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Shaping the future with permaculture

Permaculture designer Marcus Pan uses map.geo.admin as the basis for his planning and consulting activities, as well as for his own specific project: Switzerland’s first learning and demonstration farmyard for regenerative agriculture – Auerhof, which is being created in Feldbach (canton of Zurich).

10.06.2020 | DKW


Permaculture is a design principle for sustainable, ecological and economically viable systems that are largely self-regulating and self-preserving. It is normally associated with horticulture and agriculture, but also has a broad variety of other potential applications: residential developments, companies, communities, projects and buildings can all be organised according to the principles of permaculture.

At the “Down to Earth” Academy for Permaculture Design, students learn how to successfully create and operate permaculture systems. The Academy was founded by permaculture designer Marcus Pan. In our interview he explains how he uses maps and data from swisstopo.

Trix Barmettler and Marcus Pan
Trix Barmettler and Marcus Pan

Marcus Pan, how do you proceed when you prepare your planning and consulting activities?

The first thing I do is visit map.geo.admin. I find out where the plot of land in question is located, which region it’s in, and how the immediate surroundings look. I collect a variety of data about the local topography, soil and general conditions. In this way I can gain an initial impression before I have even been on site, and this helps me prepare my advice. Students at the Academy also make frequent use of map.geo.admin.

What can you learn from map.geo.admin about the soil conditions?

I can see what kind of rock exists there, for example, whether the ground is susceptible to erosion and how steep the terrain is. This information gives me a good idea of what to expect. I can also find out how the land has been used in the past, whether it has been regenerated and if it is located in an agricultural zone.

How does map.geo.admin help you with your planning?

I download all the available information from the website and print out the map, including the scale and contour lines. I can see the buildings on the ground plan. I superimpose my zoning and sector plans over it, check the layout of the network of paths and which way the water flows. The maps also show where water courses and drainage systems are located. For the planning of permaculture systems, water management is of the utmost importance. We always have to initially find out where the water comes from and where it flows to.

What do you need for this purpose: aerial images or maps?

Both. I initially work with aerial images, but I also find the Siegfried maps extremely useful because they show how the terrain used to look a long time ago.

Why is it important to know the site’s history?

I need to know how it was used in the past. This helps me decide which strategy to choose. If I can see that crops with a high nutrient intake had been cultivated there until recently, I know that the soil is almost certainly depleted and may even be polluted. If this is the case, the soil needs to be regenerated before it can be used again for intensive cultivation.

How were things done before the existence of map.geo.admin?

A great deal more time was required in order to obtain all the necessary information, and the whole plot had to be manually measured and levelled. We had to carry out many more spade tests because we needed information about the soil and water situation, and we had to dig ditches everywhere, often with the aid of a mini-excavator. The entire operation was much more complex.

Your own project is the Auerhof site. What were you able to find about it thanks to the maps?

The site was used for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables until the 1980s. If we study earlier maps we can see that every square metre was planted out. From more recent maps we can see that this intensive cultivation gradually declined. The grass was cut, but the soil was able to regenerate. This tells me that I can now begin to cultivate crops because the soil is regenerated. From the Siegfried map dating from around 1800 we can also see that this site was once wetland. There is a source from which the water can be fed downwards and beneath which there is a basin. This is perfect for establishing water gardens, but is entirely unsuitable for cultivating fruits or vegetables, for which the source needs to be closer to the surface. 


You practice keyline farming there. What does that entail?

Generally speaking, we grow everything along the contour lines and simultaneously install irrigation channels. The plants hold the ground together and the water is retained in the troughs and trickles slowly into the soil. Today we face the problem that there is either too much or too little water. During the summer it is too dry, and when it rains heavily there is suddenly too much water on the ground. With keyline farming we can retain the water in the soil. And we can determine the contour lines we need for planning purposes from the maps produced by swisstopo.

In your opinion, how could map.geo.admin be improved?

The depictions of shrubs and bushes are not always up to date and we often only see them for the first time on images recorded by drones. Personally, I would also like to know how it would be possible to obtain data concerning the deeper soil layers, i.e. down to a depth of one metre. And of course it would be great if we could obtain same-day satellite images!

20th anniversary of COGIS (Coordination of Geoinformation and Services)

The COGIS (Coordination of Geoinformation and Services) Division commenced operation on 1 January 2000. Its mandate: to secure coordination in the field of geoinformation so that it would not be necessary for each federal office and each canton to develop its own infrastructure. Under the influence of COGIS, swisstopo was transformed from a producer of geodata into a service centre whose products and services can benefit the entire population. One of the products COGIS created is the “” geoportal, which offers a diverse and comprehensive range of attractive services for everyone.

Further information about COGIS
Federal Office of Topography swisstopo Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern
+41 58 469 01 11


Relevant authority

Communication and Web

Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern


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