Visionaries of Regenerative Design IV: Ian L. McHarg (1920–2001)

McHarg regarded ecology — the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment — not simply as a new area of investigation for the natural sciences, but rather as “integrative of the sciences, humanities and the arts.” He believed ecology provided the necessary context for understanding the appropriate relationship between humanity and nature” (in Wahl, 2005c, p.15).

McHarg argued that all human design decisions should be based on ecological awareness. All design should express a culture-nature symbiosis and meet human needs while being beneficial to life as a whole. Design should learn from nature and support the cultural transformation towards a more widely held ecological worldview.

Design With Nature was Ian McHarg´s groundbreaking bool published in 1969

McHarg believed that cultural adaptation is the most effective and quickest way to adapt to environmental change and ensure humanity’s survival. He defined this ecological perspective as “a concept of nature as a creative process in which man is involved with all other life forms” (in Wahl, 2005c, p.16). In a recent article on McHarg and the emergence of the natural design movement I suggested:

“This kind of profoundly participatory understanding of humanity’s relationship to the natural world and the awareness that our continued survival as a biological species depends on our ability to participate appropriately in nature were the basis on which Ian McHarg called for a new approach to design. In his most popular book, Design with Nature, first published in 1969, McHarg proposes an understanding of evolution as a goal directed process leading towards an increase of complexity, order, diversity, cooperation, dynamic stability and consciousness. In order to design with nature human artefacts, edifices and institutions need to integrate into and positively contribute to this evolutionary process. Natural design is inspired by, learns from, and adapts to the forms and processes we observe in the natural world and aims to contribute positively to the health of the living planet as a whole. … Through adapting our designs to the opportunities and challenges of a particular environment, we can intelligently and creatively meet human needs within the limits of the environment and thereby contribute to overall diversity and dynamic stability, which is synonymous with human and planetary health (Wahl, 2005c, p.16).

McHarg’s call to ‘design with nature’ presaged the design approach of the 21st century — salutogenic, scale-linking, ecologically literate, and natural design. He was a visionary design educator, regional planner, and landscape architect. His contributions to design theory have not yet been fully recognized and may wel find increasing appreciation in the coming years as the natural design movement gains a more central position as the new design mainstream.

A telling example of McHarg’s vision as an educator can be found in the groundbreaking interdisciplinary course Man and Environment he designed at the University of Pennsylvania shortly after he established its Department for Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. The course explored the way that different perspectives on the relationship between humanity and nature will result in very different approaches and may alter the intentions behind design. It expressed McHarg’s conviction that in order to create socially and ecologically appropriate designs we will have to engage in a trans-disciplinary dialogue that helps us to build a multi-perspective understanding of the context within which we are creative as designers. A wide range of guest speakers contributed diverse perspectives from disciplines including: philosophy, theology, anthropology, psychology, economics, ecology, epidemiology, sociology and poetry.

The course and its trans-disciplinary, integrative perspective proved so popular that a US national television station (CBS) approached McHarg to create a talk-show on the same subject, which was broadcasted between 1960 and 1961 under the title ‘The House we live in.’ The talk show’s distinguished guests included, among many others, Margaret Mead, Erich Fromm, Sir Julian Huxley, Loren Eiseley and Lewis Mumford (McHarg, 1996, pp.157–165).

To provide such a profoundly interdisciplinary perspective, both in an academic course and on national television in the early 1960s may well have contributed to the rise of the environmental movement in the USA. It reveals McHarg’s understanding of the need for awareness raising and cultural transformation as a means to respond to ecological and social crisis. I would suggest that McHarg was fully aware that he was using two of the most effective media for cultural transformation in order to raise ecological awareness. Following the terminology introduced in chapter one, I would suggest that McHarg engaged in effective meta-design. He attempted to change design up-stream, in people’s conscious awareness and worldviews. The following three quotations from Design with Nature illustrate why McHarg will come to be remembered as a timely catalyst for the emergence of the ecological or natural design movement:

“Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but they unite us to it. Let this be known to be true. Let us abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of man-nature … Man is that uniquely conscious creature who can perceive and express. He must become the steward of the biosphere. To do this he must design with nature” (McHarg, 1969, p.5).

