What would McHarg do?

designWithNatureBookIan L. McHarg grew up in Clydebank, Glasgow and after serving in the Second World War went on to study and practice Landscape Architecture in the US. His ideas were influential in modern Landscape Architecture, Planning and Design, and his 1969 book Design With Nature, presented these key ideas.

In many ways the world is catching up with his early ideas, and in doing so we are trying to find new ways to implement them with new technology and spatial statistics. At Geofutures we see many of our approaches as inherently ‘McHargian’.



McHarg was an early adopter of the idea of sustainability, before the word had become popularised in planning and policy practices. He identified the intolerance of nature; ‘Nature is doing a great deal of work for man, without any human investment’, and the need to understand ecological processes holistically for places to become sustainable.


He was interested with constructing causality to identify appropriate environments, and to understand how a place came to be, what it is, and where it’s going. His approach was quantitative and spatial, providing the evidence for design.

In his approach, the synthesis of data is key. An integrated approach provides greater explanation of an area than the sum of its parts. Chronology was also important: the ‘unifying rubric’ for examining impact and change.


He wanted a global ecological inventory in order to aid his systematic approaches. At the time of his death in 2001, the widespread capture and availability of relevant geographic data was still in its infancy. In some ways we have achieved what he hoped for with the advent of big, fine scale data from multiple sources disseminated more easily over the Web. But are we using that data in the way he had hoped?


By the 1990s the development of new technologies provided an automated way of carrying out his systematic approaches like suitability and overlay analysis. He is seen by some as providing the base ideas for modern GIS. But he surmised that this heightened focus on technology distracted from the systems themselves, and analysis became limited in integration, not equal to those plans produced in the 1960s and 70s by himself and others.


Future McHarg?

So where are we today, and how do we develop and implement these ideas further?

If we assume that sustainability is on the decision-making agenda and data is abundant, where are the opportunities for improvement? Where are the knowledge gaps?

McHarg was initially focused on the ecology of the natural environment. Many of our models examine planning from the perspective of economies and societies also. Indeed we often apply ecological principles to other aspects of sustainable places, for example diversity statistics for businesses in areas of economic activity, and the eroding of social infrastructure. An integrated approach can consider all aspects of ‘man and environment’.

McHarg also understood the importance of space, and presented a geographical approach. The non-sustainable principles affecting our society are evident within data, spatially. However many spatially explicit problems are being missed. We need to go and find them. They leave patterns in the data at multiple scales. Long term change is preserved in the landscape. In contrast many of the trends we are looking for in our society are those that are more immediate, and these trends are generally first expressed spatially. For example, people notice the out of town movement of retail because it is having a radical effect on the retail space around them.

At the heart of his systematic approach was the idea of reproducible decision-making through data. But the idea of ‘design’ is still inherent in much of our planning practice, and tools like overlay analysis and selection methods may appear too deterministic for designers. In order to be successful, tools can present themselves as usable guides rather than answers in order to reach an audience and find a balanced approach to planning. All too often GIS and spatial analysis are seen as side-projects, not relevant or too technical for those making decisions. Our challenge at Geofutures is to make accessible quantitative tools.

And of course integration is still key. As the McHarg Centre notes, it is still the integration of data which remains the greatest problem.

Finally, and perhaps key to his understanding was the need to use the results of his models to reveal areas of opportunity rather than restriction; as a positive approach to guide development

We have produced a series of methods and toolkits for multiple clients, synthesising data in order to construct causality in a McHargian way. You can see some examples on this website relating to gambling risk, transport impacts, and sustainable housing impact models amongst others. For more information and ideas on how we can help your research question or study, please get in touch.

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