Socio-Ecological Practice Research

, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 227–232 | Cite as

The politics of designing with nature: reflections from New Orleans and Dhaka

  • Zachary LambEmail author
Perspective Essay


Over the 50 years since its publication, Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature has been enormously influential in shaping design and planning in cities and regions around the world, including in the flood-prone cities of New Orleans and Dhaka, Bangladesh. This commentary reviews the influence of Design with Nature in key plans and proposals in Dhaka and New Orleans to highlight the potentials and limitations of applying McHarg’s methods. In both cities, McHarg-influenced urban expansion plans of the 1970s and 1980s were largely not implemented because their focus on geophysical landscape processes did not address considerations of power, politics, and property. More recent green infrastructure proposals have threatened to entrench urban inequalities by labeling low-lying low-income settlements as against natural laws of landscape suitability. Drawing on these cases and on critical environmental scholarship produced in the years since Design with Nature, the commentary argues that McHarg’s work is essential for addressing contemporary urbanization challenges, but that it must be amended with a greater recognition of the politics of urbanization and environmental risk. To do so would require (1) expanding and problematizing the idea of nature, challenging the stable nature–society binary, and embracing pluralistic forms of environmental knowledge; (2) shifting from a conceptualization of design as “revelation” by technical experts to methods centered on synthesizing diverse perspectives and enabling democratic deliberation; and (3) recognizing that the shift to designing with nature is a politically fraught process in which adaptation opportunities and constraints are defined by place-specific historical patterns of urbanization.


Ian McHarg Flooding Climate change Planning history Design with Nature Politics 

1 Design with Nature in the Mississippi and Bengal deltas

When Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature was published in 1969, the cities of Dhaka, Bangladesh and New Orleans, USA, were expanding into their wetland surroundings in the Bengal and Mississippi deltas, respectively. McHarg’s vision of ecological planning has been deeply influential in both cities over the last half-century. During the 1970s and 1980s, both cities struggled to accommodate urban expansion in their dynamic flood-prone delta landscapes. Planners looked to Design with Nature to inform growth strategies guided by underlying landscape processes, including soil and water dynamics. More recently, planners and designers in both cities have again turned to McHargian strategies in projects to retrofit urban fabrics to accommodate increased stormwater flows brought on by urbanization and climate change.

This article reviews the influence of Design with Nature in key plans and proposals in Dhaka and New Orleans over the last 50 years to highlight some of the potentials and limitations of applying McHarg’s methods. In the two New Orleans episodes discussed here, McHarg’s own firm and its successor Wallace, Roberts, and Todd (WRT), were directly involved. In the two Dhaka cases, McHarg’s influence was less direct, but no less apparent in the projects’ methods and approaches.

The repeated invocation of McHarg’s ideas to address a range of planning challenges in these two very different cities speaks to the enduring appeal and versatility of Design with Nature. However, the shortcomings and unintended consequences of McHargian projects in Dhaka and New Orleans are also instructive. Practitioners in both cities have repeatedly embraced McHarg’s ecological planning approach based on the study of linked natural and social landscape processes. Designers and planners in both cities have also followed McHarg’s lead in treating ecological planning as a largely apolitical optimization process aimed at maximizing “adaptive fitness” between human settlements and landscapes (McHarg 2007, p. 59). As such, McHarg-inspired projects in both cities have overlooked crucial questions related to the politics of urbanization and environmental risk. They have not adequately grappled with the questions of who benefits, who pays, and who decides how cities grow and adapt? This inattention to distributional and procedural politics has created two problematic patterns in Dhaka and New Orleans. In some cases, McHargian projects have simply failed to be implemented or sustained. In other cases, these projects threatened to exacerbate existing inequalities.

In the contemporary context of rapid urbanization, super-charged inequality, and climate change, there is an urgent need to both reengage and reexamine McHarg’s work. Building on insights from Dhaka and New Orleans and from critical environmental scholarship from the years since Design with Nature, I consider how practitioners and researchers might amend Design with Nature for its second half-century to more explicitly account for questions of spatial and environmental politics.

