What does it mean to design with nature now?
A collection of responses to a McHarg-inspired question.

What does it mean to design with nature now?

Richard Weller, Frederick Steiner, and Billy Fleming

Renowned for his book “Design with Nature” Ian L. McHarg (1920-2001) was one of the most influential environmental planners and landscape architects of the 20th century. 

By “design with nature” McHarg meant that the way we occupy and modify the earth is best when it is planned and designed with careful regard to both the ecology and the character of the landscape. In this way, he argued that our cities, industries and farms could  avoid major natural hazards and become truly regenerative . More deeply, McHarg believed that by living with rather than against the more powerful forces and flows of the landscape, communities would gain a stronger sense of place and identity.

McHarg did more than write and talk about these ideas. He developed practical planning and design techniques to make them real, and then he put his theory into action around the world.

McHarg was prescient and his philosophy and idealism underpin The Center’s mission to this day. But, in a world as complex and fluctuating as todays, we must continually ask: what do we mean by design, and what we mean by nature?

We consider nature to be an all-inclusive, evolving system of which humans have substantial yet incomplete scientific and cultural knowledge. We believe terrestrial nature, i.e. ‘the landscape’ is best understood as simultaneously an ecosystem and a cultural system—a recognition that urban agglomeration economies and rural processes of extraction and transport now form a planetary network. 

Carefully reading the landscape in this way is the prerequisite for consciously designing our future; using artistic creativity and scientific intelligence to shape the landscape in the best long-term interest of all living things.  

After centuries of mistakenly believing we could exploit the landscape without consequence (design without nature) we have now entered an age of extreme climate change marked by rising seas, resource depletion, desertification, ecosystem migration, and unprecedented rates of species extinction. Set against the global phenomena of accelerating consumption, ubiquitous urbanization and rising inequity, these environmental changes are impacting everyone, everywhere. Adapting our cities and their infrastructure to these conditions of rapid environmental change is the central design and planning challenge of the 21st century. 

The McHarg Center’s purpose is to meet this challenge by providing a platform for environmental and social scientists, planners, designers, policy makers, developers and communities to unite and to research and design new ways of improving the ecological performance and quality of life in cities and towns worldwide.

As we begin to understand the true complexity and holistic nature of the earth system, and begin to appreciate humanity’s impact within it, we can build a new identity for society as a constructive part of nature. This is ethical. This is optimistic. This is a necessity. 

This is what it means to “design with nature”. 


Cover (detail), Ian L. McHarg, Design with Nature, The Natural History Press, 1969

Francesca Ammon

Assistant Professor of City Planning and Historic Preservation
University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design


Today, designing with nature should also mean designing with history. In the context of climate change and the many recent hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires, designers must be cognizant of the lessons of the past. We have seen disasters before, sometimes in these very same places. Designers cannot simply resist these human- and nature-induced forces, but instead need to intervene in ways that account for and respond to them. This could mean choosing not to build somewhere, choosing to build differently somewhere, or just taking the long view over short-term fixes. Taking a historical perspective reminds us of that longer temporal frame. Perhaps the signs have long been there to design in this way; but turning to history should empower designers to heed their call. To design with nature today means to survey the history of a site—and of places like it. This requires excavating the history of its land, buildings, people, and politics. Now more than ever, to design with nature, we must listen and respond to the experiences of the past.

Alan Berger

Leventhal Professor of Advanced Urbanism
Co-Director, Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism Director, P-REX Lab
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Designing with nature now means the same thing Ian had in mind when he spoke of putting “together again the entire system.” We must deploy design intelligence with powerful new analytical tools to creatively recover pieces of regional landscape systems left in the wake of short term economic schema, political indecision, ad hoc development, a negligent public, and flawed environmental policy. It will not be possible to work with a meaningful and enduring concept of nature at the place-making scale without first redesigning the larger systems.

Fionn Byrne

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
University of British Columbia
School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture

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.

Tom Campanella

Associate Professor of City Planning
Cornell University
Department of City + Regional Planning

Designing with nature now is no longer the option or alternative it appeared to be when Ian McHarg published his pioneering book.  Today, because his teachings went largely unheeded by housing and real estate developers—because we continued our love affair with the automobile, to sprawl wastefully across the land for another generation--sustainable placemaking, creating cities that engage and enhance the natural world and its ecosystems, has become an urgent matter and essential to our very survival.

Michelle Delk

Discipline Director, Landscape

Since McHarg, we have learned to see nature as a breadth of living systems; the flora and fauna that inhabit our world and the climate and resources that are intrinsic to a resilient and productive planet. But do we think often enough of human nature? Humankind's relationship with nature has taken many forms – from fearing and naively ignoring nature to exerting our power and control over it. From this we have learned that nature is not the “other” but that our relationship is inextricably linked together.  

As practitioners, we respect the broad spectrum of systems that nature embodies. We are all responsible for responding to an array of issues and challenges within our communities and our environment. And just as we relate with one another, we interact with our environment intuitively, emotionally, and intellectually.  We directly shape the designed and manufactured environments we live within, while indirectly influencing the feral environments beyond. We actively change, willfully neglect, and at times attempt to preserve or restore nature. Our work embodies our values and our connection to the world and one another. This produces functional and aesthetic outcomes; each carrying with it our biases and convictions. 

