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50 Years After Design With Nature, Ian McHarg’s Ideas Still Define Landscape Architecture

McHarg’s faith in science and rationality may seem quaint, but his political activism has never been more timely.

mcharg design with nature 50th anniversary
The publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature in 1969 signaled the high-water mark of the ecological movement in the United States. McHarg, who founded the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania, heavily promoted the book, even appearing on television programs such as The Mike Douglas Show. Courtesy the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

The past half century of landscape architecture belongs to Ian McHarg. No one, before or since, has done more to shape its design culture or captivate the public’s imagination at large. And nothing better exemplifies the scale and scope of his impact than his 1969 book Design with Nature.

The first copies landed in stores on April 8 of that year amid a ferment of activism and environmental consciousness erupting throughout the nation. Organizers and activists were building a movement to confront the ecological crises of the time—corporate pollution, rampant suburbanization, industrial agriculture—and McHarg’s book quickly pushed him to the center of the zeitgeist. Like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Design with Nature helped instigate what’s become known as the environmental decade—a series of political victories that produced landmark legislation including the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (better known as the Superfund program, 1980), as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970). In it, McHarg argued that landscape architecture alone was positioned to integrate the sciences, arts, and planning through what became known as the “layer-cake method,” or suitability analysis, which predated the invention of geographic information systems, or GIS, among other mapping technologies.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, McHarg took the stage at a Philadelphia rally that many of his students had helped organize. (He founded the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape architecture department and served as its chair from 1956 to 1986.) From the podium he bellowed, “Why do I have to be the one to bring you the bad news? You have no future.” The culprit was the nation’s industries that “are the guarantee of your extinction”—a refrain that echoes throughout contemporary calls from activists and journalists like Kate Aronoff to try fossil fuel company executives for crimes against humanity. McHarg sought to change everything about the field of landscape architecture: its methods of inquiry, its impact, and, most importantly, its cultural and political orientation. He envisioned a profession free from the tethers of unchecked capitalist development, with a conception of “nature” and “public,” rather than real estate developers, as the clients. For a time it seemed as though McHarg and his agitating colleagues Narendra Juneja and Ann Strong might actually succeed in linking a relatively elite profession with the activist fervor of the 1960s and ’70s.

mcharg design with nature 50th anniversary
In Design with Nature, McHarg explicated his “layer-cake” method of site analysis (seen here), which he developed with Penn students enrolled in the ecological planning program. Courtesy the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Needless to say, they did not. It’s true that McHarg’s techno-utopian ideas of fitness, suitability, and the ability of data to reveal the “right” answers pulled landscape architects out of gardens and parks and into larger territories of action. He came to view landscape architecture as an exercise in problem solving, predicated on the notion that ecological concepts and rational planning could provide designers with a ticket to relevance in an ever-more-technocratic world.

Yet, the limits of such an approach were already apparent by the time Design with Nature was published. With the failures of Modernism obvious for all to see, the design establishment began pushing back against the rational planning methods that arose during McHarg’s zenith. In 1981 Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency, ushering in an era of devolutionary politics that would undo many of the hard-won environmental victories of the previous decade. It gave rise to the logic of mass privatization and monetization—often referred to as neoliberalism—including resources like clean water, now deemed too expensive to provide in communities like Flint, Michigan. Those reversals in national policy and design ideology ultimately sank the world Design with Nature’s philosophy endeavored to build.

Buoyed by the clout of the elite institutions at its center—including my own, Penn—the design establishment thrived in many respects during this reactionary period, consolidating the various forms of practice that had emerged throughout the 20th century into a nearly homogeneous, client-driven, corporate model. The academy also shifted its focus to the “fundamentals” of design—aesthetics, urban greening, and eventually landscape urbanism. In the rush to depoliticize the field, landscape architecture drifted away from the movements and activists Design with Nature hoped to serve. Partisanship became the filter through which decisions about public policy and investment—including those about infrastructure and the built environment—are made, and landscape architects largely abandoned partisan fights. Today, in our own moment of weaponized disinformation, McHarg’s faith in science, data, and rationality can seem quaint, at least in its theory of data-driven change.