2 Unsuitable urban expansion

Only a few years after the publication of Design with Nature, McHarg’s firm (WMRT) developed a plan for a 34-square kilometer suburban new town in the wetlands east of New Orleans. Like the firm’s plan for The Woodlands outside of Houston, the plan for the “Pontchartrain New Town in Town” (PNT) applied Design with Nature’s ecological planning techniques for a large private development on a flood-prone exurban site as part of the federal Title VII New Town program. Where The Woodlands was largely realized, the PNT proposal languished. The development of the site was slowed by the need for major public investments in levee and drainage infrastructure. These delays meant that the project was still in its early phases when the federal new town program was dissolved in the mid-1970s. With the loss of federal funds, the developers abandoned the proposal and built out much of the site as a conventional suburb (Souther 2008).

The PNT proposal foundered in spite of its rare confluence of advantages: a team that brought together private developers and public agencies, unified control over a vast undeveloped site, and a confirmed commitment to ecological planning. To realize the project would have required overcoming the site’s extreme flood vulnerability through extraordinary coordination of land use planning, settlement and building design, and public infrastructure provision. This coordination was particularly challenging given the fragmentation of public authorities across different levels of government, including the local sewer and drainage board, the state-chartered levee board, and federal regulation and support from the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

A few years after the collapse of the PNT project, a team of planners from the British firm of Shankland Cox, drawing extensively on McHarg’s methods, developed the Dhaka Metropolitan Area Integrated Urban Development Project (DMAIUDP), a new master plan for the rapidly growing capital of Bangladesh. The DMAIUDP explicitly rejected proposals for “comprehensive flood protection” like New Orleans’ levees and mechanical drainage pumps. Instead, the plan used the overlay mapping “suitability analysis” technique described in Design with Nature to identify areas for expansion that would not require major infrastructure protections (Shankland Cox Partnership 1981b, p. 293–294). Planners advocated for the McHargian landscape-based approach because it did not require “long gestation periods,” “high capitalization,” “advanced technology,” and “precisely scheduled programming,” features of conventional infrastructure mega-projects that were difficult to accommodate in Dhaka (Shankland Cox Partnership 1981a, p. 37).

Though planners regarded the McHargian approach as more appropriate to the development circumstances of Dhaka at the time, like the PNT proposal in New Orleans, the DMAIUDP was largely not implemented. Within 10 years of the DMAIUDP, Dhaka’s leaders abandoned the plan’s non-structural approach to flood mitigation. Following floods in the late 1980s, Bangladesh’s ruling military regime, with the support of the World Bank and other international actors, built ring levees and mechanical pumps to drain Dhaka as part of the nation-wide Flood Action Plan (Japan International Cooperation Agency 1991). With an infusion of international financial and technical resources, Mohamed Ershad, Bangladesh’s military leader, embraced the levee and pump scheme to demonstrate his government’s capacity for modernization and problem solving, seeking “a permanent solution to the flood problem” (Bangladesh Observer1988). Though Dhaka’s land use plans have continued to recommend McHargian development restrictions in the city’s low-lying areas (RAJUK 1997), these restrictions have been largely unenforced, allowing urbanization to spread ever further into flood-prone territories.

3 McHargian planning revived for climate adaptation

Notwithstanding the disappointments of previous McHargian efforts in Dhaka and New Orleans, the influence of Design with Nature is again very much in evidence as leaders in both of these deltaic cities grapple with aging infrastructures and mounting flood hazards associated with climate change. As with the earlier projects, these more recent proposals position landscape ecology as the primary driver for urban form and land use decision making, deploying landscape-based strategies to accommodate rainwater within the urban environment rather than relying solely on mechanical drainage and levees to control flooding.