We do not need to emulate nature but instead consider human nature and habitats so we can exist in solidarity. By striving to advance the interplay and respect between ourselves and nature, we can encourage generosity, offer inspiration, and embody rational functionality within the constructed environment.

Theo Eisenman

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
University of Massachusetts
Department of Landscape Architecture + Regional Planning

A meaningful way to engage this topic is to examine the theory, practice, and potential of urban greening, defined here as the introduction or conservation of vegetation in cities. This is relevant for a few reasons. While ‘nature’ encompasses many constructed and contested meanings, vegetation is one of its most literal and symbolic expressions. And as witnessed by large scale tree planting campaigns, green infrastructure stormwater initiatives, and innovative treatments that are reconceiving post-industrial urban landscapes as parks and cladding interstitial surfaces with plants, many municipalities are undergoing what may be the greatest bloom of urban greening since the 19th century, when large parks, park systems, parkways, and street trees transformed the fabric of cities. 

So, what is driving the contemporary impulse to vegetate and ‘naturalize’ cities? What types of overlaps and gaps are animating urban greening discourse? What sort of ecological and social effects might reasonably be achieved through this activity? Importantly, how may the institutional infrastructure of cities need to evolve in order to maximize the potential of living infrastructure; and what will be the urban design legacy of 21st century greening?  Such an inquiry compels us to explore the experiential and functional traits of plants, and distinctions between urban and non-urban vegetation. It is also an opportunity to deeply consider the nature of cities and the place of people in an anthropogenically transformed biosphere. A thoughtful investigation into these issues may help us to advance the enduring aspiration to integrate city with nature – it may also inform how we ‘design with nature now.’

Erle Ellis

Director, Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology
Professor of Geography + Environmental Systems
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Department of Geography + Environmental Systems

Anthropocene: On Designing Nature, Design with Nature, Design for Nature, and Nature as Designer

In the Anthropocene so far, human societies have increasingly reshaped the natural world into the cities, farms, and other infrastructures that sustain us. All too often, this redesign and reengineering of the natural and hybrid human-natural world has proceeded without concern for preserving, sustaining and enriching nonhuman life and nonhuman habitats. As a result, these are becoming ever rarer and ever poorer. Design with nature has helped reverse this trend by incorporating the natural world into design projects as functional and aesthetic elements and even as a partner in the design process. Design for nature has produced reserves, parks, wildlife corridors, restoration projects, and other critical spaces for nature. But what of nature as designer? In all these designs, the human world is the designer, making the rules and enforcing them, while all the while, even within the places specifically designed to avoid this, our world intrudes unintentionally, often overwhelmingly, into the rest of life on Earth. Can the human world be redesigned and reengineered to regenerate and sustain wild places free of ongoing human interventions and influences, even while sustaining humanity at increasing scales? Can the role of nature as designer be radically expanded within an increasingly human world? It is time to break the Anthropocene narrative of an ever-expanding humanity presiding over an ever-declining nature. It is time to redesign and codesign landscapes and infrastructures that re-empower nature as designer in a hybrid human-natural world where humanity thrives together with nonhuman nature into the deep future.

Barbara Faga

Professor of Professional Practice in Urban Design
Rutgers University
Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy

McHarg taught us to respect land, water, and vegetation; it was his vision that formed the basis of our careers. He shaped our practice in regional planning and sustainable futures by introducing us to overlays (remember pin bars?) which became the requirement for large scale planning. GIS is now a required proficiency and essential expertise for graduates from urban planning and landscape architecture schools. GIS is only one of the elements of our work he inspired. While we are designing the future, too often nature’s destruction from hurricanes Camille, Harvey, Maria, Sandy, Katrina, Irma to name a few, and the fires raging through the west, not to mention the threat of earthquakes, that remind us in no uncertain terms to cease building where we have previously precariously developed. We watch the over-development of cities such as Miami Beach as they fight to contain sea level rise and king tides with their new $100 million flood prevention project by raising road beds and building flood pump stations. At the same time Florida state officials refuse to acknowledge that climate change may be a problem.  Our goal and our job is to inform and educate our clients, elected officials, colleagues, community, and our students of the basic principles from Design with Nature. And when education doesn’t work it is our responsibility to advocate loudly for sustainable design.

Carl Folke

Science Director + Co-Founder, Stockholm Resilience Center
Director, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The new renaissance reconnecting people to the planet highlights the necessity of stewardship of our own future in concert with the biosphere that we are embedded in and dependent upon. Designing with Nature provides new opportunities for prosperity and a significant way forward toward sustainability.

