A pattern language for eco-restoration
Creating a user friendly toolkit for earth repair
The water story is a complex one, containing many key narratives. This can make it a challenge to understand how it all fits together into a holistic picture, and what actions we need to take as a society to restore the water cycle.
I have been working at how to condense the understandings of water into an easily digestable format over the last year and a bit. One of my first ideas was to emulate what Project Drawdown did, which listed the top 100 ways to draw down carbon from the atmosphere, and thus reduce greenhouse gases. My idea was to, analogously, find the top 100 ways to restore the water cycle. Here is the top 100 list a number of us came up with.
However it didn’t feel complete to just have this top 100 list, as it didn’t really explain what exactly was happening in the water cycle. So then I organized a small group of us to start working on a set of water principles to explain how to use all these water methodologies. Here in this “Creating Water Principles” article are some examples of water principles we came up with.
A little later, I came up with the idea of adding to the phrase : “Slow it, sink it, spread it”, extending it to “Spread it, slow it, sink it, store it, cycle it, hop it, calm it, shift it, transform it, reflect it, hold it, guide it, cleanse it, evolve it” as a way to summarize the various water narratives into one phrase.
At that time I also began thinking about representing all this water knowledge in the form of a pattern language. A pattern language is a set of patterns that represent solutions to different problems, with each pattern being able to reference other patterns.
Christopher Alexander pioneered the use of pattern language for architecture and the design of towns and human settlements. Later others used pattern language as a way to explain and design software, facilitation techniques, and pedagogy methods.
Dan Greening, who developed a pattern language for agile management, a way that allows work forces to better self-organize, explains “Pattern languages can help us understand complex systems.….People struggle to learn large ecosystems of interacting concepts. Concept descriptions in isolation make little sense, especially if they only teach us how to do something, not why it works. We spend tremendous time and money to learn complex fields like business management, software development, environmental regulation and medicine. Yet we marvel how profoundly different the real work is from what we learned. Do we really have to be immersed in ecosystems to comprehend them? Faced with this challenge, UC Berkeley architecture professor Christopher Alexander developed a pattern language approach to explain complex ecosystems”
Here is an excerpt from Christopher Alexander’s book “A Pattern Language” :
“A pattern language has the structure of a network…..
This book describes the detailed patterns for towns and neighborhoods, houses, gardens, and rooms.
The elements of this language are entities called patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then decribes the core of the solution to that probkems, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.
The patterns are ordered, beginning with the very largest, for regions and towns, then working down through neighborhoods, clusters of buildings, buildings, rooms and alcovers, ending finally with details of construction.…. Each pattern is connected to certain “larger” patterns which come above it in the language; and to certain “smaller
patterns which come below it in the language…. No pattern is an isolated entity. Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that it is supported by other patterns…. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it.
Now we explain the nature of the relation between problems and solutions, within the individual patterns. Each solution is stated in such a way that it gives the essential field of relationships needed to solve the problem, but in a very general and abstract way- so that you can solve the problem for yourself, in your own way, by adapting it to your preferences, and the local conditions at the place where you are making it.”
Christopher Alexander’s book has 253 patterns, starting with 1. Independent regions 2. The distribution of towns 3. City Country Fingers 4. Agricultural Valleys 5. Lace of country streets 6. Country Towns 7. The Countryside 8. Mosaic of subcultures 9. Scattered work 10. Magic of the city 11. Local Transport Areas
And then getting to smaller patterns near the end of sequence like 241. Seat spots 242. Front door bench 243. Sitting wall 244. Canvas roofs 245. Raised flowers 246. Climbing plants.
I have begun to develop a pattern language for water-restoration which can be extended, hopefully with a collective of people, into a pattern language for eco-restoration in general. Its still in very rough form. I will elucidate below what I envision this pattern language will look like.
Our ecorestoration pattern language will start with the larger patterns 1. lessen droughts 2. lessen floods 3. lessen wildfire 4. lessen heatwaves , and then move to smaller patterns later in the sequence - swales, check dams, mulching, compost teas, green roofs, curb cuts, beavers, salmon, and earthworms.
The pattern language will show how all these components interweave to emerge holistic coherent behaviors that restore the earth. It will also reference various case studies of restoration that use these patterns.
Here are the first two patterns in the sequence. They are large scale patterns that will involve many smaller patterns.
