Macro to Micro: Introducing Eco-Social Matrix

The Eco-Social Matrix (ESM) developed by permaculture designer, Robyn Francis, provides a useful tool for bioregional planning, human settlement and ecovillage design, transition initiatives, and for thinking more deeply about the consequences of where we live in terms of accessing our needs and interacting with community

ESM combines the conceptual systems thinking behind zonation, bioregionalism and social planning, as a simple yet powerful matrix for integrated design where the macro provides a practical and realistic context for the details.

This introduction to ESM by Robyn Francis was published in the book ‘Designing Ecological Habitats – Creating a Sense of Place’ and is reproduced here with new graphics.

Macro to Micro: Introducing Eco-Social Matrix as a tool for Integrated Design

I’ve always striven to achieve what I term an wholistic lifestyle, living in an environment that seamlessly integrates all aspects of my life: social, work, living, personal, community, creative, spiritual, productive and so on.  I have consciously used the original English word, ‘wholistic’, spelt with a ‘w’, rather than the American-influenced spelling , ‘holistic’. Wholistic is derived from “whole”, a state of completion, all encompassing, whereas a ‘hole’ to my mind infers something still missing, an emptiness waiting to be filled.

In my travels and work with traditional and indigenous societies over 4 decades I’ve been intrigued by how the boundaries between work and play, material and spiritual, function and productivity, individual and community are blurred– how they integrate seamlessly into everyday life. Our contemporary society is quite fractured or dis-integrated in comparison, to the extent that many of these aspects of life are perceived as almost irreconcilable opposites.  Through over-specialisation we have separated out and effectively ‘mono-cultured’ most aspects of society and living, not just our agriculture and landuse systems.

What is integrated design? What are we bringing together? What factors are we integrating?  Permaculture design inherently seeks to develop integrated systems, which can be overwhelming for the beginner as the array of factors and elements to consider very quickly build into a rather complex web of relationships.  We can integrate on many different levels, from micro to macro, from details in the design and management through to the bigger picture context.

Most permaculturists are comfortable with integrated design on the individual garden or property level, and this in itself can take several years of observation, research, creative thinking, experimentation and design. Integrated design demands an interdisciplinary approach and systems thinking. One needs to know enough about a lot of different things to see where and how they can interact beneficially.

Permaculture design methodologies support an integrated approach, like Sector Planning which is primarily concerned with harnessing and/or ameliorating the energies of elemental forces of sun, wind and fire; working with the geophysical landform in terms of topography, slope, gradient and soil; plus the diverse interactions and patterning of elemental energies within the landscape in terms of aspect and the mosaics of soil qualities, vegetation and microclimate arising from these interplays.

Then there’s the patterning of elements and functions within the site, designing a complex web of beneficial relationships between the various physical elements—plants structures, animals, technologies—ensuring needs are met in a diversity of ways. Integrating the invisible flows of nutrients cycles and energy, and the movement of water through the system, closing the loops and ensuring no pollution.  Then patterning and assembling all these systems and individual components in the design for efficient management through conscious relative placement that integrates the time-space logistics of access, schedules and proximity—design for convenience. The Permaculture design methodology useful in this phase of integration is often referred to as Zonation.

Integrated systems go beyond the design and into the management and maintenance of systems, right down to the daily interactions. I often find students wanting to separate jobs out in rosters; one person to do the garden, another the animals, another the orchards and so on.  But the system is designed to integrate these daily actions.  Animal green feed is collected by doing 5 minutes of weeding in the garden, thus through the process of collecting green feed for the animals the garden is maintained, so we don’t need to spend a lot of time just simply weeding as a single purpose exercise. Tending the animals is integral to maintaining the plant production systems and visa versa – separate these jobs out and it’s not long before management systems begin to collapse.

ESM-dg-NimbinAerialThere are countless excellent Permaculture designs within the confines of individual property boundaries, integrating physical elements such as buildings, plants, animals, technology and water systems with energy flows and human interaction. However many fall short in terms of their integration with neighbours or with the wider landscape and community.  A truly integrated design needs to address these surrounding influences and interactions by designing the details within the context of the bigger picture.  This lack of integration with neighbourhood and bioregion has also been true of much of the intentional community and ecovillage movement in Australia and the USA.

Ultimately it is on this larger community scale that we, as a society, have the greatest capacity to develop self-reliance and resilience in these changing times, particularly in meeting the challenges of climate change and peak oil.

