#22 The Possible City: Ecological Zones & Natural Farming with Patrick Lydon
Philippe I.
Jackson Steger
Alison Burgess
October 16th, 2022

Even if we’d like to think otherwise, people are closely linked to nature.  When nature suffers, in time we do too.  Understanding that our relationship with nature is out of balance, Patrick Lydon has committed to sharing how we might embrace natural systems for our own, and Mother Earth’s, benefit.

In this episode, Jackson chats with Patrick— the writer behind CityAsNature.org and The Possible City Substack — about natural farming, pocket farms, community engagement, and using human waste to power our cities.

Cabin also balances nature and human convenience in our neighborhood growth. Check out our neighborhood criteria, and let us know a perfect place to add. You’ll also get our email newsletter packed with Cabin news and ways to get involved with the community.

Topics Covered:

  • Introduction to Patrick and His Career — (2:07)

  • Problems Patrick Thinks Are Worth Solving — (3:40)

  • The Principles of Natural Farming — (5:05)

  • How Field Plowing Began — (7:44)

  • Why Weeds And Insects Are Not Your Enemies — (9:02)

  • How to Incentivize Natural Farming — (11:30)

  • Cities and Natural Farming — (13:10)

  • Pocket Farms — (15:50)

  • How to Engage Communities — (18:37)

  • Bomunsan Forest Protocols — (20:19)

  • The Right of Way for Rivers and Allowing Nature to Curate — (23:45)

  • Using Waste for Power — (25:32)

  • Keep in Touch with Patrick — (28:41)

Want to learn more about what new technologies are waiting to be released? Follow us on Twitter or join our Discord to find out what's in store for us and how we make use of Web3 in both digital and physical space. See you at the next Campfire 🏕️🔥.

Episode Links:

Episode Credit:

Hosted by @JacksonSteger

Sound Engineering by @Prodcolin

Videos and Clips by @McdonnellCallum 

Produced by @PhilippeIze

Distribution by @Alisonclaire and @PhilippeIze


[00:00:00] Jackson Steger: All right, everyone, snuggle up and get your s'mores ready. This is Jackson Steger, and you're listening to Season 2 of Campfire. Let's get it. 

[00:00:09] This season of Campfire seeks to understand how to build new cities. Each week we are joined by experts and practitioners from different startup cities who will share the stories and lessons that they have learned from experimenting with radical new models of living. Cabin is building its own network city of coliving neighborhoods, which you can learn more about by visiting www.creatorcabins.com or by following us @CreatorCabins. Our first location outside of Austin, Texas is now accepting applications for residents with our other neighborhoods soon to follow. If you're interested in long-term coliving at beautiful locations with nature out the front door, high speed internet, and actual campfires, plus unlimited sauna use, you can sign up today by visiting www.cabin.city

[00:00:50] Also, let us know if there's a guest that we should have on the show. If you introduce us to a city builder or a neighborhood developer and we book them, we'll reward you with Cabin tokens. Today’s guest is Patrick Lydon, an author, filmmaker, and urban ecologist who writes the Possible City Substack all the way from South Korea.

[00:01:07] The Possible City is a collection of short stories, photo essays, and other content about solutions for the equitable ecological cities of the future. Our conversation today is about natural farming, micro-diversity in neighborhoods, and how to have diverse forested zones within a community. 

[00:01:23] At the beginning of the episode, you’ll hear us reference a documentary that Patrick directed, called Final Straw: Food, Earth, and Happiness. We'll put a link to the abbreviated free 20-minute version of the film in the show notes. Cool. Your marshmallows are probably done roasting. Grab some graham crackers. Let's get on with the episode. 

[00:01:43] Patrick Lydon, welcome to Campfire. 

[00:01:45] Patrick Lydon: Hi. Good to be here, Jackson. 

[00:01:47] Jackson Steger: I’m really excited to talk about how we make cities more equitable, more resilient, more regenerative, and I think that you bring a really fresh perspective to this city building conversation that we haven't really gotten into with past guests yet. But before we go like super tactical, I would love for you to just tell us a little bit about yourself. What are you working on, and what's really the thread that ties your life or career together right now? 

