Building a Fund of Sustainability Knowledge, One Book at a Time–Part Seven

By Brian K. Yeoman, NAEP

Design 
with Nature
By Ian L. McHarg
Published in 1969
ISBN –10-4071-11460-X

We introduced a series of book reviews in 2015. This is the seventh installment. I’ve provided the ISBN number with each review, for those interested in purchasing any of the books. Remember: it’s all about the journey, not the destination.

Design with Nature is the seminal book on ecological planning. It is still the go-to book in the discipline, and the number of leading landscape architects and engineers who refer to it remains impressive. It launched and defined the field. It articulated the foundational principles and concepts, and those elements are the basis for modern Geographical Information Systems (GIS). I continue to find this work inspiring after more than 45 years since publication.

Ian McHarg was a Scotsman who attained degrees in both landscape architecture and city planning from Harvard. He worked in post-World War II Scotland, rebuilding cities, until being invited to create a graduate Landscape Architecture Department at the University of Pennsylvania.

The book is still considered be the manual for designing for the environment. As McHarg states,“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. They are with us now, co-tenants of the phenomenal universe, participating in that timeless yearning that is evolution, vivid expressions of time past, essential partners in survival and with us now involved in the creation of the future.”

As a guide, the book instructs the reader how to best break a geographical region into its most appropriate pieces and uses. McHarg pointed out that we in the U.S. build in places where we should farm. We compromise our most productive land to development, instead of feeding ourselves (see also Cadillac Desert by Reisner). We severely cut forests, where we should grow them. We design forms where we should follow nature’s morphologies (see also How Buildings Learn by Brand).

McHarg critically challenged the dominant design/development approach in the U.S.: that the same type of structure can be built anywhere regardless of region, elevation, soil type, and other environmental exigencies. From Anchorage to Phoenix, cities have real examples of this bad practice—ignoring McHarg’s concepts. It was believed that differences between structures need only be minor. For example, if the structure was located in a desert, the designers and developers compensated by simply installing a larger air-conditioning system. McHarg tried to reintroduce nature into the design language and onto the development palette, and by doing so, sought to learn some of the lessons that nature had gathered over the millennia. The book teaches that each place has lessons that the designer needs to understand and adopt before beginning. By working within nature, the design will be better in terms of durability and sustainability and, thus, more successful in the long run.

For me, the lessons from Design with Nature have always been exemplified by two of McHarg’s signature projects: the inner harbor in Baltimore, Maryland and The Woodlands in the Houston, Texas area.
The Woodlands, for example, is a community located 30 miles north of Houston, in the edge of the East Texas piney woods. The developer engaged McHarg to consult. The result is the best embodiment of many of McHarg’s concepts, including the preservation of the area’s timbered nature. McHarg viewed flooding and storm-water runoff as primary concerns. The natural systems he proposed have (so far) proven effective, and they cost less to implement than a conventional, dense infrastructure, drainage system. All developers were required to follow a prescriptive land ethic. This has been held in place for more than 40 years and is possibly the best example of designing with nature in mind. It has provided a paradigm for the human beings who live there today and who celebrate it daily.

The example is one which leads me to my mantra that you, too, can do great things, and one way to get on the right compass heading is to pay attention to nature and learn from the lessons it has taught for centuries. Do great things!

Brian K. Yeoman is Director of Sustainable Leadership at NAEP and is the retired Associate Vice President for Facilities Planning and Campus Development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Email: byeoman@c40.org.