We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like It or Not

“The Monk by the Sea” by Caspar David Friedrich (1808) / Wikimedia

This purpose of this article is to reflect on the Design with Nature Now exhibition that ran over this past summer at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania. The exhibition marked the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s 1969 tome Design with Nature and was curated by Fritz Steiner, FASLA, Karen M’Closkey, Billy Fleming, ASLA, Bill Whitaker, ASLA, and myself.

As curators we worked for well over a year to select the 25 works in the exhibition. We began by asking colleagues around the world for project recommendations. We stipulated in some detail that projects had to be “McHargian” in scale and scope. From well over a hundred nominations, we reached the short list of 25 and organized them into five categories: Big Wilds, Urban Futures, Toxic Lands, Fresh Waters and Rising Waters, which can be explored online.

Big Wilds

• Great Green Wall, Africa
• Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, USA and Canada
• National Ecological Security Pattern Plan, China
• Malpai Borderlands, Arizona and New Mexico, USA
• Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, Indonesia
• Landscape Regeneration of Western Waiheke Island, New Zealand

Urban Futures

• Willamette River Basin Oregon, USA
• Qianhai Water City Shenzhen, China
• Envision Utah Salt Lake City Region, USA
• Medellin, Colombia
• Barcelona Metropolitan Region Plan, Spain

Toxic Lands

• Emscher Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany
• Stapleton, Denver Colorado, USA
• Freshkills Park, New York, USA
• Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London, England

Rising Waters

• The BIG U, New York, USA
• A New Urban Ground New York, New York, USA
• Fingers of High Ground Norfolk, Virginia, USA
• Zandmotor Ter Heijde, The Netherlands
• 2050—An Energetic Odyssey North Sea, The Netherlands

Fresh Waters

• Healthy Port Futures Great Lakes Region, USA
• Room for the River The Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat
• Los Angeles River Master Plan California, USA
• Weishan Wetland Park Jining, China
• GreenPlan Philadelphia Pennsylvania, USA

It’s important to note the final list of projects doesn’t mean we completely endorse the work, nor is the exhibition a collection of the “best of.” This is not an awards forum; it is a representative selection of work that we think does a pretty good job of scoping, extending, and in some cases questioning McHarg’s legacy into the 21st century.

Without being too coy about it, we generally think these projects indicate important directions for the future of the profession. A criticism we accept and have worried over is the collection is geographically and culturally quite limited, itself a reflection of landscape architecture’s current professional reach.

So what do we mean by extending McHarg’s legacy? Simply, the works we’ve chosen tend to be “plannerly,” that is, they are big in terms of site and timescale and tend to involve complex socio-political and ecological processes with multiple authors and agencies. In short, there are no gardens, plazas, or streetscapes (to name but a few types) in this collection. This is not to say these are unimportant, they just don’t fit the raison d’etre, or the occasion of this exhibition.

Turning to the question of designing a planet: the functionalist definition of design is to make a tool that will do something more effectively than prior to the tool’s existence. But what’s most important about this—at least what largely seems to distinguish us to some degree from many other species—is that the invention of the tool, or the desire for the invention of the tool, takes place in our minds before it takes place in the world.

Without wanting to at all elevate humans above other species, we do have an exceptional propensity for imagining causality. In a word, we have foresight.

In Greek mythology foresight was the special gift of Prometheus – the father of humanity. We, the “Anthropos” (meaning not only humans, but also “the lower ones”), received our ability for foresight from Prometheus. Under instruction from Zeus, who wanted some pets to alleviate his boredom, Prometheus made the Anthropos out of clay taken from somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates, and with the admixture of Athena’s breath, here we are!

