by Libby Rosof
(April 6, 2000, Q & A)
By questioning man’s dominion over the earth, he influenced the next generation of landscape architects and planners.
At “79 going on 80”, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning Emeritus, Ian McHarg, M.L.A., M.C.P., has just completed his first book of poems, Songs to the Stars, to be published at the end of the month. He’d never written poetry before, but McHarg, who speaks with a Scottish brogue and knows how to tell a good story, said someone talked him into it.
Another project someone talked him into is his 1967 seminal book, Design With Nature, in which he introduced environmental concerns to landscape architecture.
And he said a TV executive talked him into making The House We Live In, the 1960-61 CBS series McHarg hosted, interviewing top intellectuals of the day — from religious thinkers Paul Tillich and Swami Nikhilananda to anthropologist Margaret Mead and psychologist Erich Fromm — about religious, ethical and philosophical attitudes toward the environment.
An informal Internet survey of planners from around the world selected McHarg as the world’s greatest living planner. He carries in his pocket a scrap of e-mail informing him of his selection. “I carry it around with me because I’m so enchanted,” he said.
Just six months ago, McHarg published his collected writings: To Heal the Earth (Island Press). And the planner for Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and for Lower Manhattan is now working on a plan for Nantou County in Taiwan.
At the end of the month, McHarg plans to travel to Japan to receive the Japan Prize in city planning for his lifetime of work bringing environmental considerations into the thinking of planners around the world. The prize, presented for substantial contributions to the advancement of science and technology as well as to the peace and prosperity of mankind, includes a cash award of 50 million yen (approximately $482,000).
Q: Hasn’t your thinking permeated the culture?
A: Well, they’ve gone from nothing to somewhere. But really, they couldn’t have started lower in the bottom. When I came here in 1954, I was given an introduction to a man called Fairfield Osbourne, who was the president of the Conservation Foundation. It sounded very impressive. But then I went to see him in his offices in New York, which was a one-room office near Grand Central Station, with a part-time secretary and an unpaid executive director. This was the sum of the conservation movement in the United States in 1954.
Now, only a couple of years ago, 120 nations convened in Rio de Janeiro to discuss the global environment. That’s a big turnabout.
Rachel Carson wrote this wonderful book, Silent Spring, At that time there came to be a tiny little interest in the environment. And the question was, who will speak about it? Well, at that time, there were only five people who were available in the country who would rush around anywhere and talk about the environment. The first was Ralph Nader, who started off concerned with the environment. And the second was Barry Commoner; he was a chemist from Washington University who spoke about the chemical environment. And then Rene Dubos, who’s a pathologist from Rockefeller University. And then Paul Erlich, the population bomb man — and me!
The subject began to ultimately gain some interest. For me the apex was on Earth Day 1970, when this department, this school was the major focus for the celebration of the Earth Day in the United States. And the culmination was 30,000 people came to Fairmount Park, Belmont Plateau, the 17th of April 1970.
I was there. I remember to this day what I said. “You have no future, you have no future. Why am I the person to tell you the bad news?” Jesus. That was the turnaround.
Q: When you say the turnaround, what did you mean?
A: We had national coverage by all the major networks. The environment had never had that kind of attention before. And every single major figure in the environment spoke. The environment came from nothing to somewhere on that event. After that, major magazines had a section devoted to the environment. Time and Life had a section. No one had ever talked about the bloody environment. Suddenly, it was in The New York Times.