Solutions for Self-Reliance

Bureaucracy vs. Resilience


Many of us want to add resilience to the communities we currently live in.  We don’t want to move.

However, that’s often very difficult.  It’s particularly difficult if you live in an urban community that’s mired in a swamp of bureaucracy.   Bureaucracy can quickly turn a challenging but promising community project into a waking nightmare that achieves far less than what it could or should.

Example:  Seattle’s Friends of the Food Forest

Here’s some of the bureaucratic hurdles a small group of people in the Beacon Hill area of Seattle faced when they attempted to add some food resilience to their neighborhood.  What did they plan to do?  They came up with the very smart idea of building an edible food forest on 7 acres of sloped and unused grassland (think highway median grassland) adjacent to the nearby public park.

For those of you that don’t know what a edible food forest is, here’s a quick primer.  A food forest is essentially a special type of wild garden.  What makes it special?  It’s designed to be a self fertilizing, self regulating ecosystem that automatically produces nutritious food without much human oversight.  The process of designing a forest or a garden this way is called permaculture.  See the diagram below for more detail.  I’ll dive into permaculture thinking and design more in the future.


Now that everyone still reading has an idea of what a food forest is, let’s get back to the story.  Excited about the potential of the project, the “Friends of the Food Forest”  started the process of getting authorization to build it.  That process started three years ago.  Little did they know how much bureaucracy they would run into.  Here’s a partial list of the bureaucrats and interested parties the “Friends” had to bring to the table for every decision (more detail):

  • Public Works.
  • Parks Department
  • Department of Neighborhoods
  • P-Patch
  • Professional design team (required by the Parks Department)
  • Water Quality Department
  • State Department of Health
  • Police Department
  • Beacon Hill Community Group

It took the Friends three years of meetings, wrangling, and raising funds to learn which parts of the bureaucracy wanted a place at the table and to negotiate a way to appease them.  Fortunately, the “Friends” team was tenacious.  They kept at it until they achieved success.

They have been given the green light to break ground.

However, as is always the case with so many bureaucratic stakeholders, the final design for the project was based on lowest common denominator.  The design is definitely much less ambitious than that initial vision, but it’s definitely better than nothing at all.

Final thoughts.  I’m not sure how many people have the time or the stomach for a fight of this magnitude or duration — and this was in a “progressive” city that had declared 2010 the year of urban agriculture.  Also, given that these food forests take many years to mature, time and effort may be better spent on locations that suffer from much less bureaucracy.



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