LKP: A Brief Site Analysis pt 5: Conclusions

Global, Regional, and Neighborhood Analysis can be found here (part 1)

Part 2 Site Specific Analysis: Landform, Water, Access & Circulation

Part 3 Site Specific Analysis: Vegetation & Wildlife, Microclimates, Buildings & Infrastructure

Part 4 Site Specific Analysis: Soils, Current Zones of Use, and  Aesthetics & Experience

LKP: A Brief Site Analysis: Conclusions

Note: The discussion below may seem rather esoteric and far removed from growing popular conceptions of permaculture as forest gardens, herb spirals, and cob pizza ovens. Permaculture is a holistic design system, not any one particular thing or trend. 

What I’ve attempted to do with this conclusion is flesh out the elements under observation in a way more associated with literature and theory in order to create a story. A story about a place that I fell in love with at first sight. In my view, a site analysis is supposed to be a snap shot in time of a place- where it has been, where it is now, and what that living history says is reasonably possible.

It is my hope to do some justice to the claim of permaculture design to consider the whole. Of course, permaculture design need not always have such lengthy conclusions about site characteristics, but when I consider that I am now stewarding a piece of Finland’s history, I want to do my due diligence.

Part 1: A Narrative

Lillklobb’s physical features, flora and fauna, and overall character has been extensively influenced by people over the past 500 years. It has seen everything from the ravages of war to the accumulation of abundance and wealth which allowed this relatively small hill to become the home of three different farming families- not to mention interaction with the wider community. Their legacy is still palpable, whether it be through stone foundations which pepper the site or the truly magnificent noble hardwoods which march across the spine of the hill. Of course one would be remiss not to mention the exemplary late 19th century house itself, built in 1892 from trees felled in a great storm; the spirit of renewal and persistence of the people who lived here made manifest. Nor can one ignore the ingenuity and passion of the theaterfolk and city who have continued to invigorate both the house and the old stone barn, keeping them alive for future generations through drama.

In the relatively flat landscape of Uusimaa, knolls like Lillklobb were naturally attractive to people looking for good sites to settle. People have needed, and still do need, dry, stable places to build their homes and Lillklobb accommodates in size and proximity to fresh water.

Over time they built their lives and invited others in as well- planting and caring for such rare specimens as the oak, elm, ash, and linden that tower over the landscape today. The flat lands surrounding the hill were cultivated through the centuries and sustained a thriving community. That landscape, previously populated, has followed the natural progression towards forestation since cessation of farming activities and urbanization of Espoo towards the latter end of the 20th century. Regularly maintained spruce hedgerows, having escaped the pruner’s blade, have reached skyward and claimed their share of the canopy. Other, pioneer species have arrived by wind and wing, taking up residence in the former open spaces. Their growth rates and vigor attest to the deep soil profile and nutrients accumulated in the barn yards over the decades and centuries.

Their presence has created a closed canopy across much of the property, casting dark shade onto the few spaces that the city has resources to maintain as treeless meadows. Remnant home orchard plantings of apple, plum, gooseberry, and currant have struggled against the encroaching shade cast by these hardy pioneers. The forty odd years since transitioning from an agricultural community to urban lot have not, however, left Lillklobb necessarily poorer.

In fact, I would argue that there is a time and place for everything. To preserve Lillklobb against the urbanization of the Helsinki region after the Second World War would have been a Herculean, if not impossible, task. Finland’s growth since that period has allowed for the writing of legislation to preserve places such as this and open them to the wider community. Land use adapts and Lillklobb has continued to find itself in the hands of people who care deeply for it as a place of culture and continuity.

Today, one finds Lillklobb in a remarkably unique situation. Its size, 2.5 hectares, is not only contiguous but its containment of an entire hill is special. The hill’s textbook shape is notable: nearly “equal area” slopes taper gradually in each cardinal direction. A child asked to draw a hill would present you Lillklobb. This creates a rare opportunity to take advantage of the microclimates inherently created by every possible aspect. With mostly natural succession and light maintenance of the property over this past half century, the soil has been allowed to rest, which, in this kind of non-brittle environment, means it can accumulate fertility and largely self organize ecologically.