“Clearly the problem of man and nature is not one of providing a decorative background for the human play, or even ameliorating the grim city: it is the necessity of sustaining nature as a source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge and, most of all, of rediscovering nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning” (McHarg, 1969, p.19).

“Our failure is that of the Western World and lies in prevailing values. Show me a man-oriented society in which it is believed that reality exists only because man can perceive it, that the cosmos is a structure erected to support man on its pinnacle, that man exclusively is divine and given dominion over all things, indeed that God is made in the image of man, and I will predict the nature of its cities and their landscape” (McHarg, 1969, p.24).

As a landscape architect and regional planner, McHarg established an impressive record of practical design projects and developed a new regional planning methodology which ultimately lead to the development of the Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software, which is today employed by planning departments, architects, and regional and local government in many countries. The software can be used to overlay various maps — McHarg originally used hand-drawn acetates — depicting important environmental attributes of the area in question. By superimposing maps of the regional water courses, soil types, fauna, vegetation and geology, McHarg was able to better assess the probable environmental impact of a development in a certain site. The multi-layer mapping methodology helps in identifying suitable locations for new developments as well as ecologically and hydrologically sensitive areas that need to be protected from further development. “McHarg used a non-computerized version of this process as early as 1961, during his involvement with the highway route selection of the US Interstate 95, the first planning endeavour to employ a methodology for environmental impact assessment” (Wahl, 2005c, p.15).

“It is necessary that society at large understands nature as process, having values, limiting factors, opportunities and constraints; that creation and destruction are real, that there are criteria by which we can discern the direction and tests of evolution; and finally, that there are formal implications revealed in the environment which affect the nature and form of human adaptation” (McHarg, 1968, p.60).

McHarg’s design theoretical treatment of the subject of form in the context of his understanding of nature as an interacting and dynamically changing process is deeply insightful. To date, McHarg’s theory of appropriate form still lacks recognition. Its significance has not been understood widely enough. The theory applies to design on all scales, from product to bioregion and beyond. McHarg expressed these ideas most clearly in 1968, when he was invited to address the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University. He later gave the same paper at the Smithsonian Institution and it was eventually published under the title ‘Values, Process and Form.’ While aspects of the paper — with regard to word use and a few conceptual aspects– may seem slightly dated, it is nevertheless still deeply relevant today and should be discussed within any design curriculum. McHarg formulates an understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature based on life as a syntropic or negentropic agent in the evolution of the universe. Buckminster Fuller and McHarg are likely to have influenced each other in their formulation of this dynamic perspective.

“We must learn that nature includes an intrinsic value-system in which the currency is energy and the inventory is matter and its cycles — the oceans and the hydrologic cycle, life forms and their roles, the cooperative mechanism which life has developed, and, not least, their genetic potential. The measure of success in this process, in terms of the biosphere, is the accumulation of negentropy in physical systems and ecosystems, the evolution of apperception or consciousness, and the extension of symbioses …” (McHarg, 1968, p.57).

McHarg’s planetary integration of the human species into natural process and his understanding of the importance of the local, regional and global scale for human and planetary health and well-being anticipated James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’ formulation of the Gaia hypothesis (see chapter one). He argued; “The human organism exists as a result of the symbiotic relationships in which cells assume different roles as blood, tissue, and organs. So, too, can the biosphere be considered as a single superorganism in which the oceans and the atmosphere, all creatures, and communities play roles analogous to cells, tissues, and organs.” McHarg emphasized: “That which integrates either the cell in the organism or the organism in the biosphere is a symbiotic relationship. In sum, these are beneficial.” From this understanding McHarg concluded: “Symbiosis is the indispensable value in the survival of life forms, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere” (McHarg, 1968, p.67). McHarg explains:

“We can look at the world and see our kin; for we are united, by living, with all life, and are from the same origins. Life has proceeded from simple to complex, although the simplest forms have not been superseded, only augmented. It has proceeded from uniform to diverse, from few to many species. Life has revealed evolution as a progression from greater to less entropy. In the beginning was the atom of hydrogen with one electron. Matter evolved in the cosmic cauldrons, adding electron after electron, and terminated in the heaviest and most ephemeral of elements. Simple elements conjoined as compounds, thus reaching the most complex of these as amino acids, which is to say life. Life reached unicellular form and proceeded through tissue and organ to complex organisms. There were few species in the beginning and now there are myriad; there were few roles and now they are legion. There were once large populations of few species; now there is a biosphere consisting of multitudes of communities composed of innumerable interacting species. Evolution has revealed a progression from simple to complex, from uniform to diverse, from unicellular to multicelled, from few to many species, from few to many ecosystems, and the relations between these processes have also evolved toward increased complexity” (McHarg, 1968, p.65).

