Socio-Ecological Practice Research

, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 283–296 | Cite as

Building and innovating upon McHarg’s ecological survey: the Texas case

  • Katherine LieberknechtEmail author
Research Article


Ian McHarg provided critical direction toward Texas’s urban settlement planning during the 1970s, an era of transformation and vision, in which he developed the Lake Austin Growth Management Plan and a plan for The Woodlands. Texas continues to undergo dramatic changes, with a projected doubling of population by 2050 and escalation of extreme weather events. In response, the University of Texas at Austin recently launched Planet Texas 2050 (PT2050), a decade-long grand challenge research program focused on developing knowledge and strategies needed to plan for resilience in the face of climate and population change. This article investigates the following research question: How does Planet Texas 2050 build and innovate upon McHarg’s ecological survey method for the purpose of planning a resilient Texas? I analyze McHarg’s ecological survey method and use the examples from The Woodlands and Planet Texas 2050 to explore the development of a socio-ecological survey. This investigation identifies several findings relevant for research and practice. It is possible that earlier and better integration of social data into The Woodlands’ ecological survey may have helped the planning team anticipate objections which influenced the abandonment of ecological planning for the second phase of The Woodlands’ development, resulting in a loss of ecosystem services. Almost 50 years later, Planet Texas 2050 has attempted to build a dynamic socio-ecological survey that integrates diverse socio-ecological data, co-produces socio-ecological knowledge with the public, and incorporates socio-ecological data from the past. Although PT2050 may fall short of its ambitious goal to ensure a resilient Texas by mid-century, growing system complexity and socio-ecological change ensure that surveys, such as McHarg’s ecological survey and Planet Texas 2050s socio-ecological survey, will remain a key component of future resilience planning.


Ian McHarg Ecological survey Resilience planning Grand challenge programs Socio-ecological survey 

1 McHarg, Texas, and Planet Texas 2050

Ian McHarg provided critical direction for Texas’ planning during the 1970s, an era of urban transformation and vision, in which he developed the Lake Austin Growth Management Plan (Karvonen 2011; Steiner 2018) and a plan for The Woodlands, a development outside Houston (Forsyth 2002; McHarg 1976; Yang et al. 2015).

Texas continues to undergo dramatic change and urbanization, with a projected doubling of population by 2050 and projected escalation of extreme weather events (Potter and Hoque 2014; Smith and Matthews 2015). In response, The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) recently launched Planet Texas 2050 (PT2050) a decade-long grand challenge research program focused on developing the knowledge and strategies needed to plan for resilience in the face of climate and population change. PT2050 is an institutionally supported research grand challenge involving more than 170 researchers and spanning 14 colleges and schools at UT Austin. The program is one of three grand challenge programs under the Bridging Barriers initiative, which provides institutional support for globally significant, interdisciplinary, decade-long programs that focus on ambitious but achievable research questions.

This article investigates the following research question: how does PT2050 update and innovate upon McHarg’s ecological survey method, for the purpose of planning a resilient Texas? I seek to frame McHarg’s work in the context of the effort to prepare Texas—a dynamic, multicultural, and resource-limited state that serves as a microcosm of an evolving global society—for the socio-ecological changes projected to occur over the next decades. I first use archival data and content analysis to examine McHarg’s ecological survey method. I then focus on two examples to better understand how a current example of socio-ecological planning (PT2050) innovates upon the analytic foundations of McHarg’s ecological survey, which was put into practice at The Woodlands. Through analysis and the use of examples, I demonstrate ways in which PT2050 renews and adapts McHarg’s ecological survey method.

2 Literature review

2.1 McHarg’s ecological survey and its relationship to Texas ecological planning

Ian McHarg innovated upon and popularized the design-related tools of ecological survey, among many other contributions (McHarg 1969). McHarg defined the ecological survey as “identification of the region in terms of phenomena” by a “litany” of scientists including a “bedrock geologist, meteorologist, geomorphologist, surficial geologist, groundwater hydrologist, surface water hydrologist, physical geographer, soil scientist, plant ecologist, animal ecologist” (McHarg 2007: 27, 28).

Through use of ecological survey, McHarg provided critical direction toward Texas’ urban settlement planning and provided leadership for several key developments in the state. The majority of the attention paid to McHarg’s work in Texas during this era focuses upon his plan for The Woodlands. McHarg and the firm with which he was a partner, Wallace McHarg Roberts & Todd (WMRT), used ecological surveys to develop the design of The Woodlands, a master-planned community in the Houston–The Woodlands–Sugarland metropolitan statistical area. WMRT’s ecological design for The Woodlands continues to inspire urban form and function in Texas and beyond (Coffman 2000; Forsyth 2002; Yang and Li 2011; Yang et al. 2015).

WMRT began their planning work for The Woodlands by conducting an ecological survey of the site. The ecological survey conducted by WMRT included geology, hydrology, soils, plants, wildlife, climate, and landscape-scale systems (WMRT 1973a). The Woodlands’ survey followed a process described by McHarg in his writings, work, and speeches: ecological surveys focused on the biophysical characteristics of a site or region, which was typical of most considerations of ecological systems of that era (Partelow and Winkler 2016; Preiser et al. 2018; Schoon and van der Leeuw 2015).

