McHarg Center Launches into Rising Seas

Designing with nature takes on new meaning as sea levels rise.

By Zach Mortice

Homes along old Highway A1A in Summer Haven, Florida. Photo courtesy St. Johns Public Works.

The McHarg Center—a new research initiative that will study the intersection of urbanism and ecology—is dedicated to studying how “urban growth and all of its related infrastructure can relate better and be better tuned to ecosystems,” says Richard Weller, ASLA, chair of the landscape architecture department at the University of Pennsylvania. The center is awaiting its formal launch next year with an exhibition, book, and conference timed to the 50th anniversary of Ian McHarg’s seminal book Design with Nature. In the meantime, the center, housed within PennDesign, has invited Jeff Goodell, the author of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (Little, Brown, and Company, 2017), to visit for an inaugural lecture on March 29, at 6:00 p.m. in the lower gallery of Meyerson Hall.

In the spirit of McHarg’s research, Weller envisions the McHarg Center as an intensely multidisciplinary place. “When he completely overhauled the curriculum at Penn, he stacked the building with scientists,” Weller says. Likewise, Penn’s McHarg Center will invite scientists, designers, engineers, and public policy experts into an “interdisciplinary platform for bringing those different research cultures together,” he says.

Weller (along with his McHarg Center co-director and PennDesign dean Frederick Steiner, FASLA) will help organize an exhibition for the center’s formal launch in June 2019 featuring approximately 30 projects from around the world that “showcase what we mean by design with nature in the 21st century,” Weller says.  The related book will showcase the exhibition’s projects, with accompanying essays by scientists and designers.

On the left, Miami today. On the right, Miami with seven feet of sea-level rise. Illustration courtesy Climate Central/Haisam Hussein.

Key to the center’s agenda will be extrapolating McHarg’s massive expansion of the scale and purview of landscape design, and adapting it to today’s ecological crises. “[McHarg] developed a method that you could use at different scales, but [he] was always thinking in planetary terms,” Weller says. “And now 50 years later, more than ever, we are concerned about planetary systems.”

Chief among these crises are the specter of climate change and the certainty of sea-level rise, the topic of Goodell’s book and lecture. During his research, Goodell embarked on a worldwide tour of progressive and vernacular infrastructure solutions to deal with inundation, as well as places where the impact of sea-level rise is dimly understood or generally ignored, like Miami, which is expected to be largely underwater in coming decades. He spent time with West 8’s Adriaan Geuze, International ASLA, and perused New York City’s wish list of Rebuild by Design landscape solutions. In Greenland, he walked across land revealed by retreating ice sheets that had been covered for tens of thousands of years. His were likely the first footsteps ever there.

Life in Lagos’s waterside informal settlements are well-adapted to water. Photo courtesy Jeff Goodell.

Of all his travels, Goodell says the most inspiring places he visited were the “water slums” of Lagos, Nigeria, where hundreds of thousands of people live in lagoons in buildings on stilts, boats, or floating structures. These residents, he says, don’t fear sea-level rise. Their infrastructure (unlike ours) is light, mobile, and waterproof. “It really underscores to me that the problem we’re dealing with in the [developed] world is all this built infrastructure that is not flexible or movable,” Goodell says. “It’s a little bit of a back-to-the-future story.”

Ian McHarg. Image courtesy of the McHarg Center.

From this perspective, even the most technocratic remedies for sea-level rise will need to simulate and systematize vernacular solutions. Exactly how much sea levels will rise, and when, Goodell says, is unpredictable, so no one should expect a static relationship between land and sea. Our structures and infrastructure must instead be viewed as “temporal things,” he says. And so also must the relationship between ecology and urbanism the McHarg Center seeks to define.

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