Design with Nature Now (edited by Frederick Steiner, Richard Weller, Karen M’Closkey, and Billy Fleming) is a timely tribute to Ian McHarg’s seminal book, Design with Nature. The climate crisis is at the forefront of many people’s minds today in the midst of regular climate strikes across the globe and reports of the devastating impact humans have had on the planet. Designing with nature, McHarg’s proposal to plan development with the local ecological needs and landscape in mind, has become foundational in planning and design practice. It’s difficult to imagine a world in which planners and designers did not utilize technological resources to better understand the environmental context as part of their process. Ian McHarg’s work helped lead to the development of important regulations that reduced (but did not prevent) harmful impacts from development and increased resiliency against disasters.
The book frames Ian McHarg’s legacy through reflections on those who worked with him, learned from him and admired him. Additionally, it outlines numerous large infrastructure projects and plans that have emerged across the globe that reflect the design techniques and ethics of Design with Nature. The book paints a vivid picture of the gravity of these projects, the expected impact on the community, and the mitigating effects they are expected to have. However, the most valuable takeaway from the book is in its description of McHarg’s fearlessness in proposing an alternative approach, which at the time was revolutionary to the field of design and planning. While there are many criticisms of the way McHarg’s techniques have been implemented, what progressive planners should take from Design with Nature, and the legacy explored in Design with Nature Now, is how important revolutionary thinking is, and how it won’t be possible to plan in the midst of the climate crisis, as we are now, without embracing that approach.
Exploring McHarg’s legacy
Many of the projects cited in Design with Nature Now appear to have been conceptualized and designed in light of a crisis a community is facing. These include the Great Green Wall to combat desertification from Senegal to Djibouti, the Big U project to stem sea level rise and wave action from storm events in New York City, and the reforestation project in East Kalimantan Indonesia to prevent ecological collapse. While these projects are impressive in their scale and ambition, they likely wouldn’t be priorities for their communities if it weren’t for the global climate crisis and the instability that is increasingly becoming too large and impactful to ignore. While these types of projects, by their very nature, must include a consideration for the environment, they are temporary solutions to increase resilience in the face of disaster. Without McHarg’s techniques, these types of projects would likely not be possible. But alternatively, if humans had elevated the importance of the environment above development and profit making, these types of projects would potentially not be needed, or not needed on the same scale.
In a similar vein, the reader is presented with a possible future in which McHarg’s impact went beyond designing and developing in a way that reduces environmental degradation to one that reduces sprawl, carbon emissions, pollution and the multitude of factors that lead to climate change. Therefore, you have to wonder why the examples in the book are limited to well designed infrastructure projects which allow the status quo of increasing development, carbon emissions and environmental collapse. The editors of Design with Nature Now do concede that the examples used in the book may be large in scale and concept, but are not significantly different than typical development patterns; while they may have significant positive impacts locally, the regional or global impacts are unknown.
In some ways, it is not surprising that these large-scale infrastructure projects are identified as part of McHarg’s legacy. While McHarg emphasized a wide focus on society and its multitude of needs and issues, environmental solutions have tended to be applied narrowly to address a small set of issues. For example, a development may mitigate sea level rise and wave action from a hurricane, but the development may also lead to a loss of a community asset (i.e. access to the waterfront). Alternately the project may lead to future development along the waterfront thereby increasing the population that is vulnerable to sea level rise and storms. In both these scenarios, one short term effect is resiliency investment that leads to gentrification. It is not enough to simply design with nature, when the stakes are this high and the capitalistic influences can easily sour any goodwill that may have been intended through the development of resilient infrastructure.
Another criticism of McHarg’s legacy that Design with Nature Now tackles is its reliance on the technocratic approach, including data collection, GIS and science to determine the best solution. While the technocratic approach is necessary and important to understanding environmental conditions, it is important to acknowledge that these resources are not always constructed as “truth.” While science and data present the clearest path towards understanding the environment, and skepticism towards its truth can be catastrophically successful in derailing necessary policy shifts--i.e. climate denial, practitioners must be wary of the ways in which data and science are susceptible to conscious or unconscious bias.
The truth is that the data isn’t neutral. While there are scientists who are in the pursuit of unbiased information, corporations and those with a vested interest in the status quo have the resources and political power to derail the most well researched and investigated solutions. Combating disinformation will require a fundamental shift in American politics.
The Future of Designing with Nature
Given the important but potentially fraught legacy of McHarg’s Design with Nature, the question of how this legacy evolves is important. It is clear in Design with Nature Now, that the editors and contributors feel McHarg’s work has been key to the success of resilient development. While it’s clear in these examples that McHarg’s approach is influential to resilient design, a stronger influence may be the policy shift that is emerging in American politics, hallmarked by the Green New Deal, as a recent City Lab article suggests.
While decisions to develop the Green New Deal are susceptible to corruption and capitalist influence, there is no denying this is an opportunity. For those who are dedicated to the environmentalist movement, there is a need to push for a revolutionary approach to the Green New Deal that relies not just on responding to the world as it exists now, but helps to pursue the world that could exist in the future.
Revolution will be difficult because while there is increasing awareness, fear and belief in climate change, it is difficult to get humans to accept that the situation is as bad as it is. Action cannot wait for a political environment that will accept it. As David Wallace Wells asserts in his new book, The Uninhabitable Earth, it is the church of technology and history that seems to lull society into believing humans will invent a solution to climate change, as was done in the past to minor threats to human existence. However, those who have the power and wealth to develop world changing technology are pursuing it not to save the world, but to save themselves and their loved ones.
What practitioners should take away from Design with Nature Now, and from McHarg’s Design with Nature is not just the techniques suggested, which are so embedded in current practice that it would be difficult to avoid using them, but rather McHarg’s vision of a practice and a future much different than the present, in which the values of the work done are not just monetary but are holistically good. Being a practicing planner on the precipice of environmental crisis doesn’t just require accessing technology and data to better understand the environment. It requires a revolutionary approach to practice which undermines that which led us to the crisis we are in today and actively combats it.
Lacey Sigmon is an Urban Planner who works in storm recovery in New York and Texas. She received her Masters Degree from the University of Michigan in Urban Planning with a focus on housing and community development. She received her undergraduate degree from the New College of Florida in Chinese Language and Literature and International Studies.