Using Google Earth Pro for Your Permaculture Design


During my second semester of grade 11, I had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand and finish off that semester of school there. I didn’t have much of a choice on where I’d end up staying, but was given an address for the location of the family that was to be hosting me. It was then that I was introduced to Google Earth, as I naturally wanted to see what I was in for and this tool allowed me to see what the lay of the land was. After all, what teenager wouldn’t want to see where on Middle Earth they would be? Lucky for me, my host family was located about a 30 minute drive from where scenes of The Shire were filmed, so I was happy as a clam. Until I got there that is, at which point realized the family was nuts and then found myself using Google Earth to look back at my own home for any sense of comfort – I eventually got used to the family, overcame my homesickness, and look back in fondness. When I was taking a look a Google Earth though, I naturally started taking a look at everything that there was to look at – and having the whole world at my fingertips, there was a lot to look at. I could go back in time to see how my hometown of Calgary sprawled across the prairies, watch the course of rivers change, or observe with slight horror the rapid rate at which forestation was occurring around the world.

Twelve years later, and I am using Google Earth Pro (GEP – which had previously been a paid product until 2015) as a solutions-based software that allows me to effectively design a property with a birds eye view – and, it’s super easy to use. That being said, some may be new to this tool and having not grown up with it may find it a bit difficult to get the reins on it, which is why I created a course on it! You can check that out here. In the course, I go over the simple yet powerful tools in GEP, especially when leveraged with other layers (which I’ll get into later). For now, I will focus predominantly on the tools that come with GEP and how you can use them to more effectively design your property.

The first (and most simple) direct measurement tool I will showcase is the line tool…the line tool allows me to measure any point from A to B (as the crow flies), and the elevation profile for this line. The elevation profile gives you a cross sectional chart to pinpoint exactly where in your land the undulations occur, and the flatter parts.

The polygon tool is next, which allows you to encircle an entire area and investigate its properties. For example, you can use this to investigate the perimeter and/or area of a paddock, and then accurately divide this up for rotational grazing. Furthermore, one other utility I found for this was creating various ‘hazard’ sectors on my property. In conjunction with the historical imagery tool that allows me to track the changes in the stream running through my property, I have an idea of the behaviour that may occur in the future – thus, I have set up some “erosional sectors” with the polygon tool whereby I can expect the stream to wash away the bank in the coming years. Obviously, I won’t be building anything that I want to last for a while in these areas! One other utility for the polygon tool is the placement of ponds, which is largely helped out by some third-party software (again, I’ll get into this in a bit).

The path tool comes next, which as the name suggests draws a path. You certainly can do just that if you’d like, and you likely will if you choose to use GEP for your design, but that’s certainly not all it can be used for! The benefit of the path tool when compared to the line tool is that you can add zig, zag, go back and forth, and introduce smooth sinusoidal curves. Aside from representing my access (roads, paths, secondary ancillary paths, etc.), I have used the path tool to highlight both contemporary stream flows, and streams that will evolve from ephemeral to permanent upon restoration. Other water features I have chosen to plan for in my design with the path tool are swales, and diversion drainage systems. Finally, I have used the path tool to indicatewhere I would like to place windbreaks.  Once you get the hang of GEP, you can colour code all of these features, giving any one you are showing your design to an immediate feel for what is happening both in your design and in your brain – plus it just looks really cool.

The last direct measurement tool that I’ll cover is the circle tool, which allows you to draw a circle of a given radius around a particular point. At first, this may not seem all that useful…which is what I thought at first as well. That is until I needed to find a way to neatly depict my sectors around my map. Upon realizing this utility, I found the central point of my property and then drew a circle that was to act as my baseline at the periphery of my property. From there, I drew several circles in ever-increasing radii at equal intervals. For example, the first circle may have had a radius of 250m, then the next circle (with an equal central point as the first) had a radius of 255m, with the next one having a radius of 260m, and so on and so on. I repeated this several times until I had a multitude of circles around the outside of my property (see the picture). As you can see, the end result is a series of concentric rings around my property with equal distance between each, giving me a nice template to “fill in the blanks”. I used these rings in conjunction with the polygon tool to delineate sectors, which gives me the added benefit for colour coding as well. For instance, the summer sun sector can be colour coded with something bright, which can contrast with your summer sun sector as something a bit darker, and can be placed immediately adjacent to the summer sun sector for ease of recognition. If this route seems a bit too cumbersome for you, it’s possible to add a photo overlay on your map that shows depicts solar angle information (such as from Another neat and sneaky way to introduce sectors is by adding a placemark icon that accurately represents the information you’d like to convey and linking it to a graphic. By clicking that place-mark, it automatically opens up that graphic, giving you the information you need!

At this point, you may be asking yourself how I am able to plan for the location of my swales given the fact that they need to be on contour. The simple solution for that is the Comprehensive Mapping Package from Contour Map Generator. The innovative mapping package gives me ten layers that makes the design process intuitive. For more information on using the Comprehensive Mapping Package, I suggest taking a look at this blog post by Rob Avis on the concept of mainframe design, recently posted on the Permaculture Research Institute’s website.

If you are looking to get started with designing the property of your dreams and want to get started with using Google Earth Pro, check out my comprehensive mini-course with more than two hours of instruction where you will learn all the tips, tricks, and tactics that you can use to gain a more enriched understanding of your land.

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