Socio-Ecological Practice Research

, Volume 1, Issue 3–4, pp 325–337 | Cite as

From thermodynamics to creativity: McHarg’s ecological planning theory and its implications for resilience planning and adaptive design

  • M. Margaret BryantEmail author
  • J. Scott Turner
Review Article


American landscape architect Ian L. McHarg developed an ecological planning theory and method for analyzing biophysical and sociocultural landscape characteristics and for evaluating these to determine suitable land uses. McHarg’s classic 1969 text, Design with Nature brought ecological planning to a mass audience, and his suitability analysis method was widely adopted. The theory, however, was neglected, as McHarg himself noted in his preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the book. A half-century later, there remains a need for theories that address the fit between humans and their environments, especially given ongoing environmental concerns marked by complexity and uncertainty. A fresh look at McHarg’s ambitious theory reveals it to have considerable depth, with much of its scientific foundation retaining relevance. It is unique in its capacity for connecting planning and design to ecology and evolutionary biology. In particular, energy, order, and disorder; adaptation; health; creativity; and human agency were addressed by McHarg, and these concepts remain integral to environmental problem-solving today. Using McHarg’s writings as the basis for a detailed analysis, we explore the meaning and significance of McHarg’s parallel constructs: syntropic fitness–health and entropic misfitting–morbidity and death. The theory is placed in the historical and contemporary contexts of environmental planning and the science of ecology. Criticisms of McHarg’s theory are addressed, and outdated aspects are identified. We connect relevant parts of the theory to socio-ecological practice through clear explanation of abstract concepts and identification of themes important for resilience planning and adaptive design.


Adaptation Resilience Adaptive design Ecological planning Theory and practice 

1 A theory to explain the way the world works

Mutual assured destruction (MAD) was a Cold War era doctrine that threatened both attacker and defender with total annihilation (Jervis 2009). This military deterrence strategy, which involved nuclear missiles in the USA and Soviet Union aimed at one another, was initiated shortly after World War II and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. MAD formed the backdrop of the American environmental movement, and the nuclear threat coincided with prime years in the career of noted landscape architect Ian L. McHarg. Industrial pollution and negative externalities from unplanned urbanization were major concerns of the first generation of environmental leaders, including McHarg, but the threat of nuclear war loomed larger, creating a sense of urgency to protect the earth. In the preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Design with Nature, McHarg (1992, p. vi) identified a “magic reciprocity” between the receding nuclear threat resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union and the rising concern for the global environment due to fears of climate change and biodiversity loss, saying, “How improbable and gratifying that the concern to protect the earth has replaced the intention to destroy it.” McHarg sounded hopeful about the opportunities ahead as issues of “world warming” and “ocean level rise” (Ibid. 1992, p. vi) moved environmental stewardship from an “American preoccupation” to a global concern. In hindsight, that sentiment seems overly optimistic, but it was typical of McHarg, a man who was confident that ecological planning, a field he helped develop, would indeed “heal the earth” if people chose to pursue it.

In the same year that the anniversary edition of Design with Nature was published, global leaders assembled in Rio de Janeiro for the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the Rio Earth Summit, from which the Climate Change Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, and Agenda 21 sustainability goals emerged (Meakin 1992). Since 1992, climate change and biodiversity loss have achieved an apocalyptic stature rivaling that of MAD in McHarg’s day (e.g., Ellis 2015; Steffen et al. 2015). McHarg’s work bridged both eras, one in the shadow of the nuclear threat and one dominated by concerns over climate and biodiversity. While separated by over half of a century, socio-ecological scholar-practitioners1 (Xiang 2017, 2019) of today are, and McHarg and his contemporaries were, driven by a sense of urgency to build scientific knowledge about the earth’s natural systems and to extend science to create normative standards and policies.

The task that McHarg described—“to understand the way the world works, regulate behavior in response to this knowledge, restore the earth, green the earth, heal the earth” (McHarg 1992, p. vi)—was and is formidable, especially given the in-progress, rapid, and potentially abrupt environmental changes that are now much more apparent than they were in the 1990s. McHarg was hopeful because he saw a difference between middle twentieth-century ecological planning and late twentieth-century emerging global environmental concerns. The difference was that the groundwork had been laid, with new disciplinary specialists, environmental data, and tools and techniques, all of which were largely missing when he was building the body of work that would be expressed in Design with Nature. A key part of that early foundational work was McHarg’s ecological planning theory and method.

1.1 McHarg’s ecological planning theory

McHarg’s seminal work, Design with Nature,2 is comprised of theory chapters (1992, pp. 43–53, 117–125, 187–188) that alternate with chapters featuring case study applications of his method. In his writings and lectures, McHarg frequently explained the theory, using descriptors like syntropic fitness–health (McHarg and Steiner 1998c, pp. 144–146), creative fitting (McHarg 2006, p. 19; McHarg and Steiner 1998a, p. 181), and a theory of human adaptations (McHarg 1992, p. vi). Here, we use syntropic fitness–health and its counterpart, entropic misfitting–morbidity and death, because of the specificity and detail suggested. The following excerpt is one of the most succinct explanations of the theory:

It is quite simple—there are two conditions, one syntropic-fitness-health and another, entropic-misfitting-morbidity and death. The oscillation between these states contains a thermodynamic imperative. All systems are subjected to the necessity of finding the fittest available environment, adapting it and themselves to make it more fitting. A fit environment is defined as that where the maximum needs of a user are provided by the environment as found, requiring the least work of adaptation. Successful adaptation requires a least work solution. The achievement of evolutionary success reveals syntropic fitness and health of species and ecosystems. Excessive pathology and morbidity reveal entropic misfit—a system unable to find the fittest environment, unable to adapt it or itself (McHarg 1992, p. v).