Richard Forman

Research Professor of Advanced Environmental Studies in Landscape Ecology
Harvard University
Graduate School of Design

  1. Think globally, plan regionally, then act locally 
  2. Three-step design/plan  Map the flows and movements in and surrounding an area.Map existing valuable places, problem places, and places likely to change anyway.Then creatively arrange solutions and objects to fit the two results.
  3. Urban region plan for every city For the ca. 70-100-km-radius urban region (city, plus natural land, farmland, built    land dependent on, and affecting, the city), outline strategic flexible plans that    sustain:  high-quality water, biodiversity, soil and food production, clean    industry, infrastructure, waste systems, and neighborhood housing.
  4. Mainly urban area Create neighborhoods and communities with ample greenery, rather than mainly    housing.Maintain a high density of small/medium-size tree-covered greenspaces to cool air,    reduce flooding, and provide reduced-stress meeting places.Disperse commercial and clean-industry centers near residential areas with    multimodal transportation to enhance jobs, commuting and shopping.
  5. Mainly farmland or natural land Sustain a few large natural areas (highest priority).Protect waterbodies with adjoining vegetation (high priority).Then connect the large green areas with green corridors or stepping stones, and    remove low-usage roads.This sustains the bulk of nature long-term, even with climate change.
  6. Small towns Use a light touch, capitalizing on history and organic growth, minimizing regular    geometries and formal symbolic designs, and maintaining a compact community.Have structures highly tuned to slope, soil, sun, rain and wind.Plan for diverse jobs, productive gardens, and low maintenance costs, so the core    pattern persists with population growth or loss, and the next generation continues in town.
  7. Designing nature Designed nature satisfies people ill-at-ease with nature, but turns off those who    value nature’s richness.Change, nature’s mighty law (Robert Burns), quickly or eventually erases our designs of nature or a natural area.
  8. Mold the land so both nature and people thrive long-term 

Margaret Grose

Margaret Grose
Senior Lecturer
Melbourne School of Design

Though better more ecologically-focussed design is now our ambition, it is not often achieved, bar incremental improvements. The ambition to design with nature now suggests longer wavelengths and greater amplitudes for landscape architects – that is, going further and wider out into other disciplinary territories and going deeper into the knowledge bases of the biological, chemical, physical, anthropological, and psychological sciences. To assist us, we need to rework the education of designers and give design a wide umbrella under which design specialisations can more readily occur. The gate is open.

The major challenge of climatic change will not be solved because it is not a problem that is solvable but is a characteristic of the planet that has always been with us in human history; one of our many tasks as designers will be to recognise the long-term ecological implications of our short-term choices and to approach climate change as an imaginative idea, and design with (a changing) nature.

Faye Harwell

Co-founder, Rhodeside & Harwell

Design with Nature - - NOW!

Design with Nature has been a baseline for me in my work since my graduate school years at Penn. Studying with Ian, everything we did was rooted in this concept - both at school and later when I worked at Wallace McHarg Roberts and Todd.  Starting with an understanding of natural systems was normal on every project, regardless of scale, from garden to region. Later, when I started Rhodeside & Harwell with Deana and Elliot Rhodeside, it was a foundation of our our practice, and it still is.  Design with Nature in the 1970's was a good and necessary idea. 

Now- - technology has advanced and is a more powerful data-based tool than ever; we can model natural processes and outcomes as never before.

Now -- collaboration with scientists, engineers and stakeholders is deeper and more effective; multidisciplinary teams are a norm, not an exception.

Now-- the most compelling and beautiful design and planning includes science, community, and engineering, led by landscape architects and planners.

John Hoke, creative director of Nike recently said in an interview:

"...we're co-creating with data...We know data can't dream. That's where designers come in. The job of the designer tomorrow is to take that head start, take that information and then imbue on top of that their intellect, their imagination, their heart, and their hand."

Tomorrow is now. Landscape architects and planners are the agents of change;  and Design with Nature --NOW is our imperative.

Nate Heavers

As nature changes and our relationships to it evolve, so too must our designs. How we design with nature is an ongoing project to understand and shape our world. 
Fifty years ago, Ian McHarg claimed that the ecological method could help us generate a better fit for humans on the planet. He offered a way to adapt to the patterns and processes of landscapes, rather than solely extract from and deplete them. His method laid a foundation for how to integrate ecosystems with human needs and values. However, the method demands scrutiny today because our grasp of nature and its realities have changed. 
We now think of nature as composed of complex adaptive systems and our collective actions have altered the climate of the globe. To thrive in this world of flux we must design for change. Design with nature is no longer a matter of adapting to nature as it was or is; design with nature pioneers new economies of nature, hybrid ecologies, and emergent technologies. 
Nature now includes the urban and the toxic, super storms and novel ecosystems. Design with nature forges relationships with off-gassing landfills, rising seas, and lethal plumes, alongside remnant prairies, old growth forests, and quaking bogs. These are all part of our nature, which is inseparable from our history and culture. Nature now provides drastically new natures on which to operate. Rather than shadow former patterns of nature, design with nature now imagines and projects future natures harnessing their awesome powers and humblest forms. 

Susan Herrington

Professor + Chair of Landscape Architecture
University of British Columbia
School of Architecture + Landscape Architecture

What is this “nature” that McHarg proposes we design with? 

McHarg’s evolving ecological systems are chiefly geological, hydrological, meteorological, zoological, and botanical. His “nature” is primarily external space at 40,000 feet. 

