Zone and Sector Analysis

One of the design methods used in permaculture that takes place early on in a site design is Zone and Sector Analysis. Through observation and gathering information about the site, its nearby surroundings, and the people who utilize or will utilize the site, we identify zones of use and sectors of energy that influence or affect the site. In this article we explore these two analyses.

What are Zones of Use?

We organize design elements into zones based on how they are used and how frequently, which helps optimize efficiency and organization of the site. For instance, zone analysis helps us decide to place often-visited kitchen herb gardens close to the house rather than out by the apple orchard. Even though both elements are growing food, we don’t want to have to traipse out too far in the morning to pick dill for our morning eggs. In contrast, we don’t need to check on the apple trees quite as often. When we do, we’ll likely be checking on other crops that require a similar level of attention, so we place those elements together farther away from the house.

Source: By Felix Müller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To understand the concept, zones are often depicted as concentric rings from the main focal point of a design–often a house, in the case of residential designs (see above). However, zones are not uniformly distributed like rings–they take on the shape of the design elements of the site itself, so they can look very different site-to-site (see below). 


Zone 00 to Zone 5

There are 7 zones of use that we often identify in our designs:

  • Zone 00: People
  • Zone 0: House, dwelling, or settlement
  • Zone 1: Areas needing continual observation and frequent visits
  • Zone 2: Less intensively managed areas
  • Zone 3: Occasional visited areas that still form part of the system
  • Zone 4: Wild food gathering, wood cutting for fuel, self-seeded trees
  • Zone 5: Natural unmanaged areas 

In many cases, we spend more time and detail on specific zones, based on the site itself. For example, if a site is in an urban or suburban area, we may not have zones 4-5 on the map for the property. Instead, we may note in the design report where the local forests are that wild food could be gathered. Similarly, we often don’t spend as much time detailing zones 00 and 0, although they are important elements to observe and consider because they do influence how the site is used. Zone 00 analysis comes through in the client profile and goals statement for the design.

For examples of what you might find in each of these zones (focusing on zones 1-5), please see the table below:

Source: Penny Livingston 

What are Sectors?

Sectors are energies that come from outside the site. We do a sector analysis in order to identify incoming energies that we may want to amplify/encourage, diminish/block, and/or prepare for. 

Examples of sectors:

  • Sun: The patterns of winter and summer sun
  • Wind: Cold, hot, seasonal, salty, dusty, carrying sound or smells
  • Wildfire
  • View: good, bad, or views into your site from elsewhere (privacy)
  • Pollution: sound, smell, toxins, electromagnetic energies, etc.
  • Water and precipitation: Flood-prone areas, rain flow, snow drifts
  • Wildlife corridors
  • Landforms: Slope, sunken areas, hills, mudslides
  • Shade: From buildings, billboard, vegetation
  • Traffic: cars, schoolchildren, police, vandals, etc.

Once we’ve completed a sector analysis, we consider whether we want to a) Block or screen out that incoming energy; b) Channel the energy in a particular direction for use; or c) Allow the energy to pass through the site unimpeded.

Zones and Sectors Analysis

Understanding how each zone is used and what energies are affecting that area allows us to begin locating design elements to meet the goals of our design. A design component is well placed when it is located in a zone and in sectors so that it minimizes work, energy, and resource use, and optimizes productivity and diversity.

Source: Drawing by Rob Allsop, from Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow.

Source: Drawing by Rob Allsop, from Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow.

Source: Drawing by Rob Allsop, from Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture by Rosemary Morrow.

Here’s an example of how to place a design element based on the zone and sector analysis: Imagine that the property we’re designing has a large southwest facing window. The occupants may welcome the winter sun to warm the house during the cold season, but they may want to shade the summer sun from the same window in order to preserve cooler temperatures indoors. A design element we might place in zone 1 in the sun sector could be an arbor with grapes, hops, or other deciduous vines. These plants fill out in the summer to provide shade, but then we harvest their fruit or flowers and they drop their leaves in the fall, allowing more sun to reach the home. Using vines with edible flowers or fruit provides an additional usefulness, and in the case of grapes, offers an easy-to-harvest snack to enjoy while sitting under the arbor in the summer. 

Zone and sector analysis can look very different for an urban or suburban site. Bart Anderson talks more about this in his article “Zones and Sectors in the City.”

Learn More

We learn more about and practice zone and sector analysis in our Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course. It begins every spring and fall. Learn more about this course and our other courses here.

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