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The Essential Ian Mcharg: Writings on Design and Nature

The Essential Ian Mcharg: Writings on Design and Nature

by Ian L. McHarg, Frederick R. Steiner (Editor)

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics
"...provides a timely reminder of where we have been, what remains undone, and how we could go about doing better."
Landscape Architecture Magazine
"McHarg's words, his actions, and his works remain memorable and timely. His tersely expressed principles of working in collaborative partnerships of scientists, designers, and planners are as important today as when they were first published. Given the growing oil and energy issues, likely changes in transportation and food production, and resource wars relative to water, designing with nature, as a general truth applied to the healthy fit of people and their landscapes, is all the more important today. The Essential Ian McHarg and its 'Bibliography' will be all the more valuable to landscape architects and land planners in the coming decade."
AICP, Professor of City and Regional Planning, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo - Paul Wack
"Ian McHarg built bridges between nature and culture, planning and design, science and policy, and inspired a network of professions in the ecological use of land. A new generation of planners and designers seeking inspiration for a more sustainable future will find it in The Essential Ian McHarg, and pass his legacy to future generations."

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The Essential Ian McHarg

Writings on Design and Nature

By Ian L. McHarg, Frederick R. Steinter


Copyright © 2006 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-117-3


Man and Environment (1963)

Ian McHarg considered the writing of this paper, published in The Urban Condition edited by Leonard Duhl, as "a threshold in my professional life and ... the first summation of my perceptions and intentions." It began when McHarg was invited by Duhl to join his Committee on Environmental Variables and Mental Health. Duhl, a medical doctor, was director of research for the National Institute of Mental Health. He selected the members of the committee, which included Herbert Gans, J. B. Jackson, and Melvin Webber.

For McHarg the paper represented a "tremendous leap in scale." He changed his focus from small-scale urban concerns to a larger regional vision. He wrote "Man and Environment" at the time when he was organizing his The House We Live In television program for CBS. The influence of the guests from that program is evident in this paper. Not only did the scale of McHarg's concerns change, but also the nature of his audience. Prior to 1962, his lectures outside of Penn had been limited to state associations of garden clubs, where he agreed to devote half his speech to garden design history if he could spend the other half speaking about the environment. This paper is a "coming out," where the half garden designer is shed for the complete environmentalist. It was, according to McHarg, "my most embracing address on the subject of the environment to that point."

The nature and scale of this enquiry can be simply introduced through an image conceived by Loren Eiseley. Man, far out in space, looks back to the distant earth, a celestial orb, blue-green oceans, green of verdant land, a celestial fruit. Examination discloses blemishes on the fruit, dispersed circles from which extend dynamic tentacles. The man concludes that these cankers are the works of man and asks, "Is man but a planetary disease?"

There are at least two conceptions within this image. Perhaps the most important is the view of a unity of life covering the earth, land and oceans, interacting as a single superorganism, the biosphere. A direct analogy can be found in man, composed of billion upon billion of cells, but all of these operating as a single organism. From this the full relevance of the second conception emerges, the possibility that man is but a dispersed disease in the world-life body.

The conception of all life interacting as a single superorganism is as novel as is the conception of man as a planetary disease. The suggestion of man the destroyer, or rather brain the destroyer, is salutary to society which has traditionally abstracted brain from body, man from nature, and vaunted the rational process. This, too, is a recent view. Yet the problems are only of yesterday. Pre-atomic man was an inconsequential geological, biological, and ecological force; his major power was the threat of power. Now, in an instant, post-atomic man is the agent of evolutionary regression, a species now empowered to destroy all life.

In the history of human development, man has long been puny in the face of overwhelmingly powerful nature. His religions, philosophies, ethics, and acts have tended to reflect a slave mentality, alternately submissive or arrogant toward nature. Judaism, Christianity, Humanism tend to assert outrageously the separateness and dominance of man over nature, while animism and nature worship tend to assert total submission to an arbitrary nature. These attitudes are not urgent when human societies lack the power to make any serious impact on environment. These same attitudes become of first importance when man holds the power to cause evolutionary regressions of unimaginable effect or even to destroy all life.

Modern man is confronted with the awful problem of comprehending the role of man in nature. He must immediately find a modus vivendi, he must seek beyond for his role in nature, a role of unlimited potential yet governed by laws which he shares with all physical and organic systems. The primacy of man today is based more upon his power to destroy than to create. He is like an aboriginal, confronted with the necessity of operating a vast and complex machine, whose only tool is a hammer. Can modern man aspire to the role of agent in creation, creative participant in a total, unitary, evolving environment? If the pre-atomic past is dominated by the refinement of concern for man's acts towards man, the inauguration of the atomic age increases the dimension of this ancient concern and now adds the new and urgent necessity of understanding and resolving the interdependence of man and nature.

