You can’t do permaculture design without a good base map

 In Design

Whether you live urban or rural, tropical or temperate, you need to understand the lay of the land before you can start designing your property with features like pathways, gardens, or food forests.

And the single best way to accomplish that is with a good base map – that is, a visual representation of the geography and terrain of your property such as you get with Google Maps. Onto this base, you can add further layers, say, focusing on contours, slope angle, waterways, and so forth, showing you the best (or worst) places to build or plant.

But how do you set up a base map for your permaculture property design? Well, generally you have three options: hand-draw your own; outsource to a surveyor; or get GIS (Geographic Information System) software to do the job for you. We’ll go over the benefits and drawbacks of each.

1. Draw Your Own

For the average person with an urban property, a hand-drawn base map is usually enough to get the job done. If all you’re looking to do is put in some garden beds, build a compost bin, and create some play space for your kids, you don’t need anything fancy or high-tech. 

Start by creating a rough outline of your property boundaries, draw in the outlines of your house and pathways, and go from there! And when it comes to contours, your observations are probably enough for you to get a sense of where your water is flowing. But if you’re unsure, on the next rainy day grab your raincoat and go look to see where the water is flowing and pooling; then come back in to put that on your base map!

You can certainly use hand drawings at a broad-acre scale, but if you’re looking to develop any structures, build swales, or plant an orchard, you’ll want to read on.

2. Hire a Surveyor

Up until recently, this was perhaps the only way you could obtain high-quality topographic data. You would pay someone thousands of dollars to come around with a special tool to map the contours of your property and then present you with a to-scale rendering. Expensive? Definitely! – but if you’re living on an acreage with rolling terrain, this information is invaluable. High-quality topographic data allows you to see opportunities for broad acre rainwater harvesting and site development that you can’t pick up by mere observation alone. 

Furthermore, a surveyor can determine your legal property boundaries. If you’re feeling like your neighbor’s wood pile seems to be creeping closer and closer each year, you’ll need a surveyor to come in and provide the final say on whether they are crossing your property line.

2. GIS / Google Earth Pro

Of all the Geographic Information System software we’ve used, Google Earth Pro is now our preferred tool for permaculture design at the broad-acre scale. It’s free to use, easy to learn, and incredibly robust in its ability to see your property’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Every time we open up Google Earth Pro, we kick ourselves for the tens of thousands of dollars we’ve spent over the years on surveyor’s fees…

But as great as Google Earth Pro is, there are some things it just can’t do; and over the years we still wound up having to call in surveyors to help us place some elements of our permaculture designs. So we started looking at ways of enhancing the Google tool…

…and ended up developing our own tool called Contour Map Generator (HERE).

Contour Maps Generator adds 10 high-quality topographic layers to the Google Earth Pro base map, yielding critical site information to drive your permaculture designs. With this integration, you can get a surveyor-quality base map for less than 1% of an average surveyor’s fee. It’s a great option for rural property owners, or if you’re looking to do permaculture design professionally. 

For urban property owners, Google Earth Pro will give you a bird’s eye view of your site, though a hand drawing is likely going to be a bit more accessible. If you are involved in a large-scale urban or suburban redevelopment project, however, Google Earth Pro and/or Contour Maps Generator could serve you well.

Bottom line? While there are certainly other options available for Base Maps, these are the options we have chosen over our collective decades as permaculture consultants, and these are what we typically recommend to our students and clients. 

We hope you found this overview useful! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to send them our way. 😊

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