2.2 The transition from ecological systems to socio-ecological systems

Over time, ecologists began to expand their understanding of system boundaries surrounding ecosystems, and in turn, began considering social systems that accompany, influence, and are impacted by biophysical characteristics of ecosystems. The transition from biophysical ecosystem to socio-ecological systems began in the 1970s but solidified in theory and practice in the 1990s (Berkes et al. 1998; Schoon and van der Leeuw 2015). This shift in consideration of socio-ecological systems was catalyzed by changes in ecological theory but also created important value for practice. Changing and evolving “wicked” problems such as climate change, food and water insecurity, and biodiversity loss require a socio-ecological framework to analyze interconnections between human and biophysical ecological systems and which in turn could be used to develop and implement strategies. In a similar way, integration of social factors into McHarg’s ecological survey amplifies the survey’s use in addressing complex and evolving biophysical and social phenomena (e.g., the disproportionate impact of flooding on vulnerable populations).

Although McHarg’s work was visionary, his conception of the ecological survey is limited to biophysical information about ecosystems and does not include data about social systems; instead, a later part of McHarg’s planning process focuses on social issues (McHarg 2007: 26, 33). For instance, in Design with Nature, when McHarg describes the ecological survey approach through the example of the Potomoc River Basin, he focuses upon the biophysical ecological characteristics of a place: climate, geology, hydrology, groundwater, soils, plant associations, wildlife, and water problems. In today’s socio-ecological view of ecosystems, this survey would have integrated social characteristics of the region, such as demographics, the economy, property values, housing demand and supply, cultural values that relate to land use, etc. As a result, McHarg’s framework for ecological survey is limited, likely by the disciplinary boundaries of his time, by its exclusion of the social components of the socio-ecological system.

McHarg certainly was cognizant of the importance of the interaction between social and ecological characteristics of a site or region. For instance, when he fully describes his ecological planning method in Design with Nature through the use of the Potomac River Basin example, he prefaces his description of the ecological survey by stating why the survey itself is relevant (italics added for emphasis):

…it is necessary to understand nature as an interacting process that represents a relative value system, and that can be interpreted as proffering opportunities for human land use—but also revealing constraints, and even prohibitions to certain of these” (McHarg 1969: 127).

As such, the ecological survey itself is driven by the need to successfully integrate appropriate human land use into the existing landscape. In other words, McHarg’s ecological survey exists for the primary purpose of eventually (at a later time in the process) incorporating the “socio” part of the socio-ecological system with the ecological part of the system. McHarg goes on to explain how the ecological survey forms the baseline for later development of a plan for the overall socio-ecological system (italics added for emphasis):

Now this is not a plan—a plan is a determination to achieve certain social goals, related to the power of society to accomplish these. No: this exercise seeks only to reveal nature as a working storehouse, with implications for land use and management. This information is an indispensable ingredient to a plan, but it is not the plan itself (McHarg 1969:127).

Later stages of McHarg’s planning process focus on the entire socio-ecological system. For example (italics added for emphasis):

McHarg stressed the importance of understanding the social and natural processes of a specific place. Through investigation of each “layer” of an environmentphysical, biological, and social—McHarg worked to reveal “successive stages of urbanization” that were deemed successful or not, depending on whether they were “regressing from health or evolving towards health” (McHarg and Steiner 1998: 207).

As described in Design with Nature, after gathering ecological data, McHarg then conducted a suitability analysis to determine the human use compatible with the ecological survey. In this step, McHarg integrated the “socio” component of the socio-ecological system. For example, in the Potomoc River Basin suitability analysis, McHarg presents the agriculture, forestry, recreation, and urban land use compatible with the region’s ecological survey (McHarg 1969: 140–145). And although he did not use the term socio-ecological systems (as it was not in use at the time), McHarg frequently used the term “human ecology” to describe interfaces between social and biophysical factors and relate them to a broader sustainable system, hallmarks of the socio-ecological approach (Redman et al. 2004).

2.3 Socio-ecological change and the renewed need for McHarg’s ecological survey

New socio-ecological challenges accompany the life-changing stressors of population growth, accelerated urbanization, and climate change. Texas provides an apt test case of these challenges and the resulting socio-ecological change driven by these trends (Bixler et al. 2019). The state continues to undergo dramatic changes in population and climate. Population is projected to double by 2050, and most Texas metropolitan regions, where 88% of Texans currently live, continue to experience rapid population growth (Potter and Hoque 2014; US Census Bureau 2016). Texas’ communities also are characterized by significant vulnerability. For example, at the time of the last census, 18% of Texans and 26% of Texan children lived in poverty (vs. 15% and 22% in the USA as a whole) (Texas Health Data Center 2013).

Texas also is a climate change hotspot. Texas’ communities experience climate stresses as catastrophic weather and environmental degradation threaten to displace current residents, deteriorate health, and harm economic potential. Extreme weather events are projected to increase in intensity and frequency (Smith and Matthews 2015). For example, regions prone to extreme hydrologic events such as drought and floods are projected to experience an intensification of such events (Pachauri 2014). Over the past decade, Texas has experienced a recent record drought (2011–2014) as well as the most intense rainfall event in continental US history (Hurricane Harvey in 2017). Both events caused billions of dollars in damage. Texas also is experiencing intensifying temperatures, droughts, and wildfires.

The interconnected socio-ecological stressors of population growth, urbanization, and climate change will place the residents, economy, and infrastructure of Texas under unprecedented risk. These trends will strongly shape the resilience of Texas cities and metropolitan areas (Hixson et al. 2010; Fry and Taylor 2012). For example, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas–Fort Worth, the Rio Grande Valley, and Houston, among the largest and fastest-growing US metro regions, are also particularly sensitive to climate change, due to ecological and social factors. And since the state is home to many vulnerable communities, attention to equity and justice implications of climate resilience is essential so that planning does not exacerbate existing challenges among marginalized groups (Brown 2014; Shi et al. 2016).

