Fifty years have passed since the publication of influential landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design With Nature in 1969. Throughout the United States, an environmental movement was taking place, into the center of which McHarg’s book was thrust. The 1970s and ‘80s were a time of much landmark legislation surrounding ecological concerns, and McHarg argued that landscape architecture alone was able to integrate all the disparate fields involved.
McHarg’s “layer-cake” method, otherwise termed “suitability analysis,” predated the invention of today’s geographic information systems (GIS) mapping. The system was developed in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania students in the ecological planning program after McHarg himself founded the school’s landscape architecture department in the 1950s.
McHarg and his fellow activists’ impact nearly seemed strong enough to break landscape architecture away from its elitist past towards a more utopian, public function. Yet needless to say, the change they sought did not come to pass. McHarg’s ideals, however, did broaden the definition of landscape architecture from simply parks and gardens into the larger realm of problem-solving.
The influence of McHarg’s writings and activism are still felt today in the field of landscape architecture, exemplified in the Design With Nature Now Initiative. Exhibitions, critical essays, an international conference, and the public launch of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design have all resulted from the initiative thus far. Design With Nature Now hopes to not only commemorate McHarg, but also to analyze the parallels between 1969 and today.
Faced with our current climate crisis, we’ve seen an influx of activists and increased attention on the issue of climate change, including politicians’ proposed Green New Deal, forcing the largest public conversation in decades about the fate and future of our home planet. As a result, some individual firms are producing meaningful work, yet the timelines are long and the scale is not sufficient to address the larger crisis. The field of landscape architecture will need to undergo systematic change, growing beyond the few firms currently going above-and-beyond. 50 years on, Ian McHarg’s call to activism continues to ring true.