logical principle, whereby the things you use most often, and the things you have to pay the most attention to, are placed closest to the house in the design.

Consequently, the things that are used the least often, or that require little or no attention, are placed furthest away in the design, and things that fall somewhere in between are placed accordingly.

By situating the most often used or serviced elements in a design closest to the home, it makes it easier to access them. This means less energy is expended to access them, making for a more energy efficient design.

So one important reason for doing zone analysis is that it helps you design energy efficient landscapes. It is also a tool for generating insight and solving problems.

5 Zone System

Co-founder of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, used 5 zones in his zone mapping. Zone maps often start with the house situated in Zone 0, landscape elements you visit frequently in Zone 1, less frequently in Zone 2, up to Zone 5 which you hardly ever visit. For introductory and visualization purposes, zone maps appear as concentric circles with Zone 1 depicted as an area around the house and Zone 5 as an outermost wilderness area. A good introduction to zone mapping in provided in this Oregon State University ECampus video.

In Toby Hemenway's last book, The Permaculture City (2015), he offers a very insightful discussion of what he calls "Zone Analysis" (pp. 35-41, or scan chapter 2 in the book preview for this section). Toby shows how zone analysis might be applied to other areas besides landscape design. Here is Toby's diagram depicting how different organizational structures might be conceptualized in terms of 5 zones.

Types of Organizational Structure

Business School Non-Profit
Zone 1 Executives Administrators/School Board Directors
Zone 2 Employees Faculty Board Members
Zone 3 Suppliers & Competitors Students Staff
Zone 4 Customers Parents Volunteers
Zone 5 Noncustomers District Residents Community Served

One reason to engage in Zone Analysis is that it might yield insight. Toby's mapping of organizational structures allows us to see essential differences in how different organizations are structured while also seeing some similarities. Some might argue that having Executives in Zone 1 and Customers in Zone 4 does not seem to jive with the "Customer First" philosophy that many businesses espouse. Zone analysis in this case is being used to measure how close the different classes of people are from an abstract "center" of the firm. What is missing from Toby's analysis is where investors might fit into a business zone map. Are different classes of investors in different zones?

Ideal Zoning

Zone analysis can be as simple as drawing concentric circles and putting labels onto the different rings. Bart Anderson used this approach to map places reachable by different modes of transportation.

In this map, Bart preferences walking as a mode of transport and wants the places he visits at least once a day to be reachable by walking (Zone 1). He wants the places that he visits frequently, but perhaps not daily, to be reachable by bicycle. He wants places that he might visit once a week to be reachable by public transport. And so on. Eventually Bart was able to setup his life in accordance with this zone map. This is an example of using a zone map to solve the problem of optimizing a portfolio of transport options.

According to Toby, this zone map was used by Bart Anderson to "arrange his life so that most of his movements were in the walking and biking zones 1 and 2 because that would shrink his energy and carbon footprints. The zone system not only made Anderson's goal easier to achieve but enabled him to envision and organize it in the first place by providing a framework to map his regular destinations by highlighting the concept of frequency of use". (p. 40)

Zone 00

There is a debate in Permaculture circles about whether Permaculture has to offer design advice for Zone 00. Zone 0 is often described as the "center of activity" with the house commonly being used as the center, or the center of a village in larger scale designs. Some view Zone 00 is being the users own mind and wonder if Permaculture needs to give as much attention to that zone as other zones when doing zonal mapping. Many of the top permaculture people see no useful way forward by getting more detailed about Zone 00. Toby Hemmenway has also voiced his disdain for Zone 00 analysis in his article Zone 00: Right Intentions, Wrong Term.

I take the heretical position that perhaps there is a useful way to think about zone 00 and how we might map it. Permaculture is very much about learning practical skills. In Bill's criticism of Zone 00, he says this:

Permaculture has always been about skills and systems that are practised, and verifiable by any individual; it does not, and will not, teach purely individualistic beliefs – such systems are already taught elsewhere, and there are numerous courses on spiritual, therapeutic, or theological subjects available.

So my proposal is that Zone 00 Analysis consists of mapping the skills you use frequently and skills you hardly use at all. There might be some correspondence or harmony between your externally focused Zone 1 to 5 map and your internally focused Zone 01 to 05 skills map (notice internal zones are prefixed by 0). For example, Zone 01 of your skills map might contain gardening skills because you frequently tend to your garden in your physical Zone 1. Personally, I have had to prioritize skills related to small engine repair, basic plumbing, and basic electrical wiring as being important skills for cost effectively managing a barn structure and equipment stored in the barn. Where those skills may have existed in Zone 04 or 05 of my skills zone map a few years ago, I see that they need to exist in Zone 02 or 03 of my skills zone map if I am to cost effectively manage the farm.

Whenever you are building a business, you are in a catchup game of learning the skills you need to adapt to the circumstances at hand. It was not obvious to me that I needed to learn about carbeurators and how to clean them until I noticed that 1) I have a significant number of small engines to maintain (string trimmers, powersaw, lawn mower, lawn tractor, garden tiller, chipper, generators), and 2) whenever I cannot start one of them, a plugged carbeurator is a common cause of it. If I am frequently being taxed to use a skill and I don't have that skill then that is an argument for prioritizing that skill into an inner zone of the Zone 00 skills map. Zone 01 are skills you use everyday, Zone 02 are skills that you don't use everyday which you do have to invoke on a regular basis. If you only do your accounting once a year and get someone else to do it, maybe you place that skill in Zone 04. If you do accounting more frequently then maybe that is a skill in Zone 02 or Zone 03. Zone 05 is the realm of skills you don't even know exist and the challenge may be in discovering which ones to add to Zone 05 that you think are worth acquiring. Like getting out in wild nature, you need to get outside your comfort zone and attempt to acquire some radically new skill.

It might be helpful to think about the skills required for different businesses as being different profiles having their own skill maps.


I hope you have learned something useful about Zone Analysis and Mapping from a few different examples to how it has been used and my own speculation on how it might be used to map the forbidden Zone 00. Toby's book, The Permaculture City, is my recommended resource for learning zone analysis and I'll leave the last word to Toby:

The zone system organizes the parts of the design in relation to the user or center of use.

P.S. I wrote a more formal blog on zone analysis called Multi Dimensional Zonation.




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