Author: McHarg Summary: A canonical text that reshaped design and planning disciplines about a concern for the environment and nature. This is about considering nature and man as complementary: a practice of ecological design that sees nature as a relative value system (as offering opportunities and limitations for human activities) that can inform the optimal location of human activities. Development should seek to preserve and enhance the characteristics of site in which it takes place through the built environment, rather than obliterate them, in designing with nature. This is a holistic approach to planning informed by natural and human values and needs, whereby development, conservation and restoration are informed by suitability analyses, performed by overlaying transparencies: a precursor to modern environmental planning done using GIS technologies. Year Published: 1969

In 3 Sentences

  1. A canonical text that reshaped design and planning disciplines about a concern for the environment and nature.
  2. This practice is about considering nature and man as complementary: a practice of ecological design that emphasises nature as a relative value system (as offering opportunities and limitations for human activities) that can inform the optimal location of human activities. Development should seek to preserve and enhance the characteristics of site in which it takes place through the built environment, rather than obliterate them, in designing with nature.
  3. Proposes a holistic approach to planning informed by natural and human values and needs, whereby development, conservation and restoration are informed by suitability analyses, performed by overlaying transparencies: a precursor to modern environmental planning done using GIS technologies



the early Greek thinkers tended either to examine man in isolation, or to examine nature without noting the presence of man: as if any part of it [nature] could be understood except through the instruments and symbols taht the human mind provided, for purposes that in one way or another furthered man’s own existence vi

man’s life, in sickness and in health, is bound up with the forces of nature, and that nature, so far from being opposed and conquered, must rather be treated as an ally and friend, whose ways must be understood, and whose counsel must be respected. vi

[McHarg] seeks, not arbitrarily to impose design, but to use to the fullest the potentialities -and with them, necessarily, the restrictive conditions-that nature offers. viii

City and Countryside

The world is a glorious bounty. p1

If we can create a humane city, rather than the city of bondage and toil, then the choice of city or countryside will be between two excellences, each indispensable, each different, both complementary, both life-enhancing. Man in Nature. p2

We need nature as much in the city as in the countryside.

Sea and Survival

If one accepts the simple proposition that nature is the arena of life and that a modicum of knowledge of her processes is indispensable for survival and rather more for existence, health and delight, it is amazing how many apparently difficult problems present ready resolution. p7

Let us accept the proposition that nature is process, that it is interacting, taht it responds to laws, representing values and opportunities for human use with certain limitations and even prohibitions to certain of these. p7

The Plight

The country is not a remedy for the industrial city, but it does offer surcease and some balm to the spirit. p19

Clearly the problem of man and nature is not one of providing a decorative background for the human plan, or even ameliorating the grim city: it is the necessity of sustaining nature as source of life, milieu, teacher, sanctum, challenge and, most of all, of rediscovering nature’s corollary of the unknown in the self, the source of meaning. p19

[Cities are] the expression of the inalienable right to create ugliness and disorder from private greed, the maximum expression of man’s inhumanity to man. p23

You can confirm an urban destination from the increased shrillness of the neon shrills, the diminished horizon, the loss of nature’s companions until you are alone, with men, in the heart of the city, God’s Junkyard p23

[The] imperfect view of the world as commodity fails to evaluate and incorporate physical and biological processes: we have lost the empirical knowledge of our ancestors. We are now unable to attribute value to indispensable natural processes, but we have developed an astonishing precision for ephemera. p25

There is indisputable evidence that man exists in nature; but it is important to recognise the uniqueness of the individual and thus his special opportunities and responsibilities. p29

ecology (derived from oikos) is the science of the home. p29

The ecological view requires that we look upon the world, listen and learn. p29

As we contemplate the squalid city and the pathetic subdivision, suitcase agriculture and the cynical industrialist, the insidious merchant, and the product of all these in the necklace of megalopoles around the continent, their entrails coalescing, we fervently hope taht there is another way. There is. The ecological view is the essential component in the search for the face of the land of the free and the home of the brave. p29

A step forward

  • If physical, biological and social processes and phenomena can be valued and ranked, a cost-benefit analysis can be undertaken to evaluate land-use changes and ensure that interventions maximise social benefit and minimise social costs (e.g. in selecting a highway route)
    • While costs/benefits can be ranked within a category (e.g. land value, wildlife value, recreational value, hazard risk) but not between categories
    • What can be done instead is superimposing natural and social values and observing the maximum concurrence of high/low value and select interventions that maximise overall value and minimise overall cost

The Cast and the Capsule

I can think of no better way of looking at the world and its processes than as if these were a timeless yearning, occurring in a milieu with a proclivity for evolution and for life, in which the environment is fit and may be made more fitting-in which the test is the capacity to adapt the environment and one’s self. p52

There can be no present without a past, no future without both. That which is is only comprehensible in terms of what was. That which was may explain that which is, but cannot predict that which will be. p52

The place and the creature are textbook and teacher, they can speak to him who would and can read. p52

Perhaps the greatest conceptual contribution of the ecological view is the perception of the world and evolution as a creative process. p53