The successor to McHarg’s firm, WRT, played a central role in developing the Bring New Orleans Back Commission’s (BNOBC) plan following Hurricane Katrina. Among other recommendations, the plan called for increasing stormwater absorbing greenspace in several low-lying neighborhoods. WRT’s proposal became known as the “green dot plan” because of the six green circles indicating areas “expected to become parks and greenspace” on a map in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in January 2006. The BNOBC presented the green dot plan as a rational product of landscape suitability analysis, replacing flood-prone neighborhoods with new green infrastructure, landscape installations for collecting, retaining, and infiltrating stormwater into the ground. The planners heralded this strategy as simultaneously harnessing ecosystem services, consolidating municipal infrastructure and services, and reducing flood vulnerability. However, the proposal was swiftly rejected. While some critics regarded the green dot plan as an exercise in rigid “elevational determinism” (Wagner and Frisch 2009, p. 246), others highlighted the plan’s specific targeting of low-income and African-American neighborhoods (Breunlin and Regis 2006; Nelson et al. 2007). With its top–down vision and its disproportionate impacts on low-income and African-American neighborhoods, some linked the green dot plan to a long history of racist planning interventions, calling it “a form of class and racial redlining” (Gotham and Greenberg 2014, p. 111).

As in New Orleans, designers and planners in Dhaka have embraced the McHargian goal of realigning the city’s urban fabric with underlying landscape processes. The most visible project advancing this goal of “reviving” Dhaka’s “water urbanism” (Iqbal Habib, personal communication, March 12, 2017) is the Hatirjheel stormwater retention project in the center of the city. Since its substantial completion in 2013, the Hatrijheel has been widely celebrated as a rare success. With its 1.2 square kilometers of lakes, new public spaces, roads, and bridges, the Hatirjheel does indeed address several of Dhaka’s serious infrastructure deficits. However, academic and media critics in Dhaka have argued that, like the green dot plan, the Hatirjheel project’s costs and benefits were radically uneven (Hossain 2013). The project displaced thousands of poor residents of informal settlements without compensation while delivering benefits for empowered and affluent groups. As one particularly egregious example of these uneven benefits, a powerful industry group, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), has been allowed to maintain a 14-story headquarters in the center of the project site for more than a decade, though Bangladesh’s Supreme Court has found the building to be illegal and ordered that it be demolished on several occasions (“BGMEA Gets One Year More to Demolish Building” 2018).

4 Designing with the politics of nature

What do these four episodes across four decades in two very different cities say about the potentials and limitations of applying Design with Nature’s ideas and methods in actual urban environments? First, it is clear that McHarg’s ideas have an enduring relevance and appeal. However, these projects have had only limited and, in some cases, problematic success. The earlier urban expansion plans in both cities were largely rejected or ignored because they could not be reconciled with the place-specific political economy of urbanization. The later green infrastructure projects have been fiercely critiqued for deepening existing urban inequalities. In their shortcomings, these episodes demonstrate the need to amend McHarg’s methods with greater attention to the politics of urbanization and environmental risk, to the questions of who benefits, who pays, and who decides how urban space is produced. Building off of insights from these cases and from critical scholarship from the decades since Design with Nature’s publication, I offer three starting points by re-examining the constituent elements of McHarg’s title: “nature,” “design,” and the aspirational preposition, “with,” which defines the relationship between the design and nature.

4.1 Nature

In Design with Nature, “nature” is a given. For McHarg, nature is the “arena of life” that “man” has ignored in the process of modern urbanization. He suggests that, by following his lead, designers can recover “health and delight” for human society by creating settlements that are based on nature’s “intrinsic and self-reinforcing” “physical and biological laws” (McHarg 1969, p. 7, 125). While McHarg recognizes that biophysical processes are tied to human social processes and settlement form (McHarg 2007, p. 34–37), his method is based on the idea that these “laws” are discernible through analysis of scientifically measurable landscape phenomena and processes. In the decades since the publication of Design with Nature, the conceptualization of “nature” as an objectively measurable realm, separable and distinct from human society, has been increasingly challenged. Critical geographers and political ecology scholars have shown that defining “nature,” delimiting what constitutes valid knowledge of that domain, and designating who can produce or access that knowledge are all acts with profound political consequences for shaping uneven access to resources and uneven exposure to environmental risks (Williams 1980; Smith 1984; Harvey 1996; Patel and Moore 2018). Critics have recently raised similar concerns about the proliferation of “adaptation” and “resilience” discourses that naturalize uneven vulnerability, obscuring the structural processes that create heightened risk for socio-economically disadvantaged people and placing the burden of adjustment squarely on their shoulders (Watts 2015).