As the story goes, Zeus told Prometheus to give the Anthropos some degree of free will so as to make them more entertaining, but he stressed not to give them so much that they might then compete with the Gods themselves. Of course, by giving us not only a modicum of foresight, but also fire, Prometheus gave us everything we needed to do exactly what Zeus feared we would. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Suomi NPP launch by NASA/Bill Ingalls, public domain via NASA.gov

From the origin of the Anthropos we can trace an arc to the 1960s when, just before McHarg released his manifesto, Stewart Brand, the man responsible for persuading NASA to release the original earth image, pronounced: “We are now as Gods and should get good at it.” This is a hugely significant thing to say, but what’s more is that Brand recently updated his statement to “we are as Gods and MUST get good at it.”

In other words, not only have the Gods abandoned us, but we are now so deeply implicated in the workings of the Earth system that we really have no choice but to try and design it. In so far as we know, for the first time in evolutionary history, there is now a form of networked planetary intelligence registering its own environmental predicament. If so, then humanity is the first species in evolutionary history to attempt to design a planet, a fact as preposterous as it is, according to Brand, a necessity.

The poster child for the historical drama in which we now cast ourselves as both the villain and the hero is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who popularized the term Anthropocene. As Crutzen explains, the Anthropocene is an act in three parts: first, the industrial revolution; second, the great acceleration (consumer-driven capitalism since 1950); and now he says we should move into a third phase in which we begin to, and I quote, “steward the earth.”

This of course is exactly what McHarg said 50 years ago. Now you might say that we have already designed the planet. Certainly, humanity has colonized and impacted every square inch of the earth’s surface, but we haven’t really done this with foresight. Until recently, we haven’t done it in a way that is self-conscious in regard to the problem of the tragedy of the commons. The question now is not whether we should design the planet, but how. Ironically then: If it’s true that species naturally over consume their environments to their own detriment, then since we have no major predator, we now need to learn to become unnatural. And in a further semantic twist, according to McHarg and his disciples, we can only do this by designing with nature.

However, the problem is this assumes we know what nature is. Truth be told, we do not. Accepting that fact is important because it protects us against anyone ever using nature as justification for authoritarian politics or any number of other oppressive ideas. Accepting then the partiality of knowledge, all we can do is develop approximations of how nature works and try different ways of productively coexisting with it as such.

We write in the introduction to the exhibition’s eponymous book that by asserting the sum-total of what we mean by design (human foresight) could be based on a singular—and in McHarg’s case, a scientific idea of nature—McHarg created a significant intellectual problem for himself and the profession. This problem is brought to light by Ursula Heise during a keynote at the Design with Nature Now conference, which was held at Penn alongside the exhibition in June, 2019.

Heise explains “the basic goal of cultural studies for the last twenty years has been to analyze and in most cases, to dismantle appeals to ‘the natural’ or ‘biological’ by showing their groundedness in cultural practices rather than facts of nature. The thrust of this work, therefore, invariably leads to skepticism about the possibility of returning to nature as such or of the possibility of places defined in terms of their natural characteristics that humans should relate to.”

Design with Nature Now / Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2019

Correct though she may well be, the problem with this postmodern skepticism is that if nature is not one thing, it’s everything. And if its everything, its nothing, and if it’s nothing, it can’t very well guide our designs, let alone an entire civilization as McHarg intended.

How then are we to respond to the conditions of ecological crisis? Well, you don’t have to agree with McHarg’s teleology of humanity fitting into a certain idea of nature to accept and use the sheer practicality of his method. Inversely, you also don’t need to be debilitated by the recognition that post-modern nature is a cultural construct. On the contrary, recognizing the design of nature as a cultural construct can be completely consistent with an ecological world view, just not a tyrannical one.

The ecological crisis and the misuse of land that McHarg directly confronted is not just a postmodern cultural construct – it is an appalling reality and McHarg’s importance is that he proposed a simple, replicable, and practical method for addressing it.

McHarg represents then the beginning of modern culture taking responsibility for the land with modern technology. Other societies throughout history have done this in different ways, but a modern method suited to the abstraction of modern development processes had to be created. People like Geddes, Mumford, Leopold, Carson and others provided the narrative and McHarg the method. And that he did this is enough. We don’t need to make him into anything more or less than that.