The goal of ecological planning, as articulated by McHarg, is to move toward syntropic fitness–health, aided by the method of suitability analysis.3 McHarg emphasized oscillation between the two states, syntropic fitness–health and entropic misfitting–morbidity and death, as an ongoing balancing act for planners and designers.

Despite McHarg’s promotion of the theory in writing and lectures, it remained opaque, with new iterations largely repeating the same language and not adding content, like more examples from biology or physics, that may have helped to provide clarity. Ultimately, the theory failed to be embraced, unlike the method. McHarg called this his “one deep dissatisfaction” (1992, v) with the reception of Design with Nature.

A 50-year-old ecological planning theory that was largely ignored may seem to be the most outdated aspect of McHarg’s legacy, given its basis in the science of the mid-twentieth century (see critique by Herrington 2010), and yet we argue that its very obscurity makes revisiting it interesting and potentially fruitful. Not surprisingly, our analysis reveals that some parts of the theory are outdated. Like Steiner (2004, p. 143), however, we also believe that other parts of the theory are applicable for the time we live in now, when complex and uncertain problems abound. McHarg produced a remarkably sophisticated synthesis of ideas about fitness and adaptation, which are key parts of the syntropic fitness–health theory, and he successfully reached across the divide separating ecology and design to put these concepts into use. We believe that McHarg’s relatively unexamined theory deserves a second look.

1.2 Theory, uncertainty, and incomplete knowledge

In science, theories are derived from empirical evidence, and they can explain phenomena (how the world works) and allow predictions to be made and tested. McHarg observed what he believed to be a serious misfit in some forms of human settlement and use of the physical and biological environment. He looked to theories of science, including evolutionary biology and physics, for explanations. His synthesis provided him with guidance for action (i.e., professional practice in planning and design). McHarg made use of “best available” data, which was significantly incomplete at the time, and the results are documented in the cases described in Design with Nature. McHarg’s theory served to fill in gaps in available information and keep the focus on finding a good “fit” between people and places.

Despite research advances since Design with Nature was originally published, our understanding of socio-ecological systems (SES), the human-nature systems of McHarg’s preoccupation, remains incomplete (Folke et al. 2016; Meerow et al. 2016; Stockholm Resilience Centre 2019) and difficult to operationalize in conservation, resilience,4 and adaptation policy, planning, and design5 (Chapin et al. 2009; Davidson et al. 2016). Today’s socio-ecological scholar-practitioners ask different questions than those of McHarg’s era, but, like McHarg, they still work in a context of uncertainty and limited predictive capability, while having better, but still incomplete, knowledge. Theory is needed to inform questions like those identified by Berkes and Ross (2013, pp. 8–9, 12–13) regarding resilience in socio-ecological systems: spatial and temporal scale effects on resilience, organizational models that facilitate flexible response to change, and relationships between individual resilience and that of communities. Theories like McHarg’s step back from the specific details of examples like these and ask, instead, how does the system function? What are its component parts? What are the relationships between the parts? Insights derived from the application of theory then serve to frame and answer questions that are more specific. In our review of McHarg’s theory, we seek to understand its meaning in detail and then probe the extent to which its explanation of concepts and relationships may help scholar-practitioners address the environmental challenges of today.

2 Significance, scope, and relevance to practice

The sweep of Ian McHarg’s vision remains awe-inspiring. He sought nothing less than to bring the breadth of knowledge in the physical and biological sciences to bear on questions of place-based environmental planning and design, and he sought further to inform decision making with insights from religion, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy. This is the perspective of design—intellectually wide-ranging, synthetic, open to risk-taking, and transdisciplinary in McHarg’s formulation. It is an attitude that can bridge disparate bodies of knowledge and practice, like ecology and the disciplines of the built environment. A design perspective is embodied in McHarg’s ecological planning theory. As we review the conceptual underpinnings of syntropic fitness–health, we emphasize a design-based transdisciplinary perspective inclusive of biology and social science.

In his autobiography, McHarg (1996, p. 21) tells a story about his discovery of landscape architecture. As a teenager, he accompanied a Scottish landscape architect to the top of a hill and watched the senior gentleman describe his vision for the valley below, gesturing with a “shooting stick” as he pointed to locations where a new village and associated infrastructure would be constructed. In Design with Nature, McHarg stands on his own “eminence” (Ibid.) and gestures toward regions like the Potomac River Basin, and, implicitly to the earth, and describes and illustrates an integrated vision of the future. Describing ecological planning, McHarg said “I am not a scientist” (McHarg 2006, p. 21), but he also said that he derived his theory from “excellent scientists” (Ibid., p. 21), including Nobel laureates, who lectured in his long-running Man and Environment course at the University of Pennsylvania (Spirn 2000, p.103; Yang and Li 2016, p. 22). McHarg’s theory belongs in the domain described by Xiang (2019, p. 7) as socio-ecological practice, and we analyze it from that perspective. As authors, the disciplinary perspectives we bring to this review are those of landscape architecture and biology. Ideas in this paper originated in a course that we co-taught where we examined concepts of evolutionary biology in relation to emerging directions in design, including biomimicry.