The shortcomings in the applications of McHargian ecological planning in Dhaka and New Orleans can be traced to an underlying binary conceptualization of nature and society. While McHarg regarded the realm of “man” as linked to and shaped by processes in “nature,” man and nature remained, in his framing, fundamentally distinct spheres. Early ecological planning efforts in Dhaka and New Orleans could not be implemented or sustained because they were largely blind to considerations of property, power, and institutional configurations. In McHarg’s formulation, such concerns were distinct from the laws of “nature,” which could be discerned from features like topography and soil and water dynamics.

Binary notions of nature again guided the more recent green infrastructure retrofit projects in both cities. Planners treated flood-prone low-income neighborhoods as transgressions against natural law, justifying their clearance without regard for how uneven flood vulnerability had been produced and without regard for the uneven impacts of “restoring” “natural” topographically defined settlement patterns. McHarg described poor environmentally vulnerable communities as “unfit” and located the source of their problems in the fact that “the people are unable to adapt that environment and/or to adapt themselves” (McHarg 2007, p. 44). Following this logic, the projects in Dhaka and New Orleans also treat vulnerable people and settlements as “unfit” and attempt to realign settlement forms with the “intrinsic suitability” of the landscape, without regard for the structural drivers that create uneven vulnerability.

These cases suggest that there is a need to retrofit the McHargian methods to embrace a more complex and dynamic understanding of “nature” and “society.” A method for designing with “socio-natures” (Bakker 2010; Swyngedouw 1999) requires acceptance of the hybridity, fluidity, and variegation in human–environment relations. “Social” phenomena such as property and power are integrally bound to and co-constitutive of “natural” processes like flooding. To design with socio-natures requires widening the designer’s analytical frame to include multiple ways of knowing landscapes and environments beyond those that may be readily measured, quantified, and mapped.

4.2 Design

The shortcomings of the projects in Dhaka and New Orleans suggest that, along with reconsidering and widening the scope of what constitutes “nature,” there is a need to reconsider the boundaries, definitions, and actors associated with the term “design.” At the core of McHarg’s approach is his insistence that “the economic value system must be expanded” to encompass “all biophysical and human aspirations,” rather than the narrow “market mechanisms of evaluation” that dominate modern urbanization processes (McHarg 1969, p. 197). For McHarg, design and designers were central to this expanded domain of values and analysis. In his framing, to design is to “discern” measurable landscape processes in order to “reveal the optimum pattern of development” (McHarg 1969, p. 104, 81). As such, he saw design as the work of trained professionals, most centrally landscape architects and urban planners, working with a litany of technical and scientific experts (McHarg 2007, pp. 27–28).

McHarg’s emphasis on landscape processes as drivers of design has had a tremendous impact on generations of practitioners. However, the problems of the green infrastructure proposals in Dhaka and New Orleans suggest that, much as McHarg expanded design to include natural processes, contemporary conceptualizations of design must again be refocused, increasing the attention paid to critical questions of the politics of urbanization and environmental risk. Both the green dot plan in New Orleans and the Hatirjheel mega-project in Dhaka have been criticized for being insufficiently attentive to issues of equity and political legitimacy. Both projects disproportionately threatened already disempowered residents, exacerbating existing urban inequalities. Critics also challenged the political legitimacy of both projects. In both cases, the projects were critiqued as politically illegitimate, unacceptable to those who would be impacted by them, because they were advanced by groups that were not subject to mechanisms of democratic accountability: outside planners and an appointed commission in the case of the New Orleans’ green dot plan and an unelected “caretaker government” and military engineering and construction teams in the case of the Hatirjheel.