While the atomic threat overwhelms all other considerations, this is by no means the only specter. The population implosion may well be as cataclysmic as the nuclear explosion. Should both of these threats be averted there remain the lesser processes of destruction which have gathered momentum since the nineteenth century. In this period we have seen the despoliation of continental resources accumulated over aeons of geological time, primeval forests destroyed, ancient resources of soil mined and sped to the sea, marching deserts, great deposits of fossil fuel dissipated into the atmosphere. In the country, man has ravaged nature; in the city, nature has been erased and man assaults man with insalubrity, ugliness, and disorder. In short, man has evolved and proliferated by exploiting historic accumulations of inert and organic resources, historic climaxes of plants and animals. His products are reserved for himself, his mark on the environment is most often despoliation and wreckage.

The Duality of Man and Nature

Conceptions of man and nature range between two wide extremes. The first, central to the Western tradition, is man-oriented. The cosmos is but a pyramid erected to support man on its pinnacle, reality exists only because man can observe it, indeed God is made in the image of man. The opposing view, identified with the Orient, postulates a unitary and all-encompassing nature within which man exists, man in nature.

These opposing views are the central duality, man and nature, West and East, white and black, brains and testicles, Classicism and Romanticism, orthodoxy and transnaturalism in Judaism, St. Thomas and St. Francis, Calvin and Luther, anthropomorphism and naturalism. The Western tradition vaunts the individual and the man-brain, and denigrates nature, animal, non-brain. In the Orient nature is omnipotent, revered, and man is but an aspect of nature. It would be as unwise to deny the affirmative aspects of either view as to diminish their negative effects. Yet today this duality demands urgent attention. The adequacy of the Western view of man and nature deserves to be questioned. Further, one must ask if these two views are mutually exclusive.

The opposition of these attitudes is itself testimony to an underlying unity, the unity of opposites. Do our defining skin and nerve ends divide us from environment or unite us to it? Is the perfectibility of man self-realizable? Is the earth a storeroom awaiting plunder? Is the cosmos a pyramid erected to support man?

The inheritors of the Judaic-Christian-Humanist tradition have received their injunction from Genesis, a man-oriented universe, man exclusively made in the image of God, given dominion over all life and non-life, enjoined to subdue the earth. The naturalist tradition in the West has no comparable identifiable text. It may be described as holding that the cosmos is unitary, that all systems are subject to common physical laws yet having unlimited potential; that in this world man is simply an inhabitant, free to develop his own potential. This view questions anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism; it does not diminish either man's uniqueness or his potential, only his claims to primacy and exclusive divinity. This view assumes that the precursor of man, plant and animal, his co-tenant contemporaries, share a cosmic role and potential.

From its origin in Judaism, extension in Classicism, reinforcement in Christianity, inflation in the Renaissance, and absorption into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the anthropomorphic-anthropocentric view has become the tacit view of man versus nature.

Evolution of Power

The primate precursors of man, like their contemporary descendants, support neither a notably constructive, nor a notably destructive role in their ecological community. The primates live within a complex community which has continued to exist; no deleterious changes can be attributed to the primate nor does his existence appear to be essential for the support of his niche and habitat. When the primates abandoned instinct for reason and man emerged, new patterns of behavior emerged and new techniques were developed. Man acquired powers which increased his negative and destructive effect upon environment, but which left unchanged the possibility of a creative role in the environment. Aboriginal peoples survive today: Australian aborigines, Dravidians and Birbory in India, South African Bushmen, Veda in Ceylon, Ainu in Japan, Indians of Tierra del Fuego; none of these play a significantly destructive role in the environment. Hunters, primitive farmers, fishermen—their ecological role has changed little from that of the primate. Yet from aboriginal people there developed several new techniques which gave man a significantly destructive role within his environment. The prime destructive human tool was fire. The consequences of fire, originated by man, upon the ecology of the world cannot be measured, but there is reason to believe that its significance was very great indeed.

Perhaps the next most important device was that of animal husbandry, the domestication of grazing animals. These sheep, goats, and cattle, have been very significant agents historically in modifying the ecology in large areas of the world. This modification is uniformly deleterious to the original environment. Deforestation is perhaps the third human system which has made considerable impact upon the physical environment. Whether involuntary, that is, as an unconscious product of fire, or as a consequence of goat and sheep herding, or as an economic policy, this process of razing forests has wrought great changes upon climate and microclimate, flora and fauna. However, the regenerative powers of nature are great; and while fire, domestic animals, and deforestation have denuded great areas of world surface, this retrogression can often be minimized or reversed by the natural processes of regeneration. Perhaps the next consequential act of man in modifying the natural environment was large-scale agriculture. We know that in many areas of the world agriculture can be sustained for many centuries without depletion of the soil. Man can create a new ecology in which he is the prime agent, in which the original ecological community has been changed, but which is nevertheless self-perpetuating. This condition is the exception. More typically agriculture has been, and is today, an extractive process in which the soil is mined and left depleted. Many areas of the world, once productive, are no longer capable of producing crops. Extractive agriculture has been historically a retrogressive process sustained by man.