[00:02:13] Patrick Lydon: Well these days, about 10 years ago, I left Silicon Valley, that's where I grew up, and I worked there in the tech industry for a while. I studied art, but like everyone who grows up in that valley ends up doing this stuff, and it was a really interesting experience. But I saw a lot of cracks developing in the way that we're living there in the valley, and that a lot of the solutions we were coming up with there weren’t really addressing the problems.

[00:02:38] And so, I got frustrated with all of that, and I decided to go look for answers elsewhere. And long story short, we ended up making the film with which you saw, Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness. That project was supposed to just be an interview like this one with a farmer, and it turned into a four-year project.

[00:02:57] And through that, we had this huge perspective change as to how we solve problems. So, the basement of where we work from these days is actually from those farmers that we interviewed during the making of that film. Their whole thing is based on if we're going to find the way of living equitably, growing food equitably, having a society that is equitable, not just between people but between ourselves and the environment, then we need to start by building relationships just like we would between humans. So that's the basis of our work, is build a relationship with nature where you are first and start from there, and that can help inform what you do in a good way. 

[00:03:39] Jackson Steger: You mentioned that your time in Silicon Valley, you noticed that the approaches the tech was taking weren't solving the important problems. What are those problems that you refer to? 

[00:03:50] Patrick Lydon: It’s so funny because these days, it was simpler then, and at that time, around 10 years ago, people were just getting on board with, oh, there's all these ecological problems. So that was the beginning of kind of this really big push about climate. And not just climate but realizing all of the ways that we're degrading the environment in ways that, we call it regenerative now. So, we are not thinking in a regenerative way, we're just thinking of an extractive way, how much can we take until this thing doesn't have any more to give, and we realized that's not a good way to go. But at the time, 10 years ago, people weren't even talking about that. And that was really frustrating to me, that especially cities weren't, you’ve got to take care of your own backyard, you have to take care of your own region, you have to figure out how to localize as much stuff, so that you have control over your energy, you have control over your food, and those are still getting out of control today, but at least I think people are aware of these issues now.

[00:04:44] Jackson Steger: The awareness is in no small part due to storytellers, like yourself, who create these media publications that sort of drive certain narratives forward. And one of the things I really liked in the film is you talk about this man, named Masanobu Fukuoka, I’m probably butchering that pronunciation, but…

[00:05:03] Patrick Lydon: No, you got it.

[00:05:05] Jackson Steger: A good part of the core message, at least in the version I saw, is that there are certain principles of natural farming that cities might be able to incorporate, and this struck me as the best example of a regenerative practice in that film. And so, yeah. For the audience, could you highlight what are those principles of natural farming? What is natural farming? Why is that a good alternative to other farming? What is even like the current status quo of farming and why isn't it natural farming? 

[00:05:37] Patrick Lydon: Sure. People are probably familiar with organic farming to a certain extent, right? The organic food movement has been around for a while. And that's a certification system which has, you know, positive things about it and negative things about it. You can enforce a system that's certified, but you can also distort it and leverage it to the people who hold the power, the bargaining power, in any situation. 

[00:06:00] Natural farming is way different than that. It's just a mindset of how you approach a situation. Whereas, organic farming is supposed to be this, okay, here's the end result of what we think is going to be good for people in the environment, and here's all these rules to follow. Natural farming is the beginning of that process. And the natural farmers realize that these kind of certification systems don't apply everywhere because everywhere is different. Every field is different. Every person is different. Even the kind of food you want to eat or the kind of food that wants to grow in a certain place is different everywhere. And so, natural farming is based on cultivating a relationship with the land where you are, first of all, and making sure that there's dialogue between you and the land that you're paying attention to what's going on. 

[00:06:47] There are some rules that Fukuoka and other farmers developed, but they're really loose rules. Rule number one is don't till the land, don't dig up the land because, and that's a big one, and that one's realized in organic farming these days lately too. That when you dig up the soil, the soil's a living thing, there's a whole community of microorganisms and fungal networks, all these things underground, that you’d need to have a healthy soil and to have healthy food and to have this regenerative thing going on. And if you dig all that up, which farmers usually do every year, the sun does its job in killing everything that comes up, and all those communities are ripped up and destroyed as if you have a picture city underground. And then every year you just go rip up the city and blow up all the buildings and kill all the people in the city, and everyone's running away. That's the scene on most farms. And so, they realized, well that's probably not a good thing. We want to keep that intact. 