The concentration of built infrastructure on the northern end of the property leaves the vast majority of potentially productive, sun rich land open to a return to productivity. The growth of urban infrastructure around the property has put it in an extremely advantageous logistical position: a 20 minute delivery radius puts Helsinki’s city center and the majority of Espoo’s population within reasonable reach. Public transportation to and from major hubs is quite good as well, improving the site’s potential impact by being accessible to all kinds of people.

I should not also forget the social and political climate as well: Finland is a country that has made commitment to sustainable development a priority and is attempting to foster citizen initiated movements to help realize those goals. Private interest in ecological ways of being, of greater community, and revitalization is also at a high point. Though the economic situation may have stalled, the trend towards a sustainable future is quite strong.

The window of opportunity presented by this situation is apparent.

Part 2: A Changing View of “Resilience Science”

With this description in the background, I’d like to introduce a topic known as “resiliency.” Resilience science, as some call it, is the study of what makes systems able to respond and prosper in the face of a chaotic world. The ability of a system to adapt and change, to prepare for change as the only constant, can be assessed through various means. One of which is the critical synthesis of information obtained from the site analysis process. The site analysis process provides 1) views of the system in question through different lenses as well as 2) the greater context it currently resides in.

The synthesis is only- and can always only be- an approximation because it is impossible for us to fully understand the totality of reality. We have to erect boundaries, to put some constraints and define the context or else the mental image of the system is so complicated that nothing of tangible value can be ascertained. The ability to focus on details comes from the ability to discriminate- to make value judgements- about what information is most relevant. Each of the lenses in the site analysis process brings into focus information pertinent to the task at hand.

It is also worth noting that the context our system finds itself in is also its very own system. This is, in part, why it is impossible to “get the entire picture.” If the context is a system, then it has its own context, and that pattern grows ever larger towards infinity. Recognizing the impossibility of the task is critical because it requires us to be modest and humble with regards to our powers of perception. Exacting as they may be with today’s scientific advances, knowing that we cannot conceive of the whole instructs us to continually look for signs of error in our understanding.

So, every system is nested within a particular and unique context. That context is our approximation of the totality of influences on a system.

To picture this, a system can be thought of as a sphere held inside of a bowl- its current context. As the world is always in a constant state of change, the bowl is moving, which in turn moves the sphere within it. The sphere has its own internal properties which affect its behavior inside the bowl. The same goes for the bowl: not all contexts are equal in their constitution or effect on the sphere.

Now, imagine the bowl moving slowly in a circular pattern, keeping level, which in turn makes the sphere revolve around the middle: the sphere is changing within its context but is not being thrown out. If this happens for a long time, one can say that the system is experiencing a stable state (or stable context). Stable states can last a very long time and, if you are within one, it can be difficult or troubling to imagine life being any other way.

Still, no stable state lasts forever. Eventually time will see to it that either the internal forces within the system (the sphere) change enough that it no longer stirs in harmony with its context (the context cannot adapt or accommodate the changes to the system) or the context itself changes from the outside and both elements experience a state of flux.

So what happens if we apply a shock to the system, say by changing the context abruptly?

Let’s say the system is land (to stay on topic here) and it experiences a drought. The bowl’s movement changes in a pattern associated with drought (the outside force) and thus the sphere’s pattern must change too; both experience a state of flux. How the sphere can handle the changing context without being thrown out of the bowl and into chaos will be determined by all those factors which affect its ability to withstand a drought. A resilient system is one that retains its integrity in the face of chaos, returning to stability without undergoing fundamental change. How resilient a system is determined by the rapidity with which the system returns to stability. The opposite of resilient is fragile, which means even a minor state of flux will throw the sphere into chaos. Of course, the context is also a system in its own right and can be resilient or fragile as well, but for now we will focus on just the sphere.