McHarg places the human species as a conscious participant inside this dynamically evolving and increasingly complex whole. As a consequence of this holistic, process-oriented and spatially and temporally scale -linking perspective, McHarg was able to articulate an understanding of process and form in more general terms.

In chapter one I briefly discussed the similarities between McHarg’s understanding of form and the earlier work on morphology and development by Goethe and D’Arcy Thompson, as well as parallels to modern developmental biology and complexity theory (see subchapter three). McHarg writes:

“The place, the plants, the animals, and man and the orderings which they have accomplished over time are revealed in form. To understand this it is necessary to invoke all physical, biological, and cultural evolution. Form and process are indivisible aspects of a single phenomenon: being. Norbert Wiener described the world as consisting of “to whom it may concern” messages, but these are clothed in form. Process and fitness (which is the criterion of process) are revealed in form; form contains meaning. The artefact, tool, room, street, building, town or city, garden or region, can be examined in terms of process, manifest in form, which may be unfit, fit, or most fitting. The last of these, when made by man, is art” (McHarg, 1968, p59; my emphasis).

The process of design, as well as the process of biological development involves the coming into being of meaningful form. McHarg regards form as “communication, the presentation of meaning” (McHarg, 1969). He does so without isolating the particular form and its environment. Seeing form in its dynamic context, he regards it as the current expression of a reciprocal process wherein form and environment mutually define each other. Forms are temporal expressions of their underlying process. According to McHarg, “processes are expressive” and “morphology is a superficial expression of the process examined” (McHarg, 1966,p.43).

In Design with Nature, McHarg argued: “The concern with fitness involves meaningful form, and it was seen that evolution has been in the business of form for a very long time and that man is only one of its products.” He explains: “ This meaningful form is not limited to man and his works, but to all things and all beings. Consequently the astronomer and geologist, the plant and animal morphologist are just as concerned in the business of meaningful form as the poet and painter, and so too are the masons and carpenters, the machinist and mechanic, engineer and architect” (McHarg, 1969, p.165). McHarg warned: Form is not the preoccupation of dilettantes but a central and indissoluble concern for all life (McHarg, 1969, p.173; my emphasis).

“Certainly we can dispose of the old canard, “form follows function.” Form follows nothing — it is integral with all processes. Then from is indivisibly meaningful form, but it can reveal ill fit, unfit and most fitting. There seem to be good reasons to change these criteria for human adaptations. Is the environment fit for man? Is the adaptation that is accomplished fit for the environment? Is the fit expressed in form? … If the purpose of fitness is to ensure survival and evolutionary success for the organism, the species, the community and the biosphere, the adaptations are primarily directed towards enhancing life and evolution” (McHarg, 1969, p.173).

The last sentence is McHarg’s formulation of a scale -linking (see chapter four) and salutogenic (see chapter two) approach to design. The form and material of an object communicates how it relates to the underlying processes that brought it forth. This dynamic understanding of process and form reveals objects in their full spatial and temporal contexts, as temporary expressions of the underlying process, which brought them into being.

Where McHarg uses the words ‘fit’ or ‘fitness’, I would be more inclined to use ‘appropriate’ and ‘appropriateness.’ His basic argument is for salutogenic design that is expressed through appropriate form and appropriate participation in natural process. McHarg’s theory of form and process can contribute significantly to a conceptualisation of sustainable design. Modern life-cycle analysis and cradle-to-cradle design is a practical response of this kind of understanding. In 1970, during a speech given to the American Institute of Architecture, McHarg said:

“There is no such thing as abstract form; there is no such thing as capricious form or unmeaningful form. Form and process are indivisible. If one wishes to describe an atom, molecules, crystal, or compound, one can describe it only in formal terms. If one wishes to describe a cell, tissue, organ, organism, or ecosystem, one can only do so in formal terms. All form is meaningful. The degree to which meaning can be perceived is a function of the ability of the observer to perceive the meaning which is intrinsic. One can only understand what is in terms of evolutionary history — evolution of form and process. … One can understand that which is only in terms of that which has been. That which is, has been and is in the process of becoming. It was process-form, is process-form, and will become process-form” (McHarg, 1970, p.182).

