Building a Landscape, Dreaming Big Dreams

Thinking about the architecture of web sites, and how carefully they can be constructed brought to mind a brush I once had with a landscape architect, and unknown to me at the time, a founder of Earth Day.

I was in my third year of law school, working with some other students to put together an Environmental Law Society. I helped write a set of bylaws for the organization, and co-edited a newsletter that we wrote together. We earned money with a few bake sales, talked a number of speakers into coming to the school, and took a canoe trip down part of the Christina River.

Our presentors included people from businesses and environmental organizations. They were interesting, and I think we all learned a little about how difficult it can be to try to impose change upon the world as part of an advocacy group, or from within a corporation.

One of our members recommended a neighbor of his from rural Chester County as a speaker. The neighbor was a landscape architect. I’m not sure that any of us were aware at the time that this neighbor was one of the most influential landscape architects of the 20th century. Or one of the most gifted speakers to grace a university’s lecture halls. We found that out, when Ian McHarg’s thick Scottish accent began to fill our presentation hall.

According to a Metropolis Magazine article, he created ecological planning and environmental design:

Yet McHarg has earned prominence for his method, rather than for any single project. The McHarg method dictates that a broad selection of environmental and human factors be charted on a series of overlay maps, and that an attentive analysis of these interdependent systems will reveal whether a site is suitable for development, and what form that development should take. It is like taking the vital signs of the earth, an earth of which man is part, but not master. His method, achieved with mylar transparencies and magic markers, anticipated computer-based geographic information systems (GIS), perhaps the single most important tool in urban planning today.

Our speaker’s words were poetry, and his voice was filled with passion. He told us about a development that he was asked to design. He informed his clients that they shouldn’t build in the spot they were looking at, because it was on a flood plain. They insisted, and he created plans for them. The houses were built, the waters came and destroyed them, and bulldozers were used to remove their last vestages from the location. Intelligent and responsible growth, looking at the world and our place in it, became his passion.

To many of us, our speaker was still just our classmate’s neighbor. But his eloquence, passion and wisdom had an impact. It wasn’t until the day after the presentation that I found out that we weren’t the only ones affected by his words. I took a look in our law library for books on landscape architecture. I only found one volume, and none for architecture at all. There were very few books in the library that weren’t related to the law. The book I found was Design with Nature, which had been written by our visitor.

While looking for more information for this post, I came across a column in which an Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, Environmental Commission Member tells us that Design with Nature is still important:

As you might guess, I strongly encourage you to read a copy of Ian L. McHarg’s Design with Nature. I believe that you will find the book as fresh and relevant as it was in 1969. Once you have read it, I think you will never look at another road, city, or even your home in the same manner and perhaps you will be motivated enough to go out and design your own community with nature.

In 2000, McHarg was awarded the Japan Prize for “substantial contributions to the advancement of science and technology as well as to the peace and prosperity of mankind.” He comments on this and his role in landscape architecture and planning in a Question and Answer session with the University of Pennsylvania News.

Ian McHarg passed away in 2001, at the age of 80. He didn’t have a chance to perform what would have been his most ambitious project:

Even as Mr. McHarg’s lungs failed him over the past year, he continued to think big. “The last thing he said to me, last April or so, was, `I want to do this big study, a geophysical inventory for the whole globe, the world,’ ” Mr. Kirkwood said. “He was still dreaming far beyond his circumstances.”

The presentation that I heard in that classroom was possibly the most important one I heard in my last year of law school (or ever). It taught me that you can dream big dreams, and if you build with compassion and care, some of those dreams can come true.

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14 thoughts on “Building a Landscape, Dreaming Big Dreams”

  1. Great post!!

    Although I would like to add a bit of my own twist on this one too. Always think big. Go big or go home is pretty much my motto (although that usually refers to the volume of beer about to be consumed). But sometimes we think much bigger than we really are capable of. It’s at these times that while we might not be able to actually do the deed ourselves, that we actually plant the seed in the minds of others.

    To quote Papa Smurf: “It’s sticks in a bundle we seek

    Sometimes the only action that you are able to complete is the planting of that seed. It’s not to say you failed… as this is the very victory itself.

  2. Thanks, Robert.

    An inspirational comment. :)

    I’ve been told by a few people that the secret to success is to set goals that can be achieved, meet those goals, and then build upon them, and then repeat. Sometimes it can take a good number of steps to reach our dreams.

    And we can’t forget that it can take others in our lives to help us – the sticks bundled together that Papa Smurf describes can be stronger than one stick alone.

    A landscape needs seeds to grow upon it.

  3. Ah… so you enjoyed the Smurfs too! :)

    But so true. We certainly do need good people

    Set goals that you know that you can achieve so that you can continue to build on them. A lot of people aim very high, stumble and then give up. A pity really.

    I have to say that my favorite saying though is: “The sky is no longer the limit, reach for the stars

  4. Hi Robert,

    The bundle of sticks story I remember from a folktale growing up – seems the writers of the smurfs read some of the same tales. :)

    Those big dreams can be achieved – but the paths to them usually consist of many small steps.

    Hi Peoplefinder,

    Thanks. So many people seem to think that they can succeed with a “set it and forget it” approach, but it can be much harder, and ultimately much more satisfying, to plan and build intelligently, to strive to understand and pay attention to the environment around you, even sometimes snatching success and understanding from failure.

  5. William, I guess a great story is a great story. Or the truth is the truth no matter who tells it. Kinda reminds me of… ;)

    As the old saying goes a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. You need to make sure you take that step. After all, if you’re on the right track and just sitting there, eventually the train will hit you.

    But enough of old proverbs :) I just have to say it again, “Great post!”

  6. As a gardener who seeks out the work of landscape architects, I appreciated this wonderful post as a way to look across fields to find a solution to your own work.

    Lately, I have been exploring open source software and how it can be integrated into a site to benefit a site’s visitors (particularly in regard to my given field); however, recently I have been considering the flow patterns through different sites to see how I can improve my own. I should have been thinking in a larger picture outside of a web page to find better paths, and I should use my passion for the dream to really be a guide to allow the site involve in ways that produce better results. Oh well, that is what I saw in your post.

  7. That was a really different and very good post. I found it especially interesting since I am a Web Developer/SEO guy who works for a company who specialized in landscape architecture and ironwork. I have found so many similarities over the years between the two industries.. it’s good to know I am not the only one out there who appreciates the subtle similarities

  8. Thanks.

    Nice to meet you. There do seem to be many similarities between the processes involved in the two disciplines. The more I learn about one, the more I understand the other.

    The ideas about planning, and understanding the how different design elements and local considerations may impact each other in Ian McHarg’s works sound familiar when I think about how a site is constructed, and how issues such as SEO and usability and accessibility and other considerations might fit together.

  9. Thanks William,

    A wise many once said, “Nothing big ever come of dreaming small”

    This has been very hard for me to overcome. Thinking small is so easy to do and having a big dream is a mental attitude that is not taught. Some are lucky to have it but some of us take many years to pick it up. Making it “Big” takes a lot of work but thinging big is the first step.

    Keep up the good work.

  10. Hi Phillip,

    Thank you. Dreams are the things that fuel our lives, and bring us to achieve things that we might not otherwise attempt.

    Love this quote:

    All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.

    ~ Thomas E. Lawrence

  11. As a starting landscape designer I found this to be very inspiring. I have never tried to think out of the box or in great scale but now I see that thinking innovative may help me become more successful in the future.

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