Researchers of climate change adaptation have demonstrated that adaptation often reinforces patterns of urban inequality (Anguelovski et al. 2016) and that successful adaptation must be not only technically effective and efficient, but also equitable and politically legitimate (Adger et al. 2005). The Dhaka and New Orleans cases suggest that designers might amend McHargian methods with an increased focus on these issues of equity and legitimacy. Design methods with greater attention to equity and legitimacy would be in keeping with recent urban design scholarship arguing for a more pluralistic approach to design to meet the demands of contemporary urbanization (Mukhija 2011; Ryan 2017), including the need for more equitable models of “resilience for all” (Wilson 2018). McHarg-inspired projects have often ignored or obscured the conflicts and debates that come with major urban changes by focusing on biophysical processes and promising harmonious ecological restoration. A politically engaged and pluralistic model of design with nature would engage with debates, conflicts, and deliberations, using the tools of design to work with impacted parties for more equitable and politically legitimate adaptation.

4.3 With

In his introduction to Design with Nature, Lewis Mumford made much of the humble preposition in the center of McHarg’s title. For Mumford, McHarg’s with signaled a decisive shift. The call to design with nature, rather than against nature, or over nature, “implies human cooperation and biological partnership” (Mumford 1969, p. viii). For McHarg, the “with” represented a rejection of the “prevailing values” of the “man-oriented society” in the “Western World” (McHarg 1969, p. 24). And yet, built upon the narrow conceptualizations of “design” and “nature” discussed above, Design with Nature’s methods and recommendations were incremental, technical, and pragmatic, largely leaving the fundamental political and economic drivers of environmental destruction and uneven vulnerability unchallenged.

The shortcomings of the McHargian projects in Dhaka and New Orleans suggest that, when defined in apolitical technical language, this pivot to with is both hard to achieve and potentially problematic. The shift to with does not take place in a vacuum. The Dhaka and New Orleans cases suggest that the process of retrofitting a city with nature requires a reckoning with historical patterns of uneven development. The green dot map and Hatirjheel episodes demonstrate that ahistorical and depoliticized readings of “landscape suitability” too often label the settlements of disempowered urban residents as against natural laws. Rather than challenging the systems and structures that produce uneven vulnerability, the pursuit of the McHargian with often reinforces these patterns. To pursue McHarg’s shift to design with nature without punishing already disadvantaged communities would require confronting, interrogating, and remediating historical processes of uneven urbanization, not simply eradicating their undesirable artifacts by deeming them “unfit” or “unnatural.”

5 Learning from Dhaka and New Orleans

The continued invocation of McHarg’s ideas and methods in cities and regions around the world speaks to their versatility and enduring appeal. As researchers and practitioners continue to draw on Design with Nature during the book’s second half-century, there is much to learn from cities like Dhaka and New Orleans. These cities struggled to implement and maintain early McHargian urban expansion plans that were designed without consideration for the place-specific political economy of urbanization. More recent McHargian green infrastructure proposals have threatened to entrench existing urban inequalities by labeling low-lying low-income settlements as poorly adapted or “unfit.” Drawing on this empirical evidence and on critical environmental scholarship produced in the years since Design with Nature, McHarg’s work can be amended with a greater recognition of the politics of urbanization and environmental risk. This new paradigm of designing with nature requires (1) expanding and problematizing the idea of nature by challenging the stable nature–society binary and embracing pluralistic forms of environmental knowledge; (2) shifting from a conceptualization of design as a technical process of adaptive optimization guided by natural laws to methods centered on synthesizing diverse perspectives to enable democratic deliberation and debate; and (3) recognizing that the shift from designing against to designing with nature is a politically fraught process in which adaptation opportunities and constraints are defined by place-specific historical patterns of urbanization.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Princeton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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