If the sphere is thrown out of the bowl and into chaos, it has experienced a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift of this nature requires one of two things: either a large amount of outside energy acting upon the bowl, or changes within the system itself that no longer make it compatible with the current context. The context itself might survive the state of flux, but the system’s energy can be such that it leaps from the bowl anyway. Paradigm shifts are destined to occur, just think of the number of extinction events life on earth has faced over the eons or humanity acquiring self consciousness. Paradigm shifts are inevitable and can be either desirous or deleterious (or a combination of both). Being thrown into chaos would normally represent a deleterious paradigm shift. I’ll return to desirous ones in a short while.

When a system is thrown into chaos by a paradigm shift, it will eventually find itself in a new context. Chaos doesn’t last forever, eventually a new normal- or stable state- is reached. Just what that new context will be is determined by many factors, but one thing we can postulate is that it will be determined by the character of the system (is it innovative or senescent?) and the new context (is it deep and accommodating, or is it shallow and temperamental?) together.

To add just a little bit more complexity, it should be acknowledged that there can be multiple systems within a particular context and they will interact with each other and the context. And, although I’ve described both the spheres and bowls as being inanimate objects (though subject to transformation), it would perhaps be more useful to describe them as biological. As humans, we are biological beings and therefore what matters to our survival as a species is inexorably linked to biological processes, which themselves rely upon the complex interplay between biological and abiotic material structures.

Why, though, does resilience theory matter in this particular instance? I believe an understanding and appreciation of the theory is directly tied to an acceptance of the impossible scope of reality. It calls on us to be humble and admit that there are things that exist outside our realm of knowledge: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. With that in mind, building a resilient system is more of an ideal than a readily attainable goal: the existence of unknown unknowns means cataclysmic change is always a possibility. Resilience theory also helps us imagine a physical system, like a piece of land, in a constant state of motion within a complex universe: it helps to overcome the tendency to view slowly changing things as static.

By confronting reality in the beginning, we can plan our behavior in such a way that admits both chaos and order are real, that we are willing to look at and to listen to things that we would otherwise ignore in the hopes of learning something we don’t already know. If one already knows everything, then there is no reason to change, but since change is the only constant, such an absolutist position is bound to failure.

If we order our actions such that we trend towards resiliency, then we are also changing the character of the context. Those changes reverberate up the contextual ladder. In such a way, our lives and actions can prepare new potential contexts that our systems could be harmonious with. If a paradigm shift occurs that lobs the system and us along with it into chaos, we’ve at least sown the seeds of potentially harmonious contexts which can become manifest.

Ideally, we want spheres whose potential energies are in harmony with the bowl: things change, but not too much too fast; enough chaos to keep those within the system on their toes but not so much as to become overwhelming. A desirous paradigm shift could be one in which the system and context coevolve without one or the other breaking and being thrown into chaos. To pinpoint the moment when a desirous paradigm shift occurs is more difficult as it tends to happen slowly, but the fundamental change does occur regardless of whether or not we can point to a singular moment in time.

And now the title of these blog posts makes more sense: the process is brief in relation to the depth of complexity that Lillklobb exists within.

Part 3: Narrative Meets the Crucible of Resilience Theory

Given the mind boggling complexity the world consists of, the site analysis process from the previous blog posts seems a little sterile and imperceptive. Such a prolonged analysis process could be construed by some as futile in the face of a long enough time span. It should be apparent that I don’t think that is the case at all.

What brings cold, “as they are” statements and figures about a place to life are the words you are reading today. The human element infuses a place with meaning and permaculture design was created to help us do exactly that. After all, the site analysis section is just the first step in permaculture design as it is applied to a physical location.

Imagine the sphere and bowl again, only this time the sphere is Lillklobb and the context is the local region around Espoo in Southern Finland. Lillklobb, as a system, has seen its share of fluctuating states and is bound to see more. So let’s try to find out how resilient this piece of land is, and what its potential energy is in the process.