A critical first step in planning for these changes is better understanding the strength and nature of interactions within Texas’ socio-ecological systems. PT2050 represents the leading edge of planning for the socio-ecological systems that support the state’s economy, health, and ecology (Lieberknecht 2018a) (Fig. 1). Following in McHarg’s footsteps, PT2050 has embarked upon a multi-year effort to survey characteristics of Texas’ natural and built environments and integrate this information in a database that draws from natural sciences, social sciences, the design disciplines, and humanities. PT2050’s integrated database mirrors McHarg’s ecological survey, while being updated with a clearer understanding of the need to incorporate social factors in the earliest stages of survey and analysis, in response to evolving understandings of ecological systems.
Fig. 1

Planet Texas 2050's conceptual framework

3 Methodology

I use a two-part methodology to approach the research question of how PT2050 updates and innovates upon McHarg’s ecological survey method for the purpose of planning a resilient Texas. I first analyze McHarg’s ecological survey method. To do so, I draw on McHarg’s 1976 lecture, “The Theory of Creative Fitting,” as transcribed in Margulis et al.’s Ian McHarg: conversations with students: dwelling in nature (McHarg 2007: 19–61). In this lecture, McHarg describes his approach to ecological planning in detail and in sequential order. This clear description of his method allows for examination of how McHarg intended to include social information (e.g., Census data, indicators, anthropological information, interviews with current residents, etc.) into his overall planning process while not including these data in his ecological survey.

After analysis of McHarg’s ecological survey, I use the example of McHarg’s work in The Woodlands to: (1) demonstrate an example of an implemented ecological survey (vs. the theoretical description included in McHarg’s 1976 lecture) and (2) examine how McHarg’s firm did not include social information in the ecological survey, which possibly contributed to implementation challenges. I then compare analysis of McHarg’s ecological survey and The Woodlands with a second example: UT Austin’s Planet Texas 2050. PT2050 provides an example of a project that is collecting social information simultaneously with ecological information, for the purpose of integrating knowledge about socio-ecological systems early in the research process. This social and ecological integration is a key component of PT2050’s strategy of developing resilience models and strategies. The analysis of McHarg’s ecological survey framework, in combination with two examples, allows for examination of how PT2050’s socio-ecological survey builds upon and updates McHarg’s ecological survey.

Example choice was based upon matching Texas’ statewide resilience planning effort, PT2050, to the most rigorously studied example of McHarg’s ecological survey approach in Texas, The Woodlands (PT2050 Theme Organizing Committee 2017; citations redacted for review). The Woodlands and PT2050 examples are separated by almost 50 years and by scale but are united by geography and by intent. These connections allow for insight into the evolution of the ecological survey method across decades of practice. The Woodlands is a development project, albeit a large one at 27,000 acres, while PT2050 focuses on the entire state of Texas, although different sub-projects focus on smaller scales, such as neighborhoods or watersheds. McHarg believed that his ecological survey could—and should—be implemented at any scale, even a national one (McHarg 2007: 7; 40; 60). McHarg’s intent regarding the transferability of his methods indicates that an examination of these two examples should not be limited by differences in scale. For example:

The is the model I use as a teacher and as a practitioner in ecological planning…whether it be a group of people who wish to build a new town, or to develop a metropolitan plan for a region, or simply to develop very small tracts of housing (McHarg 2007: 26).

In these examples, I use archival data and content analysis to explore how PT2050’s approach to creating a socio-ecological survey builds upon and renews McHarg’s framework of ecological survey. This research approach utilizes existing literature, previously collected interviews, and content analysis of archival documents. Although these methods provide a comprehensive array of data used to answer the research question, future researchers may want to consider conducting additional interviews of practitioners and researchers involved in The Woodlands and PT2050 survey processes.

4 Analysis of McHarg’s ecological survey

McHarg’s ecological survey framework, as described in his 1976 “The Theory of Creative Fitting” lecture and in Table 1, is a foundational step in his process for ecological planning. Table 1 shows how McHarg prescribed first defining the region to be planned and then moved immediately into the ecological survey, which underpins the rest of the planning process. As described in Sect. 2.1 and shown in Table 1, the ecological survey is intended to be based on biophysical data only. Social data does not come into the process until several steps later. This is unsurprising due to contemporary conceptions of ecological systems, as summarized in Sect. 2.1.
Table 1

McHarg’s ecological planning framework


McHarg’s ecological planning framework


Define region (26)


“Litany” of biophysical scientists conduct an ecological survey (bedrock geologist, meteorologist, geomorphologist, surficial geologist, groundwater hydrologist, surface water hydrologist, physical geographer, soil scientist, plant ecologist, animal ecologist) (27)


Use biophysical ecological survey data to create a “layer cake” (overlay map) (28)


Biophysical process inventory (e.g., the exchange between surface water and groundwater) (29)


Build an ecological model (“Humpty Dumpty”) (31)


Survey human phenomena (e.g., Census data) and human processes (e.g., presence of specific institutions) and build a human ecological model (37)


Suitability analysis: “develop a plan that begins with the most suitable location for any prospective land use” (42)


Ground truth suitability analysis with residents, clients, or “consumers” (43)

Citations from McHarg (2007)

After collecting biophysical ecological data, practitioners then create an overlay map of all biophysical data (the “layer cake”):

I develop a layer cake…Each identification of these [biophysical ecological] phenomena I put on a single map. Then I overlay one on top of each other (McHarg 2007: 27).

This is followed by a survey of biophysical processes. Once completed, the biophysical ecological data (phenomena), processes, and overlay map are all combined into an ecological model, which he describes as:

…very difficult, but once one has it, one has the best description natural science can give us of the region that functions as a single interacting process understood in the context of its long past (McHarg 2007: 32).

