Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.
In the midst of our climate crisis, it's time to talk about how and where we live.
“We’ve reached the limit of what design firms and cities can do,” said Billy Fleming, director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at PennDesign, who cautioned against wishful thinking in a provocative essay in Places Journal in the spring. Glossy renderings of one-off projects, he said, simply don’t begin to match the scale of the problem — a national emergency requiring a national response. That means a new arrangement of funding streams and institutional support, a rebooted Army Corps of Engineers, and a sweeping organizational framework like the Green New Deal. “Adapting to climate change and decarbonizing the economy — these are huge structural things.”
The way the Green New Deal might be administered is still an open question. After all, it’s a resolution, not concrete policy. Could some of those New Deal-era agencies be reborn as tools for leading the projects of the Green New Deal? It’s an idea that Billy Fleming, director of the Ian L. McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, explores in a recent essay in Places. The Green New Deal is “the biggest design idea in a century,” he wrote at the time, concluding, “whatever form the Green New Deal eventually takes, it will be realized and understood through buildings, landscapes, and other public works.”
The exhibition comes as the recently-launched McHarg Center takes shape and begins to tap into the growing national and international conversation regarding the proposed Green New Deal.
Design With Nature Now, echoing the title of McHarg’s 1969 book “Design with Nature,” takes visitors on a global tour of 25 ongoing or completed projects in 21 nations—from China to the United States, and from Columbia to New Zealand—to measure the political, environmental, and economic dimensions of landscape architecture as practiced today.
In McHarg’s wake, it’s hard not to read much of landscape architectural labor as either an endorsement or a critique of his ideology and methods. Many of his acolytes still carry his torch, exemplified by works such as OLIN’s Los Angeles River Master Plan, which directly employs land suitability methods across a 51-mile stretch of one of the nation’s most highly engineered waterways. Still, practitioners like Anne Whiston Spirn and James Corner Field Operations have challenged McHarg’s methods, arguing in various ways against the rationality of his plannerly approach and for more ethnographic and hermeneutic engagements with people and land. Spirn’s West Philadelphia Landscape Project is a career-long endeavor devoted to building community literacy and power around green infrastructure in West Philadelphia, while Field Operations’ Freshkills Park, a 2,200-acre greenbelt capping a Staten Island landfill, has been similarly slow to gestate and isn’t expected to open to the public until 2036.
The last 50 years of landscape architecture and environmental planning belong to Ian McHarg. In theory and practice, no designer has done more to stoke the public imagination or reshape the professions around the environment. And nothing captures the scope and scale of his legacy better than his landmark book, Design With Nature, published in the spring of 1969.
Fifty years after Ian McHarg’s landmark book Design With Nature (1969), Design With Nature Now comprises three parallel exhibitions, an anthology, and a major international conference featuring leading design thinkers and practitioners from around the world.