Within the world of Lillklobb there are two main actors and some supporting roles. The City of Espoo and the theaters which make use of the space are the main actors which currently determine the present status of Lillklobb. Minor actors are local community residents who visit and make use of Lillklobb and its surroundings. Given the strength of the Finnish political system, the people’s commitment to one another evident in the social security system, public education, and other socioeconomic factors, the ability of Espoo and the theaters to continue cultural endeavors is fairly secure. If the system is defined by its current land use, in relation to the social context it interacts with more than the natural, one can state quite confidently that the future outlook is stable.

If we think about Lillklobb’s nonhuman elements, this little world is fertile: the soil is deep, the age and vitality of the existing species (including the well fed rabbits) attest to that. With gently sloping gradients and proximity to running water, it exists in an almost idyllic state. Outside influence is limited by the cultural protection afforded to its history. This state of affairs is in harmony with the context as described thus far: things are working more or less well. The sphere and bowl are interacting in a stable manner.

Changes are afoot, however as the property continues to afforest: the growth of certain trees threatens the already tired and increasingly fragile orchard. Apples need full sun at this latitude in order to ripen, but the increasing shade means that less ripen each year and eventually, as longer term species like oaks mature, the trees themselves will suffer the consequences of a closed canopy. When this happens, the seasonal draw of local residents to see the blooms and harvest the apples will fade away. Interaction with the land will be reduced to walks in the woods, the shifting baseline syndrome that affects all of us will have taken another step forward towards forgetting the agricultural legacy of this place.

In the face of climate change, Lillklobb’s flora will be in a rather good position to withstand either warming or potential cooling (new models suggest the North Atlantic Current may not be as stable as once thought). The oaks and lindens may benefit from warming, though the ash and elm could be more susceptible to disease (Finland is one of the only places to have escaped Dutch Elm Disease, and so the elms are of particular value). If the weather cools, the aspen, willow, birch, and small populations of pine may begin to dominate. The understory will probably change in step with the canopy. Either way, the character of Lillklobb as a recently forested place would continue and wildlife will adapt to the change in primary producer populations.

If the local and national economy continues to be rather sluggish, tax revenue for the upkeep of public lands will increasingly be hard to come by. The size and current use concentrated around the buildings suggests that the existing maintenance regime of periodic mowing away from the buildings and more attentive care around the house and theater are more or less sustainable. The cost to benefit of doing more with the rest of the property, given the current paradigm, will continue to come out in favor of “natural” afforestation. Of course, it is not really natural as the place is firmly entrenched within an urban context and so the ecology is not functioning with any normalcy: the food web of the ecosystem is missing keystone species like wolves to alter the behavior of the remaining herbivores, which in turn alters the population patterns of primary producing plants.

In sum, Lillklobb as a current system is stable and the context it resides in is rather stable as well. Changes to climate will probably not, at least in the near term, disrupt the goings on and maintenance regime. Still, the continued afforestation threatens the last remaining vestiges of Lillklobb’s agricultural past. The trees growing out the remnant foundations will obscure this history to all but the most discerning visitor.

But what is the measure of potential energy and the window of opportunity?

Part 4: The Potential Energy & Opportunity

This is where I enter the context as my own little system bouncing around. I have my own motivations and desires which of course heavily inform the assessment of Lillklobb’s potential as a site. I came into the situation with some idea as to what I’d like to do and, admittedly, was looking for evidence that it would be possible at Lillklobb. The site analysis process is a tool to help uncover some approximation of the truth of a place, to look for signals that my ideas might not work just as much as whether they would.

Each lens of analysis seeks to strip away motivation and examine particulars that can be measured and substantiated. In this way, the site is allowed to “speak” for itself. Design can then emerge from this collection of knowledge; design which can always be supported in multiple ways with actual information rather than human desire alone.

It was my assessment, and still is, that Lillklobb has tremendous potential energy and- as I’ve alluded to earlier- a valuable window of opportunity is available at the moment to make it happen. This is pretty clearly the case since I’ve already started working on revitalizing Lillklobb as a working farm.