Then, after developing a biophysical ecological model, the practitioner surveys human phenomena and human processes and builds a separate human ecological model (McHarg 2007: 37). Data comes from sources such as the Census, from health indicators, and from cultural anthropologists and their knowledge of historic inhabitants of the planning area. Once the social data are gathered, the next step is to build a human ecological model based on the social data (but still considered to be very separate from the biophysical data and biophysical ecological model):

Once we have a historical record, we are confronted with the much more difficult task of making an ecological model. The academic science of ecology in the twentieth century has preoccupied itself mainly with plants and animals. It sees man as a polluter of natural systems. Only a very small effort has been expanded to try to make a human ecology. As a result, it is far more difficult to try to make a human ecological model than to make an ecological model of non-human, natural systems (McHarg 2007: 37).

McHarg then prescribes a “return to the biophysical field” for the next step, which is a suitability analysis focused on identifying the most appropriate land use fit for each area in the planning site. The suitability analysis is where McHarg prescribes the integration of biophysical and social data, specifically through the interaction of biophysical processes with social value systems (McHarg 2007: 40):

We identify where all or most of the propitious factors are present, and hopefully where none or few of the detrimental ones are present. In that way we develop a plan that begins with the most suitable location for any prospective land use (McHarg 2007: 42).

As a final step, McHarg suggests going back to social data, social processes, and the human ecological model and to use this social information to “ensure a better fit between constituents and their environment” (McHarg 2007: 43, 46).

In sum, although McHarg included social data in his overall ecological planning framework, he did not integrate social data into the ecological survey itself. Rather, the biophysical and social data are to be surveyed in separate steps of the process. Social data are brought back into the overall planning process toward the end, almost as a way of “double checking” the biophysical planning work.

McHarg’s separation of biophysical and socio-ecological knowledge is typical for the era in which he outlined this process (the 1970s). He certainly anticipated the importance of social data in a planning process, as indicated by the quotes above. However, the opportunities and strengths provided by integrating socio-ecological data at the earliest stages of planning are not captured in McHarg’s ecological survey as described in his 1976 lecture or as practiced through the 1973 planning of The Woodlands.

5 Examples

5.1 The Woodlands

The following example examines how McHarg and his team used ecological surveys to develop the plan for The Woodlands. WMRT followed McHarg’s process as outlined in Table 1, and, as such, did not include social data in the ecological survey. This omission likely contributed to some of the problems that arose as The Woodlands was developed. In particular, lack of social data led to neglect of consideration of people’s attitudes about the aesthetics and practicalities of open surface drainage. This examination serves as an important baseline and counterpart to the second example, which analyzes how PT2050 builds and innovates upon McHarg’s ecological survey by integrating social data into the ecological survey process itself.

In the early 1970s, the Mitchell Company, owner of The Woodlands site, hired McHarg/WMRT to develop a master plan. WMRT began by conducting an ecological survey. The ecological survey conducted by WMRT included biophysical elements such as geology, hydrology, soils, plants, wildlife, climate, and landscape-scale systems (WMRT 1973a), similar to the ecological survey described in Table 1. Team members analyzed this survey and conducted a suitability analysis, which considered social elements such as human land use, to create design guidelines and plans (WMRT 1973b, c, 1974). The survey-derived plans focused on preservation of highly permeable soils and forests as well as the use of open surface drainage.

The Mitchell Company sold the Woodlands to Morgan Stanley and Crescent Real Estate Equities in 1997. The new owners continued to develop the site in a second phase (Phase II) but abandoned WMRT’s ecologically based planning and design (Yang and Li 2011). It is possible that integration of social data with biophysical ecological data in Phase I’s ecological survey would have impacted Phase II of The Woodlands’ implementation in two key ways:
  • Continuation of ecological planning for Phase II Phase II did not include the ecological design elements implemented in Phase I (permeable soil preservation, forest preservation, and open surface drainage). In contrast, it is designed and ecologically functions as other typical suburban developments of the era. It is possible that if McHarg/WRMT had modified McHarg’s ecological survey process in a way that had incorporated social data in the ecological survey, they may have proactively identified key critiques of Phase I (e.g., market demand, economic viability, etc.) which directly contributed to abandonment of ecological design elements in Phase II.

    Yang et al. (2015) attribute Phase II’s abandonment of ecological design to decisions associated with four main parties: homeowners, developers, designers, and government. For instance, some homeowners cleared covenant-protected backyard forest cover (Forsyth 2005; Galatas et al. 2004), dumped trash in the open drainage channels (Kutchin 1998), and disliked the ephemeral muddy landscapes that resulted from stormwater infiltration (Gatlatas and Barlow 2004; Kutchin 1998). In turn, developers of Phase II shifted away from ecological design in part because of homeowner attitudes about forest cover, mud, and surface drainage (Yang et al. 2015). Yang et al. also associate abandonment of ecological planning for Phase II to shifting attitudes about Phase I’s drainage and forest cover strategies by designers as well as the government sector (2015).

    The attitudes and behaviors of homeowners, developers, designers, and the public sector toward elements of the ecological plan for Phase I are valuable data inputs. If these social data, along with other relevant social information such as demographic, economic and health data, had been collected and integrated with the biophysical ecological survey early on in the ecological planning process, it is possible that this integrated socio-ecological survey would have influenced the planning process in a way that strengthened support for continued ecological planning and design of Phase II. For example, if WRMT had conducted market studies with developers, focus groups with designers, interviews with homeowners, or other methods to incorporate local knowledge and perceptions into Phase I’s ecological survey, they may have identified some of the social attitudes early on that later contributed to the decision to abandon ecological planning for Phase II. This anticipation could have led to steps in the planning process that addressed these concerns. For example, contextual social data about homeowner attitudes about mud that relate to the biophysical characteristics of the site (hydrological regime, soil types, vegetation characteristics, etc.), if gathered in the early stages of the planning process, could have led to different decisions about ecological design (e.g., adding more drainage elements to private backyards, for the purpose of minimizing mud; creating additional block scale drainage systems to compensate for reduced individual property lot drainage). These implemented design changes in turn could have shifted social attitudes about mud and natural drainage systems that later contributed to abandonment of ecological planning and design of Phase II.

