A Regenerative Approach to Social Justice in Highland Park, Michigan
Advisor: Nathan Ayers
This project holistically evaluates how Chiwara Permaculture L3C integrated their permaculture research design in Highland Park, Michigan, and examines how permaculture affects people’s perceived notions of economic development, social justice and engagement. As a post-industrial community located within the city of Detroit, Highland Park struggles with access to fresh food, public health, water conservation, and economic development. Noting the community challenges in Highland Park, Chiwara Permaculture L3C concentrates on researching innovative solutions to address these problems. Using the principles of permaculture, Chiwara utilizes bio-mimicry based design, surveys and interviews to analyze how permaculture offers the economic, public health, and social justice benefits to the community. The results show that many individuals demand more social changes in Highland Park and are willing to take action using the permaculture principles to create a more just environment and community. The results also illustrate how the integration of permaculture design demonstrates viable solutions toward the environment, economic, and social healing of a post-industrial city like Highland Park.
The Green Revolution changed agricultural practices in order to address the famine and economic crises resulting from World War II, by encouraging the use of antibiotics, pesticides and fertilizers into agricultural production (King, 2008). Food production in large industrial farms sustains the population, but it also destabilizes the ecosystem by offsetting the symbiotic relationships between species and homogenizing temporal and spatial diversity (King, 2008). It introduces insect plagues in crops, soil salinity, biodiversity reduction, topsoil erosion, uneconomical water consumption, and environmental pollution (Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R.S., & Walker, P., 2002; King, 2008). The Green Revolution also increased the dependency on fossil fuels. The United States industrial agricultural system alone uses an estimated 3 cal of fossil fuel energy for every production of 1 cal of food energy, while not factoring in the energy required for processing and transportation (Horrigan et al., 2002; Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). The heavy reliance on fossil fuels further deteriorates ecosystems through elevated carbon dioxide levels and greenhouse gases, which increase the severity of global warming (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). Rising temperatures endanger more species, drastically tempered the climate, and present more adverse public health epidemics (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). The methods designed from the Green Revolution meet our immediate food need, but they are not sustainable because they present more risks to our environment and public health; more resilience methods need to be explored to stabilize our ecosystems.
Leopold (1949) noted that as individuals, we are interdependent members of a community, a place where we compete for achievement but will ethically co-operate to reevaluate our relationships with nature to attain food and environmental security (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). The goal of environmental security will shift our practice from large-scale farms that run on fossil fuels to smaller, local farms that use renewable energy sources to produce organic gains (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). Community members need to utilize an alternative agriculture system to optimize the ecological paradigm that concentrates on reducing environmental and health disparities, as well as addressing environmental and social justice concerns. We need to change the infrastructure of our agricultural production and dependence on natural resources to transition toward sustainable and regenerative framework that reduces fossil fuel consumption. By interacting with nature, people’s consciousness to environmental stewardship, distribution of resources and power will be raised, and it will aspire people to innovatively collaborate with nature (Jungck, 1985; King, 2008).
REGENERATIVE SUSTAINABILITY PARADIGM
Du Plessis’ (2012) regenerative sustainability paradigm transforms our mechanistic viewpoint to an ecological one (Mang & Reed, 2012). It reviews the filters that guide people’s perceived notion of the world and how that assessment determines their interactions with the environment. It presents an environmental model for development and application of comprehensive methodologies that generate a new perspective for people to adapt to the changes of nature, instead of manipulating nature (Mang & Reed, 2012). The regenerative development and design also integrates the cultural, natural, and economic components of a community to evaluate its effectiveness in terms of health and viability (Mang & Reed, 2012). The harmonization of people’s cultures, communities and economic activities with the continuous evolutions influences their perceived understanding of the world, while not focusing on preservation or restoration (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). The mirroring of nature’s actions fosters people’s relationship and understanding of the way nature works, and will encourage a positive, environmental-friendly change in behavior.