Understanding this scale of natural systems is undoubtedly critical to addressing global problems like climate change. However, recent developments in biology have opened a window onto internal space– the literal nature of the human landscape at the molecular scale. 

Environmental conditions determine how human genes are expressed. Everything from the food we eat to the landscapes we inhabit are epigenetic factors that shape which of our genes are activated to give us unique physical and psychological characteristics. Epigenetic change can take place over a life span and can even influence future generations. It can also shape the progression of diseases like cancer, and influence child development and aging. In short, landscapes play and even greater role in shaping human health than previously understood.
Fast forwarding McHarg’s neologism–design with nature–to present times means considering the epigenetic landscape.

We literally are what we eat! And where we live!

Epigenetic modifications challenge the binary of heredity versus environment. They also expose how the very materiality of the landscape to which humans are exposed is critical to a conception of design with nature now. Epigenetics is a new frontier for landscape architecture. It designs with nature from within.

Anna Hersperger

Leader Landscape Ecology Group, Swiss Federal Research Institute, Zürich 

To design with nature now means to focus design uncompromisingly on change, on the inherent change in social and natural systems. Never before we experienced such a fast and profound alteration of our human and natural environment and arguable the most important processes therein are land change and climate change. The resulting challenges regarding global urbanization, alternations in food regimes, and desertification are indeed critical for design and planning in our time. Design and planning clearly need to focus on these issues. Since change comes in many ways, designs are most effective if they address incremental and sudden changes as well as planned and unexpected events, and often it might be necessary to conceptualize designs and plans as potential turning points in unsustainable trajectories. From site to local scale this implies that design and planning are conceptualized as adaptive processes with strong ties to territorial governance to ensure maintenance and necessary modifications. In short, design with nature now means to develop designs that are prepared to grow with policy changes, with changing needs of individuals and communities as well as with altering environmental constraints and potentials.

Rob Holmes

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
Auburn University
College of Architecture, Design + Construction

In the book Next Nature, Koert Van Mensvoort and Hendrik-Jan Grievink argue for a reclamation of the Greek notion of physis over and against the later Latin conception of natura. Natura, like most contemporary understandings of nature, distinguished primarily on the basis of origins: the born is natura, the made is not natura. Physis, contrastingly, distinguished on the basis of behavior, focusing on distinctions between what is controlled and what is beyond control.

Setting aside the fashionable question of whether to use the word nature or not, this altered focus on behavior over origins has significant implications for design. 
The relationship between design and nature has, historically, been plagued by a conceptual binary between humans and nature. For instance, “wilderness”, in the United States, has long been defined — philosophically, practically, and legally — as land that untouched by human action. Given the massive scale of anthropogenic change today, from continent-spanning pipelines and forest management regimes to levees that control entire river systems or the globalized effects of fossil fuel emissions, very little land qualifies as “wilderness” under such strict definitions.

A shift toward wild behavior over wild origins, however, opens a broad field of hybrid landscapes to both design and appreciation. Such landscapes — forests cultivated for future climates, marshes nourished by dredged sediments, cities that accommodate floodwaters — may be built in part by human hands, but they, along with the flora and fauna that inhabit them, are nonetheless wild in crucial ways. 

This new American wilderness can and must be cultivated.

Cecily Kihn and Michael Kihn

When we signed up for the landscape architecture program in 1970, we were drawn by the promise—and peril—that Ian McHarg spoke of in Design with Nature: the peril being extinction from ignoring nature in design, the promise restoring the cycles and systems that sustain all life. And although neither of us ended up as landscape architects, the desire to promote design with nature has driven our careers for the past 40 plus years—Mike as a LEED-accredited architect and Cecily through work at the US Department of the Interior, Island Press, and environmental foundations.

We’re saddened and alarmed by the epic destruction of natural systems and human communities that we see everywhere around the world.  We’re aware that the many professions that “design with nature” in one way or another know so much more than we did in the 70s about how natural systems work, what their tipping points are, and what it takes to protect and restore them. Even so, all these professions need to up their game given the unholy mess we’re leaving to our children and future generations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems to us that landscape architects continue to outperform architects in designing with nature. Despite the growth of “green” architecture, LEED certification and even “net-zero building” design, today many architecture schools focus too much on form-making while the requirements of natural systems continue to guide landscape architects in determining the appropriate materials, shape, and character of the built environment.

Monica Kuo

Chinese Culture University
Graduate Institute of Architecture + Urban Planning

The essence of Chinese culture is pithily reflected in Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, whose philosophical perspective on “the way” (“Tao”) drives home the “quiescent qualities of nature.”

“Man follows Earth. Earth follows heaven. Heaven follows the Tao. Tao follows what is natural.” A holistic interpretation is rendered here to the central motif of this observation, that heaven, earth, and mankind adhere to the rules of the universe.

“Design with Nature” by Prof McHarg acknowledges this discourse on “Tao following what is natural” that dated back to more than 2,700 years ago: be it 50 years prior, the present, or the future, the rhythm that dictates the laws of nature and mankind is more than just a philosophy: it is implementation science at its best.