(note: patterns are in capital letters)
1. LESSEN DROUGHTS
In many places around the world, droughts have been increasing. This has led to the drying out of land, with the consequences of crops dying, rivers running dry, groundwater decreasing, drinking water lessening, hydropower electricity running low, and wildfires increasing.
If we can help restore the landscape so it can stay hydrated further into the dry season, this lessens the impact of droughts. This can be accomplished by enhancing processes which help ABSORB RAINFALL into the earth. If the soil is high in organic content, it can hold moisture into the dry season. Absorbing more rainfall, can help REPLENISH AQUIFERS. The water table may then be high enough to KEEP RIVERS RUNNING YEAR ROUND, which helps keep the riparian vegetation hydrated. When aquifers are at a high enough water level, tree roots can bring up the groundwater in the dry season by a process called HYDRAULIC REDISTRIBUTION, and pass that water to the soil and surrounding area with the help of MYCELIA. This keeps the ecosystem hydrated into the dry season.
Atmospheric rivers are large amounts of water vapor blowing in from the ocean. The large amount of water from atmospheric rivers raining onto the earth during the wet season can be captured. This will help to hydrate the environment into the drought season. In many places, large sudden rains, constitute a significant percentage of an area’s rain. In California 50% of the rain comes in the form of atmospheric rivers.
This rainwater can be captured in WETLANDS ADJACENT TO RIVERS if we allow the rivers to overflow. River overflow is enabled by DISMANTLING LEVEES. To allow for river overflow and the creation of wetlands, it is sometimes needed to SHIFT PEOPLE FROM RIVER-ADJACENT LAND.
In some places around the world it may also be possible to increase the amount of rain. In Borneo, Willie Smits led an effort to reforest an area about 15 square kilometers. This lead to an increase of cloud cover by 11% and rainfall by about 20%.
In Spain, there has been a gradual loss of rain. Climatologist Millan Millan was asked by the Spanish government to investigate, and he found that land use changes was the culprit. As nature was paved over, and the soil degraded, the landscape was unable to absorb as much rainfall, which led to less evapotranspiration. In order for it to rain in Spain, there needed to be enough evapotranspiration to add to the ocean water vapor blowing in, to increase the humidity levels to where it would rain. If Spain was to undertake large scale ecorestoration, there is possibility that its rains will come back.
If more rainfall is absorbed into the landscape, with less runoff, evapotranspiration will increase. This will help INCREASE SMALL WATER CYCLE. More rain may then form further inland.
2. LESSEN FLOODS
In numerous areas around the world, floods have been increasing. As the ocean heats up, more moisture goes into the air to create atmospheric rivers, hurricanes and monsoons. As our atmosphere heats up, glaciers melt.
When rain falls, it first forms rivulets and small creeks higher up in the landscape. Then the water flow increases in size further down the landscape. If more water is absorbed higher up then there will be less velocity and size of floods further down.
To lessen flood impact, increase the ability of the ground to absorb water. This can happen by increasing the SOIL CARBON SPONGE. More water can be absorbed with the help of EARTHWORKS, WETLANDS, and DEAD VEGETATION. REFORESTRATION will help also help slow floodwaters.
Certain areas in the landscape funnel the water into larger flows. In those key areas engage in building earthworks, and restoring wetlands and vegetation.
In order to LESSEN LANDSLIDES grow trees with strong roots like WILLOWS. WILLOW STICKS can also be placed in the landslide area.
Dams are a form of flood control. But they can break when extreme rainfall and glacial melting happens. Levees are another form of flood control, but they can create faster flowing water which lead to larger floods downstream. Instead of relying so much on dams and levees, flood control can be decentralized to floodplains and RIVER-ADJACENT WETLANDS.
Floodwater can be guided into floodplains. To do this USE SPILLWAYS, and RESTORE FLOODPLAINS. If there are people there, then the local government can help to SHIFT PEOPLE AWAY FROM FLOODPLAINS. Then in the floodplains create PARKS and WETLANDS. See Mississippi Flood Control and Netherlands Flood Control
If more of these nature based solutions are used for flood control, and if society manages to REDUCE WATER USAGE, then it becomes possible to DECREASE DAMS and DISMANTLE LEVEES.
Many locales are experiencing a drought-fire-flood cycle. Droughts lead to more fires. Fires, if they are hot enough, coat the soil with a hydrophobic waxy surface so that the soil cannot absorb floodwaters. Fires also kill trees, so that the vegetation is no longer able to slow the floodwaters, and prevent landslides. This means that when large rains come a year or two later, the floods will be a lot worse.