The next important agent for modifying the physical environment is the human settlement: hamlet, village, town, city. It is hard to believe that any of the pre-classical, medieval, Renaissance, or even eighteenth-century cities were able to achieve a transformation of the physical environment comparable to the agents mentioned before—fire, animal husbandry, deforestation, or extensive agriculture. But with the emergence of the nineteenth-century industrial city, there arose an agent certainly of comparable consequence, perhaps even of greater consequence, even more destructive of the physical environment and the balances of ecological communities in which man exists, than any of the prior human processes.

The large modern metropolis may be thirty miles in diameter. Much, if not all, of the land which it covers is sterilized. The micro-organisms in the soil no longer exist; the original animal inhabitants have largely been banished. Only a few members of the plant kingdom represent the original members of the initial ecology. The rivers are foul; the atmosphere is polluted; the original configuration of the land is only rarely in evidence; climate and microclimate have retrogressed so that the external microclimate is more violent than was the case before the establishment of the city. Atmospheric pollution may be so severe as to account for 4,000 deaths in a single week of intense "fog," as was the case in London. Floods alternate with drought. Hydrocarbons, lead, carcinogenic agents, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide concentrations, deteriorating conditions of atmospheric electricity—all of these represent retrogressive processes introduced and supported by man. The epidemiologist speaks of neuroses, lung cancer, heart and renal disease, ulcers, the stress diseases, as the badges of urban conditions. There has also arisen the specter of the effects of density and social pressure upon the incidence of disease and upon reproduction. The modern city contains other life-inhibiting aspects whose effects are present but which are difficult to measure: disorder, squalor, ugliness, noise.

In its effect upon the atmosphere, soil as a living process, the water cycle, climate and micro-climate, the modern city represents a transformation of the original physical environment certainly greater over the area of the city than the changes achieved by earlier man through fire, animal husbandry, deforestation, and extensive agriculture.

Indeed, one can certainly say that the city is at least an ecological regression, although as a human institution it may represent a triumph. Whatever triumphs there are to be seen in the modern city as an institution, it is only with great difficulty that one can see any vestige of triumph in the modern city as a physical environment. One might ask of the modern city that it be humane; that is, capable of supporting human organisms. This might well be a minimum requirement. In order for this term to be fully appropriate—that is, that the city be compassionate and elevating—it should not only be able to support physiological man, but also should give meaning and expression to man as an individual and as a member of an urban society. I contend that far from meeting the full requirements of this criterion, the modern city inhibits life, that it inhibits man as an organism, man as a social being, man as a spiritual being, and that it does not even offer adequate minimum conditions for physiological man; that indeed the modern city offers the least humane physical environment known to history.

Assuredly, the last and most awful agent held by man to modify the physical environment is atomic power. Here we find post-atomic man able to cause evolutionary regressions of unimaginable effect and even able to destroy all life. In this, man holds the ultimate destructive weapon; with this, he can become the agent of destruction in the ecological community, of all communities, of all life. For any ecological community to survive, no single member can support a destructive role. Man's role historically has been destructive; today or tomorrow it can be totally, and for all life existent, irrevocably destructive.

Now, wild nature, save a few exceptions, is not a satisfactory physical environment. Where primitive peoples exist in a wild nature little adapted by man, their susceptibility to disease, life expectancy, vulnerability to climatic vagaries, and to the phenomena of drought and starvation is hardly ideal. Yet the certainty that man must adapt nature and himself does not diminish his dependence upon natural, non-human processes. These two observations set limits upon conceptions of man and nature. Man must adapt through both biological and cultural innovation but these adaptations occur within a context of natural, non-human processes. It is not inevitable that adapting nature to support human congregations must of necessity diminish the quality of the physical environment.


Excerpted from The Essential Ian McHarg by Ian L. McHarg, Frederick R. Steinter. Copyright © 2006 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Frederick Steiner is Dean and Paley Professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Previously, he was Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas-Austin for 15 years. He has also taught planning, landscape architecture, and environmental science at Arizona State University, where he was Director of the School of Planning and Landscape Architecture, College of Architecture and Environmental Design; Washington State University; and the University of Colorado-Denver.

Steiner is a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture and a presidential appointee to the national board of the American Institute of Architects. As a Fulbright-Hays Scholar in 1980, he conducted research on ecological planning at the Wageningen Agricultural and Environmental Science University, The Netherlands. In 1998 he was the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize Fellow in Historic Preservation and Conservation at the American Academy in Rome. Steiner has written, edited, or co-edited 17 books.

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