It all began by signing up for a Permaculture Design Course and never looking back.
In the 1980s, Penny Livingston Stark and James Stark began developing their 3/4 acre home in Point Reyes, California, into what eventually became the Permaculture Institute of Northern California (PINC). They transformed an undeveloped backyard into a living permaculture classroom, with features like a cob cottage and bread oven, a koi pond that recycles and reuses laundry and bath water, rainwater catchments systems, a vaulted strawbale cottage, and a permaculture food forest garden with fruit, nuts, herbs, berries, vegetables, and more. When nearly 100 people regularly showed up for tours of their home, James and Penny knew they needed to find another demonstration site to expand their work.
During this time, Penny and James were also working to develop two additional sites: the Skywater Center in Trinity County and the gardens at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Skywater is a large-scale restoration project that has hosted workshops on permaculture and wilderness awareness, forest management, erosion control methods, and keyline patterning. At IONS, Penny and James guided the development of a vegetable and perennial fruit garden, an artfully sculpted cob greenhouse, a series of flow forms for cleaning pond water, a rainwater harvesting system, and much more.
Still in search of the right location to fully manifest their vision, James and Penny found a unique opportunity in the small town of Bolinas, just north of San Francisco. In 2003, Commonweal president and co-founder Michael Lerner offered Penny and James a beautiful 17-acre site in Bolinas, adjacent to the Pt. Reyes National Park. Known as Commonweal Garden, this site had been developed in the late 1970s as an organic farm, but had been largely reclaimed by the wild and the existing infastructure was in state of disrepair. Commonweal hoped that James and Penny could revitalize the site and demonstrate how the principles of permaculture and regenerative living systems could create an oasis for human and environmental health.
With this opportunity to expand their work and vision, Penny and James moved to Commonweal Garden and founded the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to education and training skilled leaders in regenerative design.
Over a period of ten years, Commonweal Garden was transformed into an integrated, multifunctional, ecologically rich, and productive living classroom.
RDI enrolled over a thousand students during this time — youth, adults, families and elders — seeking a deeper connection with the natural world and solutions for restoring human and planetary health. Many of these students have since become activists, designers, farmers, community leaders, and educators, using what they have learned with RDI to make positive change in the world.
Today, Commonweal Garden continues to develop and grow in alignment with Commonweal’s mission to support healing, learning, and the environment. While Penny and James no longer direct RDI, they continue their visionary work at Commonweal Garden, developing and refining this multifaceted, integrated, living classroom and offering more intimate classes on personal and planetary transformation.