To understand and assess a theory as all-encompassing as McHarg’s, we believe that it must be placed within its cultural and historical context, and we extend that lens to the underlying science as well, following the lead of eminent historians of science like Worster (1994). Science is not immutable. Theories once discarded commonly reemerge after a period of time and find new expression. We address the science of McHarg’s theory from this point of view. This paper addresses a condition or need identified by Steiner (2016) as being necessary for application of McHarg’s “ecological wisdom” to future landscape architecture and urban planning questions. The first step is for scholars and practitioners to “be aware of how ecological science has evolved since McHarg’s time” (Ibid., p. 109).

The scope of this paper is limited to concepts of syntropy, fitness, and health as articulated by McHarg; to critiques of these concepts; and to more recent articulations and applications of these concepts in scholarship and practice. In determining relevance for the present, we restrict ourselves to applications in resilience planning and adaptive design.

Unlike the theory, McHarg’s suitability analysis method, associated with the origins of geographic information systems, has been extensively reviewed by others (Carlsson 2018; Ndubisi 2002, pp. 44–47 and more generally pp. 35–101; Spirn 2000; Yang and Li 2016, pp. 25–28). Among the nearly 6,000 citations of Design with Nature found in Google Scholar are many papers and books that apply, and build on, McHarg’s method. Therefore, the method is not addressed in this paper. Other theoretical constructs, like reflective practice, and other criticisms of McHarg, such as the dearth of social and economic analyses in his planning approach, are beyond the scope of this paper.

The object of study around which the conceptual framework for this paper has been developed is the practice of ecological planning. We examine the implications of McHarg’s theory for practice, and we interpret it with insights from other disciplines, especially the science of ecology. Like Xiang (2017, p. 2242), we recognize that a gulf commonly divides theory and practice in scholarly literature. In Design with Nature, McHarg intentionally linked the two, switching back and forth between theory and practice chapter by chapter. In work done by the firm he cofounded, WMRT, theory was prominent, according to landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn (2000, pp. 109–110) in reference to her own experience of working with the firm. In the office, Spirn says, the “language of evolution” was deliberately used, “fit” and “adaptation” were goals, and “adaptive strategies” were what the firm offered to clients (Ibid.). In this paper, the concluding sections explicitly link syntropic fitness–health to practice.

3 Explication of the theory: syntropy, fitness, and health

What did McHarg mean when he used the phrase, syntropic fitness–health and entropic misfitting–morbidity and death? The awkwardness of the construction likely affected the theory’s acceptance. Other nomenclature employed by McHarg, like creative fitting and theory of human adaptations, had the advantage of simplicity, but failed to effectively communicate the theory’s depth and comprehensiveness. To gain a better understanding of the theory, we address each component individually: syntropy as energy, order, and disorder; fitness and adaptation; and health.

Following an analysis of McHarg’s own words, derived from Design with Nature and other writings, we discuss the role that theory played in McHarg’s work. Literature that directly critiques the science underlying McHarg’s theory is then addressed before we interpret the theory for socio-ecological scholarship and practice today.

3.1 Syntropy: energy, order, and disorder

The syntropic–entropic construct is based on a thermodynamic approach to ecology. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics,6 entropy is a measure of the gradual decline to disorder that governs all physical systems. Syntropy, also known as negentropy or negative entropy, refers to the opposite tendency, a move toward order. McHarg attributed the term syntropy to the architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller (McHarg and Steiner 1998c, p. 144). Today, negentropy is the more commonly used term.

Expanding on order and disorder, McHarg said that, while entropy was recognized as a “tendency for energy and matter to degrade from higher to lower levels of order in any energetic transaction,” “certain energetic transactions” were different (McHarg and Steiner 1998c, p. 144). In syntropic transactions, energy and matter become more organized, “raised to a higher level of order” (McHarg 1998, p. 16), than they were before the transaction. Using Big Bang theory, McHarg gave an example of the “evolution of matter,” (McHarg 1996, p. 244) when new elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen developed in a universe that was originally comprised only of hydrogen and helium. McHarg concluded that “the evolution of matter is a syntropic act, creative” (Ibid., p. 244). Concerning biota, McHarg (1992, p. 53) discussed the metabolic function of organisms, noting that energy is dissipated as heat, but also that living organisms accomplish “orderings” or “upgrading.” Referring to work of the ecologist Paul B. Sears, McHarg linked creative syntropy with the ability of living organisms to store energy in the form of carbon compounds, which enhances an organism’s capacity to do work, such as increasing organization, regulating water movement, transforming chemicals, and other important metabolic functions. Raising matter to higher levels of order through “the physical entrapment of energy” can be seen in photosynthesis and “in the successive orderings accomplished by animals with elevation in the phylogenetic scale” (Ibid., p. 187). McHarg saw syntropy and creativity as interchangeable ideas in this context. Creativity and “upgrading” were also identified with symbiosis.