Globalization and the impact of climate change have integrated “Design with Nature” with Remote Sensing, GIS, Big Data and tools for righting social injustices, elevating the concept from a mere “methodology.” It is now a more sophisticated, scientific “value system” and entrenched “belief” for planners and designers. 

Allison Lassiter

Assistant Professor of City + Regional Planning
University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Fifty years ago, when McHarg implored us to design with nature, many ecologists believed that ecosystems reached a “climax condition.” An ecosystem expressed its climax condition—the type, size, and abundance of its flora and fauna— unless it was disturbed, and then after a disturbance it would eventually return to its climax state. Over time, the concept of a climax condition was revised, and ecologists proposed ecosystems instead had an equilibrium, or a central condition around which the conditions in the ecosystem fluctuated. This framework acknowledged the relationships in an ecosystem had some degree of variability, but still assumed a mean tendency. Later, ecologists came to believe there may be multiple equilbria, where populations securely fluctuated around multiple possible stable states, acknowledging that an ecosystem might express itself differently at different times.

Now, we know that stasis and equilibria are the nature of theoretical ecology. Today’s nature is breaking temperature records, precipitation records, high water marks. Ocean circulation patterns and global wind patterns are shifting. We are consuming land in previously unseen patterns and at previously unseen rates. Many species are losing territory, some are gaining. Some ecosystems are getting drier, some are getting wetter. Nature is crossing into new territories, beyond any previously seen equilibria. Yesterday’s nature is not tomorrow’snature.

Designing with nature can no longer be accomplished by analyzing static data from the past and assuming a static future. Design with nature now means designing for change. This is the design challenge of our century. Our governance, management, and physical materials are largely rigid. Most were created to be strong, not flexible. But rigid strength cracks when pushed to its boundaries. Prioritizing flexibility requires a fundamental shift in how we view institutions and physical interventions. Design with nature now means designing flexible systems.

Phoebe Lickwar

Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture
University of Arkansas
Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design

In the context of the Anthropocene, Ian McHarg’s “design with nature,” seems more relevant than ever.

Landscape architects have a critical role to play in shaping the evolution of an urbanizing planet to promote thriving ecosystems and avoid destructive practices. We have the capacity to heal degraded places, to address issues of social and environmental equity. We create experiences that bring people closer to the rivers, oceans, forests, animals, and microorganisms upon which our lives depend, thereby facilitating awareness, concern, and stewardship of our environments.  

The challenge to “design with nature” is not one of capacity or intent. It is one of agency and impact. Our small profession has yet to become a ubiquitous player in the transformation of the built environment. Our built work, though visionary and essential, constitutes but a fraction of the physical world. We have yet to connect the local to the global scale, and to create a market for landscape architects to contribute to the development of large-scale strategies. More in the realm of the demonstration garden than a pervasive and typical practice, landscape architecture has yet to be consistently valued as a necessity by politicians, clients, developers, and communities.  

If we are to build upon McHarg’s legacy, we must work to expand the ambitions of landscape architecture. We must increase the power of the discipline to effect real change at a scale that is meaningful. This means developing publics, through advocacy and education. There must be no mystery in what a landscape architect does, or in the necessity for landscape architects to lead. We need to form inter-professional / interdisciplinary alliances, working with our academic institutions to chart new territory. We need more landscape architects working in government and business, influencing policy and development. Above all, we need to leave behind the tired debates about science vs. art and research vs. creative practice and instead embrace the complex multiplicity that is the beauty of the discipline. 

Forbes Lipschitz

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
Faculty Affiliate of the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation
Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture
The Ohio State University

Across the world, natural landscapes have been cleared, drained, leveled and paved, but most frequently and extensively, nature has been farmed. Agriculture is the most pervasive anthropogenic land use in the world, covering 40% of the Earth’s ice-free land and accounting for 70% of global freshwater use. The transition from nature to agriculture has had a profound impact on ecosystems and biodiversity across the world. Agriculture fragments and degrades regional landscapes not because it is inherently destructive, but because contemporary production methods are driven by economic efficiency with little concern for social and ecological consequences. Yet conventional agriculture has been largely absent from design discourse – with designers and planners primarily engaging with the productive landscape vis-a-vis fringe systems like urban farming. If we value nature and the wildlife its supports, we must integrate cost-effective and sustainable conservation practices into mainstream agricultural production systems worldwide. This is a challenge of design. As design professionals, if we can recognize the highly industrialized spaces of agriculture as untapped opportunities for design intervention - we can then begin to design more ecologically sensitive infrastructures that operate within these existing working landscapes.

