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.

2 Responses

  1. The science of ecology speaks with unchallenged authority over Nature.  We are told that human accelerated climate change poses a threat to the continued existence of our species.  But beginning here with our very survival as the initial design problem, two undesirable propositions emerge.  The first is that any work of landscape architecture that does not slow the momentum of a warming planet can be said to be complicit in the downfall of our species. Thus, are we not compelled to act ecologically, to design with nature?  The second is that even the most poorly designed space that includes plant material can be argued to be contributing to saving the planet. Thus, does ecology not trump aesthetics? For landscape architects to consider nature, described by the science of ecology, as having some active role in the design process seems self-evident.  McHarg’s command has been fully adopted.  While perhaps one may be able to find the occasional project which is silent on the role of nature, to design against it is unheard of.  So why do we remain on a path towards total desolation of the environment?  Perhaps we should remember that McHarg substantiated his position with a deep theological belief.  Ecology was only a means to an end, a way of argument we have adopted.  While designing with nature is taken for granted, what nature is has received less scrutiny.  While we need not accept the theology of nature that McHarg ascribed to, I do think we would do well as a profession to articulate why nature is uniquely critical, or be prepared to see further loss.

  2. To prepare for this assignment, I took Design With Nature down from the shelf. I bought this first paperback edition of 1971 new at $5.95 from the University of Kentucky bookstore. I was a junior, majoring in botany. Three things happened as I opened the book: I smelled the edgy perfume of an old but not antique book; A torn, printed bookmark from the Louisville Free Public Library listing the branches and their hours fell out. The bookmark indicates that I read the book at home, so that would have been the summer before my senior year. These little accidents led me to realize, with a visceral immediacy, how McHarg’s thought and academic descendents have been key in my emergence as an urban ecologist. McHarg and his book did two things for me. It planted a seed that lay dormant in my mind while I conducted ecological research in oldfields, primary forest, woodlands in the Hudson Valley, and African savanna — ecology and design needed to be in dialog to improve the places where people lived, and the places beyond. That remains central to my philosophy as an urban ecologist. Second, McHarg’s students in practice and academics recognized a budding urban interest in me, and engaged me in formative conversations. I was happy to be reminded that the extent to which I have worked at the boundary between urban design and ecology goes back to McHarg. Founding Director + Professor, California Center for Sustainable Communities UCLA Institute of the Environment + Sustainability

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