The implication is that achieving higher levels of order, a feat that seemed to challenge the Second Law is a desired positive outcome, and that disorder is a negative outcome, associated with morbidity and death. McHarg made this a simple binary choice—creativity or destruction. The emphasis on order was influenced by the contemporaneous development of cybernetics, a field of study concerning control and feedback mechanisms in complex systems (Lystra 2014). McHarg notes a persistent oscillation between order and disorder, a concept that is neither positive nor negative, but he equates that with a “thermodynamic imperative” (McHarg 1992, p. v), an idea derived from the physicist Bruce Lindsay, who coined the phrase. Lindsay cast entropy as a kind of enemy, saying the imperative “urges all men to fight always as vigorously as possible to increase the degree of order in their environment so as to combat the natural tendency for order in the universe to be transformed into disorder” (Lindsay 1959, p. 378). Corning and Kline (1998, p. 274) state that entropy in the twentieth century was “portrayed as a dark force which somehow governs the fate of our species and dooms our progeny to oblivion.”

3.2 Fitness and adaptation

Regarding fitness, McHarg was fond of a statement that he attributed to the biochemist Lawrence J. Henderson (1913): “Darwin is right but insufficient” (McHarg 1998, p. 17). This is a reference to the limits of natural selection in explaining organism–environment interactions. In a 1976 lecture titled, “The Theory of Creative Fitting,” McHarg (2006, p. 23) summarized a key idea from Darwin, “the surviving organism is fit for the environment.” He paired this statement with what he saw as a significant insight from Henderson, that the earth was uniquely fit to support life. McHarg advocated for a combination of both concepts: “One can say that there is a requirement for any system—whether it is sub-cellular, cell, tissue, organism, individual, family, institution—to find the most fit of all environments, and to adapt both that environment and the system itself. The environment and the system must fit” (Ibid., pp. 23–24). For McHarg, a fit environment was one where the maximum needs of a system or user are met with the least work of adaptation. McHarg did not clearly define the term adaptation. The clearest explanation that he gave was this: when organisms and systems seek out environments that are most fit, and then adapt the environment and themselves, they are engaged in adaptation (McHarg and Steiner 1998b, p. 140). Note that humans are simply organisms in McHarg’s expression of adaptation and fit.

3.3 Health

Health is the third component of the theory. McHarg saw it as a synthesis or outcome of syntropic fitness (creativity) and adaptation. It meant more than absence from disease (McHarg 1992, p. 187) or the capacity to recover from insult or injury. McHarg preferred a definition that he credited to the English biologist G. Scott Williamson: health is the “ability to seek and solve problems” (McHarg 1996, p. 245). He linked syntropy, fitness, and health with the following questions: “Is health, then, successful adaptation as measured by syntropic fitness? Is it evidenced by the ability of organisms to find the fittest available environment, adapt it, and adapt themselves to accomplish a syntropic fitness? I suggest it is” (Ibid., pp. 245–246).

Unlike syntropy and fitness, McHarg gave no expansive explanations of the concept of health. He associated fitness with the image of a physically fit person and implied that fitness and therefore health are readily apparent to the observer. In Design with Nature, he provided this example: “If we find a forest in which the majority of the plants and animals are diseased and dying, there is no doubt that this is an unhealthy forest” (McHarg 1992, p. 188). Our measures of terrestrial ecosystem health today include many factors that are not visible to the eye, such as the condition of the soil microbiome, but other measures of forest health are readily assessable: fragmentation, species diversity, soil erosion, and so forth (e.g., Thompson et al. 2013). For McHarg, health was the outward manifestation of creative fitting.

3.4 The role of theory in McHarg’s work

What value did the construct, syntropic fitness–health and entropic misfitting–morbidity and death, have for McHarg? On a very basic level, it allowed him to describe the concerns of environmentalism, such as air and water pollution, as a kind of grievous misfit that leads to morbidity and death. It can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, one meant to capture the attention and imagination of listeners. The context in which he developed his ecological planning theory was one of gross environmental exploitation, from the polluted air and water of cities lacking environmental regulations, to the rural hillsides stripped of forest and mineral resources, over all of which hung the threat of nuclear war. In response, he promised a process that would lead toward order, fitness, and health, and he demonstrated it through plans created for real places: the New Jersey Shore; the Green Spring and Worthington Valleys of Baltimore County, Maryland; Staten Island; and the Potomac River Basin, among others that were case studies in Design with Nature. McHarg’s theory was an expression of his understanding of how the world works, but it also served to support his arguments for how to solve environmental and land use problems.

3.5 McHarg’s science

Herrington (2010) identifies a kind of directionality to McHarg’s expression of creative fitting. This directionality is reminiscent of the now discredited theory that ecologist Eugene Odum called the “strategy of ecosystem development” (Odum 1969), the title of his landmark paper. The strategy that Odum described was one where ecosystems were deterministic, proceeding in a predictable, orderly manner to a climax state that was stable, diverse, and, to use McHarg’s term, healthy. The influence of Odum on McHarg’s thinking is probable, given Odum’s stature and association with applied ecology at the time (Lefkaditou 2012). Eugene Odum has been called the father of modern ecology (Goldman 2002). Along with his brother, H.T. Odum, Eugene was the primary author of a popular ecology textbook in the 1950s and 1960s, and he was a scientist who ventured into the public debate on environmental issues. He was a proponent of an order-focused, cybernetics-influenced management ethos. According to Christensen (2014, p. 317), Odum’s ecosystem model “portrayed natural change as most of us would prefer changes of all kinds to be—directional, with incremental improvement leading inexorably to that best (i.e., most stable) of all possible worlds.” The prevailing view 50 years later is decidedly less optimistic, and our theories about the roles of order and disorder in ecosystems have changed. These changes will be discussed further in Sect. 4, where McHarg’s theory is interpreted for the present.

