Designing with nature, now

Thanks in large part to the foundation Ian McHarg built, the Stuart Weitzman School of Design’s Landscape Architecture Department has led the field for decades. Here’s a glimpse at how it’s staying relevant as the importance for the profession grows.

student on the floor working on landscape architecture maps
Landscape architecture students add final touches to their design in the studio.

Imagine it now: A park—for the world.

It’d run north to south 15,500 miles from Alaska to Patagonia, and east to west 21,000 miles from Indonesia to Morocco. Each trail would take two years and three years to walk, respectively.

Similar to the role of a national park, but on a much larger scale, the world park, being proposed by a team of students, faculty, and alumni from the Landscape Architecture Department within Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, would be a means for tourism and engagement, while also protecting and restoring habitat and landscape. Its connectivity, too, would provide a feasible way for species in danger to relocate.

richard weller chair landscape architecture
Richard Weller, chair of the Landscape Architecture Department, reviews a Weitzman Design student’s work. (Photo: Michael Grant)

“You can’t have species locked up in small territories,” explains Richard Weller, chair of the Department, Meyerson Chair of Urbanism at PennDesign, and co-leader on the project, “because as climate changes they need to move and adjust.”

Clearly, the idea of ecological planning and “designing with nature,” as Ian McHarg coined in his seminal book five decades ago, is still alive and well within Landscape Architecture at Penn, a Department McHarg laid much of the foundation for in the late ’50s. But the focus of the renowned Department in training the field’s next generation of leaders has evolved throughout the years from simply encouraging sustainable design to commanding the more complex process of resilient design.

design school dean frederick steiner and ian mcharg
In this photo from 1983, Frederick Steiner, center, is teaching a class with his mentor, Ian McHarg, on the far left. (Photo: Architectural Archives)

“Sustainable is fine, it’s the word we have and know now,” says PennDesign Dean and Paley Professor Frederick Steiner, who was a landscape and regional planning student of McHarg’s at Penn back in the day. “But I don’t think it’s ambitious enough. We definitely have to be sustainable, indeed we should leave the world a better place for future generations, but I think we could go further to regenerative design—creating systems that, instead of taking energy, produce energy, and instead of taking life, give life.”

It’s this kind of innovative mindset that has kept the Landscape Architecture Department at Penn on the cutting edge since its inception. From McHarg to each of the four visionary chairs that have followed—Anne Whiston Spirn, John Dixon Hunt, James Corner, and now Weller—to its leading faculty and students who’ve founded and worked at some of the most prominent practices around the world, the Department is doing all it can to retain its relevancy as the importance for the profession—one that is central to solving some of the Earth’s greatest challenges—grows.

frederick steiner design dean
Steiner, now Weitzman School Dean and Paley Professor, was a landscape and regional planning student of McHarg’s at Penn. Here, he holds his copy of “Design with Nature.” 

“Without being grandiose, we are in a perilous historical situation and we can’t just blunder on,” says Weller. “We need to design the way ecological and cultural systems work together.”

‘Unique pedagogy’

It’s a Monday afternoon, and landscape architecture students from the 602 Studio are carefully pinning up their designs on the walls of Meyerson Hall’s first floor.

A final tack goes in and two students step back, gazing at their work, which addresses the Triboro rail line running through Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. They’ll soon hear critiques from professors and peers.

hanging up landscape architecture projects
A landscape architecture student pins up work, which addresses the Triboro rail line running through Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, on the walls of Meyerson Hall’s first floor.

“We are trying to teach students to reconceptualize and restructure cities so they function as ecosystems for all forms of life,” says Weller. “That’s the only way we are going to endure, the only way we will have healthy cities, which means healthy people. We do that through design studios—the unique pedagogy of this program where we parachute students into complex territories, and they have to work it out.”

Lindsay Falck, a lecturer at PennDesign since the days of McHarg, pushes a cart through the hallway. He can’t help but stop to note how critical of a field landscape architecture is.

“These students are up to the challenge,” he says. “They really are.”

Upstairs, on the fourth floor, students put in their studio hours. They’re drawing, painting, and model making—implementing the latest directives and feedback they received in class. Some work on desks, some prefer the floor, where they can roll out their plotted drawings.

