The Next Stage of Ecological Urban Design

Integrating features of our natural landscape into practice

Urbanist Article September 1, 2000

As I read Bill Eisenstein's perceptive article, Ecological Design, Urban Places and the Culture of Sustainability (page 1), my thoughts went back to Ian McHarg,who died last spring at age 82. When I was a student and then an employee of Ian's in the late '60s and early '70s, those heady days at the start of the modern environmental movement, Ian referred to me as his "brown thumb on the green thumb projects." In a team full of landscape architects and natural scientists, I was often the sole urbanist, and as such played an interesting counterpoint to the strict "design with nature" ethos. My role was to ask what precisely it was we were learning from nature: "But what does this mean? How will we design our city differently based on this knowledge?"

Eisenstein argues convincingly that one should use both ecological processes and human values as form-giving elements--with a number of purposes, including strengthening the genius loci, or sense of place. How can learning from nature and learning from the city work together? In the almost 40 years since Ian McHarg and his partner Dave Wallace first postulated a system of ecological design, both the theory and the practice has evolved considerably, and Eisenstein is again pushing the envelope.

Back in the '60s, while developing a comprehensive landscape plan for Washington, D.C., Ian postulated that the genius loci (which derives from both the buildings and spaces in that monumental city, and the natural features--hills, valleys, rivers, and so on) can and should be informed and enhanced by whatever landscape additions we humans make. And indeed, landscape architects in San Francisco know well that street trees on the east-west streets must be able to withstand strong winds off the ocean, a condition less often found on the north-south streets, and that there are species that can be grown in the Mission that should not be attempted in the Richmond. I'm not so sure it yet works the other way. In San Francisco , we have not developed a comprehensive system of design that recognizes the natural features and processes of our peninsula--the waterfront, the hilltops, the wind and fog patterns, etc.

McHarg saw something as simple as an urban street tree plan as a tool both to perpetuate and extend neighborhood and district identity, based on what did or could have naturally occurred there, as well as on the buildings and spaces we construct. As McHarg said, "A summit may support an Acropolis or a junkyard, and escarpment may be expressed as the Spanish Steps or hidden in sub-basements. A forest may become the Bois de Boulogne or be obliterated, a river may be a source of delight or an offense to the senses." In order to avert the negative consequences, it is necessary to institutionalize the values of the genius loci.

In this era of generic retail establishments, standardized construction methods and materials and mass produced buildings, how different does San Francisco look from San Jose or San Diego or even Sao Paolo? Or, we may ask, does the Mission look different from the Sunset? Now is the time, as we rethink our relationship with the natural environment, to follow Eisenstein and the other McHargs of the 21st century as they lead us to find new solutions to old problems. Eisenstein's thesis goes far beyond the simple ways to reinforce the sense of place and recommends actions that will have real, measurable impacts on sustaining natural processes, saving us both environmental resources and money, as well as creating unique, memorable environments.

If Ian were here today, I have no doubt he would say to Bill, "Right on!"Spur logo

About the Authors: 

Jim Chappell, in addition to being SPUR president, teaches the course Gardens, Parks and Urban Open Spaces in the landscape architecture certificate program at the University of California Extension and has worked on park design worldwide.

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