Design with Nature Now

Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019.
$80, 368 pages.


WHEN IT WAS published in 1969, Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature influenced generations of landscape architects and planners to employ layered maps of geology, geomorphology, physiography, hydrology, soils, vegetation, biology, wildlife, and land use to inform their designs. The editors of this new compilation — to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of McHarg’s book — argue that the need for this method is greater than ever: “For McHarg, Western culture’s greatest promise was a synthesis of the sciences and the arts that had yet to be applied to how we dwell on the land, and it was the profession of landscape architecture that could steward society through this evolutionary process.”

The twenty-five projects profiled address rewilding, coastal resilience, toxic land, clean water, and future cities around the world. These are packaged with two dozen essays ranging from personal remembrances to theory and commentary. The work ranges from local to regional and across jurisdictions. A single beach is designed to migrate over thirty years along the Netherlands’ North Sea coast. A greenbelt is planned through twenty-seven countries between the Sahara and the Sahel across a five-thousand-milelong, nine-mile-wide swath of Africa. These are the efforts of researchers, activists, academics, farmers, ranchers, ecological design firms, engineers, scientists, and artists.

Seeking nothing less than restoration, regeneration, and repair of the nature-culture relationship, the designers invented new financing schemes and new ways of collaborating across regional and national boundaries. There is something for everyone here. A single project may increase land values, attract migrating birds, and improve human health outcomes, while also controlling urban flooding.

The methodology of ecological mapping belies a modernist confidence that knowledge leads neatly to enlightened action. McHarg’s 1969 book was criticized for its determinism. Design with Nature Now similarly risks oversimplification of the “planetary optic,” in one essayist’s term. A high vantage misses the local and the particular, and may tend to “oversimplify wicked problems in the name of consensus building.”

Sometimes an excess of mapped layers can obscure patterns that inform good design. Taken as a whole, Design with Nature Now has this effect. One layer says that humans are the caretakers of Earth. The next insists we are too biased and profligate and should install artificial intelligence as a neutral intermediary. A third advises setting aside half of Earth’s surface as an interconnected conservation reserve. And still more layers: “multispecies justice,” hybrid cities, satellite imagery, decentralized networks, and a bleak legacy of colonial land management. There is so much material, one struggles to connect the theory with daily lived experience. The featured projects come off as inspiring exceptions; are they really the “landmarks of a more widespread historical change yet to come” that the editors promise?

Design with Nature Now is best at raising existential questions for designers and non-designers alike: “How do we come to terms with the fact that rational planning, scientific expertise, technological innovation, and other forms of optimization do not always resonate, make sense, or hold any value for the majority of people?” Such questions are not rhetorical. It is critical for us to wrestle with whether and how nature and culture, science and art, can inform our activities now and into the future.

Design may be an evolutionary tool, but culture is a human enterprise prepackaged with limitations and contradictions. The Sahel greenbelt was first proposed by colonizers. That history does not diminish its value today as a hopeful enterprise that galvanizes farmers and activists into adopting generations-old Indigenous land management practices. Our awareness of the deleterious effects of our actions is unique to our species. So, fortunately, is our ability to act in precautionary ways, as evidenced by the many promising examples in this book.

Julie Gabrielli is a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Her essays and stories have been published in Dark Mountain Journal, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, and Immanence Journal.