In order to bring back the ability of the soil to absorb water after fires, engage in SOIL REMEDIATION which utilizes processes like MULCH and MYCOREMEDIATION. After a fire, it is also important to engage in VEGETATION RESTORATION.
So that’s the first two entries in the pattern language. Further along the pattern language sequence we can have patterns like the following: (its up for discussion whether these are the right paterns, and if this is a good ordering of the patterns)
3. LESSEN WILDFIRES 4. LESSEN HEAT WAVES 5. REFORESTRATION
6. RESTORE WETLANDS 7. RESTORE RIVERS 8. RESTORE GRASSLANDS
9. REPLENISH AQUIFERS 10. BUILD HEALTHY SOIL 11. SMALL WATER CYCLE
12. ABSORB RAINFALL 13. SLOW IT, SINK IT, SPREAD IT
14. USE BIOLOGY TO CLEAN WATER 15. ORGANIC AGRICULTURE
16. BIOREGIONAL RESILIENCE 17. HYDRAULIC REDISTRIBUTION
18. MYCELIA INNOCULATION 19. MICROBIOME INCREASE
20. EARTHWORKS 21. POLYCULTURE PLANTING
22. RECYCLE URBAN STORMWATER 23. REDUCE TILE DRAINAGE ON FARMS
24. RESTORE FLOODPLAINS 25. DECREASE DAMS 26. DISMANTLE LEVEES
We can then write up each pattern, so for example for the earthworks pattern is:
The shape of the earth and landscape topography has a large impact on where water flows in the landscape, and as a result where and how much vegetation grows, and what animals frequent the ecosystem.
Earthworks are made of the earth. Earthworks can help guide the water to SLOW IT, SPREAD IT, SINK IT.
The observation of how water flows through the landscape during different size rainfalls is helpful in the design process of determining what earthworks to build and where.
Examples of earthworks are SWALES, TERRACES, BERMS, CHECK DAMS, GABIONS, SMALL PONDS.
Earthworks can play a large role to LESSEN DROUGHT and LESSEN FLOODS. It can help with restoring the SMALL WATER CYCLE, RESTORE WETLANDS, and REPLENISH AQUIFERS.
Further along in the pattern language sequence we will have entries for swales, terraces, berms, check dams, gabions and small ponds.
As another example, 10. BUILD HEALTHY SOIL can in its writeup, reference patterns like mycelial innoculation, microbiome increase, composting, mulch, compost tea, vermiculture, crop rotation, cover crops, chop and drop, dung beetles, animal poop, and biodigesters.
All the entries in the top 100 ways to restore the water cycle can be included in this eco-restoration pattern language- the various keystone animals that help, the sewage and water cleansing methods like greywater, compost toilets, microbial cleansing, and the urban structures like curb-cuts and green rooftops. In addition if we wanted, we can also include economic and bioregional organizational patterns that help with restoration.
This pattern language can also reference case studies. Here is a rough draft of how to write up the case studies:
1. Loess Plains - In the northern part of China, the Loess Plains was once a desert-like area the size of France. Then restoration efforts began in 1990s. By the 2020s 920,000 hectares had been restored of the 65,000,000 hectare region. What was once bare land, was now, in many regions, full of vegetation.
The restoration project used EARTHWORKS in the form of TERRACE, BERMS, SEDIMENT TRAPS, CHECK DAMS to capture the rainfall and guide it into the ground.
They implemented the planting of PERENNIALS and POLYCULTURES in the crops. INCREASING SOIL ORGANIC MATTER and INCREASING BIOMASS was emphasized.
In order to incentivize the villagers, the government implemented PAYMENT FOR ECOSYSTEMS SERVICES . They paid villagers $49 per hectare per year for the erosion control and other services their efforts in land rehabilitation would help with. The government paid for seedlings to plant which enabled them to engage in large scale TREE PLANTING. They put rules in place to keep sheep and goats from eating away young vegetation. The villagers implemented HOLISTIC GRAZING practices.
2. Maharastra, India - In Mahastra the long dry season caused crops to die in many villages. Villagers were thus unable to make a living, and many were leaving to go to the cities.
A water project was begun in 2016 that involved thousands of villages. Villagers built LARGE PONDS and SWALES that captured the rainfall during monsoon season. They used the captured water to irrigate the crops during the dry season. The large ponds helped to REPLENISH AQUIFERS, with the groundwater tables rising significantly.