[00:07:45] Jackson Steger: And I definitely want to hear the other rules too, but why did we start plowing or tilling? What made humanity think this was a good idea? What were the incentives pushing us to do that?

[00:07:55] Patrick Lydon: You could trace it historically to a few different places, but I would say that it was a change in our mindset as human beings, where hunter gatherers or what are called proto farmers, who are messing around with farming but not also doing hunting a thing. I mean at this point in humanity, we still believed that we were part of nature. We still had this understanding that humans are ecological beings. We're different from other beings, but we're ecological, we're part of this ecology. And at some point in human history, the natural farmers, one of my mentors, Larry Corn, who's from Oregon, he's a soil scientist, and he says right around the time where agriculture started, that's where humans got this idea that we're a separate thing from nature, like we're really special. We're up above nature and the rest of nature is below us. And a lot of people blame that on Dukart, but it happened way before him. Agriculture started a long time ago. And yeah, that was the beginning of that separation. So, we're masters in nature, and that's actually what we're coming to realize is not actually true. Yeah.

[00:08:59] Jackson Steger: And so, another two examples of things that are a part of nature, but that humans probably think of themselves as better than, are weeds and insects. I'm no fan of mosquitoes. I've definitely seen places that are quick to weed their weeds and get rid of them. But one of the other principles of natural farming from the film was that weed and insects are not your enemies. So, can you help us understand why they're not our enemies and how can we help make them our friends? 

[00:09:30] Patrick Lydon: Yeah. And it doesn't mean that they're your best friend, but it does mean that you're not going to start a war with them. So, that's the distinction, is you tolerate them because you realize that in a monoculture, which most farming is these days, most industrial farming, if you plant all of one thing and create a monoculture, then you got big problems with weeds and with pests especially. And if you till the soil, it makes it even worse. 

[00:09:56] And one of these rules from the biological sciences is that biodiversity is super important, right? And it's just like, in a human community, diversity is really important because that creates this strength and this resilience because there's so many different ways of looking at something and doing something, that you find your way to move forward in the best way generally. So, the monoculture creates these issues with weeds and pests. 

[00:10:21] But if you have a farm where you're growing all sorts of different things, and this is not just natural farming, Permaculture does this agroecology, the thing they call regenerative agriculture, looks at this too. But there's a lot of different ways to do it. But the idea is if you have really diverse field with lots of stuff going on in it, and that includes weeds, then your field is way less susceptible to having pest invasions because they can't gain a foothold in your field. Whereas, if you're planting on one thing, then swarms can just come and knock everything out. But it's not possible if you have a diversity of plants in your field. That's what we see on the natural farms a lot, is they're intercropping a lot of different things. and it creates resilience. And they grow a lot more food per acre than any industrial farm I have ever seen. 

[00:11:12] Jackson Steger: Oh really? Oh, because that kind of leads into my next question, is I was going to make the assumption that the reason why we industrial farm is because there's just such strong demand for certain crops. So, if it is true that we can actually potentially harvest more food through natural farming, then like, well how can we incentivize our cities or our communities to promote more natural farming? What's stopping us right now? 

[00:11:38] Patrick Lydon: You know, I think the biggest thing, and you just hinted at it by saying demand, is that people don't know all of these different amazing, delicious plants that you can eat. We go to the grocery store and there's two different, there's you want a green apple, you want a red apple, you want the white corn, you want the yellow corn. And there's so much delicious stuff, including weeds, most of which are edible in those fields. And so, if you're talking calories and vitamins and all the things that your body needs, you're going to get a lot more of that per acre per whatever measurement you're using if you’re growing a really diverse set of plants and weeds. And we go out in the field, and we pick weeds when we're on these farms too, and we put them on top of our rice.

[00:12:24] And so, the big point here is people's diet has to change. They have to be aware of all these, and that's just going to take people being curious and investigating and being better, more creative chefs, and that could lead to a really amazing culinary scene in the city if we're all like dealing with weeds and all these plants that we normally don't see.