  • Improvement of ecosystem service provision in Phase II Researchers have shown that permeable soil preservation, forest preservation, and open surface drainage prescribed through Phase I’s ecological survey process provided long-term ecological and economic benefit in the form of flood mitigation, reduced pollutant loadings, and lowered surface land temperatures (Sung 2013; Yang and Li 2013; Yang et al. 2015). In particular, Phase I of The Woodlands proved resilient against 100-year (1979) and 500-year (1994) floods when compared to nearby Houston, which suffered severe flooding damage from both peak events (Girling and Kellett 2005). In general, Phase I generated less stormwater run-off and lower peak flows during storm events when compared to Phase II (Madere 2008; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 2000; Yang and Li 2010; Yang et al. 2015). Phase I’s ecological survey and design also resulted in avoided costs for the developer, through lower cost of development due to open drainage when compared to “traditional” curb and sewer construction (McHarg 1996).

    Phase II does not benefit from any of these ecosystem services, due to abandonment of ecological planning and design of this part of the development. Yet the robust ecosystem services produced in the Phase I portion of the site are increasingly important due to intensification of flooding and heat events in the broader region, due to a combination of climate change and urbanization. Specifically, more frequent and intense rain and heat events are unfortunately amplified by, rather than mitigated by, Phase II’s built environment. Flood resilience and reduction of urban heat are particularly important services in a time of growing climate extremes; in similar way, Houston’s growing population and urbanization continue to stress water quality and exacerbate flood events.

    As presented in the section above, it is possible that earlier and better integration of social data into The Woodlands’ ecological survey may have helped the planning team anticipate objections which influenced the abandonment of ecological planning for Phase II. In this way, inclusion of social data into Phase I’s ecological survey may have influenced ecosystem service provision in Phase II that better supports resilience within the context of the site’s changing socio-ecological context.

    Comparing Phase I and Phase II of The Woodlands reveals a success of McHarg’s ecological survey approach: Phase I of the development, which adhered to the three strategies developed based upon WMRT’s survey (permeable soil preservation, forest preservation, and open surface drainage) continues to demonstrate ecosystem services such as flood resilience, higher water quality, and lower temperatures. However, Phase II lost the opportunity for similar ecological design and ecosystem services when ecological survey and design was abandoned as a part of its master planning. McHarg/WMRT’s data-driven ecological vision for design was radical enough in the 1970s without expecting that they also consider socio-ecological systems. However, after evaluating the role of the biophysically based ecological survey in The Woodlands, I argue that it is critical to update McHarg’s ecological survey to reflect today’s more holistic view of socio-ecological systems. The following example about PT2050 demonstrates how that program is undertaking a socio-ecological survey integrated across disciplines, knowledge producers, and time scales in order to support co-development of resilience strategies for a socio-ecological system undergoing increasing stress.

5.2 Planet Texas 2050

Examining PT2050 through the lens of McHarg’s ecological survey provides a useful example of a contemporary planning process that both builds and innovates upon McHarg’s framework. Echoing WMRT’s ecological survey process used for The Woodlands and outlined in Table 1, PT2050 collects and integrates disparate forms of data to inform planning. However, this research initiative has also intentionally updated McHarg’s ecological survey framework through the use of three strategies: (1) integrating diverse socio-ecological data in the very earliest stages; (2) co-producing socio-ecological knowledge with the public through various techniques; and (3) expanding the time frame of the socio-ecological survey by incorporating socio-ecological data from the past.

5.2.1 Analysis of PT2050’s socio-ecological survey

PT2050’s conceptual framework centers around four iterative processes that seek to develop the knowledge and strategies needed to ensure a resilient Texas (Fig. 1). Over the first 18 months of this decade-long program (January 2018–July 2019), the research team addressed the four processes simultaneously, with multiple research and outreach projects focused on each area: (1) quantifying and recording conditions and impacts (from the past, present and future), (2) integrated modeling and scenario-building, (3) understanding histories and cultures of resilience through tools of meaning-making, and (4) bidirectional strategy development: policy, planning, and design in the context of a changing climate. The foundation for all four focus areas is an integrated, interdisciplinary socio-ecological database which is being developed through three different strategies that offer an updated approach to McHarg’s ecological survey. Table 2 compares Planet Texas 2050's reslience planning framework to McHarg's ecological planning framework. The three PT2050 strategies, summarized in the section below Table 2, offer an example from practice of how to integrate social data with biophysical data in a socio-ecological survey:
Table 2

Comparison of McHarg’s ecological planning framework and Planet Texas 2050's resilience planning Framework


McHarg’s ecological planning framework

Planet Texas 2050's resilience planning framework


Define region (26)

Region is the entire state, divided into different scales for different projects (e.g., Metropolitan Statistical Areas, watersheds, etc.)


