Pattern Languages Bridge the Gap Between Theory and Practice: an excerpt

Your comments on this summary text are welcome on the form at the bottom of this page. Read full article at author Steve Gabriel’s blog:

PL-bookSince the publishing of A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander in 1977, a handful of enthusiasts have taken an appreciation not only to the content of the book, but also the process by with Alexander and other Architects approached when thinking about how humans could design better cities.

The concept parallels Permaculture thinking, which seeks to observe ecosystem patterns and apply them in landscape and farm design. In Alexander’s case, he was focused on cities and people’s relationships to the spaces in them. Through this lens he created a complex network of good ideas & templates for urban planners and architects.

The idea that Pattern Languages offer a template for bridging the gap between theory and practice is compelling. Or, another way to think of it – how do we take what we learn from books, teaches, and classrooms and apply it to our daily grind as we labor on the landscape?

While individual farmers, permaculturists, and others may be a ways off from devoting life, as Alexander did, solely to the pursuit of naming patterns in natural and human-designed agricultural systems, we can begin at least by naming the common experiences and observations that support our success. Farmers who cross paths at the local bar or a conference do this all the time, comparing notes about how they did this or what they learned from that.

Imagine a group of languages that help landowners, farmers, and gardeners more efficiently assemble elements and the connections between them. Imagine the potential to discuss and develop a language over time that gets stronger and more transparent in its message. Toward this end, I am offering to begin develop two pattern languages, which I will gladly share with anyone wanting to participate in their development.

The first will be part of the upcoming book. The pattern language is in the beginning states and will offer patterns for the practice of Forest Farming in the Eastern Hardwood Forest type. We will be consulting with case study farms we visit as well as through an online directory of forest farmers we are creating to discuss and receive feedback so that the language may be further developed.

Your comments are welcome on this draft text. Read the full article at author Steve Gabriel’s blog:

20 thoughts on “Pattern Languages Bridge the Gap Between Theory and Practice: an excerpt

  1. In my experience some of Alexander’s simplest patterns are the most powerful. I was struck by “Shelf by the door.” I often come to a door with stuff in my hands that I need to put down in order to open the door. A shelf or small table is really handy.

    Hopefully you will identify equally simple and powerful insights.

  2. Great article Steve -looking forward to the book! Wendell Berry offers some related, though perhaps more broad, insights in his “Solving for Pattern” essay ( While my own work and experience doesn’t involve forest farming directly, I am very interested in how FF pattern languages intersect with and can support other systems, including those related to larger regional food, fiber, energy and transportation systems, as well as land use planning and governance. I’m currently engaged in discussions and community program planning around these issues. One of the things we are looking at is revealing what the existing, many times dysfunctional patterns are in these systems (and their historical context), and how we can redesign them in a more mutually beneficial way. My sense is Pattern Language research and Permaculture might offer some interesting models in identifying and moving the levers of change we might need to do that, complimenting the more theoretical work of systems thinkers like Donella Meadows. One of the community/regional development frameworks I’m looking at is the Wealth Creation in Rural Communities approach (, which looks at our collective sources of wealth, or stocks, and how we might most effectively and sustainably leverage those for collective (and equitable) benefit. I see agroforestry as a critical component of this strategy here in the Northeast. Thanks for working on this area of practice!

  3. Excellent exposition of how pattern languages serve in permaculture applications. If you want a little more background on the thinking that laid some of the groundwork of Mr Alexanders Pattern Languages, you might take a look at “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, which Alexander wrote just before A Pattern is more of a first principles approach to design as compared to the “student of nature” approach inherent in seeking the patterns in what already exists.

  4. Great stuff Steve! I like your synopsis of Alexander’s work and the well-framed evolution of pattern language design and development in Dave and Peter’s work. Dave and I have been working on developing a pattern language for our Coppice book as well. I agree that it offers an invaluable way for us to convey concepts, strategies, and techniques that work at a range of scales.

    We have a fair deal of history to draw on in developing our pattern language for coppice management and management of other forms of woody resprouts but I feel like we’re running into a similar dilemma as you’ve stated in that many of our ideas at the moment, may be little more than ideas – concepts and applications that we’ve yet to ‘ground truth’.

    In that sense there’s a difference between prescriptive, tried and true patterns and synthesized thinking that implies the potential for the emergence of new patterns based on our understanding of the past and an eye towards the evolved application of these practices. In so doing it feels to me like we must do our due diligence and be clear when we’re describing a pattern with a known track record and one that we see potential in applying but that may otherwise be unknown in the field. It’s our hope not that we write the end-all be-all pattern language for our discipline but rather that we initiate the conversation and begin to contribute to the evolution of the concept. Thanks for bringing this up!

  5. I love that this focuses on language as method, language as a conveyor of physically transformative processes. I wonder, though, do pattern language help communicate across disciplines, or are they built (or do they emerge) as specialized conceptualizations that may only make sense to a handful of disciplines? Peter Galison talks about “trading zones” in 1997 Image and Logic, discussing (in the realm of the sciences) how innovation has arisen from the creation (out of necessity) of simplified language to cut across disciplinary fields. While “innovation” in terms of scientific and technological advancements may not be the focus of FF, it is very likely a key component of its ongoing rise and spread in the northeast and beyond. I wonder, then, can these pattern languages be used as a jumping off point to the creation of “trading zone” languages in and across sectors of forest farming (and fiber, food, energy, conventional agriculture, food science, soil science, government, administration, regional planning, development, etc etc)?

    • That is “innovation” in general (even if not highly technological) is likely a key component of rise and spread of FF

      • I guess I am curious about how you see your two languages growing in their transparency and cross-sector utility. I appreciate your participatory approach, as this might be the way to get that cross-disciplinary language built in.

        “Imagine the potential to discuss and develop a language over time that gets stronger and more transparent in its message…”

  6. For me, permaculture offers an excellent introduction to spatial thinking and pattern recognition, and your piece expands on that. An essential viewpoint in any attempt at design or intervention in the world that permaculture misses is the dynamical systems view. I notice that other comments to this piece have noted the same lack of historical viewpoint. Understanding patterns of what happens over time and why they happen are crucial to decision making and design. Most of the horrendous accumulation of bad technologies that characterizes industrial civilization is due to a reductionist way of doing science, a form of advancement of knowledge by
    understanding small pieces of reality in isolation.

    An example at least an introduction to process/dynamical pattern thinking in relation to design or decision making is Alan Savory’s
    framework. When people ask me what is the difference between Savory and Holmgren, I suggest to use them together as complementary approaches, because one emphasizes the temporal relations and the other the spatial. In dynamical systems thinking we say, “In complex systems, consequences are distant in space and time.

  7. I like the valuable information you provide for your articles.
    I will bookmark your blog and test again here
    regularly. I’m moderately certain I will be informed many new stuff right right here!
    Best of luck for the next!

  8. Fantastic items from you, man. I have be mindful your stuff previous
    to and you’re simply extremely fantastic. I really like what
    you have received right here, certainly like what you are saying and the way in which in which you are saying it.
    You’re making it entertaining and you continue to
    take care of to stay it wise. I can’t wait to read far more
    from you. This is actually a great web site.

  9. Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this
    post reminds me of my previous room mate! He always kept
    chatting about this. I will forward this page to him. Pretty
    sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply to Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s