In Design with Nature, McHarg (1992, p. 52) uses the word yearning to describe the relationship between organisms and the environment as adaptation occurs. Attributing this characterization of yearning to the biochemist George Wald (1958), McHarg says that Wald was employing poetic license. McHarg’s acknowledgement here suggests that he was well aware of the conceptual leaps that he was making as he struggled with an almost impossible task, to develop an ecological planning theory to explain, in simple terms, “the way the world works” (1992, p. vi).

Herrington (2010) asserts that McHarg’s views on fitness are outdated in part because of his reliance on the theories of Lawrence Henderson. Herrington relates mid-twentieth-century criticism of Henderson that was based on the perception by some that his fitness theories were rooted in metaphysical notions (i.e., Intelligent Design or creationism), but she also refutes the criticism by quoting the historian Everett Mendelsohn (Ibid, p. 14) and saying that Henderson also pushed back in response to his critics. Herrington nevertheless identifies “the combination of Lawrence Henderson and Charles Darwin’s work for his theory of creative fitting” as a key weakness of “McHarg’s science” (Ibid., p. 1).

The biophysicist Morowitz (1987) had a more favorable view of Henderson. Writing in the professional magazine, The Scientist, the former Science Board Chair of the Santa Fe Institute emphasized the value of this particular contribution: “Henderson […] urges us not only to examine the plasticity of organisms in adapting to the environment but also to examine those features of the environment that make life possible.” In Morowitz’s view, Henderson’s stance on fitness was argued from a deeply sophisticated understanding of physics and chemistry. Morowitz (1987) emphasized the gap in knowledge caused by rejection of “all arguments suggestive of order or purpose”:

I share Henderson’s feeling that the remarkable reciprocity between organism and environment cannot be ignored either by scientists or philosophers. The Fitness of the Environment is not widely known among contemporary scientists, many of whom have renounced purpose from a methodological point of view. Yet this rejection has likely been premature.

Morowitz and his Santa Fe Institute colleague, physicist Eric Smith, published the comprehensive multidisciplinary book, The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth, in 2016. It offers a deep perspective on the issues of thermodynamics, physical environment, and Darwinian evolution; and it conveys the profound complexity of the topics that McHarg sought to integrate into his ecological planning theory.

4 Interpreting McHarg’s ecological planning theory for resilience planning and adaptive design

In the remaining sections of this paper, we return to the question raised earlier: To what extent can McHarg’s ecological planning theory help current scholar-practitioners address the environmental challenges of today? We address the following themes: (1) syntropy–entropy reframed in terms of stability and change; (2) changing views of fitness and adaptation; (3) human agency and cooperation; and (4) the theory’s relationship with practice. We believe that these themes represent key dimensions upon which new theories of ecological planning may be built.

4.1 Syntropy–entropy and stability–change

The part of McHarg’s theory that has not stood the test of time concerns his preoccupation with order. He was certainly not alone in his emphasis on the desirability of elevating systems to higher levels of order, which he and others (e.g., Odum 1969) thought would lead to system stability. Disorder was to be avoided at all costs. Cybernetics was a key influence on this singular attention to control (Lystra 2014). While the relationship between order and stability is viewed differently today, the role of energy and order in complex adaptive systems, and in socio-ecological systems in particular, remains a subject of great interest among ecologists and other socio-ecological scholars and practitioners. For example, there is a greater appreciation of life as a persistent thermodynamic disequilibrium, in which all ordered systems are inherently unstable (Turner 2017). This complicates the relationship between orderliness and stability: highly ordered systems require more work to maintain them, and more stringent levels of control, which comes under the general rubric of homeostasis7 (Turner 2017). While homeostasis has long been considered a mainstay of the physiological sciences, the emerging science of niche construction theory8 (Odling-Smee et al. 1996) has opened a path that allows a deeper appreciation of the nature of adaptation and homeostasis to permeate the sciences of ecology, evolution, and even architecture and other disciplines of the built environment (Odling-Smee and Turner 2011; Turner 2016; Penn and Turner 2018). It has also breathed new life into Henderson’s decades-old thoughts on the “fitness of the environment.”

Interest has now shifted from an entropy focus to the dynamics of stability, change, and resilience. How does a complex system, whether it be an organism, an ecosystem, or a planned landscape respond to ongoing challenges posed by the drivers of descent to disorder? Consider how niche construction theory and Turner’s conception of the extended organism (Turner 2000, 2004) influence our conception of the humble earthworm. An earthworm is physiologically unsuited to be an “earth worm,” that is, a worm living in a terrestrial environment; its physiology suits the worm to live in a freshwater environment. But by modifying the soil in such a way as to make water more readily available to the worm, the earthworm has adapted the environment to itself. This adds a whole new layer of adaptation and resiliency to the evolution and ecology of worms, namely the worms’ built environment. This is what is meant by “niche construction.” The earthworm exists in a state of persistent thermodynamic disequilibrium, maintaining homeostasis by adapting the environment to itself.