“Litany” of biophysical scientists conduct an ecological survey (bedrock geologist, meteorologist, geomorphologist, surficial geologist, groundwater hydrologist, surface water hydrologist, physical geographer, soil scientist, plant ecologist, animal ecologist) (27)

2a. “Litany” of researchers from biophysical sciences, social scientists, and humanities conduct a socio-ecological survey, including both phenomena (e.g., new data from sensors or interviews, existing data sets from the Census, etc.) and also processes (e.g., institutional network analysis, flood mapping, etc.). [Years 1–6]


2b. Co-production of socio-ecological knowledge with residents through Solutions Driven Community Centers, Community Social Scientists, Texas Water Stories, listening tours, interviews, etc. [Years 2–6]


2c. Integration of socio-ecological knowledge from distant and more recent past into socio-ecological survey


Use biophysical ecological survey data to create a “layer cake” (overlay map) (28)

Combined with #6


Biophysical process inventory (vs. biophysical phenomena in #2)

Contained within #2


Build an ecological model (“Humpty Dumpty”-ism) (31)

Build socio-ecological models [Years 3–7]


Survey human phenomena (e.g., Census data) and human processes (e.g., presence of specific institutions) and build a human ecological model (37)

Contained within #2


Suitability analysis: “develop a plan that begins with the most suitable location for any prospective land use” (42)

Resilience strategies co-developed with communities


Ground truth suitability analysis with residents, clients, “consumers” (43)

Contained within #7

  • Integration of social with biophysical knowledge from the earliest stages

    In response to systems of growing complexity in Texas, PT2050 is structuring knowledge production around the integration of social system data with biophysical ecological system data. In short, PT2050 is developing a socio-ecological survey of the state, aggregated from different scales, such as neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, or watersheds. PT2050’s vision echoes McHarg/WMRT’s ecological survey of The Woodlands site, while updating McHarg’s method to integrate social information with ecological information from the earliest stage. Program researchers use a socio-ecological survey framework to develop a database of past and current conditions in Texas that integrate data across the natural sciences (ecology, hydrology, climate science, geology, etc.), the social and applied sciences (planning, engineering, economics, demography, sociology, etc.) and the humanities (archeology, literature, visual arts, communications, etc.). By design, the survey and database integrate data about the interactions between human and environmental systems across the state, telescoping across different scales. For example, in the first years of the program, different research teams have collected residents’ observations and perceptions about changes to their region’s water systems (e.g., observations about changes in flooding characteristics over time); have aggregated social, economic, and demographic data for each metropolitan area across the state; have collected sensor data on air and water quality in pilot programs at the watershed and neighborhood scale; and have inventoried available water resources for each sub-watershed across the state. These social and biophysical data are matched by data collection and integration occurring through more than a dozen other research projects, each focused on different types of social and biophysical data.

    PT2050’s interdisciplinary socio-ecological database (called DataX) is housed at UT Austin’s supercomputing center, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). A major challenge of integrating social and ecological data in a socio-ecological survey is developing processes to link qualitative social data such as interviews to more quantitative biophysical data such as water quality information. TACC’s supercomputing and cyberinfrastructure capacity enables the rapid integration of different scales and different types and forms of social and biophysical data—an option that was not available to the same degree when McHarg developed his ecological survey method in the 1960s and 1970s.

  • Participatory contributions to the socio-ecological survey

    A second way that PT2050 seeks to better integrate biophysical ecological information with social data is by using several participatory techniques. One example is PT2050’s bidirectional strategy development approach in which researchers work with communities to learn about the lived experience of place and then integrate this knowledge into the socio-ecological survey. This contrasts with many research approaches which develop knowledge within the university and then “deliver” or “transfer” it to the public, which is then expected to apply the university-generated knowledge.

    For example, PT2050 is working with the nonprofit Austin Center for Community Design and Development to create “solutions-driven community centers” (SDCCs): neighborhood-based, physical spaces where residents can share local knowledge about the impacts of climate change and urbanization, and researchers and community partners can listen, gather and integrate data, and help coordinate resources they have at their disposal (Moore et al. 2019). Social data generated from participating community members is added to biophysical data, providing input into the socio-ecological survey. Specifically, PT2050’s approach focuses on collecting and integrating data on environmental, social, health, and economic factors that either produce or result from climate stressors, extreme weather, and environmental degradation. These data collected through the SDCC process are then added to the PT2050 socio-ecological database (DataX) and integrated modeling efforts. For example, if community members identify the need for improved data about local impacts of urban heat island effect, SDCC staff would record that need and relay it to the PT2050 team, which would then record that place-based data point and, given available resources, would develop a research project or analysis to generate the needed urban heat island effect data as well as incorporate these data in future models.

McHarg anticipated this participatory approach to socio-ecological knowledge:

Now, we go back and talk to the ‘Man’, as it were. We need to talk to the people, or consumers, of the region who have hired us, and find out their strongest needs and desires, and their most serious problems and concerns (McHarg 2007:43).

One can do no better than to solicit the responses of the people themselves to their environment (McHarg 2007: 46).

The key difference between McHarg’s approach and PT2050 is that PT2050 is intentionally collecting this knowledge at the earliest point possible for the purpose of integrating it into the socio-ecological survey, rather than gathering these social data at the end of the planning process (Table 2). Perhaps unsurprisingly, PT2050 has found this co-production of knowledge about socio-ecological systems to be time intensive, due both to the need to develop trust within each community as well as the detailed nature of the data collection.
  • Integration of socio-ecological data from the past

    PT2050 includes investigations of past societies that faced similar challenges for the purpose of building more robust resilience strategies (PT2050 Theme Organizing Committee 2017: 3). For example, one of PT2050’s research projects focuses on premodern urban environments that experienced stress from population dynamics and changing climate conditions. In this project, researchers are investigating strategies that residents of premodern urban environments used for access to resources (water for drinking and sanitation, food, etc.). They are also studying evidence of stresses on residents and on the role of migration and population mobility in the demographics of ancient cities (PT2050 Theme Organizing Committee 2017: 8). Through this project, as well as future projects, PT2050 aims to better integrate data from this historic temporal scale into the socio-ecological survey. Although it is possible that these historic data may contribute directly to analysis of socio-ecological conditions, PT2050 also anticipates that these historic socio-ecological data will contribute to narratives that may assist residents in framing the socio-ecological changes (and their responses to these changes) occurring in the state.

