Ian McHarg


By questioning man’s dominion over the earth, he influenced the next generation of landscape architects and city planners. (He is pictured here wearing the National Medal of the Arts, which he recieved from President George Bush, at a 1990 reception for that year's honorees.)

At “79, going on 80,” Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning Emeritus Ian McHarg, M.L.A., M.C.P., has just completed his first book of poems, “Songs to the Stars,” to be published at the end of the month. He’d never written poetry before, but McHarg, who speaks with a Scottish brogue and knows how to tell a good story, said someone talked him into it.

Another project someone talked him into is his 1967 seminal book, “Design With Nature,” in which he introduced environmental concerns to landscape architecture.

And he said a TV executive talked him into making “The House We Live In,” the 1960-61 CBS series McHarg hosted, interviewing the top intellectuals of the day — from religious thinkers Paul Tillich and Swami Nikhilananda to anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Erich Fromm — about religious, ethical and philosophical attitudes toward the environment.

An informal Internet survey of planners from around the world selected McHarg as the world’s greatest living planner. He carries in his pocket a scrap of e-mail informing him of his selection. “I carry it around with me because I’m so enchanted,” he said.

Just six months ago, McHarg published his collected writings, “To Heal the Earth” (Island Press). And the planner for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and for Lower Manhattan is now working on a plan for Nantou County in Taiwan.

At the end of the month, McHarg plans to travel to Japan to receive the Japan Prize in city planning for his lifetime of work bringing environmental considerations into the thinking of planners around the world. The prize, presented for substantial contributions to the advancement of science and technology as well as to the peace and prosperity of mankind, includes a cash award of 50 million yen (approximately $482,000).

Q. Hasn’t your thinking permeated the culture?
A. Well, they’ve gone from nothing to somewhere. But really, they couldn’t have started lower in the bottom. When I came here in 1954, I was given an introduction to a man called Fairfield Osborne, who was the president of the Conservation Foundation. It sounded very impressive. But then I went to see him in his offices in New York, which was a one-room office near to Grand Central Station, with a part-time secretary and an unpaid executive director. This was the sum of the conservation movement in the United States in 1954.
Now, only a couple of years ago, 120 nations convened in Rio de Janiero to discuss the global environment. That’s a big turnabout.
   Rachel Carson wrote this wonderful book, “Silent Spring.” At that time there came to be a tiny little interest in the environment. And the question was, who will speak about it? Well, at that time, there were only five people who were available in the country who would rush around anywhere and talk about the environment. The first was Ralph Nader, who started off concerned with the environment. And the second was Barry Commoner; he was a chemist from Washington University who spoke about the chemical environment. And then René Dubos, who’s a pathologist from Rockefeller University. And then Paul Ehrlich, the population bomb man — and me!
   The subject began to ultimately gain some interest. For me the apex was on Earth Day 1970, when this department, this school was the major focus for the celebration of the Earth Day in the United States. And the culmination was 30,000 people came to Fairmount Park, Belmont Plateau, the 17th of April 1970.
   I was there. I remember to this day what I said. “You have no future, you have no future. Why am I the person to tell you the bad news?” Jesus. That was the turnaround.

Q. When you say the turnaround, what did you mean?
A. We had national coverage by all the major networks. The environment had never had that kind of attention before. And every single major figure in the environment spoke. The environment came from nothing to somewhere on that event.
After that, major magazines had a section devoted to the environment. Time and Life had a section. No one had ever talked about the bloody environment. Suddenly it was in The New York Times.

Q. But your suggestions have fallen on deaf ears at the New Jersey shore, haven’t they?
The stupidity’s gigantic. But there have been large lumps of the coast, nationally, which have been protected. If you go down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, you find a whole lot of them, protected islands that go all the way from Florida to North Carolina. By and large, the beaches along that section are absolutely protected, no development at all. And I had something to do with that. I did the plan for Amelia Island [Fla.], I did the plan for Cape Hatteras, so it’s not all bad.
   But you’re right. Harvey Cedars, which I studied back in ’63, was destroyed by Hurricane Agnes, and then after the hurricane subsided, the Army Corps of Engineers came with bulldozers and they bulldozed all the houses into a funeral pyre and set them afire. Unbelievable.
   And you know what happened? People go back, thanks of course to federal policy, to flood insurance and all of these humanitarian efforts — you know, the militias to stop looting, and the Red Cross.

Q. Do you live in the city?
No, I live 40 miles due west. I live in very rural Chester County.

Q. Has development overrun Chester County?
No, no, no. Chester County is one of the great experiments in the country [where local residents formed a consortium to protect land from development].

Q. After studying in the States you went back to Scotland?
I thought as a Scotsman it was my moral obligation to return and apply that which I learned at Harvard in my native land. I became increasingly disillusioned with the civil service there, which was so bloody lethargic.
   But the whole thing was resolved for me by my then wife, a Dutch noblewoman to whom I was married for 32 years. She died 26 years ago. And she said, “Ian, sit down, I have something important to tell you.” She said, “I have been in Scotland for four years, and I have yet to see the sun shine. Scotland is uninhabitable. I cannot live here any longer.” So I was not about to lose this woman, with whom I am still, to this day, dementedly in love. So the question was, where to go. Obviously, the answer was America.

Q. What are you going to do with the prize money?
I’m going to keep it. My prayer to God has been for the last decade, God, please, may I die solvent. I’ve been rescued by the government of Japan.
   I’m so pleased, so enchanted. So here I am. I have to get a new suit. This one is very old. [He shows off the holes in the lining.] I got it in 1990 to get the National Medal [of the Arts] from George Bush.
   I’ve got to dress properly because I’m going to meet the Emperor, for God’s sake.

Q. Are you excited?
Apparently, there’ll be a little briefing. And he’s been briefed about me!

Q. How did you come to write your book “Design With Nature”?
The phone rang, and the voice said, “This is Russell Train.” … He was then president of the Conservation Foundation. He said, “We [he and his staff] decided that what the world needs is a book on ecology and planning.” I said, “You’re absolutely right.” He said, “We think you can write it.” I said, “I can’t even spell it.”

Originally published on April 6, 2000