The Ecological Planning Method

The relation of Design with Nature

to the ecological planning method of identifying competing values.

What does an ecological planning methodology consist of?

principles | layers of landscape | what to look for | reconciling competing values

This means or method of analysis and synthesis was first proposed by the late Ian McHarg, (1920-2001), who popularized naturally appropriate land use planning on CBS, during the late 1950s. He conceived of the method as an inventory and analysis process to facilitate assessing the assets and consequences of transportation, new development and open space protection during the suburban boom period of the 1960s through the1990s.

guiding principles interpreted of ecological planning

The Sources:

Ian McHarg, Design with Nature (1969).

Introduction by Lewis Mumford –   writer and historian of technology.

Introduction by Lewis Mumford

"In establishing the necessity for conscious intention, for ethical evaluation, for orderly organization, for deliberate esthetic expression in handling every part of the environment, McHarg's emphasis is... Upon the preposition with, which implies human cooperation and biological partnership."

Lewis Mumford, p.viii.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The books' summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

As part of his Boston Park Plan, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. Designed this stretch of Jamaica Plain as one element of what is referred to as "the Emerald Necklace" where features of forests and roadways are merged to form parkways and greens as open space buffers between south Boston and adjacent Brookline, Mass.


City and Countryside
Glasgow and the depression, the surroundings as a respite and source of sustenance.

"Our eyes do not divide us from the world, but unite us with it."


Let us then abandon the simplicity of separation and give unity its due. Let us abandon the self-mutilation which has been our way and give expression to the potential harmony of man-nature.

The world is abundant, we require only a deference born of understanding to fulfill man's promise. . . . He must become the steward of the biosphere. To do this he must design with nature.

page 5.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

Bolsa Chica, wetland, in Orange County coastal California at the lower right of the above right-hand photograph.

Sea and Survival
Dunes and the Dutch intelligence with respect to sea defenses.

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

page 7.

"In their long dialogue with the sea the Dutch have learned that it cannot be stopped but merely directed or tempered, and so they have always selected flexible construction."


"Perhaps the most reasonable approach would be to investigate the tolerance or intolerance of the various environments to human use in general and to some particular uses."

page 13.
Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


The Plight
page 19

Western commercial, utilitarian and instrumentalist values have trapped us all.

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

"So when I first encountered the problem of the place of nature in man's world it was not a beleaguered nature, but merely the local deprivation that was the industrial city."

"Our failure is that of the western world and lies in prevailing values." 24

"..dysgenic city and mined landscapes"
Or the functional atrophy of urban cores and peripheries

page 24

25-29 essential, history of eastern (Japan) and western values (oversimplified).

Traditional Japanese Villagewaterfallinterior

A traditional Japanese village and garden water element is side by side with the traditional interior of a Japanese dwelling; nature defines the space.


Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


A Step Forward
page 31

Highways and the method is introduced as a means of delineating landscape uses

"In highway design, the problem is reduced to the simplest and most commonplace terms: traffic volume, design speed, capacity pavements, structures, horizontal and vertical alignment."

"In essence the method consists of identifying the area of concern as consisting of certain processes in land, water an air, which represent values. These can be ranked..."

page 34

"The method requires that we obtain the most benefit for the least cost but that we include as values social processes, natural resources and beauty.

page 34.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


16 values isolated as representing discrete features identifiable on maps. By using an overlay technique of all 16 maps a composite image emerges of the ecological and social advantages based on varied, existing uses of landscapes.

Slope, surface drainage, soil drainage, bedrock foundation, soil foundation, erosive capacity, land values, tidal inundation, | historic values, scenic values, recreational values, | water values, forest values, wildlife values, residential values, institutional values.

pp. 37-38.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

The Cast and the Capsule
page 43.

An alleged digression into the science, forms and functions of the biosphere's role.

"Think then of the great work of the sun (describes the flow of energy & water)

page 47

Consistency of the atmosphere, 20% O-2 78% nitrogen

page 48
Identified major actors of the biosphere -- the encompassing envelope that is our milieu -- the atmosphere, that membrane around the earth..."
page 50
water acts on land surfaces, and through erosion and sedimentation changes these surfaces towards equilibrium."

"Entropy is the rule."

page 53.


The limitations are important.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


Nature in the Metropolis
page 55.

Philadelphia and the decisions with respect to open space allocation of land & water.

"... The diagnostic and prescriptive powers of a rudimentary ecology carried more weight and had more value."

Philadelphia metropolitan region as an example of finding the place of nature in the metropolis by a means of reserving "open space."

"reasonable to suggest that nature performed work for man without his investment and that such work did represent a value."

page 55

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


On Values

page 67.

Our continent of North America is described before human contact and contrasted with the coming of the Europeans and a revolution in ideas and land-use based on water acquisition and mineral wealth at the end of the pre-Columbian (1492) period.

"The emergence of the seed in Jurassic times (250,000,000 years ago) precipitated the explosion of the flower"

"This new devastating tool was fire."

"If one can infer from the ways of the North American Indians, there evolved a most harmonious balance of man and nature."

"The authority of man was made visible by the imposition of a simple Euclidean geometry upon the landscape, and this is seen to increase within the period (after Columbus). Man imposes his simple entertaining illusion of order, accomplished with great art, upon an unknowing and uncaring nature. The garden is offered as a proof of man's superiority."

page 71.