A second PT2050 research project that seeks to integrate data from the past with current information about socio-ecological systems is the Texas Metro Observatory (TMO). TMO is an online communication and data platform dedicated to sharing information about Texas’ communities, for the purpose of better understanding common problems and developing solutions. TMO is designed to be open-source and accessible to a broader audience, including community members, nonprofit organizations, public sector agencies, policy makers, and the business community, in addition to researchers (Texas Metro Observatory 2019: 1; Bixler et al. 2019; Lieberknecht 2018b). TMO serves as a data repository but also includes data interpretation such as data visualizations, infographics, and tools. These data “products” will be useful for communities that want to learn about challenges and opportunities, without undertaking data analysis themselves. The TMO platform provides data about environmental, demographic, health, economic, and infrastructure systems for each of the metropolitan areas across the state. The platform includes data from these metro areas that go back at least 50 years, for the purpose of giving historical context to changes in population, climate, and development across the state over time. For example, Fig. 2 shows a dashboard from the TMO platform that provides analysis of per capita water use across the state for a 30-year time period (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Example of time series data from the PT2050 integrated socio-ecological database. Figure developed by Steven Richter

The purpose of gathering historic social and biophysical data (in this example, water use and water availability over time) is twofold: it provides a source of information for PT2050’s socio-ecological survey, while also providing access to these data to the broader public through TMO’s open-access platform. This intentional layering of historic social data into the PT2050 socio-ecological database is intended to produce more robust socio-ecological planning outcomes; it differs significantly from McHarg’s approach to his biophysical ecological survey. However, McHarg did anticipate the public access to socio-ecological survey information that TMO seeks to provide through their online platform:

If I wish, I should be able to go to the computer terminal at the public library and ask it to display for me in coordinates which I enumerate, the bedrock geology, surficial geology, physiography, hydrology, soil, plants and animals. Moreover, I would want to have these data interpreted for my particular uses… (McHarg 2007: 52–53).

5.2.2 Reflecting back on The Woodlands

PT2050 seeks to update McHarg’s ecological survey through three approaches: (1) integrating socio-ecological data in the very earliest stages of the survey; (2) co-producing socio-ecological knowledge with the public; and (3) incorporating socio-ecological data from the past. Although both phases of The Woodlands are complete, it may be a useful thought experiment to briefly and hypothetically apply PT2050’s three additions to McHarg’s ecological survey to The Woodlands as a way to demonstrate how these updates to McHarg’s method could be applied in practice.
  • Integration of social with biophysical knowledge into a socio-ecological survey

    In a re-envisioned planning process for The Woodlands, social data such as demographics, health indicators, and property values could have been integrated with biophysical data such as precipitation, soil infiltration rates, or temperature ranges. For example, Houston metropolitan area is one of the most economically segregated metros in the nation (Pew Research Center 2012; Martin Prosperity Institute 2016), with wide health disparities (Klineberg et al. 2014). Simultaneously, gentrification and displacement increasingly impact existing populations (Choudary et al. 2018). How would these social vulnerabilities impact, or be impacted by, a redevelopment of The Woodlands? Could displacement, health, and integration measures have contributed to the socio-ecological survey and then later to a suitability analysis, for the purpose of increasing social equity, opportunity, and human health outcomes?

  • Participatory contributions to the socio-ecological survey

    In addition to inclusion of existing social data sets, such as Census data and health outcomes, is it also possible to include participatory contributions of social and biophysical data into a socio-ecological survey for The Woodlands? The Woodlands was a greenfield development without existing residents to interview, but residents of neighboring developments with a similar socio-ecological context could contribute data useful for Phase I’s development (e.g., homeowner attitudes about landscape appearance, visible surface water flow, etc.), while Phase I’s residents could have contributed information to shape Phase II. For example, residents of neighboring, existing developments could have provided input about visual preferences of different vegetation management regimes, perhaps prompting a more formal landscape design for the open drainage systems in Phase I, which may have resulted in better acceptance outcomes by homeowners. Or, the knowledge that residents of Phase I might have had about where localized flooding occurred due to overextended stormwater infrastructure could have been incorporated into (and improved) plans for Phase II’s development. Could these examples of social data have been integrated into a socio-ecological survey, along with more typical biophysical data such as climate information and soil type? If so, what processes could have assisted in the collection and integration of this local knowledge? Could local knowledge have been gathered via a pop-up community center in a neighborhood school, a phone app, or a door-to-door survey?

  • Integration of socio-ecological data from the past

    Could ethnographers have worked with long-term residents to collect narratives and observations about subtle, long-term changes in (and impacts from) heat events, droughts, or floods? In a greenfield development, such as The Woodlands, can data from long-term neighbors in geographically proximate areas help inform the socio-ecological survey early on, perhaps later being used to shape green infrastructure planning focused on mitigating urban heat island effect or flood risk? Or can biophysical data from the more distant past, perhaps through tree ring information, be used to better situate a history of local climate shifts into today’s context? How might this integration of past biophysical data into the survey be used to address the public’s understanding of socio-ecological changes associated with climate change and build stronger support for the need for ecological planning and design to help mitigate negative climate impacts?

6 Ecological surveys, socio-ecological surveys, and adaptive management

This analysis of McHarg’s ecological survey method and examination of two examples—McHarg/WMRT’s survey and plan for The Woodlands, and PT2050’s development of a socio-ecological survey for the state of Texas—identifies several findings relevant for research and practice.