In the realm of community resilience planning, attitudes toward stability and change shape policy responses. Stability relates to order/disorder dynamics and the notion of persistent thermodynamic disequilibrium. Working in the field of disaster management, resilience researchers Normandin and Therrien (2016) point out an inherent and problematic duality at the heart of resilience planning: maintenance of stability versus transformation/adaptation of systems. A focus on recovery from disturbance tends to emphasize stability (order) over transformation (disorder). Normandin and Therrien echo critiques of resilience theory (Meerow et al. 2016; Davidson et al. 2016) include concerns that resilience policies favor conservatism and the status quo. To the contrary, they assert that resilience demands creativity and adaptability. In response, they advocate for a framework that balances stability with adaptation, and they explain this through the concepts of order and disorder. Order needs to be punctuated with bits of disorder, or periods of disorder, for the health of the system. Dynamic interactions between “favorable order” and “favorable disorder” lead to higher levels of resilience that balance conformity with diversity, while “unfavorable order” and “unfavorable disorder” lead to vulnerability (Normandin and Therrien 2016, p. 111). This is reminiscent of Bateson’s metaphor of the acrobat on the high wire:

“The healthy system […] may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (“I am on the wire”), he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication), he must fall” (Bateson 1972, p. 474).

The “balancing act” between living orderliness and disorder is a powerful metaphor for life as a thermodynamic phenomenon. Pross (2013), for example, expresses life as a form of “dynamic kinetic stability” (DKS), in which life sits precariously atop a thermodynamic precipice of disorder, although a better description might be Turner’s (2017) notion of life as a persistent, dynamic, and specified disequilibrium. Metaphors like the acrobat on the high wire extend McHarg’s notion of ecology and design to be a more dynamic process rather than specified object, a conception that our emerging current understanding of evolution and ecology is moving toward.

The “dynamic mechanisms of resilience” proposed by Normandin and Therrien (2016, p. 110) are a kind of reconceptualization of McHarg’s focus on syntropic–entropic oscillation. In this new formulation, both order and disorder have positive associations. Creativity can emerge from disorder, a concept effectively conveyed by Holling’s adaptive cycle (Gunderson et al. 2010). These are foundational concepts for resilience planning today. Operationalizing these ideas for planning and design remains challenging. Adaptive design, discussed in Sect. 5, is one response that is an emerging area of practice.

4.2 Changing views of fitness and adaptation

Adaptation is a fundamental attribute of life, and the phenomenon of adaptation animates any discipline of study that is concerned with life, however, tangentially. Adaptation (literally, tendency to aptitude) is concerned with the relationship between living nature; however, it is organized (e.g., cell, organism, or society) and the environment. This relationship exists in physical, material, social, and cognitive dimensions, and it exists at scales from the cellular to the planetary. It is universal.

Despite its importance, adaptation remains a poorly understood concept. It is riddled with incoherencies, even within disciplines like evolutionary biology and ecology where one would expect it to be best understood (Pigliucci 2007; Riskin 2016; Turner 2017). According to Turner (2017, pp. 7–8, 74–83), prior to Darwin, adaptation was considered by evolutionists like Jean-Baptiste Lamarck to be an active striving of living things toward “good fit” (Turner 2017). Although Darwin tried to distinguish his evolutionary thought from Lamarck’s, Darwin’s own adaptationist thinking retained a Lamarckian influence, and this contributed in large part to the “eclipse of Darwinism” (Huxley 1942) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the 1920s, Darwinism was rescued by the genetical theory of natural selection and the rise of Neo-Darwinism, known as the Modern Synthesis, but evolutionary theory was left without a meaningful interpretation of the core Darwinian concept of adaptation. Limited attention, therefore, was given to fitness with the environment. In its modern conception, adaptation is a tautology, stripped of its inherent intentionality and striving (Turner 2017), concepts that are central to McHarg’s own thinking.

Confusion about adaptation also crept into the thermodynamic conception of ecology as it was developed by the work of the ecologists Eugene and H.T. Odum, along with derived concepts of the ecological niche by the ecologists G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Raymond Lindeman, Robert MacArthur, and others (Turner 2007, 2017). Notions of ecosystems as immense circuit diagrams of matter and energy flow, as well as the concept of ecological niches as attractors that draw evolving lineages toward them by some gravitation-like force, have no place for the intentional striving that forms the basis of living adaptation.

Encouragingly, evolutionary and ecological theory are gradually returning to McHarg’s vision, particularly in emerging theories of evolution through niche construction theory, which has, at its core, the Hendersonian notion of life adapting its environment to itself, rather than the bleak lottery of adaptation as simple culling of the “unfit.” McHarg’s crucial question—what adapts to what?—is taking on new relevance (Laland et al. 2014; Lewontin 2000).