PERMACULTURE: A REGENERATIVE FRAMEWORK
One example of a regenerative model is permaculture. Mollison (1979) combined the words “permanent” and “agriculture” to create the term ‘permaculture’ to describe the principles and ethics of working with nature, not against it (Jungck, 1985). Permaculture is an ethical, economic, ecological, and social design system that metabolizes innovative solutions for individuals or a specific location in terms of food production, land use, and community empowerment (Holmgren, 2002). It is human-centric with the following principles that focus on Earth-care, People-care, and Fair-share (sustainable consumption limits) to ensure an abundance of food and energy (Holmgren, 2002; King, 2008; Jones, 2009):
1. Observe and interact-Seek solutions as we engage with nature.
2. Catch and store energy-Collect abundance energy to use them in times of need.
3. Obtain a yield- Harvest rewards.
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback-React to feedbacks to function effectively.
5. Use and value renewable resources and services- Reduce consumptive behaviors and dependence on non-renewable energy by maximizing renewable resources.
6. Produce no waste-Use available resources; waste is a socially constructed concept.
7. Design from patterns to details-Note the detailed patterns created by nature.
8. Integrate rather than segregate-Create a supportive network between organisms.
9. Use small and slow solutions-Utilize local resources to produce.
10. Use and value diversity – Strengthen with diversity
11. Use edges and value the marginal – Value the interfaces between organisms.
12. Creatively use and respond to change – Create a positive change.
These twelve principles set the foundation for permaculture design. They ensure that food and energy are adequate, accessible, and available (De Schutter, 2010). Following these principles will set the stage for people to consider the functions of their resources and environment, while designing the infrastructure for our systems and communities.
As an interdisciplinary, scientific protocol, permaculture differentiates various elements and underlying premises of objectives, strategies, methods, and progresses (King, 2008). It manifests a sustainable demand for biodiversity and productivity of micro and macro organisms in a community. It holds and manifests a new perspective that expands people’s perceived understanding of nature and current awareness of social issues (Haggard, Reed, & Mang, 2006; Mang & Reed, 2012). Permaculture also combines the natural and human infrastructures by tapping into the psychological, ecological, and cultural literacy of a community (Mang & Reed, 2012). It directs effort towards resiliency to maintain the effectiveness of social and environmental injustice, and to reverse the present ecological degradation (King, 2008; Mang & Reed, 2012). The engineering and implementations of harmonious infrastructures and systems renew resources and build healthy relationships between the ecosystems and people.
Permaculture also offers itself as a tool to empower the individuals living in a community as they work towards the regenerative goal. It activates multiple intelligences and skills to cultivate innovative practices of energy conservation and localized production, which amplify the love for life and nature (Mang & Reed, 2012). It breaks away from pure academia by tailoring a practical and experiential model that can be incorporated in places that face sustainable crises (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). By planting the seed of a regenerative purpose, community members can transition their purpose and determination to surpass the existing disparities and sense of hopelessness. They can also highlight the importance of different forms of energy and life processes that introduce people to a more collective thinking, in terms of lifestyle and maximizing the capacity of nature. Their assessments and assimilations of the relationships between systems and people will visualize the functions of different parts of life to ensure that the community planning and efforts are compatible with nature (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). Working with nature instead of against it will empower a community to creatively find a solution that protects the place from crises.
Regenerative Place: Highland Park
A community that struggles with economic, environmental, and social hardship is Highland Park, Michigan. Highland Park is a city within Detroit, known as the birthplace of the auto-industry. The city bloomed during the climax of Henry Ford’s automobile assembly lines, but now it is home to approximately 12,000 residents, with approximately 94% of the population identified as Black, 3% as White, and 3% as others (US Bureau Census, 2012). More than 85% of the people in Highland Park have been living in the same house for more than one year and only about 76% of the people graduate from high school and approximately 9% of the people who are 25 years or older receive a bachelor degree or higher education (US Bureau Census, 2012). Moreover, approximately 11% of the people are unemployed and about 48% of the residents live below the poverty line (US Bureau Census, 2012). Even with the Davison Highway running across the city, there are only approximately a thousand established business firms in the area (US Bureau Census, 2012). Like the shutdown of the Ford’s Motor Company in Highland Park, most people and investments abandoned the city.
