This book combines ideas from urban planning and landscape architecture with ideas from ecology. What is to be gained? A lot of lyrical passages about the beauty of nature, which grow more and more tiresome the longer they go on. It's not that the book is without its merits. McHarg's text, after all, is considered a classic. And when he gets down to practicalities, he often has intriguing ideas to present. But every other chapter is theory rather than practicum, and reading this theory fifty years later is like reading a set of dated truisms amid a collection of late 1960s liberal diatribes.
McHarg especially has it out, it seems, for Christianity, which he often blames for the environmental ills of the planet. Christianity is anthropocentric, he denotes, and as such we don't pay attention to the earth's natural balance. (What, I might ask, would paying attention to the earth's natural balance entail other than stewardship and a belief in human-centered superiority? I don't know any cats or dogs or pigs or chickens that worry about preserving the planet's balance. If they overpopulate or do environmental damage the earth naturally takes care of it--through evolution, if you will. The distribution of the animal changes, as does the distribution of the other animals and plants it affects. So too, one might argue, with humans, if indeed we are here merely by chance and are merely one other creature among the rest of the globe's inhabitants. The idea that we need to keep nature balanced, the way it was supposed to be, is then itself an anthropocentric one, one that implies that we are somehow above the other creatures on the planet. Anyway, the constant attacks on Christianity obviously wore thin on me.)
But as I noted, the practicum chapters were of some interest. An early one discusses the ocean and the beach. Much of this is old information to me from other reading I've done--how important beach dunes are, how various attempts to keep beaches in place using groins actually damage beaches further down, and so on. But it was concrete.
Those sort of points make for interesting studies later in the book, when McHarg lays out the best ways to, for example, choose where to lay roads. Too often, he points out, we pay attention chiefly to costs--and by that, he means, the physical costs, of laying a road. Hence, highways are placed where there is less development or where development is cheap (i.e., poor communitities) and where the land offers the cheapest means to lay the road (less drilling, etc.). But this often doesn't equate to what the actual cost is--that is, the actual cost needs to include the culture and social cost. When we lay down a highway through a community, we're splitting the community in half and we are likely killing off neighborhoods. And when we lay a road through pristine forestland that birds use for nesting, we may also be laying out environmental effects that will in turn affect the social and cultural ones. His solution? He takes various maps that lay out the different costs associated with each route for a road. Overlaying this maps allows us to see which route is likely the most cost effective.
In another practicum chapter, McHarg looks at different environments that are best for city building, laying out a hierarchy of preferred land on which to build, in this descending order: flat land, forest, steep slopes, aquifers, aquifer recharge areas, floodplains, marshes, and surface water. Knowing these preferences, we should thus really aim not to build on floodplains and to build on flat land. The only qualifier? Flat land is also the best land for agriculture, so we have to be attuned to those needs as well.
In an extended example, McHarg focuses on a plan for the city of Baltimore and how that city can continue to grow without giving in to sprawl, selecting the proper places to grow and the proper places to preserve and what the density in these locations should be.
Next, McHarg turns to a theoretical discussion of how we would go about creating a proper environment for an astronaut sent to live in space. He shows how all the various systems are integrated and how difficult it is to account for everything that nature does naturally. The astronaut easily can find that he or she has not accounted for some need and throw the system out of whack. This leads into the chapter on Staten Island, which again is planned according to different values and needs, using overlaying maps that give planners the means to know where the best places for conservation are, as well as the best places for urbanization, both residential and commercial.
In the next theory-heavy section, McHarg approaches a group of thinkers he calls "Naturalists." Here he lays out the idea that we need not see evolution, the survival of the fittest, as necessarily negative. He argues that natural organisms adapt to one another, that the fittest only surviving is actually a way of advancing nature so that it is more interdependent. The lion that eats the caribou, for example, is doing the caribou a favor in terms of keeping its stock lower and also helping it to evolve to a higher state through only letting the most fit survive. Parasites depend on hosts, but hosts often adapt to depend also on the parasite. Whole ecosystems exists because of this interdependence. One of those, arguably, is our own body, which consists of a host of cells, most of them cells that have learned to specialize in particular tasks in order to make the body work together efficiently. The cells are interdependent, supporting a much greater whole, the way each living thing supports the greater whole of the earth.
Next, McHarg turns to a project on the Potomac River basin. Much as he has done in earlier chapters, he lays out the various areas as being most suitable for various resources in order to understand where it would be best to urbanize and so on. The one intriguing point he makes in this chapter is that we are too prone to zone things for one use, whereas nature does not zone: various uses can be gleaned from one area in nature, and we should do the same in the city. But other than that, the discussion of the Potomac seems like yet another practicum that repeats information that has gone before. The techniques to discover what the best places to build are well known by now, and so the extended examples grow increasingly tiresome.
Potentially, the section on Washington, D.C., could prove interesting insofar as McHarg attempts to apply his ideas to a city that is already in existence, rather than to the suburbs of a city that is expanding. But in the end, I found this section to be disappointing. His main point seems to be that we need to take into account more than finances when designing sites. In D.C., it would be important to take into account the "pallette" of the particular area, make the landscape conform to the overall tone of the section of the city. Of course, this is easier said than done, since in the end it is the market that determines how we value space. His earlier points about taking into account how altering that space affects value seemed more direct to the point.
The book ends with a chapter on the health of a city, which is perhaps one of the most interesting and thought provoking. Here, he uses his mapping system to denote neighborhoods in Philadelphia with various diseases, mental diseases, and pollution, along with economic troubles, crime, race, education, unemployment, income, density, and so on. Putting all these together helps to establish a "healthy" area of the city as being in the north and west. But why is not as clear. He then goes into studies of population carried on with rats, showing how density of living has great affects on health. Though apparently able to have a denser population in their environment, the rats at some point begin to stop multiplying as fast, and disease--physical and mental--begins to become more rampant. Those rats that are dominant don't have the health problems; the rats that are submissive do. They become loners or sexually deviant or sickly. This, he thinks, is because of the stressful stimuli that exist in high densities. There seems that there might be some correlation to human populations as well, as denser areas have greater amounts of antisocial behavior and sickness. But the ideas, while intriguing, are not entirely proven or provable. But surely, one wouldn't then say that humans need to move into suburbs and less dense areas for health reasons--or would one? Here he briefly looks at how attempts to gentrify troubled areas with such densities rarely solve the problem. The original inhabitants are usually pushed out of the area, and what social network they had to deal with their problems is thus taken apart. I found myself here wanting to read more about density and its effects.
In the end, then, McHarg notes how we can take into account various factors of our environment as we build and plan and rework cities. This is a valid point but one that seemed, in McHarg's reasoning, too bound to its time.