Pencil sharpeners share space with personal coffee pots. There’s paper of all sizes intertwined with glue, tape, string, and cardboard. From rulers and decorative plants to wasabi peas and even an iron, the studio space is nothing short of, well, a mess.

But students aren’t there to be tidy. They are there to be productive. It’s in the studio where their design solutions begin to take shape.

landscape architecture studio space
It is in the messy but inspiring studio, located on the fourth floor of Meyerson Hall, where students’ design solutions begin to take shape.

“The studio environment is a very positive place to be,” says Zuzanna Drozdz, a landscape architecture student, set to graduate with her master’s next year. “It’s a supportive, collaborative space for us to experiment and to learn from each other.”

Although taking the year off from school, and working part time at WRT, a Philadelphia landscape architecture firm that McHarg helped create in 1963, Drozdz is serving as Weller’s research assistant, which landed her the opportunity to travel in February to Bogotá, Colombia, with a group of 11 Penn students in what’s called an “option studio” co-taught by Weller and David Gouverneur, an associate professor of practice at PennDesign.

Drozdz chatted the same day she returned from Bogotá, where she was doing on-the-ground research concerning “hotspot cities.” The project is an outgrowth of the Atlas for the End of the World, and is looking specifically at the fastest growing cities in the global biodiversity hotspots that are encroaching on territories important for biodiversity.

“We were finding out what we could about the planning culture of the city,” Drozdz says. “What kinds of tools they use, if there is an awareness that the city is located in a biodiversity hotspot, and if there are any plans in place for protecting its biodiversity.”

Last semester, Karen M’Closkey taught a different elective studio that took students for a week to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos. Prior to the trip, students researched the ecological, educational, and economic challenges in the community, and developed possible projects to appropriately address them. After experiencing the island first-hand and chatting with folks from the area, they returned to campus ready to flesh out their plans.

Karen M’Closkey’s studio last semester took students for a week to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos. (Photo: Dorothy Jacobs)

M’Closkey, an associate professor of landscape architecture at PennDesign since 2008, who co-founded PEG, a local design and research practice, also teaches what are called “core studios” for students coming into the program with little to no design background. They learn basic skills, from drawing to physical and digital modeling, which provide a foundation for the more complex option studios for students in their final year of the program.

No matter the course she’s teaching, though, M’Closkey always challenges her students to think critically—to develop alternatives to what might be considered standards or norms to how landscapes are being conceptualized.

“We’re not training people to only go out and work in offices,” she says, “the hope is that they can be looking to what sorts of projects landscape architects should be doing, not only what they are doing.”

A McHargian legacy

It was October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit—causing unprecedented storm surges and devastating flooding. Close to home for Nate Wooten, who was living near New York City and working as an architect in the area at the time, he remembers the tragedy as if it happened yesterday.

“I realized that architecture had a role but ultimately was such a small part of the larger design issue that challenges like climate change may bring,” Wooten says. So, he decided he’d go back to school for a master’s in landscape architecture—at Penn.

Upon graduating from PennDesign’s Landscape Architecture Department in 2016, Wooten secured a full-time job at OLIN, a landscape architecture firm in Philadelphia co-founded in 1976 by Laurie Olin—who will this year receive an honorary Doctor of Arts from Penn—and the late Robert Hanna, both longtime, distinguished landscape architects and PennDesign professors.

Without being grandiose, we are in a perilous historical situation and we can’t just blunder on. We need to design the way ecological and cultural systems work together. Richard Weller, chair of the Landscape Architecture Department

Interestingly, Wooten has been able to see real projects, such as the Northwest Resiliency Park in Hoboken, come to life at OLIN that involve plans first conceived years ago during studios at PennDesign and through the Rebuild by Design Competition in which OLIN and PennDesign were partners.

“At Penn there’s an ethos, it’s not just about design, it’s also about problem solving and trying to make the world a better place, to change it,” says Wooten. “A lot of the work we were doing was tied to real problems and external groups working on the same thing. There was always the potential your research and designs could actually, even in school, have an impact on the world.”