Nature in the Metropolis

nature can be considered as interacting process, responsive to laws, constituting a value system, offering intrinsic opportunities and limitations to human uses. p55

there is a need for simple regulations, which ensure that society protects the values of natural processes and is itself protected. pp55-56

Nature is intrinsically variable. p56

nature is a single interacting system and that changes to any part will affect the operation of the whole. p56

land management will affect water, water management will affect land processes. p56

We cannot follow the path of every drop of water, but we can select certain identifiable aspects p56

  • Optimally, development should only occur on valuable / dangerous natural-process land if superior values are created through construction, or compensation is possible

  • A study of appropriate areas for open space and urban development demands an identification of natural proceses that provide services for humanity (The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital), offer protection / are hostile (marshes, floodplains), are unique/precious (areas of geological, ecological and historic interest) and are vulnerable (coastal dunes, breeding grounds, water catchments)

    • The areas most suitable for urban use (in order) are: flat land, forest and woodland, steep slopes, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, floodplains, marshes and surface water. We should thus try not to build on floodplains and instead aim to build on flat land, balancing the needs for agriculture on flat land


    Surface Water Only land uses inseparable from a waterfront location should occupy surface water space, and they shouldn’t diminish water supply, recreation or amenity value.

    Marshes Land-use policy on marshes should reflect the neds for food and water storage, wildlife habitats and fish spawning grounds.

    Floodplains The 50-year floodplain is increasingly accepted as the area from which development is excluded apart from uses that can withstand flooding or have to be on a floodplain.

    Aquifers Aquifers should be protected and managed to prevent their pollution and overextraction.

    Aquifer Recharge Areas These points of interchange should be managed to protect the quality of groundwater resources and to enable percolation to recharge aquifer resources


    Steep Lands are central to flood control and erosion, and are unsuitable for development (should be covered by vegetation to control runoff and erosion - e.g. forests)

    Prime agricultural lands should be used for intensive cultivation because of the high quality and productive soils to avoid the use of large amounts of inferior soils for agricultural production. Prime soils should be retired for forest growth or use as open space rather than paved over in urbanisation.

    Forest and Woodlands Forest can improve microclimate and balance erosion, sedimentation, flooding and drought, as well as providing scenic value, recreational potential and habitats.

On Values

Man imposes his simple, entertaining illusion of order, accomplished with great art, upon an unknowing and uncaring nature. The garden is offered as proof of man’s superiority. p71

  • Gardens are selective, symbolic and simplified natures taht are islands within and separate from the world, reproducing man’s sense and belief that he is apart from nature (Wanderlust: A History of Walking)
  • The English landscape saw the idea of garden expand, jumping over the garden walls and encompassing all of nature itself (as an idealised nature), reconstituting the landscape in a bucolic image of a productive, working landscape (Wanderlust: A History of Walking)

The ransacking of the world/s last great cornucopia has as its visible consequence the largest, most inhumane and ugliest cities ever made by man. This is the greatest indictment of the American experiment. p77

a profound ignorance, disdain and carelessness prevails. It is because of these that we are unable to create a handsome visage for the land of the free, the humane and life-enhancing forms for the cities and homes of the brave. p77

A Response to Values

  • Can the capability of a parcel of land or water to serve a certain use be tested or predicted, just as suitability of different types of land for development can be ranked? (as natural phenomena offer opportunities and limitations for human activities)
    • Intrinsic possibilities and constraints shape the optimum pattern of urban development, described by physiographic determinism (the idea that development responds to natural processes, opportunities and constraints to avoid spoliation, enhance the landscape and have equal development values to uncontrolled urban growth - e.g. an increase in density)

Can we not create, from a beautiful natural landscape, an environment inhabited by man in which natural beauty is retained, man housed in community?

We must in faith believe this to be possible. p80

The proposition

  • The case study area (The Valleys, Baltimore) is beautiful and vulnerable
  • Development is inevitable so needs to be accommodated, but uncontrolled growth is destructive
  • Conservation principles can avert destruction and enhance the development project
  • Regional goals should shape the resulting development
  • The development area can accommodate necessary prospective growth without spoiling the landscape if it is diverted to the plateau (which can accommodate it without destroying the valleys and their woods)
  • Planned is better, more desirable, and more profitable than uncontrolled growth
  • Public and private powers can be involved in a partnership to realise this vision

The World is a Capsule

ecology and the view it provides can perform prodigies of work p95

To learn of the evolution of physical and biological proceses is an indispensable step towards the knowledge one needs before making changes to the land: but it is far from enough. It is as necessary to know how the world works. Who are the actors and who do they respond to the environment, to physical processes and to other creatures? p96

  • Earth is a self-perpetuating and evolving life-support system that enables human survival, persistence, and evolution: a complex natural system that is already there to offer us opportunities (the Earth as capsule) through “understanding and intelligent intervention” p101 as Earth stewards

Processes as Values

Land, air and water resources are indispensable to life and thus constitute social values. p104

A recognition of these social values, inherente in natural proceses, must precede prescription for the utilization of natural resources. p104