Designing with Nature Now means designing with the new nature of the Anthropocene. And to understand the Anthropocene we need to turn to both the sciences and the arts. The scientific bible for the landscape of the Anthropocene is, I think, the book Global Change and the Earth System, published in 2005. It is to the Anthropocene what the encyclopedia was to the Enlightenment.

Global Change and the Earth System / Springer

To quote directly from its introduction, the book’s purpose is “to describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in that system and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.” This last expression “…the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions” is critical because this is not the study of nature as something separate to culture; this is now the study of nature as culture.

Global Change and the Earth System is the work of literally thousands of scientists, all bringing their various models of different phenomena together in an attempt to form a complete, holistic model of the Earth System. The idea being that if we can at least better understand how the Earth system functions then we can make more informed decisions about our actions within that system.

One can imagine the ecological revolution in design, which McHarg catalyzed in regard to settlement patterns and which we are still in the early historical phases of, now means that everything we design will increasingly be conceived, tested, and valued as to how it performs within the larger material flows of the Earth system as a whole. Hyper-McHarg, if you will.

Now, while the scientists are working on their empirical models, the question in the arts is not so much how the Anthropogenic Earth works but what the Anthropogenic Earth means. To wit, just look at the plethora of recent books that use the word Anthropocene in their titles. Notably, almost all are dramatic and apocalyptic. Indeed, thoughout the humanities, there is evidently outright panic about the advent of the Anthropocene. And rightly so, because the old idea of nature as something stable and inviolable, history’s backdrop, has literally just evaporated into the carbon-saturated atmosphere of our own making.

To help make some sense of this panic, I’ve added some keywords to a sample of books on the topic of the Anthropocene (see larger version of the image below). These keywords establish polarizations that demarcate spectrums of current thought, at least as I read it. The first polarization concerns the question of whether or not we should even be calling this the Anthropocene. For its critics, the term naturalizes climate change and casts a new colonizing term over the entirety of the human race, many of whom have had very little to do with the industrial modernity that created the problem in the first place. Instead, they argue this should be called the Capitolocene, which is to say climate change must be apprehended as a cultural matter, and the blame for its advent placed squarely at the feet of first-world capitalism, and presumably communism, since it too has had an appalling environmental record.

Montage of book covers and keywords related to the Anthropocene / Richard Weller

First, with regard to the politics of the environmental movement I would place Eco-socialists at one end of the spectrum and Eco-modernists at the other. For the Eco-socialists, technology (unless its green) is a problem before it is a solution, and it is only through a return to communitarian, small scale, low-population, stable-state economies that true sustainability can be achieved. For the Eco-socialists, only the worst of climate change can now be avoided, whereas for the Eco-modernists, modernity is an incomplete project, and through technological rationality the best is yet to come, or at least, the worst can be avoided.

For Eco-socialists climate change warrants socio-political and theological revolution, something Clive Hamilton, the author of Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, for example, calls a “rupture” with history. On the other hand, for the Eco-modernists, history since the agricultural revolution is a continuing saga of environmental modification at the hands of technology. In this sense, even though there is now more at stake, for the Eco-modernists we are just doing now what we’ve always done. This latter position is effectively that taken by the other keynote speaker at the Design with Nature Now conference, the geographer Erle Ellis.

Second, to translate this spectrum of environmental thought into design discourse, I use the terms mitigation and adaptation respectively. Taken seriously, mitigation means taking on the causes of climate change, not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the economics of capitalism and the the philosophy of liberal humanism. Adaptation, on the other hand, means adjusting to the conditions of a changed climate but not necessarily changing its causation and certainly not changing the fundamentally-modern belief in techno scientific rationality to solve our environmental and socio-economic problems.

Per McHarg, adaptation means fitting ourselves benignly into the landscape. But this now seems way too pastoral for a planet of 8 billion people in the throes of rapid climate change. More likely and more frightening is that adaptation will become the rationale for climate engineering: regulating the albedo of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans, and planning vast landscapes so they not only feed us, but also help stabilize the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

Both adaptation and mitigation point towards what is now routinely referred to as resilience. Even though in the illustrative diagram I am situating resilience equidistant between adaptation and mitigation, I think resilience theory and practice tends more towards adaptation than it does mitigation.