[00:12:43] Jackson Steger: Yeah, I'm down. I was just recently hearing about seaweed specifically and kind of all of its specific benefits. I guess then, you know, that sort of requires this huge societal shift away from some of the perhaps more sugar-oriented diets that we have. What if, say, we discovered like a new continent? Obviously, this is not really a realistic scenario, but let's just say there was a new piece of decently biodiverse land that was fertile and there's rivers, and we're going to found a new city at some Trident, those rivers, and kind of start from the beginning, how might you advise those city planners to design the city itself to be integrated with natural farming?

[00:13:32] Patrick Lydon: I would say even you don't need a brand new place to work with, and it doesn't need to be fertile either, because natural farming methodology will make it fertile over time because that's what nature does if you know how to help. But anyway. 

[00:13:48] The exhibition we're doing now here in in Daejeon in Korea kind of looks at this question too, and we recommend a few things. And the first, I guess the most important thing, is to look at the landscape as it is. Look at that ecosystem as it is, and very thoughtfully being aware of what's there and how the landscape works and how the water flows, and where the plants are, and where the animals are. Knowing how this landscape functions and regenerates itself really thoughtfully builds your city based on knowledge of what's there already. 

[00:14:26] And we don't do that today. We build cities in the easiest place, and usually that's the farmland and sometimes that's the floodplain, which causes disasters, especially these days. And just to be aware, and build – I think the best cities are really aware of their environment. They let the rivers flow. They don't mess with the rivers. They don't put them in canals. They know that the water does its thing. There's floodplains. They have to deal with this stuff in order for us to avoid disaster later on. You know where the water is going, where the forests are going. You allow things to be connected because the environment around the city needs to be connected in order for it to be healthy. These forests have to run all the way from mountain to all the way down to the forest. 

[00:15:11] We cut off all this stuff, and we build highways for ourselves, and then we forget about the highways for all the other animals, which are actually important for the health of the environment. So just to be aware. And then to build densely as they used to build cities in Europe. You build your cities densely and closely, so that they’re not using up all this land that we shouldn't be touching. And by densely, I don't mean 100-floor apartment towers. You can build a dense closed community and be really aware of your space without building skyscrapers. 

[00:15:45] Jackson Steger: Listeners will know that we've talked about this in other episodes, how so much of our space is currently allocated to cars in most big American cities at least, and how getting rid of all of that space for cars opens up all these other opportunities. 

[00:16:01] You wrote a post on this concept, called the “Pocket Farm”. So, could you just briefly share what is a pocket farm and how might metropolitan residents – so, I live in Santa Monica in L.A. – Like how might people like me or someone living in Brooklyn or in Northern Virginia identify spots to create pocket farms?

[00:16:24] Patrick Lydon: Yeah. That's a beautiful place for a pocket farm where you live, by the way. There might even be a few, I'll check it out and see if I can. So, pocket farm, basically this Scottish biologist/polymath, he did so many things, he was an urban planner also, the name Patrick Geddes, he had these plants in the super dense urban kind of slums in Edinburgh at the time. There was like a real problem with getting light to buildings and air circulation, and it was a little too dense. And so, he had the idea, well people need to be connected to nature anyway, so why don't we just put little pockets in nature. And that solves a bunch of problems. It connects us to nature, it gives us a place to sit and relax, it helps light and air get in through the cities. 

[00:17:10] And then I think he started to realize that it's not just that, but it started building a community, because a really important point is that the parks and cities today, in the U.S. at least, they’re all managed by the city, right? So, there's the maintenance team, and your tax money goes to pay them, and they do the work. But these pocket parks, the idea is that the community who lives there takes care of it together, which forces them to connect and make decisions together and build relationships among each other. 

[00:17:42] So, he realized that these things are sometimes there's a garden in it, sometimes it's trees and other plants. But the point was that people were going there and managing it together. And so, there's all these positive things happening just because you put this little garden in there and you gave people that, hey, you're the owner of this space, so you’ve got to take care of it. And when you do that, wow, it changes totally if you just plop a city park in the middle of a neighborhood, and you're like, oh, here's your park, and you don't have any responsibility for that park. So, he found that the social element to it was really important.

