“This book is a personal testament to the power of sun, moon, and stars, the changing seasons, seedtime and harvest, clouds, rain and rivers, the oceans and the forests, the creatures and the herbs.”

  • Ian McHarg, Design With Nature, 1969
Book in Focus: Design With Nature by Ian McHarg
Design with Nature_©Bloomberg.com

Ian McHarg’s seminal work, Design with Nature was groundbreaking for its time. McHarg always saw the world differently- even as a young man, he was taken by the opposing worlds of the city and countryside; he would traverse the derelict and squalid Glasgow, only to reach the lush countryside beyond that he loved so much. This contrast informed much of his desire to find ways to design our cities better. 

This desire soon manifested in attaining a Landscape Architecture degree from Harvard after a few years spent in the war, and then in an eagerness to return to his hometown to exercise all he had learned. And in return he did, only to be dismayedthe precious countryside where he spent his youthful days was gone, replaced and bulldozed by industrial processes and the machinery of the city. He wrote Design with Nature soon after, and it would change the way architects and planners design cities for years to come. 

Just as McHarg’s quote describes it, the book is an ode to all things natural. What sets the book apart is perhaps the approach he adopted- it is not about saving the environment, it is about being in complete harmony with it so that the need to save it does not arise. And to that end, McHarg talks about various natural systems, ecological conditions, and biological habitats, and ways by which cities can be designed in consonance with these systems. 

The book is deeply philosophical in parts as it talks about the role of the human race, the weight of our planet on our shoulders, ethical responsibilities, and moral duty to the biodiversity we owe so much to. In other parts, it is highly theoretical as it talks about the precise complexities of our natural order. He, then, does not merely mention the complexity or rant about the problem, rather, McHarg attempts to suggest ways in which design can tackle them. And so, the book straddles the various disciplines that unite what it means to be a city planner, an architect, an environmentalist, and a human. 

From the outset, he starts to discuss the delicate ecology of the Dutch shoreline. By describing what kind of plant matter exists at what part of the dunes that form the shoreline, how they get there, and the effect they have on the balance of the beach, he translates this information into a codex of sortsrules that one must follow when building close to the shore, which dune to first build on, and how to deep to go. In another chapter, he moves on to evaluating social values, natural habitats, and various cost factors that may determine the location and the route for highways that cause the least destruction to the environment. It soon turns into a detailed study of the geology, physiography, and extensive urbanization data of Baltimore, to Staten Island, and in Washington DC as well. In one of the more interesting chapters, ‘The World is a Capsule’, he talks of an astronaut who must live in space, dependent only on the systems at his disposal, only to realize how our ecosystem is intricately woven, co-dependent, and highly robust.

The book, therefore, does not give solutions for designing cities. It is a narrative about the interconnectedness of our biological systems, of cause and effect relationships between man and nature. It is a lesson in co-existence and highlights the need for being sensitive to our ecology. McHarg often talks about overlaying data, studying maps in layers and layers that give more meaning to the final outcome, is more informed, and takes into account centuries worth of processes that would be undermined and obliterated if not taken into consideration. 

Design with Nature has influenced a whole generation of architects and urban planners in their quest to design settlements. He provided a new way to look at our landscapes, one which delves deeper into the history and geography of a place, and the ideas were so widespread that the term ‘McHargian’ was used to describe environmentally sensitive ideologies. 

Today, with the use of GIS and other sources of mapping, this data is readily available and is put to use on a regular basis, and it is no surprise that McHarg’s work has been highly instrumental in making that happen.

“In the quest for survival, success and fulfilment, the ecological view offers invaluable insight. It shows the way for the man who would be the enzyme of the biosphere- its steward, enhancing the creative fit of man-environment, realizing man’s design with nature.”

  • Ian McHarg, Design With Nature, 1969

Varun is a Masters in Architecture graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology. As an architect, he is passionate about good design, interactivity with architecture, walkability, and dense cities. When not working, he tries to find time for sketching, going for a swim or reading architectural theory.

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