The reason for this is that the utopia of sustainability, which is what mitigation implies, has by now proven itself to be something of an impossibility. Accordingly, resilience has been criticized as sustainability without hope. In other words, for its critics, resilience is seen as abandoning any possibility of mitigating the environmental and social crises of modernity. Instead, we, and in particular the poor, must now learn to live with the symptoms. In this sense resilience is palliative, conservative, and at worst complicit in preserving the very systems that created the risk in the first place.

Maybe so, but this is all a little too black and white. I would also add that resilience is realistic, whereas mitigation is hopelessly idealistic. Resilience brings sustainability closer to the indeterminate way that both the natural and cultural worlds actually work. Whereas sustainability was based on an idealized ecology of equilibrium, resilience is based on an interpretation of nature as a state of disequilibrium. I think McHarg hoped ultimately for a world of equilibrium between the natural and the cultural but seems now that this is just not the way the world works.

Turning briefly now to the projects in the Design with Nature Now exhibition, there are two particular aspects of McHarg’s legacy that I want to channel. The first is his aspiration for large-scale impact and the second is his anticipation and use of digital technology. The first is what I call Big Plans and the second is Digital Natures.

Let’s start with Big Plans. On the map below, Global Landscape Connectivity Projects, you see most of the major conservation projects planned or under construction in the world today. This is an extraordinary image because it shows humans now, for the first time in (modern) history, actively and intentionally reconstructing ecosystems at a planetary scale – so yes, effectively designing a planet, or at least treating it as a garden instead of a mine. (See larger map).

Global Landscape Connectivity Projects / Richard Weller, Claire Hoch, and Chieh Huang

McHarg would love this map and it should give us all hope. And yet from a professional perspective much of this restorative activity doesn’t currently involve landscape architects. That we think it should is why we’ve included projects such as the Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative in the United States and the Great Green Wall across sub-Saharan Africa in the exhibition.

Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y) Conservation Initiative / Y2Y.net
Great Green Wall / United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

For example, the Y2Y is a remarkable ongoing story of collaboration (and tension) between land owners over some 2,000 miles of territory in order to create landscape connectivity for species migration. The Great Green Wall is also a remarkable story of what began as a top-down initiative to resist the southward encroachment of the Saharan desert but has since evolved in to a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives to boost local agrarian economies across the 14 impoverished nations it comprises. When completed, if ever that day comes, the Great Green Wall will be the largest living thing ever created by humanity.

A third Big Plan, I’d like to single out that is versed in McHargian methods is the 2008 National Ecological Security Patterns for the whole of China by landscape architecture firm Turenscape, which was founded by Kongjian Yu, FASLA, and the Peking University Graduate School of Landscape Architecture. The plan shows where the ecological security of land in China should be prioritized.

Framework for national security ecological patterns / Turenscape
Ecological security pattern for biodiversity conservation / Turenscape

This research coincides with President Xi Jinping’s 2013 declaration that China should transition from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP)-focused civilization to an ecological civilization. And in this regard, while the study represents a powerful breakthrough for landscape architects, it is also something of a Faustian bargain. It raises the question of whether plans done in the name of national ecological health for totalitarian governments could come to overrule local culture in the same way development projects previously did in the name of the national interest. Imagine mass evictions not for hydroelectric dams, but now for biodiversity corridors.

Regarding the second aspect of McHarg’s legacy, the theme of Digital Natures relates to how landscape architects today are increasingly able to simulate environmental conditions in order to guide design decisions. There are two aspects to this. The first is the ability to create one’s own data instead of just passively receiving it from an authority, and the second is the increasing capacity to model complex, chaotic systems such as hydrology, and perhaps eventually entire ecosystems, cities, and ultimately the Earth system itself, as we see in the case of the book Global Change and the Earth System.

