Permaculture Sydney: how it came and went

Permaculture Web—Permaculture Sydney’s newsletter/journal of the 1990s carried news, ideas and useful information for permaculture practitioners.
Robyn Francis harvests arrowroot at ther Djanbung Gardens permaculture education centre at Nimbin. Over the decades, Robyn turned the bare cow paddock of the nineties into the thickly-revegetated and productive permaculture education centre of today.

A place in the city

It is a Saturday afternoon. I stand on the footpath, camera ready, on the other side of the red tape fastened across the door. A small group looks on. As Robyn stands beside him, a man with a trim grey-beard, his face betraying years of outside work, snips the tape with the scissors he holds. As it flutters aside I press the camera’s shutter release to record Bill Mollison officially opening the Permaculture Epicentre.

It was around 20 years after the little forest garden was planted at what was then the Permaculture Epicentre that I made this photo. The trees planted by Robyn Francis and others protrude high above the fence.


It is 1986. Robyn is leaving Sydney. Denise and horticulturist, Francis Lang, take over the coordination of Permaculture Sydney, but all too soon they, too, pack and go. Their destination? A new type of community in the hilly Sunshine Coast hinterland. Here, they establish new lives at Crystal Waters Permaculture Village. Here, Francis and Jeff Michaels set up their Green Harvest horticulture supplies business. It soon outgrows their garage and they move the business to nearby Maleny, where it remains.

Jeff Michaels and Francis Lang in their Crystal Waters garden.
Evidently/Sustainability, the Sydney press clipping service of the Australian Association for Sustainable Communities.

The TV stimulus

The Sydney Bio-regional Resource Guide, another AASC Sydney publication. Artwork by Steve Wrad.

Rebirth beckons

In inner urban Glebe, in an old terrace house just off the intersection where Ross Street meets Bridge Road, two people are ready for new ideas. As Brad Nott and Ian Mason watch In Grave Danger of Falling Food they are so inspired they hatch an idea. Why not set up a permaculture association and call it Permaculture Sydney?

At a permaculture event, the late-Ralph Long (left), a Southern Highlands farmer who adopted permaculture ideas, sits with Godfrey Davies, a builder and resident of Penrose Rural Co-op. Godfrey later moved to the NSW Mid-North Coast.

Groups and contacts

The 1994 spring-summer edition of Permaculture Web listed the organisation’s team as:

  • Sue Smith
  • Doug Bailey, an anthropologist with an keen interest in ethnobotany who with his Javanese wife created an ethnobotanical food forest in inner urban Marrickville long before they discovered permaculture
  • Nigel Shepherd, then a student of geography at Sydney University who would later try to found an inner urban cohousing project, Inner Pod, though the attempt was unsuccessful
  • Angus Campbell, who would later try his hand as large scale worm farming
  • Bob Logan
  • Fiona Campbell, working in local government and at the time producing a manual for the council’s development control plan to guide energy and water efficient house and garden design, and in which permaculture ideas played no small part
  • and me.
  • Bundeena—Chris VanVeen (a landscaper)
  • Northern Beaches—Pauline Shelldrake
  • NW Sydney urban—Sally Ramsden; trained by New Zealand permaculture and community development worker, Robyn McCurdy from Tui Community at Golden Bay, Salli later went on to lead workshops around the country on working with children in permaculture.
  • Permaculture South, based in The Shire, Sydney’s southern suburbs
  • Permaculture North, set up by Permaculture Sydney members Christine and David Leese when they wanted an association closer to where they lived on the northside
  • Permaculture Inner West.
  • Northern Beaches/Elvina Bay — Karren Peterson
  • Bundeena—Chris van Veen
  • Permaculture North—David and Christine Leese (the Leeses later moved to the Southern Highlands)
  • Permaculture Sydney
  • Permaculture South
  • Rooty Hill Resource Farm in Western Sydney—Phil Arundel.
  • Permaculture East
  • Pittwater Permaculture, the renamed Permaculture Elvina Bay.
  • Permaculture Hunter Valley
  • Trevallyn Permaculture in the Newcastle region
  • Permaculture Milton on the NSW South Coast; Pam Gray was the local permaculture contact
  • Permaculture ACT
  • Permaculture Central Coast
  • Permaculture Southern Highlands.
  • we were invited to run a part-time Permaculture Design Course for Permaculture Central Coast
  • later, Fiona handed over to Chris van Veen her landscape design and introduction to permaculture courses she ran for an adult education organisation in the southern suburbs
  • we retained the Introduction To Permaculture course we ran for the adult education organisation in the Eastern Suburbs
  • in the nineties we started parttime employment as landcare educators at Calmsley Hill City Farm, a program run by teacher, Mary Bell, which also employed Eric Bedford, a farmer and one-time agriculture minister in the NSW Wran Labor government
  • we ran our three month, parttime Permaculture Design Course through the decade, which included a LETS system that was active through the course and run by course participants as a means of learning-by-doing; a social permaculture topic led by professional facilitators, Richard and Maria Maguire from Unfolding Futures; international development led in part by Jill Finnane from Action for World Development, who taught permaculture in Sri Lanka; an intermediate technology segment led by Tullaloc Tokuda, who later went to live on an intentional community in India; and a community economics topic led by Sue Doust (Sue and Louise Gore lived in a flat in the Inner West where they built a raised vegetable garden on concrete and directed sunlight into it by strategically-placed heliostats—mirrors that reflected light into the shaded garden.

Coming home

It is 1993, autumn.

The fading

Steady growth. This is how it goes for permaculture Sydney through the decade. Until it starts to fade.

A rough theory

What accounts for the ebb and flow, the appearance and fading of groups like permaculture associations? I have no cohesive theory, just a few rough observations.

Where are they?

As we sat talking that afternoon, Fiona asked a question that has been asked by others over the years.



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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.