mcharg design with nature 50th anniversary
But more than offering techniques, Design with Nature recast design as a political terrain; a year after publishing his book, McHarg spoke at a rally coinciding with the inaugural Earth Day. Courtesy The Daily Pennsylvanian

In McHarg’s wake, it’s hard not to read much of landscape architectural labor as either an endorsement or a critique of his ideology and methods. Many of his acolytes still carry his torch, exemplified by works such as OLIN’s Los Angeles River Master Plan, which directly employs land suitability methods across a 51-mile stretch of one of the nation’s most highly engineered waterways. Still, practitioners like Anne Whiston Spirn and James Corner Field Operations have challenged McHarg’s methods, arguing in various ways against the rationality of his plannerly approach and for more ethnographic and hermeneutic engagements with people and land. Spirn’s West Philadelphia Landscape Project is a career-long endeavor devoted to building community literacy and power around green infrastructure in West Philadelphia, while Field Operations’ Freshkills Park, a 2,200-acre greenbelt capping a Staten Island landfill, has been similarly slow to gestate and isn’t expected to open to the public until 2036.

These and other projects are featured in Design with Nature Now, an initiative comprising exhibitions, an anthology of critical essays, an international conference, and the public launch of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, with which I’m affiliated. Although partly commemorative in nature, Design with Nature Now will also tease out the parallels between McHarg’s 1969 heyday and 2019. Today, we find a young, diverse coalition of organizers in the Sunrise Movement, the now-national network of environmental justice crusaders, and newly elected political leaders like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar responding to the ecological crisis with the biggest design idea in a century: the Green New Deal. In just a few short months, they have forced the first sustained public conversation in decades about the future of the planet.

It also became impossible to ignore Ocasio-Cortez’s plea that we treat the resolution as a call for proposals. Indeed, I’ve come to view many of the projects in Design with Nature Now as prototypes for a Green New Deal: the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative as a model for low-tech decarbonization and biodiversity; DLANDstudio and ARO’s New Urban Ground framework as a model for coastal climate adaptation; and Healthy Port Futures as a model for linking green-collar jobs and environmental remediation. Beyond the exhibition, I’ve also come to view practices like MASS Design Group, SCAPE, and the Dredge Research Collaborative as prefiguring what a Green New Deal public works program might become.

mcharg design with nature 50th anniversary
To commemorate the book’s 50th anniversary, the newly launched Ian L. McHarg Center and the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design have organized Design with Nature Now, an omnibus initiative comprising exhibitions, an anthology of critical essays, and an international conference. Opening on June 21, its exhibition will examine contemporary landscape works such as James Corner Field Operations’ long-gestating Freshkills Park on Staten Island, which will be represented through original photography by Alex MacLean and Virginia Hanusik. Courtesy Virginia Hanusik

But these firms and ventures also reveal the inadequacy of project-driven practice to match the scale and scope of the climate crisis. Contemporary design professions are focused on sites, not systems, and on elite desires, not public interests. Global climate change is a product of a considerable body of design work, but is impossible to ameliorate through small, disconnected sites alone. The magnitude of the challenge before us simply exceeds the reach of conventional design projects.

In fairness, we cannot expect most of our elite firms and institutions to acknowledge this. They are market-driven enterprises, and for many, neoliberal policies have been quite good. We can expect continued calls for incremental change through projects; indeed, we already hear strains of that argument in the ether, with lip service paid to climate justice, while the machine of luxury real estate development continues to churn, free from critical analysis.

It takes a spectacular degree of self-delusion to look at the world around us and conclude that everything is largely fine—that we are but a few small tweaks away from building the world we’ve declared we need. If we’re going to achieve the goals of Design with Nature Now, we’re going to have to grow the profession of landscape architecture beyond the smattering of firms doing exemplary work within a broken system. We’ll have to build models for practice that go beyond the endless rush of competitions that yield few results and rely on an under- or unpaid class of young, contingent workers. We’ll have to make hard choices about whom we’ll work for, where we’ll work, and the degree to which, as the Green New Deal demands, we’ll consider workers and the public our clients instead of elites. We’ll have to look to activism.

And, if we take the IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5°C report seriously, we’ll have to do it all by 2030. To do so, we’ll have to begin today.

You may also enjoy “At the Chicago Botanic Garden, a New Space Helps Kids Deeply Engage With Nature.”

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