The key here is being able to model systems in the fourth, not just the third, dimension. That is, we are moving into an era where the old problem of a map being redundant the moment it is drawn can finally be overcome. It is early days in the emergence of the genre of Digital Natures, but the work of academic practitioners such as Keith Van Der Sys, Karen M’Closkey, Bradley Cantrell, ASLA, Justine Holzman, Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis — all of whom are variously modelling fluvial landscapes — is promising.

For example, the Healthy Port Futures project in the Design with Nature Now exhibition by Burkholder and Davis foregrounds digital modelling to predict sediment flows in the world’s largest inland water body, the Great Lakes of the USA and Canada. The project centers on creating simulations to show how instead of being treated as a useless waste product, sediment can be redirected so as to create new landscapes of ecological and social value. Stemming out of the academic Dredgefest initiative, Burkholder and Davis’ work is significant for its methods and also because with it they are muscling their way into territory otherwise dominated by engineers.

Contextually calibrated alternatives for passive sediment management for Lorain, Ohio / Sean Burkholder and Brian Davis: Healthy Port Futures

Which leads to what is for me the most extraordinary and perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibition: the so called Sand Motor (Zandmotor) constructed in 2011 off the coast of the Netherlands. The Sand Motor is a novel approach to coastline protection in which sand is mined offshore and added to the beach at a strategic location so that the littoral drift steadily redistributes the material further along the coast, thus reinforcing Holland’s coast against the sea. This could only be done through predictive modelling of the coastal system. Absent recent advancements in computing power, such analysis would have been previously prohibitive. Now, not only could the Sand Motor’s behavior be accurately predicted before it was built, it is also continually monitored, establishing a feedback loop between the digital and the real.

Zandmotor by Rijkswaterstaat

The Sand Motor marks a new technological and predictive level of human engagement with the environment, one that will expand at both macro and micro scales this century. In addition to designing gardens, parks, and plazas as we always will, the kind of systems design the Sand Motor suggests it is as foreboding as it is promising.

Even if unintentionally, the sand motor is also, I think, a highly aesthetic work. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is one of the great artworks of the early Anthropocene, something land artist Robert Smithson pointed to 50 years ago. I imagine a scene where Professor Marcel Stive, the lead engineer of the Sand Motor, now replaces Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, not to contemplate God’s awesome creation, but rather ours.

And that brings me full circle to where I began with origin of the Anthropos. For if we have now become Gods then, for all their complexity and contradiction, I do think the projects in the exhibition show that we can be good at it.

This post is by Richard Weller, ASLA, the Martin and Margy Meyerson chair of urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture, and co-director of the McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania.