[00:18:16] Jackson Steger: I have a friend, her name is AJ, who has helped involve me and several of my other friends in this cool community garden project in Venice. A big part of how I've learned about it is there was a solstice watching party that we did at the garden, and there was this other buffet potluck day one time, and people brought guitars and there was music. But any other tactics for how one might engage the neighborhood and get people out and get them to see, because the scenery of this community garden, it very much looks like what I saw in your film, the sort of it has this almost wild look, but of course there's, it's not wild, there's thoughtfulness there. But how do we do that engagement process? Are there tools out there we should use or is this just more, not to make a bad pun, but like a grassroots organizing campaign?

[00:19:08] Patrick Lydon: Yeah, I think people, just people need a common goal. And then, again, as I said, they need agency. And one of the things that's gone wrong with the political process lately is there is no agency. People don't feel like they have power to change because it's become so big, even in cities. Autonomy is a big word for me, and this is just theoretical. It's not a solution, but it's a suggestion, that like what you're doing with Campfire. If city allows neighborhoods to have autonomy to make their own decisions about things to a certain extent, that would go a really long way to help people get engaged and to do things that would benefit them. And so, I think that's missing. And without that, it's really difficult to get people engaged, in my experience. Unless they're all interested in gardening in the community garden, that's a good way to do it. But not everyone is interested in doing that, and that's fine, but they need other ways to feel like they can shape the environment around them and like they have some control over that. 

[00:20:11] Jackson Steger: Appreciate that. I'm going to do a hard transition now into Bomunsan Forest Protocols. Could you explain what a Bomunsan Forest Protocol is? And then with that, what are the benefits of a continuous and diverse forested zone within a city?

[00:20:29] Patrick Lydon: Sure. The Bomunsan Forest Protocols, and it's the mountain right outside of our, it overlooks the city here, and it means Treasure Mountain in Korean. So, I was inspired by a few writers lately, and one of them is Robin Wall Kimmerer. I don't know if you've heard of her name. She wrote a book called, Braiding Sweetgrass, which is really great. 

[00:20:54] Jackson Steger: My roommate is reading that right now. 

[00:20:56] Patrick Lydon: And Diana Beresford-Kroeger, I think her name, she wrote a book, To Speak for Trees. And they're both scientists, but they both have this ancestral wisdom that they're rooted in before they became a scientist. And so, they talked a lot about these things we've been talking about so far here. One of them is that the trees have a lot of wisdom held in them, because in general they can be way older than humans, right? Like the oldest trees are 2000 years or more. And in Korea, they have specifically, and that's why we did the project here, they have these trees, called Dangsannamu, and it's a tree that's at the center of a village and it's a very old tree, usually it's like a Zelkova or usually it’s a Zelkova or a Camphor, depending on the climate. And these old trees are at the center of a village and they're the guardian tree. And people in the village sit under these guardian trees, and they go there every day, and they just chill out under the tree. And it's their wisdom tree. It's the place where they go to solve problems. It's the place where they go to be thankful. 

[00:22:13] And so, I thought that's a good starting point, is that there's a lot of knowledge in the trees. And if you watch the trees and you watch the forest and how the forest is, you come to learn a lot about how things should be, how the super complex system in the mountain built itself and maintains itself. And all of those lessons can be applied in some way to the way we build cities. So that's one thing, is if the forest is closer to us, we're closer to that understanding. 

[00:22:46] But also, there are tons of scientific studies these days. If you live closer to a forest, you're more likely to live longer, you're less likely to have cancer. Even during the COVID times, they found studies that people living near forests had less complications due to COVID. So, there are ways in which the forest helps humans be healthier just by being there, which is amazing. Then there's also all of the ecological things about holding topsoil in and creating fertility and letting the water sink into the soil and doing all these things that are really helpful for cities, especially when our climate's kind of going crazy, and we get these heavy rains and then we get dry seasons. And so, the forest helps with all that. And if we don't have them, they are cities, then we're screwed. 

[00:23:33] Jackson Steger: Yeah. I am curious how we might enable that phenomenon to occur much more often. You touched on this earlier when you’re talking about water flow. But what does it mean to have a right of way for rivers and streams? And how do we do less manicuring of our cities and instead let nature curate our meadows to the point that we're able to have all of these benefits and have these interconnected forest systems?