Currently, Highland Park dispossesses economic, social, and environmental investments. More than two-thirds of the streetlights in the city were removed because the city was incapable of paying the cost, which added a sense of danger and fear to the area (Williams, 2011). Moreover, in 2012, the city of Highland Park failed to pass the drinking water standard set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environment Quality (MDEQ) ("City of Highland Park 2012 Water Quality Report"). The water assessment showed that there were collected water samples that exceeded the turbidity standard of 0.3 units per month ("City of Highland Park 2012 Water Quality Report"). The city temporarily closed its water plants for repairs, and since November 13, 2013, has been buying drinking water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) ("City of Highland Park 2012 Water Quality Report"). Having to purchase water from DWSD increased the cost of water to an unaffordable price for the communities living in city, making it difficult for people with a low income to have access to high quality drinking water (Williams, 2011).
Permaculture Designer: Chiwara Permaculture L3C
Disparities in food access, water conservation, and economic development are major community problems that need urgent attention from researchers and developers. Heightened interest on how to reduce and eliminate these issues has been raised by Chiwara Permaculture L3C. Chiwara Permaculture L3C is a Michigan-based research firm that focuses on integrating permaculture solutions in six main areas: food, energy, water, building, transportation, and waste. It offers educational programming and research for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and experiential learning to solve community issues. Chiwara aims to explore, incubate, and share ecological and economic development solutions, as designed with permaculture principles for the community of Highland Park.
As permaculture designers, Chiwara partnered with other professionals, organizers, and community members to define the needs of Highland Park. Chiwara assimilated information about the geography, sociology, geology, hydrology, and biology of Highland Park to bio-mimic the ecological structures of nature (Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). It asks Highland Park residents and other designers to be conscious of the culture in the area, to correctly mimic the blueprints of nature and to effectively yield an abundance of food and energy (Holmgren, 2002). It aspires to motivate other advocates and community members to take ownership of the community, the environment, and of the world to unfold the answers to the defined problems.
By installing a krater garden in Highland Park and following the permaculture principles and designs, Chiwara seeks to study the effectiveness of the application of permaculture in Highland Park. Specifically, in this paper, Chiwara aims to holistically assess how permaculture is a possible answer to reduce the economic and public health disparities, as well as social injustices in Highland Park. It seeks to test the intersection of permaculture and social justice with the following hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: Participants express an awareness of social justices issues with the integration of permaculture principles in Highland Park, Michigan.
Hypothesis 2: Participants express a positive response to engage in social justice action using permaculture principles.
This report collected information from 22 participants (35% female; 65% male) who are either associated with Highland Park or are interested in permaculture: 17 from the surveys and 5 from interviews. The participants varied in age, race/ethnicity, and gender. The age range for participants was from 13- 34 with standard deviation of .51.
Observation Notes: Hau Dinh took notes on the demographics and the interactions exchange between the community members in Highland Park and the environment.
Interview: Hau Dinh interacted with the community in Highland Park, gauging the community members with questions about permaculture and social justice. She wanted to understand and identify some of the concepts that determine people’s attitudes and behaviors. She sought to investigate their living habits and their perspectives on how they view their community.
· Participants: She interviewed five community members, whose age range from 7- 32. The interviewees were diverse in terms of age, race, and gender. Three of the participants were White (60%) and two were Black (40%); three were females (60%) and two were males (40%).
· Procedure. Participants were engaged in an informal dialogue with Hau Dinh. To ensure the participants understand that some information shared during the dialogue may be noted and highlighted in the report, consent were asked and given in the beginning of the conversation. Hau Dinh reiterated the message to the participants about the possibility of recording the shared dialogue in this report.
Surveys: Online and paper versions of the questionnaire were distributed to the participants. The purpose of this survey was to get an assessment of the community’s perspectives about sustainability. It aimed to understand how the integration of permaculture in Highland Park could potentially reduce existing socio-economic and public health disparities. It measured the people of Highland Park’s past energy-consumption history, attitudes and interests in sustainable food, energy, and environment.
· Participants. There were 17 participants: 7 participants identified themselves as people of color (41%), 9 identified as white/Caucasian (33%), and 1 of the participants’ racial information selected “Other” for their racial identification (17%). As for the gender distribution, 6 of participants identified females (35%) and 11 identified as males (65%).