4.3 Seekers and solvers of problems: human agency and cooperation

McHarg (1996, p. 245) defined health as “the ability to seek and solve problems.” The problem that he was most interested in solving was what he called a “problem of human adaptations” (McHarg 1992, p. iv). By this, we infer from the overall text of Design with Nature that McHarg was referring to mismatches between human uses and the environmental characteristics of land. In other words, the problem was misfitting relationships between humans and the environment, and the response would come through a process of analysis that would lead to a better fit. Better fits would be seen as successful adaptations, and the result would be health. Achieving a better fit would require creativity—human creativity.

McHarg addressed change and human intention in this way: “The environment—land, sea, air, and creatures—does change; and so the question arises, can the environment be changed intentionally to make it more fit, to make it more fitting for man and the other creatures of the world?” (McHarg 1992, p. 52). Included in his theory and relevant for the role of human agency were the concepts of apperception and symbiosis (Ibid., p. 197). While these concepts applied to all organisms, McHarg suggested a special role for humans who had a level of consciousness that gave them a sophisticated ability to take information and derive meaning from it and an ability to form cooperative relationships that resembled symbiosis. McHarg’s ecological planning theory and method were a call to action, and the theory expressed a hope that humans would embrace the calling to adapt themselves to the environment in a more benign way.

Evidence of the role of cooperation and collaboration in McHarg’s approach to ecological planning is revealed in the array of disciplinary specialists employed to carry out the place-based studies found in Design with Nature. McHarg’s theory and method created what might be called a “system of boundary objects” (Star and Griesemer 1989, p. 410) that facilitated transdisciplinary scholarship and practice. In particular, place and chronology, key aspects of McHarg’s theory and method, can be considered boundary objects, plastic and mutable focal points that facilitate collaboration from disciplinary specialists who might otherwise find communication challenging. McHarg’s insights into human agency, cooperation, and collaboration remain relevant and can help current scholar-practitioners address the environmental challenges of today.

4.4 Relating McHarg’s theory to practice

As we probe the intellectual underpinnings of McHarg’s theory, we see its complexity. McHarg sought a fundamental understanding of how organisms, which he also interpreted more generally as systems, relate to their environment. Like all theoreticians, he sought an explanation for what he saw in the world, and what McHarg saw was a misfit between humans and their use and abuse of land and water resources. McHarg claimed that his theory was simple, and, on some level, it is. For its true value to be evident, though, there must be a depth of understanding, and McHarg struggled to communicate this. A good theory is easy for others to conceptualize, and this one, with its long name, syntropic fitnesshealth and entropic misfittingmorbidity and death, did not have a meaning that was self-evident.

Today, socio-ecological scholars and practitioners are engaged in a time-sensitive search to understand the earth’s complex adaptive systems and to translate new understandings into actions to mitigate climate change, help “systems” adapt to climate change, and minimize global biodiversity losses. Practitioners, in particular, want normative standards based on science that can be applied now. Unfortunately, the depth of understanding that is being sought will not come quickly, even though large numbers of researchers around the world are dedicated to this effort. In the gap between new scientific knowledge and the need to act now lies theory. Practitioners need theory to be able to act when knowledge is incomplete. McHarg’s theory, reconsidered and renewed, could serve this purpose if it is reformulated to focus on system dynamics, disequilibrium/change/transformation, adaptation, and health.

5 Foundation for adaptive design

An emerging area of socio-ecological practice that is attempting to address system dynamics, adaptation, and health is adaptive design. The word adaptive is now commonly associated with the word climate, as in Cerra’s climate adaptive design (2016), but adaptive design is broader than that. Adaptive design is a flexible framework for physical planning and design that has been under development for at least two decades. Johnson and Hill (2002, pp. 14–16) alluded to adaptive design when they championed the value of metaphor (garden and scaffolding) in operationalizing ecological knowledge in planning and design. In particular, the metaphor of design as scaffolding suggested an open-ended approach and room for surprise and change over time. Adaptive design is the indeterminate model exemplified by James Corner’s design for the Fresh Kills Landfill (Corner 2005; Prominski 2005; Steiner 2011). It is part of a continuum with adaptive management9 (Williams 2011). The book, Projective Ecologies (Reed and Lister 2013), examines interpretations of adaptive design from the perspectives of many authors.

Ahern et al. (2014) associate adaptive design with design-as-experiment, or designed experiments that are safe to fail. Specifically addressing adaptive urban design, Ahern et al. note the capacity of this approach to connect science, practice, and stakeholder participation (Ibid. 2014, p. 254). This builds on the designed experiment work of Felson (Felson and Pickett 2005; Felson et al. 2013) and others. Ahern et al. (2014, p. 255) explain the merits of adaptive design as including innovative methods informed by ecology and practice experience; flexibility and openness to discoveries that occur during the process of creation and implementation; and monitoring and follow-up analyses that improve the project, creating new knowledge that can be applied to future projects. Regarding climate adaptive design, Cerra (2016) identifies strategies from green infrastructure and urban ecology, such as floodplain storage, landscape connectivity, and urban heat island mitigation. In this case, we see the overlap between resilience, adaptation, and sustainability in practice.