Upon reflection of McHarg/WMRT’s outcomes for The Woodlands, although research has shown that Phase I achieved ecological and economic success, Phase II was not built in accordance with WMRT’s ecological survey-based plan, due to the change in ownership of the property and resulting discounting of McHarg’s ecological survey approach. It is possible that earlier and better integration of social characteristics of the site in the survey process (in other words, expanding the ecological survey to a socio-ecological survey) may have helped the planning team anticipate objections to the ecological planning elements later made by homeowners, developers, designers, and government entities, which in turn influenced the abandonment of ecological planning for and reduction of ecosystem service provision in Phase II.

PT2050 updates McHarg’s ecological survey to incorporate changes in ecological theory. The program is using a socio-ecological survey to build an interdisciplinary socio-ecological database because the scale of Texas’ challenges (climate change and continued rapid population growth) can only be met by integrating biophysical and social information that defines Texas. PT2050 has attempted to build a dynamic survey that incorporates social and biophysical characteristics; that incorporates information about socio-ecological systems in a participatory way based on the lived experiences of community members; and that integrates across time scales, drawing on knowledge of past socio-ecological systems.

In a way, these findings are reassuring for research and practice: ecological and socio-ecological systems change over time, so research approaches and planning methods should respond to this dynamism. As such, PT2050 is taking an adaptive management approach to the complex system of a changing Texas. Adaptive management offers a pathway to negotiating changing conditions, such as the need to plan for the population growth and climate change impacting Texas today. Adaptive management is a “systematic process for improving management policies and practices by systemic learning from the outcomes of implemented management strategies and by taking in account change in external factors in a proactive manner” (Pahl-Wostl et al. 2016: 98). This approach involves monitoring a policy or strategy, including monitoring the evolving socio-ecological context influencing the successful implementation of that strategy or policy, and using feedback from that monitoring to then suggest changes to increase effectiveness. Adaptive management focuses on the need to be flexible and to take uncertainties into account. The strength of this approach is that it assumes that uncertainty and change are to be expected and therefore are more likely to be incorporated into system design successfully.

McHarg/WMRT’s planning work for The Woodlands also would have benefited from an adaptive management approach. For example, using an adaptive management framework in The Woodlands’ ecological survey may have allowed for the opportunity to receive and incorporate feedback from all four main decision-making groups (homeowners, developers, designers, and government), perhaps better allowing the plan and design guidelines to better reflect social preferences and conditions. And framing the temporal management of The Woodlands to mimic systems of ongoing socio-ecological change may have provided the opportunity to update and evolve development design and implementation to take into account both changing cultural attitudes as well as the changing environmental and demographic attributes in which The Woodlands is embedded.

Using adaptive management to update and build upon McHarg’s ecological survey would have likely identified the need for market studies and a communication strategy. Market studies could have been used to provide updated information about the perception of value provided by The Woodlands ecological design; performance measures indicate substantial present-day value (Yang  et al. 2015). A stronger, more intentional feedback loop that communicated value to the four main decision-making groups may have better ensured that these groups continued to value the ecological design of the development, resulting in a reduced chance of abandonment that occurred in the Morgan Stanley/Crescent Real Estate Equities sale. This type of adaptive management approach may have increased the likelihood of continued implementation with WRMT’s plan which, in the face of increased flooding due to climate change, would have been a critical outcome.

In a similar manner, a communication strategy that incorporated concerns about development design and implementation (e.g., homeowners’ dislike of standing water, mud, etc.) while providing information about value produced by The Woodland’s ecological design may have helped ensure continuation of McHarg’s original vision for this development. For example, the performance metrics that indicate substantial ecological value also translate to economic value, in terms of avoided cost from flood damage. Potential and existing homeowners likely would have valued this information, possibly making it less likely that the abandonment of this approach for Phase II may have occurred.

However, retroactively incorporating adaptive management into a for-profit real estate development venture is undoubtedly more challenging than building adaptive management into a long-term research program that has stability offered by institutional support and resources provided by a research university. And when compared to The Woodlands, PT2050 has use of almost 50 more years of evolving ecological science, which now better understands the interaction between social and ecological components of a system, in addition to access to a supercomputing center, which makes the integration of disparate forms of social and biophysical data easier and faster. PT2050 also has the advantage of building upon McHarg’s foundational work as it seeks to prepare for socio-ecological changes projected to occur over the next few decades. Despite these advantages, PT2050 may fall short of its ambitious goal to ensure a resilient Texas by mid-century, given the rapidity of change and the inherent difficulties of designing an interdisciplinary research program and an integrated database that connects socio-ecological data from the natural sciences, social sciences, the design disciplines, and the humanities. However, growing system complexity and socio-ecological change ensure that surveys, such as McHarg’s ecological survey and PT2050’s socio-ecological survey, will continue to be a critical component of planning efforts, from the site scale and beyond.

McHarg himself described this movement toward a more fully achieved ecological survey and planning:

Such planning is actually possible. Of course, it is not being done now. In fact, nowhere do I know that all of the elements in this ecological planning process I have described have been employed. I myself have employed, either in teaching or in practice, every single step, but in no place that I am aware have all of the elements been used in a single planning process (McHarg 2007: 55)

McHarg reminds us that ecological and socio-ecological planning will continue to evolve in response to changing conditions and over time, always striving to become more holistic and integrative. PT2050 offers their additions to McHarg’s framework—integration of socio-ecological data in the very earliest stages of the survey, co-production of socio-ecological knowledge with the public, and incorporation of socio-ecological data from the past—and will continue to benefit from both McHarg’s foundation as well as future adaptations of his approach to ecological survey.



This work was supported by Planet Texas 2050, a research grand challenge at the University of Texas at Austin.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

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