A VILLAGE COMPETITION format was used to incentivise villagers. A financial reward went to the village that could restore their water system the most.
The project helped villages achieve BIOREGIONAL RESILIENCE as villagers could produce their own crops. As a result less people left the village to go to the cities.
3. Sponge cities, China - Extreme weather has caused many floods in China, resulting in the displacement of millions of people in the last decade. The Chinese government responded by implementing a sponge city concept, that has since been adopted in 30 districts.
The sponge city idea is to soak up the water to lessen the impact and velocity of floodwaters. The government built/restored PARKS, BIO-SWALES, WETLANDS, and CURVED RIVERS in order to implement the concept of SLOW IT, SINK IT, SPREAD IT . Businesses and homes moved from the low lying areas in the cities, and the government worked to SHIFT PEOPLE AWAY FROM FLOODPLAINS. The floodwaters were then guided to flow into the floodplains.
The 30 sponge city pilot projects were allotted about half a billion RMB, (70 million USD) each.
4. Mississippi River Basin Flood Control
In 1927 Mississippi flood, levees were breached in 145 locations, displacing 700,000 people.
In Mississippi the government worked to RESTORE FLOODPLAINS. Exits for the river water were created so that during large rain events, it could overflow from the river through floodways, and into former floodplains. The government helped to partly DISMANTLE DAMS. River flow was restored which helped sturgeon and other fish flourish. The government worked with local nonprofits to helped RESTORE WETLANDS and RESTORE FORESTS in the floodplains. The floodways helped to clean the water, and also provided a space for recreational water activities.
When the large 2011 Missippi flood hit, these restorative acts allowed a lot of the water to safely flow into the floodplains.
So thats the outline of a pattern language for eco-restoration, a toolkit for earth repair.
One thing to note is that there are a number of patterns in there that require the understanding of other patterns. So for instance DECREASE DAMS is tied to other patterns, like fish swimming upstream, river habitat temperature, sediment reuse, increasing riparian vegetation growth, and how we can use wetlands and floodplains as more natural flood buffers. The ability of our society to decrease dams, also depends on other patterns, like its ability to reduce water usage in farms and cities, so its not as dependent on dam water. That water reduction in turns depends on a whole host of other patterns, like reducing tile drainage, rain gardens, curb-cuts and greywater.
I am interested to hear your feedback on this idea of a pattern language, and also what patterns you would want to see in the ecorestoration toolkit.
Here is an excerpt from Christopher Alexander’s book of one particular pattern, the housing cluster pattern:
37. HOUSE CLUSTER
. . . the fundamental unit of organization within the neighborhood - IDENTIFIABLE NEIGHBORHOOD (14) - is the cluster of a dozen houses. By varying the density and composition of different clusters, this pattern may also help to generate DENSITY RINGS (29), HOUSEHOLD MIX (35), and DEGREES OF PUBLICNESS (36).
People will not feel comfortable in their houses unless a group of houses forms a cluster, with the public land between them jointly owned by all the householders.
Arrange houses to form very rough, but identifiable clusters of 8 to 12 households around some common land and paths. Arrange the clusters so that anyone can walk through them, without feeling like a trespasser.
Use this pattern as it is for low densities, up to about 15 houses per acre; at higher densities, modify the cluster with the additional structure given by ROW HOUSES (38) or HOUSING HILL (39). Always provide common land between the houses - COMMON LAND (67) and a shared common workshop - HOME WORKSHOP (57). Arrange paths clearly - CIRCULATION REALMS (98) - and lay these paths out in such a way that they create busier paths and backwaters, even within the cluster - DEGREES OF PUBLICNESS (36); keep parking in SMALL PARKING LOTS (103), and make the houses in the cluster suit the households which will live there - THE FAMILY (75), HOUSE FOR A SMALL FAMILY (76), HOUSE FOR A COUPLE (77), HOUSE FOR ONE PERSON (78), YOUR OWN HOME (79)
When Christopher Alexander writes about the HOUSE CLUSTER as one of the patterns, he refers to larger patterns like DEGREES OF PUBLICNESS. This larger pattern describes how different people want different amounts of privacy. A housing cluster can be built which has houses closer to where the action is, which have less privacy, and houses further removed, which have more privacy.
He also refers to smaller patterns that help make up the housing cluster, like ROW HOUSES.
“How to read and write pattern languages” by Dan Greening
“The structure of pattern languages” by Nikos Salingaros
Speaking the pattern language in Long-Pressed