· Procedure. The questionnaire consisted of four sections, with the four questions for the first section, 14 for the second, 7 for the third, and three open-ended questions for the final part. Questions were designed to determine how participants expect permaculture to affect the community.
Awareness of Social Injustice. Hau Dinh and Chiwara (2013) developed a scale that measures the awareness of social injustice with 14 items. A sample item is “to learn about growing food and producing energy.” Participants responded on a four-point Likert scale with 1 = not at all important, 2= somehow important, 3= very important, and 4 = of crucial importance. All of the 14 survey questions demonstrated an acceptable level of internal consistency (Cronbach’s a = .88).
Engagement in Social Justice Action. Hau Dinh and Chiwara (2013) developed a scale that measures the engagement in social justice action with 7 items. A sample item is “take a class on how to reduce energy consumption.” Participants responded on a four-point Likert scale with 1 = very unlikely, 2= unlikely, 3= likely, and 4 = very likely. All of the seven survey questions demonstrated an acceptable level of internal consistency (Cronbach’s a = .71).
Over the span of 10 weeks, Hau Dinh studied the community of Highland Park in the context of permaculture. Hau Dinh is a summer UROP Community-Based Research Program intern who is placed at Chiwara Permaculture L3C. She was in charge of collecting, analyzing, and reporting all data in this report. She has no prior exposure or knowledge on permaculture in Highland Park, Michigan before the start of the internship.
Knowing that she is the main researcher for this report, Hau Dinh examined the potential risks associated with ethnographically gathering and analyzing data to impose a minimal amount of personal bias onto the processes of data collection and interpretation. She used mixed methods consisting of observations, interviews, and surveys to compile a comprehensive assessment of how community members in Highland Park perceived the integration of permaculture, and its effects on the reduction of economic, food and environmental, as well as social disparities in the area.
The value of this study depends on the information voluntarily given by participants. All data obtained from participants were kept as confidential and reported in an aggregate format (by reporting only combined results and never reporting individual ones).
Observations and Interviews. Observational notes and informal interviews were combined to draw out key themes. Overall, the community in Highland Park positively reacted to the integration of permaculture designs in the area. However, three major themes can be drawn from the qualitative data: 1) economic gains, 2) public health, and 3) social empowerment.
1. Economic Gains: Extracting from the installed permaculture garden, permaculture produced economic gains. Participants revealed that the communities living in Highland Park do not have many areas for economic development. Many people are unemployed (11%) and many depend on social welfare programs to sustain economically. However, in adopting the permaculture concepts, many expressed hopes to reduce their households’ energy consumption. Chiwara introduced methods that reduce the community members’ energy use, such as carpooling, home energy conservation, and installing water-catchment systems. The water catchment systems in particular, can catch and store rainwater for later usage, such as watering the gardens of Highland Park residents. Moreover, participants see permaculture as a possible venue for reducing the water bill and the cost for fresh produce. Growing and harvesting fresh produce with permaculture design demonstrates to the community that permaculture minimize the use of city water and can sustain with the will of nature. The garden also produces an abundance of food that can be shared with the whole community. With less energy consumption and having the abundance and availability of food, integrating permaculture alleviates the community from these aspects of economic struggle.
2. Public Health: More than just economic benefits, permaculture introduced a healthy and diverse diet to the community, encouraging positive public health. People consume and creatively invent new recipes to spice up different dishes and ways to cook the green vegetables produced in the garden; they do not want to feel guilty or wasteful by not taking advantage of the available fresh produce. The new creations of recipes invite the community to dialogue and share tips on how to stay nutritionally balanced and more health conscious. Along with being health conscious, people will be more aware of the water quality distributed to the area. This consciousness coupled with a strong understanding about the importance of water quality will prevent them from contracting adverse health risks such as cardiovascular diseases and respiratory problems.