I would urge the reader at this point to refer to subchapter six of chapter one (organizing ideas) and Henri Bortoft’s discussion of the solid object mode of perception (Bortoft, 1996); as well as a recent publication of mine (Wahl, 2005e) that discusses Goethean science and Goethe’s explorations of from and metamorphosis. The similarities in perspective will become immediately apparent. What is emergent is a new theory of dynamic morphology — an understanding of form in transformation and relationship. The emphasis here is to establish Ian McHarg firmly as one of the early visionaries of ecological planning and design and as a major catalyst of the emerging natural design movement.

“Ecological planning is the approach whereby a region is understood as a biophysical and social process comprehensible through the operation of laws and time. This can be reinterpreted as having explicit opportunities and constraints for any particular human use. A survey will reveal the most fit locations and processes. Ecological design follows planning and introduces the subject of form. There should be an intrinsically suitable location, processes with appropriate materials, and forms. Design requires an informed designer with a visual imagination, as well as graphic and creative skills. It selects for creative fitting revealed in intrinsic and expressive form” (McHarg, 1997, p.195).

To McHarg, the design or creation of ‘meaningful form’ that fitted its natural environment required a synthesis of all human faculties, a union of art and science. In his usual provocative style, he asked the question: ‘Does art exclude science?’ and continued “‘Does art reject knowledge?’ Would a lombotomy improve human competence, or is the brain an indispensable organ” (McHarg, 1997, p.195). McHarg was a convinced advocate of trans-disciplinarity and called for integration and synthesis. McHarg knew that both art and science are involved in the giving of meaningful and appropriate form.

“This antagonism between art and science, as well as between design and planning, has lasted too long. It is now a serious obstruction to education and the earth’s well-being. Both art and design have their antique, prepared position, their mandarin advocates, their lines of competence defined, and their proprietary jargons. Yet, when stripped of pomp and pretensions, at root art merely means skill and science means knowledge. Can we imaging in the challenging environment we occupy, the rejection of either art or science? Surely knowledge needs skill to give form and significance to our landscapes and our adaptations. Surely skill needs knowledge just as a solver needs a problem. Surely, once and for all time, art and science, skill and knowledge, ecology and design and planning should unite” (McHarg, 1997, p.196).

In 1970, Ian McHarg gave the opening address to the first Earth Day in Philadelphia. He started his speech with the words: “Why must I be the person who brings the bad news? My proposition is simple. You have no assurance of a future.” He continued: “The view of man and nature which permeates the entire western culture are the reason. Our view of man and nature does not respond to reality, has no survival value, indeed it is the best guarantee of the extinction of man.” In a few sentences, he built up to his succinct assessment of humanity’s current un-sustainability:

“The survival of the human race is contingent upon categorical rejection of this cultural inferiority complex that is the western view and its replacement with the ecological worldview — man in nature. This reveals the ways of the working world and shows our ignorant interventions as self mutilation, leading to suicide, genocide, biocide” (in McHarg, 1996, p.210)

An ecological worldview and its associated ecological literacy will help humanity to re-design our participation in natural process and create adaptive designs that support human and planetary health. McHarg knew that in order to be able to design with nature, it is important for designers to understand the evolutionary adaptive relationship between humanity and the wider natural processes that contain it. He acknowledged that nature,asweexperienceitanywhereon the planet today, is largely determined by the ecological conditions of a given environment and the creative fitting of human culture to the opportunities and limitations presented by that environment. There is no separation between humanity and nature when both are understood as participants in a process that unites them to a larger whole, the biosphere, the Earth, the universe, as they are reflected in consciousness.