"Here the ornamental qualities of plants are paramount --no ecological concepts of community or association becloud the objective.

Plants are like "man's companions, sharing his domestication."

page 71.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


A Response to Values
page 79.

The Maryland suburbs (Washington DC and Baltimore axis) were, in the 1960s, beginning to threaten rural and woodlands so a means was devised of participatory decision making among local owners and regional councils and wider public interests in order to protect shared aesthetic and natural values.

Washington DC

The Potomac River shown here slices through the Piedmont Plateau to descend relatively quickly to the Atlantic coastal plain where the northern cooler adjusted forests meet the warmer forest of the lowlands. As part and parcel of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Potomac River is the largest tributary of the bay but suffers from suburban sprawl, despite the attempt of the District of Columbia to build a modern extensive and efficient high speed underground rail system to alleviate the traffic that so congests the Capital city and pollutes the air and watershed.


Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

The World is a Capsule

"...armed only with a little ecology and an ecological view.... If you are persuaded, as I am, that ecology and the view it provides can perform prodigies of work, then it becomes necessary to increase our knowledge of this illuminating field."

page 95.

"To learn about the evolution of physical and biological processes is an indispensable step toward the knowledge one needs before making changes to the land: but it is far from enough."

page 96.

"the objectives remain unchanged: to create a self-sustaining ecosystem –whose only import is sunlight, whose only export is heat-- sufficient to sustain man for a certain period of time."

page 96

"We need to demonstrate creative, rather than destructive skills, if we are to replicate nature or to manage it."

"The distribution of the essential nutrients is an important consideration, and lacking any better information, it is concluded that these will exist ...provided the water, soil, and creatures of the ecosystem are healthy."

page 98

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

Processes of Values

page 103.

The geographical location, topography and shape of  Staten Island (Borough of Richmond; fifth in size of the five boroughs that comprise New York City) make it an ideal place to apply the principles of ecological planning to an urban and suburban setting to protect hydrological, scenic and cultural features.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

The Naturalists
page 117.

The role of naturalists in discovering evolution and ideas of natural selection, cooperation among species, zonation (specialized demarcations in the natural field where plants grow and adapt to soils and water) succession, climax and retrogression (due to stress from natural or artificial conditions) is described. These become the elements of ecology and they inform the ecological view of planning.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

The River Basin
page 127.

The Potomac Valley and the interdependence of physiography and hydrology.

"At least the river basin is describable-- it is united by water; and it is permanent."

The river basin is a hydrological unit, it is not a physiographic one..."

"physiographic regions vary dramatically."

"In earlier applications of the ecological planning method, the problem s all contained certain limitations."

page 127.
Good summary of book to this point
page 127.

Ecological Planning Method developed more fully:

"The first considerations are historical geology and climate which, in conjunction, have interacted upon the river basin, for they have created the basic form."

Basic Considerations in regional planning:

Plant associations
Water Problems
Mineral resources
Water Resources
Intrinsic Suitabilities

Three guiding principles

      1. Degree of Compatibility
      2. Optimize multiple land uses
      3. Know the physiographic regions

"Such is the 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."

page, 151.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


The Metropolitan Region

page 153.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start

Process and Form

page 163.


Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


The City: Process & Form

page 175.

Placement and memorial settings in the design of Washington DC from the geology and hydrography to vegetation and architecture.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


The City: Health and Pathology

page 187.

Public spaces and the detachment of people from one another in communities

"There is no generally accepted definition of health, and the medical professions are entirely concerned with disease."

Common (mass) sense versus professional (expert) knowledge as sub cultures are compared.

". . . the central proposition of this book has been that creativity and destruction are real phenomenon, that both have attributes, that fitness and unfitness –in the evolutionary sense– are expressions of these, as are health and disease."

page 195.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


page 196.

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


The Summary

Urban growth has the power to obliterate essential features that signify vital functions, primary values and cultural landscapes unless the definitive method of ecological planning is used to examine and explain essential characteristics of an area.


Knowledge of the land, the water, and the air is rapidly vanishing.

Defining the importance of knowing physical, chemical, biological, cultural and social limitations.

The context of the milieu witching which we all dwell: our planet, as a physical shell coupled with its biosphere, or the living penumbra is the starting point for identifying, inventorying and describing the natural and cultural worth of all the features in a terrain.

The Thesis

Trapped by our own behavioral demands, limited knowledge and socioeconomic considerations the human transformation of the planet through urban, agricultural and industrial land-use and land-use changes threatens the long-term existence of human society unless we apply a rigorous knowledge based understanding of ecology to our daily affairs, industrial design and patterns of resource exploitation.


Interpreting the guiding principles of ecological planning.

      Degree of Compatibility - higher value is given to land-use patterns that complement one another such as retaining features for scenic qualities, watershed protection, noise abatement and appropriate buffers.

      Optimize multiple land uses - solving more than one problem with the same activity is better than one solution at a time with numerous land consuming activities.

      Know the physiographic regions - place geology, hydrology and native vegetation at the start of the planning process.

ecological thinking

development of ecological thought

Contents | Methodology | Value Maps | The Summary | Themes | Thesis | Return to start


Planning Index | Analytical Planning | Criteria | Places | Geographical Intelligence | Community

Bulldozer in the Countryside