3. Social Justice: Lastly, the participants stated that permaculture assists them in feeling socially empowered in their community. The presence of the permaculture garden welcomes the sharing of narratives, building of trust, and teamwork. The participants expressed that it is an open and safe space for people to gather together, to dialogue and reflect on their sets of values. One participant in particular shared that she was thankful to address the misconception about farming and not having a well-kept lawn as being poor to another community member. She felt proud that she can grow her own food and was glad for the opportunity to correct the flawed misconception of home food production. Permaculture did not introduce a new regenerative design for the city of Highland Park alone, but it brought along hope, optimism, and knowledge of ways to advocate for social justice in the area.
Surveys. Independent t-tests were used to analyze the quantitative data. The results showed that the mean for all of the participants’ awareness of social injustice is 3.56 with SD = .45. It also showed that a not statistically significant mean difference for awareness of social injustice in Highland park for females (M = 3.55, SD = .39) and males (M = 3.57, SD = .50), t(15)=-.10, p =.92. As for the engagement in social justice action, the results showed a mean of 3.32, SD = .53. It also showed a not statistically significant mean difference for engagement in social justice action Highland park for females (M = 3.38, SD = .40) and males (M = 3.29, SD = .60), t(15)=.35, p =.73.
Holistically, the results support both hypotheses (1 and 2). This suggests that regardless of the gender identity, the participants are consciousness of the importance to challenge the social injustice in Highland Park and have a positive perspective about using the permaculture framework as a regenerative strategy to engage in social justice action. This implies that permaculture is a possible solution to transform Highland Park into a regenerative place. It also suggests that permaculture can be used as a tool to connect and build trust in the community to install economic, public health, and social justice in Highland Park.
Because all of the data were collected and analyzed by one researcher, there is a risk of research bias. Research bias is the subjective tendency of the researcher to shape the results; however, cautions with the methodic process of collecting data were taking into account prior to the data collection to minimize the exposure to bias. Participation bias is also a threat to the validity of this report. Most of the participants in this report were connected to Chiwara or have a basic understanding of what permaculture is; their participation in this report is not random. Moreover, due to the limitations of time and resources, a small and not statistically valid sample size of data were collected for this report. However, even with these risks, the data collected in this report still illustrates the scope of how permaculture can affect people’s perceived notion of economy, public health and social justice in Highland Park. The holistic assessment on the impacts of permaculture and the intersection of social justice in Highland Park is useful for the development of future designs in the area, as well as other possible integrations of permaculture design in other aspects of life.
Permaculture contributes to the growing resilience in Highland Park by creating and maintaining more webs of relationships between people and the earth. It has also been a powerful tool in countries such as: Indonesia, Vietnam, China, India, Mali, and Pakistan (De Schutter, 2010; Aidstar-One, 2012). However, to further optimize the benefits of embedding permaculture designs and development into our daily lives, we need to integrate it into our education systems, as “education is the way out of unanticipated consciousness and “poverty” of any type” (Jungck, 1985; Jones, 2009). Having permaculture as the core concepts in the education curriculum will nurture the skills and knowledge that prepare students to face realistic challenges such as decreasing supplies of natural resources, global warming, and unequal distribution of social power (Jungck, 1985; Gundersen & O’Day, 2009). Students will have a comprehensive understanding and be equipped with tools to utilitze energy and resources in a sustainable manner. Most importantly, exposure to permaculture will heightens students’ awareness of the interconnectedness of life. Their understanding of these interdisciplinary lessons will allow them restructure communities to make our world truly regenerative. Investing in sustainable agriculture is not enough, but investing in knowledge of permaculture will ensure the protection of resources and access to food, affirming that food is in abundance, accessible, and adequate (De Schutter, 2010).
Permaculture can also be integrated into dialogues. As the community members and advocates sustain the environment and enhance their community, they can be enriched through dialogue, articulating their ideas to resolve the present problems. Through discussion, individuals can be more conscious of the natural world, allowing them to see the patterns of human and nature’s evolution and interactions (Mang & Reed, 2012). People can form a collective identity to work towards a vision of connecting the bridges and encouraging collaborations between diverse groups of people (Mang & Reed, 2012). Furthermore, it can help to break down stigmas associated with self-sustaining food production, such as the notion that producing one’s own food is only for poor people (Aidstar-One, 2012). Having an honest narrative will fortify people’s confidence and demands as they advocate for a more regenerative world using the permaculture principles.
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