Once it has been accepted that the place is a sum of natural processes and that these proceses constitute social values, inferences can be drawn regarding utilization to ensure optimum use and enhancement of social values. This is its intrinsic suitability. p104

The social values represented by the natural processes more often than not are inherently suitable for a multiplicity of human uses. p104

  • Conflicts between multiple suitable land uses as a site can be resolved by:

    • Resources representing a very high value (scarce and vulnerable) for conservation can lead to the exclusion of other uses
    • Multiple uses can be permitted if intrinsic values are not compromised
      • This is in conflict with the principles of zoning, where land sues are segregated, regardless of whether they are complementary or not
      • Uses can be combined in complementary and desirable ways (e.g. residence and shopping)
    • If two uses are equally suitable, society can choose
  • An assessment of intrinsic suitability isn’t a plan, as a plan accommodates the intersection of demand, supply, and the objectives of society

    • This is an assessment of areas where land uses can occur with minimal cost and maximum benefit
    • This is a rational, explicit assessment of suitability for different land uses
    • Grounded in the community’s own value system rather than the planner’s judgement
    • This assessment of suitability and values of the area can inform cost-benefit analysis when making planning decisions, to inform where development/conservation is targeted

    McHarg performs this analysis by overlaying transparencies, now done using GIS Software

nature is process and value, exhibiting both opportunities and limitations to human use. p105

The Naturalists

If you multiply simplicities, the result is uniformity; the product of complexities is diversity p119

  • Simple ecosystems are more vulnerable and unstable, while complex and diverse ecosystems are more resilient and stable

The River Basin

A professional landscape architect or city planner is limited in the projects he undertakes to problems presented by his clients. p127

it is necessary to understand nature as an interacting process that represents a relative value system, and that can be interpreted as proffering opportunities for human use-but also revealing constraints, and even prohibitions to certain of these. p127

a plan is a determination to achieve certain social goals, related to the power of society to accomplish these. p127

We have become accustomed to think of single-function land use and the concept of zoning has done much to confirm this […] but this is clearly a most limiting concept. If we examine a forest, we know that there are many species-and, thus, that many cooperative roles coexist. In the forest there are likely to be dominant tree species, subdominants and a hierarchy of species descending to the final soil microorganisms. The same concept can apply to the management of resources-that there be dominant or codominant land uses, co-existing with subordinate, but compatible ones. p128

we seek to find the highest and best uses of all the land in the basin, but in every case we will try to identify the maximum conjunction of these. This, then, is the image of nature as an interacting and living storehouse—a value system p128

The place must be understood to be used and managed well. p144

Such is the [ecological] method—a simple sequential examination of the place in order to understand it. This understanding reveals the place as an interacting system, a storehouse and a value system. From this information it is possible to prescribe potential land uses—not as single activities, but as associations of these. p151

the ecological method can be employed to understand and formulate a plan with nature, perhaps design with nature. p151

The Metropolitan Region

certain lands are unsuitable for urbanisation and others are intrinsically suitable. p154

natural features can absorb degrees of development p154

Process and Form

form and process are indivisible aspects of a single phenomenon. p163

Form then is communication, the presentation of meaning. p169

The ecosystem, the organisms and their organisms are not only fit, but are most fitting. This is an important conception because it has a relevance to the man who wishes to design for nature. p170

the symbolic world is not the distant home of the esoteric few but the everyday world we live in. p171

We are involved with symbolic form and meaning inextricably p171

Artifacts should be measured in terms of their effect on life, not as independent objects. p172

Certainly we can dispose of the old canard, “form follows function.” **Form follows nothing—it is integral with all processes. ****Then form is indivisibly meaningful form, but it can reveal ill fit, misfit, unfit, fit and most fitting. p173

The City: Process and Form

when cities are built upon beautiful, dramatic or rich sites, their excellence often results from the preservation, exploitation and enhancement, rather than obliteration of this genius of the site. Where this lacks intrinsic drama, excellence can be created by buildings and spaces. p175

The total city can then be seen as an exploitation of the intrinsic site—the creations of men seen as conscious adaptions to itthat preserve, heighten and enhance its basic qualities. These become values in their own right. p175

The city can be examined as an evolutionary form, reflecting its history in morphology, revealing adaptions successful and otherwise, containing attributes, some of high and others of little value. p176

Such is the method: the search for the basis of the identity of a city, the selection of those elements—in the natural identity and that of the created city—that are expressive and valuable, that exercise constraints and that proffer opportunities for new development. It is a simple method indeed, but it is an advance over the market mechanism of evaluation—it reveals the basis for form. p185

The City: Health and Pathology

creativity and destruction are real phenomena, taht both have attributes, that fitness and unfitness—in the evolutionary sense—are expressions of these, as are health and disease. p195

There is a creative-fit-healthy environment. What are its components? All this we must know to create the humane city. p195


The economic value system must be expanded into a relative system encompassing all biophysical processes and human aspirations. p197

In the quest for survival, success and fulfilment, the ecological view offers an invaluable insight. It shows the way for the man who would be the enzyme of the biosphere—its steward, enhancing the creative fit of man-environment, realizing man’s design with nature. p197