Biography

Ian L. McHarg

Ian L. McHarg

Ian Lennox McHarg (1920–2001) experienced the transition between adolescence and manhood as a warrior. He entered the Second World War as a lanky teenage private. He left military service after the war as a confident major in command of one of Britain's most elite combat units. Before the war, he was a child of the Great Depression in industrial Glasgow, Scotland. After the war, Ian McHarg, "the major" as he was called then, marinated in modernism at Harvard.

He left Harvard with the intent to help rebuild his war-ravaged homeland. McHarg worked on housing and new town programs in Scotland and experienced a near-deadly bout with tuberculosis before Dean G. Holmes Perkins enticed him to build a new graduate program in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. There, McHarg fused his desire to practice with a new-found love for teaching.

His most important contributions derived from this reflective academic practice. At first, this practice was grounded in the modernist principles McHarg had learned at Harvard. Influenced by his mentor Lewis Mumford, McHarg began to move away from the aesthetic dogma of the international style. He grew highly skeptical of the one-sizefits-all stylistic palette of modernism, instead remaining committed to the ideals of modernism. Specifically, he believed knowledge should guide action. Furthermore, this action would result in better housing, more open space, more efficient transportation systems, and, in the end, healthier and safer communities.

He explored these ideals through the design studios at Penn and through his growing practice. For many years the boundaries between the Department of Landscape Architecture, then the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, and his consulting practice—Wallace and McHarg Associates, later Wallace McHarg Rogers and Todd—blurred. Both the academic department and the firm engaged in action research advancing several disciplines and professions. This work represented a meaningful dialogue between the academy and professional practice. A synthesis of this dialogue is provided in Design with Nature. While this clarion call-to-arms presents insightful case studies, it also advances a new theory for design and a new mandate for public policy. What are the origins of his ecologically based theory?

Again, it came from both within the academy and from experience. From the early 1960s on, Ian McHarg became a public personality. He hosted his own high-profile CBS talk show and later narrated a popular PBS documentary. Ian McHarg served on several important commissions and panels, including the influential 1966 White House Commission on Conservation and Natural Beauty. In the process, he befriended Lady Bird Johnson, Stewart Udall, and Laurance Rockefeller, among others.

Especially his early 1960s CBS television show The House We Live In emerged from, and then informed, his teaching and, in turn, put forth the theory in Design with Nature. For a series of 26 Sundays in 1960 and 1961, Ian McHarg invited the leading theologians and scientists of the day to discuss our place in the world on network TV. He had initiated this format in his "Man and Environment" course at Penn in 1959. Leading scholars were invited to discuss values and ethics, as well as entropy, the universe, evolution, and plate tectonics in the classroom and on television. His razor wit, intelligence, and relevance attracted students and TV viewers alike.

Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, "Man and Environment" was the most popular course on the Penn campus and it alone changed many lives. I have a colleague who was a Wharton Business School undergraduate when he took "Man and Environment." He promptly transferred from finance to hydrology, eventually earning a Ph.D. and becoming a significant environmental planner. Ian McHarg's growing academic following and environmental activism coalesced during Earth Week in April 1970. McHarg and his students led the events of that week in Philadelphia. Across the nation, other faculty and students organized similar events. For example, I was the co-chair of the student-led Earth Day events at the University of Cincinnati. Our activities included a book fair. Compared to the present, there were relatively few environmental books then. The one with the word "Design" on the front cover and the Whole Earth from space on the back stood out to those of us undergraduates studying landscape architecture, architecture, planning, and design. Over the next couple of decades, many of us flocked to Penn. Many more read Design with Nature.

Nothing is as practical as a good theory. The dictum "design with nature" not only changed design and planning, but influenced fields as diverse as geography and engineering, forestry and environmental ethics, soils science and ecology. The evidence is ubiquitous: almost every geographic information systems (GIS) presentation begins with a depiction of a layer cake, although rarely crediting McHarg and often without his eloquence or insight into how the data should be collected and analyzed. Environmental impact assessment, new community development, coastal zone management, brownfields restoration, zoo design, river corridor planning, and ideas about sustainability and regenerative design all display the influence of Design with Nature.

However, Ian McHarg's theoretical and practical contributions extend beyond this important book. Two other topics occupied much of his considerable energy in the decades after the initial Earth Day. First, he sought to advance the understanding of the ecology of our own species. Second, he advocated the extension of his theoretical framework to the national and global scales. We relate with one another as well as with our physical and biological environments. Like other organisms, our species is part of the web of life. The challenge is to see ourselves as part of that web. According to Alexander Caragonne: "Like the fish that swim in the seas, we are apparently oblivious to and incapable of describing either the nature or extent of the medium we inhabit."

Ian McHarg recognized the need for us to understand the medium we inhabit as well as how we shape it and it us. He sought support from National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to address this topic, writing "My colleagues and I had concluded that geomorphology synthesized physical processes and that ecology synthesized both physical and biological processes. How could we extend this model to include people?"

He turned to the science of anthropology for the answer. As he had recruited geologists and ecologists to his department beginning in the 1960s, he added anthropologists and ethnographers in the 1970s. These colleagues taught us that culture is our most important instrument of adaptation. Furthermore, our ability to evolve our culture distinguishes us from other species. Design and planning can then be viewed as adaptive mechanisms, that is, tools for resilience. Adaptation and resilience are related to our health, which has been defined by the World Health Organization as the ability to recover from disease, injury, and/or insult.

Ian McHarg generated big ideas. As he witnessed the growing application of those ideas through GIS and visualization technologies, he realized that they could be used at the national and even global scales. In the early 1990s, McHarg and several colleagues produced a prototype database for a national ecological inventory. Then US Environmental Protection Agency administrator (and McHarg admirer) Bill Reilly commissioned the study and the prototype was submitted to EPA in 1993.

McHarg and his colleagues proposed an extensive inventory at three scales— national, regional, and local—including information about the physical oceanography (where applicable), geology, geomorphology, physiography, hydrology, soils, vegetation, limnology, marine biology, wildlife, and land use. They urged that chronology be employed as "the unifying rubric." In his autobiography, A Quest for Life, McHarg states, "We observed that the greatest problem lies not with data, but with integration."A decade later, the greatest problem remains integration.

In the final decade of his life, McHarg advocated this national ecological inventory for the United States and other nations, and also believed the approach could and should be expanded to the planet. Actually, this global view was deeply rooted in Ian's philosophy. For example, as early as 1968, he wrote: "We must see nature as a process within which man exists, splendidly equipped to become the manager of the biosphere."He called this global responsibility our "greatest role." If we agree, then how do we indeed fulfill our "greatest role"?

-- Steiner, Frederick. 2004. "Healing the earth: the relevance of McHarg's work for the future." Philosophy & Geography, 7(1): 141-149.