Nina-Marie Lister

Associate Professor + Graduate Program Director
Ryerson University
School of Urban + Regional Planning

There is much talk of this era, the Anthropocene, from doom-saying to promise-making. This world of cities is a human creation, incubating power and pleasure, pathology and poverty. What irony is it, that in our cities we talk loudly of climate and culture while our landscapes languish and nature grows quiet? But the era, like the earth, is neither enemy nor ‘other’. We, humans, are the material of its being: creative, calculating, fertile and fearless. We bring our baggage, bartering and bullying through its doorway. We trade extraction today and pledge conservation tomorrow. We perpetuate injustice, war, and waste. But yet, we dream, imagine, and hope. And still we design. The paradox of climate change is that it is both a human-designed problem, and likely, humanity’s greatest design challenge. Our ability and ingenuity to design differently—for adaptation, humility and compassion—is now paramount. We know what to do, how to be, and even how to get there, but we must (re)design to make it so—from governance to goods, from economy to ecology. We speak the words: Sustainable. Resilient. Adaptive. Emergent. Words that stain pages with alternating lament and intent. But words are not enough; we must invest with humility in the material of nature and the language of landscape, in compassionate design that adapts to change, adds value, builds performance, reveals beauty, and makes meaning from experience. The Anthropocene is the era to design with nature now: design to (re)affirm a culture of nature, to honour the earth, and the lifeforms and landscapes that sustain us all. 

Bill McKibben

Founder, 350.org
Schumann Distinguished Scholar
Middlebury College

We better take into account that nature isn't really natural any more. After ten thousand years of the Holocene, where conditions stayed remarkably static, they've now become--dynamic is too nice a word. Careening. So: warm air holds more water vapor than cold--better design for a world where you get much greater flows of water, except when you get record drought. Fire spreads to places we haven't seen before, and crackles on for months past the old normal. That ocean over there is not staying put. And so on. And it won't stop. The new nature is constantly destabilizing as temperatures climb--so a kind of hyper flexibility is necessary. Design therefore for hardiness above all. For hunkering down. If the old world rewarded racehorses, sleek and fragile, the new one will treasure draft horses, plodding but reliable.

Laurel McSherry

Associate Professor
Program Director of NCR Master of Landscape Architecture Program 
Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design

Leaning In

Late last spring, I began a daily cycling regime that included an early morning circuit through a coastal peninsula on the Jersey Shore, a six-mile prong of barrier beach bordering the southeastern edge of Lower New York Bay. Home to a disused army base and proving ground, the spit is one in a group of natural and artificial landforms comprising Gateway National Recreation Area, America’s first urban national park. Later that summer, confined from hip surgery, I thought much about this particular stretch of coast, my systematic excursions within it, and the complexity of natural and cultural enterprise I came to discover there. Roughened dunes and refuge forests. Moldering ramparts and deserted concessions. Expectant piers and parking lots. I marveled at the industry of gulls. The agency of wind and of water. The substance and significance of decay. The conference and discipline of birds. What were the value of these observations, I wondered. What are these recollections worth to me now? I believe that regions are reflected in our everyday surroundings, and so to understand them we should lean into places, not back from them; lean into the flow of life and attend to where we happen to be. For me, turning an awareness of the immediate into an encounter with a region amplifies the sometimes curious but crucial interrelationship of inhabitants and conditions within a landscape, both in effect and potentiality. Each conveying insight to the other; through one thing, learning another.

Forster Ndubisi

Texas A&M University
Department of Landscape Architecture + Urban Planning

Design with Nature, as articulated persuasively by Ian McHarg in his ground-breaking and very popular book published in 1969, was a timely, bold, and effective response to the emerging environmental concerns at that time. It offered an ecological view of the world lodged in the interdependence between organisms and their physical and biological environment. It entailed searching for the fittest environment for the survival and evolutionary success of the organism including humans, through understanding Nature as an interactive process. Together, Nature’s processes and values offer opportunities and limitations for human use; which in turn, provide a platform for “creative fitting revealed in intrinsic and expressive form.”Design with Nature still holds immense potential in the new millennium and era of accelerated climate change. McHarg’s insistence that “nature has a right for continued existence” implies that his ethos extends moral authority to the non-human world, appropriately so today. The quest for fitness embedded in Design with Nature, undoubtedly, is timeless. Nature is both a complex social and physical construct; sometimes used synonymously with the term natural environment or landscape, as implied in McHarg’s usage of the term. Design with Nature as a way of thinking and action would be much more relevant today if McHarg’s conception of Nature literally embraces humanity in its entirety.

Conceptualizing humanity as an integral part of Nature diffuses the imagined dichotomy between the city and Nature; illuminates humanity’s role as crucial to maintaining the stability and resiliency of landscapes; draws attention to human-scale interventions as the point of departure for enriching human experiences; and recognizes urban landscapes as a nested network of places rather than spaces. Design with Nature becomes more timeless when designis regarded “as the intentional shaping of matter, energy, [species], and processes” to meet the needs of humanity, including artistic form-creation.

Sara Padgett Kjaersgaard

Lecturer, Landscape Architecture
AILA Director and Company Secretary
UNSW Built Environment

If we accept that humans have altered the Earth so much as to produce a new geological epoch then we must elevate McHarg’s rhetoric of design with Nature to the design of Nature.

Ironically, the increased exposure of risk to humanity brought about by climate change, bio-diversity loss, and water and food scarcity enable us to feel more connected to the world around us. As a profession, landscape architects offer a unique chance to deconstruct and create generative opportunities that enact deeper connections between local and global systems while at the same time mitigating these risks. This is not, and cannot be just through our practice, but our thought leadership in advocating for change.