One thought on “We Are Designing the Earth, Whether You Like It or Not

  1. David Harold Chester 09/20/2019 / 4:27 am

    The 13 Most General Negations to Global-Warming, Over-Population, Disease and Pollution
    Unfortunately no leader in an authoritarian and effective position gives sufficiently enforceable, instructions, directions and orders for stopping the disastrous effects of various factors that are ruining our existence and will do so even more of our descendants. These factors combine in the over-consumption of animals and their products, the misuse of fossil fuels, the wastage of barren productive sites of land, the burning of natural vegetative growth, the use of self-
    abusive addictive drugs, the spreading of disease (from ignorance), and the misplacement of single-use plastic containers. These effects cause pollution, disruption and destruction of our planet’s natural bounty and of our fellow men and women. Our situation on earth is becoming so unreasonably and intolerably bad that unless a drastic change is made, future generations will find themselves gasping for the available oxygen, fighting for food, medicines and clean water, even for living-space, and hopefully having to struggle for many, many years to try to restore the existing bio-sphere or surface of our planet to its past stable natural and proper living conditions again.
    So let us all join together in negating:
    # the polluting and burning and wasting and spoiling of our once beautiful earthly natural resources. The day will quickly come when our world suffers the dire effects of the deprivation and loss of the greatest part of our burgeoning population from starvation, suffocation, uncured easily transmitted disease and drought. Then we will feel the urgent need for mending our wild, wicked and wasteful ways, only to find that it is too late.
    # the killing of all the whales and other marine mammals, cutting off the fins of sharks, the harpooning, dredging up, catching and filtering out from the seas all the edible or partly edible fish and crustaceans.
    # the spoiling and polluting the rivers and seas, killing all of the remaining inedible fish and sea/river-dependent mammals, with our waste-produced chemicals, uneaten food and plastic rubbish.
    # the burning down all the natural jungles and forests and destroying the other trees too, causing a reduction in the oxygen that they convert from carbon dioxide by photo-synthesis, and the increase in the carbon dioxide that is freely available.
    # the resulting reductions of ice in the Polar Regions, to raise the sea temperatures and its levels, and to melt the heat-reflecting ice-fields, until the exposed permafrost and hidden lands give up all of their entrapped and heat-enveloping methane (which has about 7 times the entrapment properties of CO2 when it comes to climate warming).
    # the breeding and eating of great quantities of beef, pigs, goats and sheep (using silage grown on huge tracts of past deforested land), along with the large amounts of water that they need, until the air is full of their carbon dioxide exhalations and associated methane farts and burps.
    # the cleansing our bodies using the latest toiletry products from profitable palm-oil, grown on land that previously was jungle and which once supported an amazing variety of wild-life that has already become almost extinct.
    # the driving to work along free-ways that multiply the distance between home and workplace, on roads that are asphalted with the remains of the wasted fuel, individually each using life-threatening vehicles that exceed a ton (2,240 lbs.) in weight (for moving our mere 200 lbs,), which move at horrendous speeds and guzzle petroleum fuels at rates that will eventually suck the fuel companies dry, whilst filling our cities with fumes, fogs and dirt.
    # the mostly unnecessary need, now that we have the internet means for high-speed communication, of the use of semi-paraffin fuel powered aircraft and diesel fuel driven ships and lorries, that wastefully consume similar kinds petroleum products, for flying and conveying ourselves and our goods long distances at high speeds, only to return (sometimes empty) in a few hours, days or weeks from the starting point.
    # the generation of electrical energy using the mined coal and natural gases, that are taken from the earth, instead of generating this energy without burning, from either nuclear-fusion power-plants, solar rays, geothermal heat-sources, the tides and the wind.
    # the building of mammoth ferrous-concrete structures, from materials of which consume large quantities of energy in their production and which on site absorb much water and release much C02 during their setting.
    # the growing ignorance that denies the protection from immunization offered by altruistically minded health organizations against the more commonly transmitted but deadly diseases.
    # the waging of such disastrous political demonstrations, uprisings, revolutions and wars, using so many kinds of highly destructive materials and weapons of hatred, that it won’t be long before Mankind finally manages to achieve collective suicide.
    Only then with our help, will our good but proud Heavenly Father (who promised never again to destroy human kind by Himself as He once tried, as described in the Bible), be able to relinquish the idea that He made a bad mistake in creating us with a greedy, selfish and lazy nature (except when we can get something for the least effort–when ambition overcomes sloth), as a collectively long-term suicidal beast. And that, since He has lots of time available, that He should not need to rework the later stages of the evolution process again, for the creation of a different and more sensible type of intelligent creature, which is a little “closer to his image”, or possibly is able to exist on some kinder star? (Perhaps this might be achieved anyway by ourselves, with the introduction of robotic artificial intelligence devices. Is it as if we are already beginning to do this job too, for Him?)
    (Oh, shame to men! Devil with devil damned
    Firm concord holds, men only disagree
    Of creatures rational, though under hope
    Of heavenly grace; and, God proclaiming peace
    Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife
    Among themselves, and levy cruel wars,
    Wasting the earth, each other to destroy:
    As if—which might induce us to accord—
    Man had not hellish foes enow besides,
    That day and night for his destruction wait. JOHN MILTON)

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