So what I want to share with you, then, are the key aspects of Lillklobb’s physical features and its context that allowed me to make the decision to be here in the first place.

  • 2.5 Hectares. I’ve been investigating agroecology and permaculture for nearly a third of my life and it has been my determination that in order to “do the things I want to do,” I’d need some space. The bare minimum, for a transient project, would be roughly 2000 square meters for intense market gardening with space for greenhouses, washing and packing stations, etc. Lillklobb is 25,000 square meters. If you take off 5,000 for parking, the theater building, and some other access routes, I’m still left with 10x my minimum. Instead of a micro market garden, Lillklobb has the physical space to be a genuine urban farm.
  • Close to Home. By bicycle, Lillklobb is a 20 minute moderate ride, 17 minutes if I push my out of shape self, 25 if I take it slow. By train, it takes about 30-35 minutes depending on how fast I hoof it from Kera station southward that 1.5 km. By car, I can be door to door in 10 minutes. This is critical for a few reasons. First, I can’t and don’t want to always use a car or a bicycle, so the train option is fantastic. Second, don’t let anyone tell you that permaculture design will somehow make it so you don’t actually have to work: farming is a full time job. It has to be close because I can’t spend two hours a day on public transport, an hour by bike, or 30 minutes by car to get to my farm. Lastly, it fits with the “start close to home” philosophy that permaculture embraces. Espoo is my city of residence and now my city of work too.
  • Untouched. This means there aren’t many expectations for what happens, which meant I could propose my dream to a receptive, not defensive, audience. Also, the periodic mowing and light maintenance translates to a very long rest period from agricultural chemicals or their application in urban contexts. The intervening period between transition from agriculture to urban use has led the ecosystem to accrue fertility and build complexity.
  • The Soil. In Finland, we have our share of challenges. In the south particularly there is a problem with the climate patterns: it rains a heck of a lot and often during the autumn and winter. Because of our climate, this isn’t the growing season. Which means that soil in poor health is going to be leaching a lot of nutrients. It also means that the rain comes at a time when we need to be in the field harvesting- leading to compaction and erosion in many cases. In addition to these challenges, the soil is often quite shallow. Finland came out of the ocean at the end of the last ice age and we really haven’t had much time to develop deep soils. So finding a hill with functioning soil and a thriving (for an urban site, anyway) ecosystem developing on it was a sign that this place has potential. Then there is the fact that Lillklobb has two major soil types: sand and clay. These two types are rightly considered to be on opposite ends of a soil type spectrum, which translates to different tolerances and treatments being necessary to balance the downsides and polish the good.
  • Infrastructure. Lillklobb also has in the plus column a long list of essential built infrastructure: an empty earth cellar with over 30 square meters of space; a barn with a new roof right in the middle of the most promising fields; a manor house with a full kitchen, running water, heated basement, and large hall for holding workshops and courses; guaranteed access to key transport links year round; and a well for potential irrigation. Where else will you find all of this right in the middle of a city?
  • Interested Parties. Both the city of Espoo and the three theaters that currently make use of Lillklobb were interested in having something happen with the land. There is an effort to put to make underutilized spaces available to citizen initiatives that can build community, reduce costs for the city, and create lasting value and meaning for residents and businesses alike. Concerns about climate change, the environment in general, and interest in a circular economy that would have less waste and more positive outcomes were already well integrated into the thinking of both the city and the respective theaters. My proposals, then, were met with enthusiasm and support. Very rarely do the interests of so many people willing to make a change come together.

In sum, my site analysis- conducted before starting the farm, but articulated in these past few months when I’ve had time- revealed that a desire for change and revitalization of the landscape existed, the land was able to provide many options for a business based on primary production using agroecology and permaculture design, and that the desired outcomes of all the parties were aligned such that compromise and agreement were possible.

So concludes site analysis. In the next section I will discuss why and how I came to divide the property into Zones of Intention as well as the lands use patterns that will accompany this decision. In other words, time to start sharing the preliminary designs for Lillkobb!

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