In a rapidly urbanising world, the everyday peri-urban edges of cities offer one of the predominant sites available for these opportunities to play out. Here, the differences and continuities of humanity and nature must connect people and natural systems so the way we think, act and communicate is once again explicitly connected to the world around us. In many cases, as so eloquently described by Joan Iverson Nassauer, the design of Nature will mean consciously deciding to prioritise orderly frames of the novel.

Danilo Palazzo

Professor + Director
University of Cincinnati
School of Planning

An optimistic view of ecological design permeates McHarg’s work, Design with Nature. The title itself, was a manifesto heavily marinated into a contagious optimism that required (hu)man to ask the right questions to nature and then design accordingly to her answers. “Let us ask the land where are the best sites” addressed McHarg, in Prospect, the book’s coda. McHarg appeared to be a true-believer that the ecological view could provide an invaluable insight “in the quest for survival, success and fulfillment.”

Can we be as optimistic as 50 years ago? We possess technologies helping to know more about nature. We can overlay layers over layers of maps, and geographical information without incurring in the photographic or mechanical problems McHarg lamented (p.115). We have regulations in place that require mandatory assessments of projects that might alter natural processes and landscapes. Despite these advancements, can we sincerely say that we feel today the same conviction to definitively convert our biblical destiny to subdue the earth and design with her?

We have witnessed catastrophes where nature played her role against our arrogance. We know exactly where we are going. McHarg established a balanced equation where humans and nature are not on the opposite sides. We are part of the problem as much as we are part of the solution. As educators, we need to learn how to teach ecological urbanism and design based on an informed and educated optimism on the future without which, as Mumford said in the Introduction: “hope might fade and disappear forever.”

Nick Pevzner

Lecturer in Landscape Architecture + Regional Planning
University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature was revolutionary at the time of its writing — it opened designers’ eyes to dynamic ecological processes, and to ecosystems imperiled by careless urbanization. McHarg was arguing for incorporation of the “ecological view” into design; now that word, or at least the metaphor of it, has become ubiquitous in our field.

50 years later, many of McHarg’s conclusions and techniques are integral to the practice of landscape architecture. In the meantime, as ecology has matured, and as urban ecology has emerged as a distinct field, ecologists’ ability to analyze and measure the urban environment has become more sophisticated, even as the suite of threats facing ecosystems has multiplied. Whereas McHarg struggled to apply ecology’s insights to the urban environment, today cities are finally seen as legitimate sites of ecological inquiry, more complex, messy, and ecologically interesting than previously thought. To design with nature now requires that landscape architects make use of updated ecological theory, and of emerging insights into the function, structure, and mechanisms of landscapes across the urban gradient. 

Today, the very concept of “nature” has become fraught, since it seemingly discounts humanity’s impact on even the most remote ecosystems, and assumes that it is still possible to disentangle human influence from ecological function. To design with nature, we must recognize that all ecosystems are fundamentally hybrid natural-cultural systems, with intertwined social, ecological, and technological components. Ecosystem services cannot be preserved or strengthened by simply focusing on the isolated patches of green amid relentless urban fabric — we must come to understand the entire city as an ecosystem, and must design it to function better in supporting the ecosystem processes that we care about. 

50 years after McHarg’s warnings, the processes of urban sprawl, forest fragmentation, groundwater depletion, and rampant coastal overdevelopment continue to exact ecological costs, yet so do newer threats unleashed by climate change, globalization, and social inequality. The planet is urbanizing, and it has never been more important to understand how to work with, manage, and conceptualize urban environmental processes. In accepting McHarg’s challenge of adopting the ecological view, designers must find ways to work seriously with environmental scientists, and make cities into laboratories that can test future heat stress regimes, new species assemblages, and new management methods. Far from writing off urban ecosystems as degraded or worthless, we must actively design for the scrappy yet resilient populations of plants, animals, and people that occupy the various niches of today’s messy urban agglomerations, where the accelerated evolution that will characterize tomorrow’s urban ecosystems is taking place right now.

Steward Pickett

Director Emeritus, Baltimore Ecosystem Study
Co-Director, Urban Sustainability Research Coordination Network
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

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.

Stephanie Pincetl

Founding Director + Professor, California Center for Sustainable Communities
Institute of the Environment + Sustainability

If Ian McHarg’s prescient Design with Nature, had been largely adopted in the early 70s, it would have transformed today’s built environment. Surely Houston would not have been flooded by Hurricane Harvey, and green infrastructure concepts that are now being applied cosmetically, would be integral to new gray/green infrastructure deployment. The climate change impacts we are now experiencing—actually a misnomer since climate change is an intrinsic co-production of our activities and a process, not an impact—would have been mitigated through intelligent and thoughtful understanding of the site. As Thomas Berry has suggested, we are autistic in our interactions with the natural world—or the living planet. We ignore biophysical processes except to awkwardly control them through dams, dykes, culverts, and lots of cement. We destroy faunal and floral life in urban and urbanizing places, eradicate soil health and watersheds, creating homogeneous and sterile urban environments. We are blind to beauty, driven by return-on-investment, calculated by quick financial returns.

