McHarg, Ian Lennox (1920 – 2001) Scottish Design Ecologist and Writer

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Ian Lennox McHarg (1920 2001)
Scottish design ecologist and writer

Clydebank, Scotland, where Ian McHarg was born and raised (and where he received education through high school) produced one of America's best known design ecologists. Before his first move to the United States, McHarg had attended two colleges in Scotland and spent eight years in the British army, including active battle service in World War II. He entered the army as an enlisted man, after four years attended Officer Training School, and was demobilized in 1946 at the rank of major.

That same year, McHarg entered Harvard University to study landscape architecture, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture 1949 and a masters in the same subject, one year later. He returned to Scotland for a short while and then earned another Harvard degree, a master's, in city planning (1951). For a short time, he returned to Scotland, serving as a planning officer in the country's Department of Health and teaching a course in landscape architecture at Edinburgh College of Art and then at Glasgow College of Art. His career in the United States began in 1954 when he accepted an appointment as an assistant professor of landscape architecture and city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, where a year later he was instrumental in creating the Department of Landscape Architecture.

While many practitioners still consider landscape architecture a traditional design field that creates back yards for the well-to-do, McHarg is widely credited with a revolution in the field. At the university, he taught landscape architecture and planning from an interdisciplinary, ecological perspective, bringing in ecologists, geologists, anthropologists, and even lawyers to participate in team-taught courses. From the university, his students have emerged to foment McHarg's ecological revolution in university design and planning departments, in planning agencies, and in design firms across the country.

As an active designer and planner outside the university McHarg put his ecological ideas into practice in such places as Hazleton, Pennsylvania, Medford, New Jersey, Amelia Island, Florida, Teheran, Iran, and Taroko, Taiwan. What one person can plan and build in a lifetime is limited, so it is McHarg's ideas (and the students, readers, and practitioners instilled with those ideas) that will remain significant far into the future.

The best known distillation and presentation of those ideas is in his Design With Nature, published in 1969 and reissued in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 1992. Lewis Mumford, in his preface to the first edition, best describes McHarg's accomplishment:

"McHarg's emphasis is not on either design or nature by itself, but upon the preposition with, which implies human cooperation and biological partnership. He seeks, not arbitrarily to impose design, but to use to the fullest the potentialitiesand with them, necessarily, the restrictive conditionsthat nature offers. So, too, in embracing nature, he knows that man's own mind, which is part of nature, has something precious to add that is not to be found at such a high point of development in raw nature untouched by man." Later, Mumford exclaims "here are the foundations for a civilization."

In Design With Nature, McHarg tried, and to a large degree succeeded, to direct planning away from its socioeconomic preoccupation toward an in-depth consideration of environment ;to help integrate the physical and life sciences into an applied environmental science ; to explore the role of values in planning, and to present a theory and method of planning as a way to understand and channel human adaptations to the environment.

McHarg's ideas changed both landscape architecture and planning, but perhaps the latter more so. In planning, the human ecological philosophy he developed and advo catedin Design With Nature (and in numerous articles)and the very practical method of comprehensive data collection and utilization he worked out in many years of classes and design projects, are today employed worldwide, including integrated applications in new GIS systems. Known by many as the father of ecological planning, McHarg moved from a limited environmental determinism to a contemporary interdisciplinary approach that defines planning as interactive, as applied human ecology .

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Landecker, H. "Ian McHarg: In Search of an Arbiter." Profiles in Landscape Architecture. Washington, DC: American Society of Landscape Architects, 1992.

McHarg, Ian. A Quest for Life: An Autobiography. John Wiley, 1996.

. Design With Nature, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

. To Heal the Earth: Selected Writings of Ian L. McHarg. Island Press, 1998.

Miller, E. L., and S. Pardal. Classic McHarg: An Interview. Lisbon, Portugal: CESUR, Technical University of Lisbon, 1992.


McHarg, Ian. "Human Ecological Planning at Pennsylvania." Landscape Planning 8 (1981): 109120.