In Australia there are big challenges with isolation and motor vehicle dependency,  especially in sprawling suburbia, urban fringe and rural areas where public transport is virtually non-existent and people commute long distances to meet basic needs. I’ve been there myself, living for 6 years on a large property 36km from the nearest small town and over 50km from a regional centre. The realities of socio-economic isolation can be debilitating, not just for individual households but for many intentional communities.

A hallmark of a village as a form of human settlement is that it is human scale, within walking distance. I know of several self-titled eco-villages where residents need to commute several kilometres to the community centre and for up to 5 km within the community to visit friends who live at the opposite end of the property.  Unfortunately topography often doesn’t make for easy cycling and walking can be a challenge with large loads or toddlers in tow. So we find intentional communities where residents depend on vehicular transport to move around and function within the community, and then to access needs beyond the community can involve commutes of 20km to 50 km or more to a town or significant service centre.

I conducted a workshop once for an intentional rural community of 23 adults and numerous children. The community had been going for 15 years yet had only 3 completed houses. Most residents were living in caravans and sheds and surviving on social security payments. The atmosphere of poverty and powerlessness was debilitating. Half of their meager incomes were being used to keep their motor vehicles on the road so they could drive 50km to the nearest supermarket mall to buy cheap food with the other half of their income.  They couldn’t afford fencing materials to protect gardens from wildlife so very little food was actually grown on the community. Over $55,000 a year was being spent on motor vehicles for fuel, oil, registration and essential repairs (Note: this amount does not include the initial cost of the vehicles or replacement value, just annual operating costs).  At the time, early 1990’s, $55,000 could build a modest house for an owner-builder. The equivalent value of a house a year was effectively going into green house gas emissions and petrochemical company profits.

In the late 1980’s I had began to seriously address these bigger picture issues and developed a planning process for evaluating a property or settlement and its location in terms of access to human needs—bringing the principles of zonation (proximity, access and schedules) into bioregional planning and community design.  I later coined this process the Eco-Social Matrix (ESM)

Eco-Social Matrix

Catchment-analysisThe Eco-Social Matrix (ESM) is a process of analysing the interplay of natural, social and services catchments of an area to explore the impact of landuse decisions not only on the environment but on peoples lives, how they access and meet their needs. The matrix can be applied to an individual property, neighbourhood, bioregion or larger scale.

An ESM for a property is incomplete without the neighbourhood and bioregional context, so these scales of application nest within each other and interact with each other. It has proven to be an exceptionally useful tool for assessing the suitability of a location for a project, for local and regional strategic planning, human settlement design and bioregional development and has much to contribute to strategic approaches for relocalisation and transition town initiatives.

I employed this framework for designing Jarlanbah and for selecting land for my permaculture training centre. My dream was to create a permaculture education centre with a living classroom of working systems. Not in isolation, but somehow integrated with an ecovillage or hamlet development within close proximity (walking/cycling distance) from a well-serviced village or town centre, and with opportunities for interacting on a wider community level.

The approach was also adopted by the NSW Department of Planning in the guidelines for Rural Residential Development where it was presented as a ‘Catchment Planning Framework’.


The ESM Framework

The essence of the matrix is a series of overlays exploring the interplay of natural, social and servicing catchments. Of these, the social catchment overlay is particularly significant as it most directly reveals the opportunities and challenges for people to meet their needs on a neighbourhood and bioregional level.  The social catchment analysis can also be useful for defining the physical boundaries of neighbourhoods and their relationship to different orders of human settlement in the immediate region or subcatchment area


Natural Catchment Overlay

This explores the biophysical characteristics and natural resources of the study area including climate, geology, rock and soil types, mineral resources, water catchments and riparian systems, ecosystems, nature reserves, sensitive environments, biodiversity, wildlife corridors, landuse systems and capability, agricultural land, forestry, industries based on value-adding of local primary resources and production, and risk of natural hazards (fire, flood etc). This analysis also identifies regulatory bodies (local, regional, state and national), professional and community organisations pertaining to the natural environment and resources.

This analysis is more than a simple inventory, it also evaluates the health of these systems, the sustainability and impacts of land use and management, threats and challenges, opportunities and thresholds. An example of thresholds might be water resources, including quality and availability, supply and demand, and relationship to factors identified in the social and services catchment overlays. It can support evaluating the potential for local food production and food security.


