Zones of human use in a permaculture system

This is week 8 of our yearlong #freepermaculture course

Permaculture Zones illustration by Kt Shepherd

What are "zones" in a permaculture system?

They are patterns of human use. The zones start with yourself, your personal patterns, and what you do as a daily practice. From there, they expand out into your home, garden, neighborhood, watershed, and extended community, until, by the time you get to zone 6-ish, where you have no control over anything that happens, the zone has become a sector. Sectors are patterns of uncontrolled influences, and we’ll talk about those next week!

Here’s a primer on zones in a permaculture system:

Zones don’t have hard lines between them. There is edge, crossover, and change. As an observation tool, you can use zones to look for flaws in your design, and also to evaluate what’s working well. As a design strategy, zones are a super powerful way to make choices about where to place new components in your system.

  • Zone 0 and/or 00 (depending who you ask): the heart of the project, including the designer and their all-day-every-day activities.
  • Zones 1-2: Visited every day or every other day, home, work, and personal spaces that need frequent maintenance and provide steady yields.
  • Zone 3: Decreasing in frequency of use, and lower needs in terms of maintenance, but still relatively central to the system.  
  • Zone 4: Season use, infrequent visits, niche purposes; often a shared space on the edge of your system that bridges the gap between your personal site and the larger community in which you live.
  • Zone 5 and beyond: wild areas, unmanaged; perhaps you go there and plant native seeds, or clean up trash. Or maybe you just go there to observe and learn from nature. Or maybe, you don’t go there at all.

And here’s another layer of information, in a video excerpted from the certificate program. Here, faculty member Crystal Stevens gives an overview of zone mapping in the home system.

Zone mapping calls into play these principles, among others:

  • Relative location; place components in positions relative to the use of those components, and relative to their relationships with other components.
  • Stacking functions; a component placed in the correct zone, relative to its function, will be available to serve other functions in that zone as well.
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect; if you have an old dead car in the middle of zone 1, it will be much easier to move that car to a more appropriate zone, than it would to try and move all of your zone 1 activities to a different area.
  • Work with nature, rather than against it; zone mapping will help you determine which patterns of human use can be shifted, and which are more firmly set (and should thus be designed around.)
  • The edge is where the action is. Once you get a clear sense of where the center of each zone is, you’ll be able to find new, unique opportunities in the spaces between the zones.

Remember our class on permaculture principles? See how many more of those you can use with your zone mapping.

landscape design

Base Mapping: the germination of your design project

If your goals and ethics are the seeds of your permaculture design project, then your base map is the sprout!

As a landscape designer, you should be able to draw a map that is reasonably to scale. Later in this course, you’ll analyze sectors, vision social patterns, learn to identify keypoints, and  so on, and apply this information to the multiple layers of your design.

​But for today, just focus on your base map: a 2-dimensional, to-scale aerial view of your site’s boundaries and all of the immoveable components therein.

The base map might seem like a simple thing, but it can still be quite challenging to create. Indeed cartography on any scale can come with a steep learning curve, so be patient with yourself! If your first attempt at a base map is all funky and out of proportion, don't worry about it! Just make another one.

While you're climbing up the learning curve, here are a few tips that will make a huge difference:

1. Use a pencil. And an eraser.

And a compass. The directions matter. Use them, mark them, and learn how they relate to your design’s patterns and microclimates.

2. Use a measuring wheel.

Not a measuring tape. Invest in a rolling tape with a long handle that you roll on the ground. This will give you a much more accurate reading than if you try to stretch a builder's tape across the land. Or, if you have a fancy phone, you can download a free app like this one, and use your device camera to take near-exact measurements! 

3. Learn your pace length.

Follow the instructions in this video to learn your pace length. This will be a huge help when you estimate distances on a landscape.

4. Use Google maps.

Get a satellite picture of your site and use that to help you create your base map. This video explains exactly how.

5. Make a grid.

Once you have your basemap sketched out, overlay a grid that breaks it into smaller sections. Go out and measure one of those sections and use that data to double-check your scale. Adjust as needed. These smaller areas will come in handy later on when you are selecting plants or designing details into the living spaces in your design.

6. Be precise.

  • ​A square centimeter of space on your base map could translate to several square meters of physical space on your site. The more precise you can be in your mapping now, the less energy you will spend on correcting mistakes later.


  • (As mentioned above): refer back to our class on permaculture principles and see how many more you can use with your zone mapping.
  • Create a base map of your site.
  • Map all buildings, trees, boundary lines, hard surfaces--anything that is not likely to get moved during your design process.
  • Once you finish the base map, make multiple copies of it, to use for brainstorming and adding multiple layers to your design. Start with a layer that maps the different zones, as they are now. Go through each zone, making notes on how you use your space now, and also visioning how you could use it differently.
  • Then, as you work through the course this year, continue to add layers to your map, and continue to explore how subtle shifts in your zones can improve the efficiency and ecological integrity of your site.

Relevant Links and Resources​

PWG Faculty member Crystal Stevens writes on an assortment of topics around the home system. Here are some favorite recent articles:

The Allotment Garden website is rife with excellent resources.

jars of preserved vegetables 

If you don't know about the Resiliency Institute, you should. They're an excellent starting point for suburban families.

senior woman watering cottage garden with watering can 

Oregon State University offers a free online intro to permaculture course every Spring, which teaches beginner-level zone and sector mapping. In addition, many of their full-course videos can be found on YouTube, and they are well worth watching. In fact, we highly recommend you watch them all, since they have done such a good job and been so generous as to make it available to the public. We'll link a few below, about zones and sectors. We also appreciate Andrews "decision making matrix," which he describes in the third video. Fun!

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