Ian McHarg, too, was concerned about unrestricted developement. The idea that some developments are more suitable to some landscapes than to others seems only common sense, but when homes built on floodplains are inundated, or hotels built on cliff tops fall into the sea, the extent of human folly becomes evident. We could avoid such calamities and live more harmoniusly whit nature, thought McHarg, if we took natural processes and values into account. He proposed a method for bringing everything into the picture. Known as ‘landscape suitability analysis’ or sometimes just as ‘sieve-mapping’, the technique he developed involved layering information on acetate sheets. So, for example, in considering the optimal route for a new highway, McHarg would combine layers showing the engineering properties of the substrates with layers showing productive soils, significant wildlife habitats, important cultural sites, and so on. When these were combined, it was the areas which were clearest of symbols that were the better areas in which to construct the road. The method also worked” well for planning development at a regional scale. Typically, after gathering physiographic, climatic, and geological data, McHarg could produce suitability maps, usually zoned for agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urban development. The method, which relied on extensive gathering and manipulation of data, became much easier with the growing availability of computers, and ‘McHarg’s Method’ became the basis of the technology known as GIS (Geographical Information System) which uses digital map layers instead of superimposed drawings.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)

Some years later, however, another nail in the coffin of the designed landscape was drilled: the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature, which cited the natural world as the only viable model for landscape architecture. This text provided landscape architects with both an analytical method and sufficient moral grounds to avoid almost completely decisions of form and design -that is, if design is taken as the concious shaping of landscape rather than its stewardship alone. McHarg emphasized the evolving study of natural ecology and remained within the bounds of natural processes and planning. A strong moral imperative underpinned the discourse; it mixed science with evangelism -a sort of ecofundamentalism. In his writtings and lectures, McHarg took no prisoners and allowed no quarter.

Marc Treib, Nature Recalled (1999)

Ian McHarg, Minimum Social Cost Alignment of a Road (late 1960s)


Natural Artifacts

lan McHarg pursued this goal. He tried to construct artifacts that had natural logic- “natural artifacts.” He advocated planned habitation coherent with the characteristics of each biome, consonant with tropical rainforests, with deserts or grasslands or temperate woodlands. The biosphere is not at all uniform. From pole to pole, across the equator, inside caves and in the upland forests. exist a range of distinct situations, of climatic conditions within their corresponding extensive biomes. A fantastic diversity lies within the heart of each biome. today a striking consequence of profound change brought about by incessant human labor. The activities and plans called for in Design with Nature demand that we be conscious of the non-human diversity and to at least know its broadest painted strokes. Nature is far from uniform, nor can design be generalized. We need conceptual tools that help us recognize and thrive amidst global diversity. (…)

Scientists, ecologists, or social ecologists provide specialized information in a fragmented manner that is usually inaccessible to the general public. Even their professional colleagues take in, evaluate, and respond to the specialized knowledge in a fragmented manner. As McHarg insists:

“This is what modern science is; the egg is shattered, all the fragments lie scattered on the ground. The fragments are called geology and physics and chemistry and hydrology and soil science, plant ecology, animal ecology, molecular biology, and political science. There is no one who can put together again the entire system. Information fragmented is of no use to anybody. What we always need to proceed is really the one Whole system?”

Ramon Folch, Biosphera, Global Knowledge for Community Design (2007)

Ian McHarg, Minimum Social Cost Alignment of a Road (late 1960s)

Of Course

It is, of course, true that “nature” is culturally constructed. When a French theorist like seventeenth-century Jacques Boyceau claims that garden symmetry is predicated on nature’s own efforts at abstraction, he appeals to a nature differently conceived- not least as a result of post-Renaissance scienticism- either from those on which Denis Diderot, a century later, could base his claim that spatial principles of symmetry or proportion were simply not to be founding nature or from a world that modern photography celebrates in its ecological concern to give amazing proofs of nature’s abstractions. Thus it follows that we must carefully scrutinize every context of the term’s use to adjudicate its local and/or historical meaning. Especially in casual or colloquial usage, such phrases as “it’s natural” or “naturally” inevitably camouflage ideological assumptions by pretending that some expressed opinion, far from special pleading, is grounded in a way of things beyond dispute.

“Nature” is a term, however, that won’t go away; above all, for our purposes, it is endlessly, inevitably, and invoked landscape architects. The term has performed various duties, some less strenuous than others: it can refer to a few bushes around a building (a lazy architectural assumption met with too frequently in professional circles); less residually, it can mean an invented countryside (Fairmount Park along Schuylkill River in Philadelphia however devised and remodeled from the late eighteenth century onward, provides a “natural” site, especially when contrasted with the inner adjacent city); or at his most strenuous (for instance in Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature), it can signal an intricate congeries of causes and effects to which the precisions physical  of science seem to give us the best access, but even here cannot at times escape being colored a rhetoric that endows it with a value beyond the normative and objective.

John Dixon-Hunt, Ruskin the Design of Nature and the Transcription Manuscripts (1997)

Olafur Eliasson, Hall Art Foundation Waterfall (2004)



By and large the virtues of the planning I was taught were orderliness and convenience, efficiency and economy. The first set contains minor virtues, and the second set contains less than noble ones. These virtues have little to do with survival or success of plants, animals, and men in evolutionary time.
A fallacy is that planners plan for people. Actually this is not an assumption at all; it is a presumption. The planner who comes from out of town and is prepared to solve problems is a menace.
I prefer to think of planners as catalysts. The planner suppresses his own ego and becomes an agent for outlining available options. He offers predictability that science gives him about the consequences of different courses of action. He helps the community make its values explicit. He identifies alternative solutions with attendant costs and benefits. These vary with different constituencies, as do their needs and values.
This sort of planning might be called ecological. It is based on an understanding of both biophysical and social systems. Ecological planners operate within the framework of a biophysical culture.

Ian McHarg, Ecological Planning: The Planner as Catalyst (1978)

Ian McHarg et alt., Master Plan of The Woodlands (1973)


Since the late 1960s, suburban development in the United States has been criticized for causing ecological damage and environmental degradation. Various community development alternatives were put forth, including a noteworthy one that is an ecology-based land use planning approach, proposed in Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. For more than four decades, ecological planners have been using ecology as the basis for planning and design in projects of various scales and focuses. Among these projects, The Woodlands, Texas (a 29,000-acre town development) is an excellent example of ecological planning that followed McHarg’s nature-led design approach. McHarg, himself, considered The Woodlands as “the best example of ecologically based new town planning in the United States during the 1970s”.

This 29,000-acre new town was created at the peak of the 1970s environmental movement as an alternative development model in lieu of suburban sprawl. Located 50 km north of Houston, The Woodlands currently has eight subdivision residential villages. Its population in 2009 exceeded 90,000 and the project is expected to be completed by 2015.

The Woodlands received numerous awards, with a particularly significant award from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that championed the new town’s great success in environmental planning. A number of studies have documented The Woodlands development history and evaluated McHarg’s planning approach. McHarg and Sutton (1975) first featured The Woodlands ecological planning concept, with a focus on stormwater management.

Bo Yang, et alt., Ian McHarg’s Ecological Planning in The Woodlands, Texas: Lessons Learned after Four Decades (2015)