Social Catchment Overlay

Social catchments explore how people move around and congregate to satisfy material, social and cultural needs and an identifiable sense of community. Includes historic context of settlement patterns and landuse, the relationship of people to their living environment and what contributes to their sense of place.  This includes demographics and demographic trends, socio-economic profiles and cultural and human diversity including minority and special needs groups.

Material needs include access and proximity to shopping, commerce, education, employment, enterprise opportunities, specialist and professional services. Social and cultural elements include social meeting nodes, parks, open space, recreation facilities, entertainment, cultural events and facilities, community halls, community centres, community groups and organisations.

The Social Catchments overlay is useful to identify the patterns and heirachies of social nodes and settlement forms in the landscape and the layers of social catchments for key functions, activities and themes.  For example to explore the theme of education in a bioregion there will be all the primary school catchments, then the secondary school catchments which will encompass a number of primary schools, then local polytechnic/technical college will have a much larger catchment that encompassed the catchments of a number of secondary schools.

NimbinSocialCatchmentExploring the theme of shopping is a revealing activity, how far people need to travel to access essential needs and their commerce-related commuting habits. For example my local village has a great little commercial centre of small local businesses, baker, butcher, organic shop, independent small supermarket with bulk foods, hardware, newsagent, bookstore, laundry, pharmacy, herbal apothecary, post office, local credit union banking facility, lots of cafes… Nimbin also has a doctors surgery, small hospital and other health services. I can cycle to meet most of my needs locally and need only do the 30km commute to Lismore, my local provincial city, when I require specialist and higher order goods and services.

Friends living in the next valley, where there is only a small hamlet with a very small general store stocked mainly with junk foods, a pub and a café, are constantly needing to commute over 20km to Lismore to meet most of their basic needs. These are important things to consider when choosing where to live or to develop ecovillages, cohousing, and increase populations – what pressures will that increased population put on roads, on vehicular carbon footprints, on the economics of survival? On the other hand increased population of a community can present opportunities for viable for small enterprise and provision of services—is there sufficient population to support a bakery, a hairdresser, food coop? Note that enterprise efforts often fail in intentional community and ecovillage developments due to insufficient social catchment to support the business or service.

Social catchment analysis and community consultation processes can also reveal what things take people out of the community. In 1983 Nimbin’s village laundry burnt down. This had a major impact on the village economy as people commuted to Lismore to do their washing and consequently did their other shopping in Lismore – this resulted in an average 40% drop in trade turnover for most businesses in Nimbin village. When the new village laundry opened 10 years, later local trade picked up substantially.


Services Catchment

Services catchments involve identifiable networks of utility, infrastructure, transport and administrative services from the community to the regional level, together with their hierarchies and thresholds.

Examples of elements in a services catchment analysis include transport & mobility networks (pedestrian, cycleways, road, rail, air, sea/river etc); electricity grid & distribution, potential for co-generation, renewable energy resources and sites; waste management and recycling for solid waste, sewage and water; local government boundaries and precincts, higher government services and administration catchments; other regulatory bodies and services.

solarpanelssmlAn example of services catchment in my own village is electricity. Most electricity for this region comes from dirty coal generators some 500 kilometers away. The substation that services this subcatchment provides data to monitor energy use in the Nimbin valley district. There are over 100 households on stand-alone solar or microhydro systems, within the past 2 years over 55 households have installed solar grid-feed, and now the community has funding for a Community Solar Station which is currently installing solar arrays on roofs of 10 community-owned buildings in the village. When the community system is completed our local Rainbow Power Company experts have calculated that on a sunny day over 75% of the subcatchments electricity will be from the sun.


Of course there are many further insights, perspectives and examples of ways the ESM can be applied to integrated design for individual properties, communities, villages and whole bioregions.  Hopefully this short introduction will encourage designers to play with the ESM catchment overlays and use them as a tool for integrated design to keep the details in context with the bigger picture in mind.


Robyn Francis,  2010


References and related papers

Rural Residential Development – A New Approach by Sustainable Futures Australia [Peter Cuming, Robyn Francis, etc al.] for NSW Department of Planning,1993

Rural Settlement – Guidelines on Rural Settlement for the North Coast. (based on the above study Rural Residential Development] NSW Department of Urban Affairs and Planning ISBN 0 7310 6223 X , 1995

Ecovillage and Sustainable Settlement Design Course Handbook by Robyn Francis 1995, Revised 2002, 2006-7

From Aquarius Dreaming to Nineties Reality – Nimbin’s Coming of Age by Robyn Francis, 1996, IPC6 Conference Paper

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