[00:24:02] Patrick Lydon: This might sound counterproductive, but I think we need to be more lazy. Honestly, our obsession with productivity these days is ridiculous. And where does most of that productivity go to? It doesn't go to stuff that's helping the environment or helping us continue to live here, if you look at it. So, part of that is what the natural farmers have done, and people tend to call them lazy farmers, even though they grow tons of food, is that they are super aware of what nature is doing. And when nature is doing something that works, they just let it be. And I call that wisdom, to know when to stop and when you need to chill out and sit back and have a beer and watch nature do its thing instead of obsessing about how it looks aesthetically. 

[00:24:51] And I studied design, so that's a big problem for me when I went to these natural because they look messy. And I'm super obsessive about having things be in order that I understand. But then after a few years, two years, three years, when you start to know what all the plants. and you start to know what they do, and you start to know which ones you can eat, then the order comes in and you're like, oh, yeah, now I can see everything, and it is beautiful. But before I knew what's there and before I paid attention, it's not beautiful. So, laziness but also awareness, practicing awareness every day, learning all the shit that's around you and what it's called and what it does. We don't do that hardly at all these days.

[00:25:32] Jackson Steger: Speaking of shit, could our cities one day be powered by poop? 

[00:25:36] Patrick Lydon: It is useful. 

[00:25:37] Jackson Steger: How so? Like how…

[00:25:38] Patrick Lydon: It is useful. Kobe City, like a lot of cities actually, but I visited the sewage treatment plant in Kobe, and they extract everything they possibly can out of the wastewater that comes from the city. And I talked to one of the engineers, and she said, yeah, our job, like on paper, our job is to clean the water just enough so that we can release it into the ocean, into the stream. And she said, but that's a really boring job, like who wants that job? Oh, I clean wastewater. And so, the engineers at this facility just started being creative and figuring out, okay, what's all the stuff that's in this wastewater and how can we use it?

[00:26:19] And so, they pump natural gas into the city gas pipelines directly from the anaerobic digesters that digest the sewage. So, they make gas, they heat their plant, they make power for the plant with the gas, and they give fertilizer to farmers, which is the leftover stuff after all these processes have happened. They make bricks that pave the city.

[00:26:48] So, it's crazy. Like when you have this obsession to, okay, we're going to try to use as much as these resources as possible so that nothing goes to waste. That's the mindset. And I think that comes from, in Japan at least, from the historical mindset of the Japanese people. And there's another really good book about Edo period Japan, called Just Enough: Lessons in Green Living from Edo or something, and know it was the time period before, yeah, before Tokyo and before kind of the borders were opened. 

[00:27:22] And Tokyo, which was Edo, called Edo at the time, they were the biggest city in the world, over a million people. The borders were totally closed, almost totally closed, to anything coming in or going out. And they had a super sustainable society with the Mega City, and it was because they looked at everything flowing out of the city in terms of waste, and they used all of it. All of the crap was people paid to take crap out of the city, and then they brought it to farmers and sold it to the farmers. So, there's an economy going on there. No one wasted anything. Everything was made out of materials that could be recycled and/or rebuilt into something else. And when they're finally done, it becomes firewood or it goes into a compost pond or something. It was incredible. Like that can be done. It was done. And Edo was not a medieval city that was super difficult to live in. It was a really alive vibrant city. So, the lessons were there, and we just need to, I don't know, have the look into it and have the drive to do it and be excited to go, I'm excited to do it.

[00:28:28] Jackson Steger: I'm excited too. And my takeaway from this whole episode is there's a lot of shit that we need to reimagine to know how we can be more resilient and create cities that, yeah, do have these regenerative traits. 

[00:28:40] Patrick, thanks so much for joining. Where would you like to direct folks who want to learn more about what you write about and learn about? What's the call to action that you want to have for them? 

[00:28:50] Patrick Lydon: Sure. Our website is www.cityasnature.org. That's our studio, www.cityasnature.org. Or also The Possible City at Substack. That's the weekly newsletter you can sign up for if you want to join in these kind of adventures, these shitty adventures, or otherwise interesting adventures on different takes on what's possible in our cities.

[00:29:13] Jackson Steger: Great. Thank you so much for joining, Patrick. I really enjoyed it.

[00:29:16] Patrick Lydon: Really happy to be here. Thanks for having me, Jackson? 


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