What McHarg still has to show us is that we can build differently. McHargian planning principles and methods, the use of hydro-ecological science and landscape design, has a great deal to offer to the green infrastructure movement. It can provide that movement with sound science and analytic approaches that will improve how we develop, aesthetically and environmentally. The challenge remains to show that, in the end, it is also the most cost effective, if cost includes the future health of the planet, its living beings and beauty.

Halina Steiner

Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture
Ohio State University
Knowlton School of Architecture

In his introduction to Design with Nature, Lewis Mumford suggests that few books deal with “man’s relation to his environment”. Today, not just books, but movies, podcasts, articles, and web content have generated countless dialogues on man’s relation to his environment. Though many advances have been made in design, as a society we still struggle with McHarg’s vision of design with nature.

First, we must question our ability to design with nature in a time when no corner of the earth is left untouched by human influence. Nature no longer exists as anything more than a cultural construct.  Instead we may consider human nature, the inherent character of a person, as the primary driving force and decision maker in design. 

The environmental movement grew out of a collective environmental consciousness. Visible signs of humans impact on the environment were shockingly clear. Human nature drove the movement and aided in raising the national consciousness. Terms like sustainability, conservation, green, and science lack universal definitions in society. If society's discourse is ambiguous, the scale of change is limited. These limits impact our professional ability to design, through policy, funding, in community meetings, and in client interactions we have to both educate and advocate.  Our challenge now sits beyond our disciplines, raising the public consciousness to what designing with nature means, what the impacts are, and possibly most important, what happens if we do not. Perhaps the question isn’t how we design with nature, but rather how do we design with human nature? 

Dana Tomlin

Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning
University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design

If asked “What should it mean,” I might be more inclined to pontificate.  In response to “What does it mean,” however, I can only speak for myself.  My interaction with Ian McHarg involved years as his GIS guy.  Thus, my own perspective on designing with nature relates more to medium than message.

Ian once pulled me aside with characteristic urgency to assert/request that “We should be able to use GIS like watercolors.”  Though my mind immediately focused on how, it occurs to me in retrospect that the more interesting question is why.  As a watercolorist himself, McHarg was well aware of what that medium had to offer.  In the hands of one whose role was not merely to document or express but also to envision and create, watercolor made it possible to engage human faculties not entirely subject to cerebral control.  It is the nature of that medium. 

Though GIS has yet to achieve its potential as a medium for design, that potential remains apparent.  To better realize it requires only that we embrace the nature of this medium.  No, it’s not the same as watercolor, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is.  Instead, we should recognize that this is a medium with unprecedented power to enable large and varied groups of constituents to access vast amounts of geospatial data and to interpret those data in ways that can be brought to bear on a real world in real time with real consequences. (OK, a little pontification after all.) 

Danielle Toronyi

Research Development + Knowledge Manager

What if designers made space for people and communities to be included in our conception of nature. How then might we design with nature now?

Our most vulnerable communities continue to suffer directly from the impacts of climate change. As designers, we must demand that our work protects and serves those whose voices are ignored and whose communities have been and will continue to be violated. Designers must confront the structures of power that are directly responsible for the destruction of the living world and responsible for the lives of those who are powerless within these systems. 

To design with nature now the existing design community must sit down, make space, and listen to those impacted by our work. Designers must listen to Black Americans, Latin Americans, POC, LGBTQ, Native/Indigenous, women/femmes, nonbinary folks, immigrants, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the working poor, and those of us whose lives exist at the intersection of these experiences. To design with nature now designers must center environmental and social justice in our work. Designers must also actively work to remove the structural barriers that prevent underrepresented and oppressed people from entering the design professions. 

I want to design with nature now by working alongside and in support of my fellow designers and community members, whose voices and talents have been uplifted within the design community. Only then are designers able to engage in work that is truly of service to people, to the world, and to nature.

Jillian Walliss

Senior Lecturer in Landscape Architecture
Melbourne School of Design
University of Melbourne

Published in 1969, Design with Nature was fundamentally about change. Driven by the intent to challenge the status quo at a time of great environmental crisis, there is no question that the book altered the direction of landscape architecture, revolutionising the conceptualisation of nature and design, and proposing new methodologies to provoke novel spatial and ecological futures. Fifty years on, deep in our own climatic crisis, Design with Nature offers a timely reminder of a moment where landscape architecture had a major impact.

To ‘design with nature now,’ means to look beyond McHarg’s specific writing and methodologies which were shaped by a particular moment, and remind ourselves of his commitment to intellectual ideas, innovation (including his early adoption of technology) and focus on design process. A new generation of landscape architects will argue the toss on definitions of nature and culture which, in our contemporary context, vary across cultures and geographies, but McHarg’s lasting legacy is holding a magnifying glass to how we work. Rather than a textual definition, ‘nature’ for a designer only exists when its attributes are embedded in our working processes. And for me - that is landscape architecture’s inheritance from McHarg –encouraging the discipline to advance itself through exploring different computational tools, methodological processes and techniques, and more precise ecological and systems knowledge.