McHarg suggested a more holistic and process oriented understanding of evolution that joins life to its environment. His understanding of evolution included and transcended a Darwinian perspective of the evolutionary process (see also chapter one), which describes the adaptation of individual organisms to their particular environment, expressed through individual fitness, with a complementary perspective, first proposed by the biologist Lawrence J. Henderson in his book The Fitness of the Environment in 1913.

McHarg explained: “Given the infinitude of environments and organisms and the necessity of accommodation to both, Henderson recommended that there is a necessity for all organisms to find the fittest available environment, and adapt it and the self to accomplish a better fitting” (McHarg, 1996. p.244). McHarg understood that design with nature meant design for life and the health of the whole.

“Save for the atoms themselves, it is life that has longest endured — while continents rise and fall and towering mountain ranges emerge only to erode into inconsequence. Artefacts should be measured in terms of their effect on life, not as independent objects. So the measure of creation used to value artefacts is the degree of apperception they reveal, their expression of working symbiosis and altruism in the form of institution, and the extend to which these are enhancing to life, at the level of the individual, the family, the community and the society. It is life that endures, not artefacts” (McHarg, 1969, p.172)

Before taking up a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, McHarg spent a brief period employed by the Scottish Department of Health, as a planning officer. In his autobiography, he suggests that the influence of “the brilliant mind of that Edinburgh biologist-turned-planner, Sir Patrick Geddes” may have resulted in “the inspired unity of medicine and planning” that located Scottish planning within the Department of Health” (McHarg, 1996, p.93).

McHarg saw the link between appropriate participation in natural process, or design with nature, and the phenomenon of health. In the last chapter of Design with Nature he asked: “If fitness and unfitness subsume creativity and destructiveness, then can these two terms, in turn, be subsumed under health and disease? Indeed, are not these terms simply different facets of two phenomena that represent polar extremes — the first creativity-fitness-health, the other reduction-unfitness-disease?” He concluded: “If health is indeed a synthesis of the factors of creativity and fitness, then we have at hand a tool of inordinate value for both diagnosis and prescription.” McHarg firmly believed: “Where is the environment of health — physical, mental and social? There is the environment of the creative and the fit” (McHarg, 1969, p.188). He knew that the intention behind appropriate design is salutogenesis.

“Ecological planning seeks to fit consumer and environment. This problem-solving and problem-seeking quest conforms to the definition of health. Ecological planning should be health giving. Success in such planning or fitting should be revealed in the existence of healthy communities, physical, biological, and social system in dynamic equilibrium. However, many persons and institutions may satisfy the definition of health by seeking and solving problems but still succumb to disease and death from causes of which they are ignorant or causes beyond their control. As a result a specialization in health planning has been developed within the realm of human ecological planning. This subscribes to … ecological theory and method … but uses as its viewpoint the degree to which actions by persons, groups, or institutions enhance or diminish health and well being” (McHarg, 1981, p.153).

McHarg suggested that healthy ecosystems may contribute to increasing the health of adjacent ecosystems by a process he termed “infectious health”. He asked: “Could infectious health enable healthy systems to cause adjacent lands to recover?” McHarg was hopeful that humanity could facilitate and rely on nature’s self-healing capacity. He regarded “healing the earth” as “the primary objective” of all planning and design (in McHarg & Steiner, 1998, p.358).

McHarg ended his autobiography, entitled A Quest for Life, with the following appeal:

“Next, we must initiate massive global inventories and both invent and install sensors to provide a continuous monitoring process. From baseline to present, we must observe changes and the operation of constituent processes, particularly biogeochemical cycles. … I can think of no human activity of greater importance. It should be seen as the primary consequence of recognizing the global environment as the principal objective in the world’s agenda. It identifies the most important purpose of the world’s population for now and all time. We must come to know this world, to understand how it works, and to regulate our behaviour to maintain and enhance the biosphere. We must identify the welts, lesions, wounds, and suppurations on the global epidermis. We must learn to green the earth, to restore the earth, to health the earth. I long to live to see it” (McHarg, 1996, p.374).

[To continue reading other parts of this doctoral thesis, take a look at the chapter on ‘The Natural Design Movement’, from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ by Daniel Christian Wahl 2006. … For my more recent writing see Designing Regenerative Cultures, 2016]