Wooten, who appreciated the training he received at PennDesign, enjoyed learning in a way that factored in large-scale work that was inherently interdisciplinary. “That’s definitely a legacy of the program, coming from McHarg,” he says.

A project Wooten has been spending much of his time on lately at OLIN—the Los Angeles River Master Plan—is certainly of the “McHargian legacy,” he says, both in its scale and the breadth of the plan’s approach. But it also differs, too, Wooten says.

landscape architecture los angeles master plan
Nate Wooten, a Penn landscape architecture graduate, now at OLIN, has been working on the LA River Master Plan, which he says is certainly of the “McHargian legacy” both in its scale and the breadth of the plan’s approach. (Image: OLIN, for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works LA River Master Plan)

“When you add climate change and social systems, it gets evermore complex,” Wooten says. “I think that’s the real promise of landscape architecture: designing with everchanging complexity.”

Sure, the LA River is being designed, as McHarg would have said, with nature. But, nature isn’t the same as it was back when McHarg was coming of age.

“What is nature now after 50 years?” asks Weller. “It’s a really rubbery concept. The old idea of nature, that it is pristine and beautiful and sacred, it’s finished. It’s something else now. It’s a new nature. So how do we design with it now?”

Design for hope

When McHarg published his insightful “Design with Nature” in 1969, today known as one of the most widely read books in landscape architecture, he was addressing the particular ecological crisis of his time.

ian mcharg penn design
McHarg, back in the day. He’s credited for laying much of the foundation for what is now the well-known Landscape Architecture Department at Weitzman. (Photo: Architectural Archives)

“He said, ‘forget the high art of gardens, we need to design at a larger scale, plan out our cities and our systems,’” explains Weller. “He gave the discipline and the profession its modern power—in a sense the planet became the garden instead of it being a little thing behind hedges for a rich person.”

But, climate change was not a topic talked about back then, explains Billy Fleming, who earned his landscape architecture undergraduate degree at the University of Arkansas and graduated with a Ph.D. from PennDesign’s City and Regional Planning Department in 2017.

“Now climate change is the defining social and environmental crisis of our generation,” Fleming says.

It’s pertinent that humans think really carefully and creatively about how to make the best of what’s going to be a turbulent future. That’s where resiliency comes into play, Fleming says.

“And much of that is going to have to do with the built environment and almost all of that is going to have to do with landscape architecture,” he says. “Architects are really good at buildings and neighborhood-scale design work, and planners are often on comprehensive planning and the broad policy side of things, but landscape architects are where all of that stuff comes together.”

It’s with that understanding that Steiner and Weller thought up the idea to create a new, related center, aptly called the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. Set to officially launch this summer, it will support landscape architecture faculty and student research outside of the classroom, and propel PennDesign’s impact further in the ever-changing field.

The ‘now’ means that there’s hope, there’s hope for the planet. We can address serious issues like climate change and the loss of biodiversity and growing cities, and that there’s hope for the next generation. Frederick Steiner, Weitzman School Dean and Paley Professor

“I think there’s an opportunity, with the McHarg Center, for PennDesign to be a leader in the conversations surrounding climate change,” says Fleming, who is serving as the Center’s Wilks Family Director.

On summer solstice this June, a series of programming, named, unsurprisingly, “Design with Nature Now,” will kick off the Center.

Three public exhibitions, related tours and talks, and a two-day conference will bring landscape architects from around the world to Penn’s campus to discuss some of the most important built and speculative projects that relate to McHarg’s big thinking—but also expand on it. A book detailing the findings will be published in the fall by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, says Weller.

“It’s not only a celebration of the launch of the McHarg Center, but also a way to renew interest in designing with nature,” says Steiner. “In ways that are relevant for today.”

Relevant—for the environment in which we live, and also relevant for the students of landscape architecture today, who will become the leaders of tomorrow.

“The ‘now’ means that there’s hope, there’s hope for the planet,” continues Steiner. “We can address serious issues like climate change and the loss of biodiversity and growing cities, and that there’s hope for the next generation.”

Homepage photo: Landscape architecture students pin up and present their work to their professors and peers.