Writing about large parks, Lister (2007) gives an overview of the relationship between the science of ecology and planning and design that addresses roughly the same period of time as this paper does. She explicitly links adaptive design to resilience, saying, “Long-term sustainability demands the capacity for resilience—the ability to recover from disturbance, to accommodate change, and to function in a state of health—and therefore, for adaptation” (Ibid., p. 36). Lister explains how our understanding of living systems now includes concepts of self-organization, complexity, disturbance, and uncertainty, and she acknowledges the challenges involved in translating these concepts into planning and design, saying that “few tangible projects” (Ibid., p. 37) that demonstrate our new understanding of living systems have been completed. Adaptive design is in its formative stages.

What is needed in resilience planning and adaptive design are vehicles for connecting insights generated in the sciences to the applied needs of socio-ecological practice. Such connections are forged by theories of “how the world works.” Integration of adaptive design and new ideas of syntropic fitness–health seems ripe for exploration. McHarg sought a level of abstraction that addressed the operation of systems, with humans seen as one among many organisms. He wanted to know how the system that produced misfitting human settlement worked so that he could propose changes that would result in better fits. In the absence of full knowledge and with given uncertainties and unpredictable outcomes, systems theories like McHarg’s can guide action. Adaptive management then allows for changes to be made as new knowledge is generated, and theories can be revisited as necessary.

6 McHarg’s theory and the issue of determinism

If McHarg’s theory is to be seriously considered again for its applicability to resilience planning and adaptive design, the long-standing criticism that McHarg’s work was “deterministic” (beyond the association with Odum) must be addressed. McHarg was widely viewed to be dogmatic, and it was thought that he ascribed a kind of moral authority to the results of suitability analysis (Spirn 2000; Herrington 2010). Determinism, in this case, refers to a claim that ecological planning analyses would answer all of the questions of design, dictating form, and restricting creativity. Lister (2007), for example, addresses the contribution of McHarg to ecological design by saying that McHarg’s suitability analyses would “necessarily prescribe appropriate design, where form and function are indivisible” (Ibid., pp. 47–48). The word, prescribe, is the key here, as Lister (2007, p. 48) casts this in opposition to “adaptive, resilient, flexible, and responsive design.” In this paper, we have taken a different stance. By explicating McHarg’s theory, we encourage socio-ecological scholars and practitioners to reexamine this body of work with an open mind. Just as in science, old theories, once discarded, may find new life and value when seen with fresh eyes. Like controversies in science, a willingness to engage and critique McHarg’s theory enriches landscape architecture and socio-ecological scholarship and practice. Writing on controversies in ecology, Nuñez and Nuñez (2007, p. 809) say that the “existence of alternative schools of thought does not foreclose the possibility of future agreements.”

7 Conclusion

Fifty years after his ideas were adopted into the planning and design mainstream, through mechanisms like environmental impact statements mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and spatial modeling using overlay mapping (now geographic information science), it may be easy to forget the revolutionary quality of McHarg’s work and the need at that time to persuade decision makers with words like syntropic fitness–health and entropic misfitting–morbidity and death. With his theory and method, McHarg successfully challenged a land use decision-making model that was almost exclusively based on cost–benefit analyses (i.e., economic, political, and, to some extent, social considerations). He argued for a deliberative process based on an understanding of “the way the world works” (McHarg 1992, p. vi) that is, ecology, including consideration of geology, soils, landform, climate, hydrology, flora, and fauna, in addition to socioeconomic issues. The theory could take some degree of poetic license. It was not science, but rather it was design.

In his preface to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Design with Nature (1992, p. vi), McHarg said not only that we need to “understand the way the world works,” but also that we must “regulate behavior in response to this knowledge”. A weakness of McHarg’s theory and method is the absence of attention to the political and socioeconomic nature of environmental decision making. McHarg believed in rationality and the persuasive power of data, but that mid-twentieth-century technocratic perspective has not stood the test of time. Current efforts to mitigate climate change make it clear that politics are hard to ignore, especially in situations requiring global coordination. Especially difficult is regulating personal behavior in response to new knowledge generated by scientists and socio-ecological practitioners. People working in the disaster and community resilience fields are grappling with these realities now, and this will remain a challenge.

In the 50 years since Design with Nature was published, no ecological planning and design theory as ambitious or comprehensive as McHarg’s has emerged. Perhaps there is no interest in generating such a sweeping theory and the preference is for more narrowly focused ones? However, as adaptive design demonstrates, there is still a need for theories to guide our work today. Regarding his theory, McHarg stands out as both a tragic and visionary figure. He was visionary because he understood life as a process of continual striving and fitting of life to environment and vice versa. In this, he was much like Henderson, and his notions of fit environments. He was tragic because the science upon which he based his thinking left him largely stranded from the mainstream of biological thought, which was being drawn inexorably toward the notion of life-as-machine, where there was no room for the vital aspect of adaptation: of striving actively and intentionally toward an apt fit between organism and environment. Given the still unresolved questions about adaptation, it is not surprising that McHarg’s syntropic fitness–health theory was largely ignored at the time. The value of McHarg’s attempt, though, is more clear. He produced a remarkably sophisticated synthesis of ideas about fitness. His success in creating a popular method for ecological planning is undisputed, and his theory still has potential for development.

There are striking parallels between the present prevailing sense of urgency around climate change and biodiversity loss and the heady intellectual ferment of the early environmental movement, the period in which Ian McHarg developed his ideas about ecological planning. In the middle of the last century, McHarg synthesized the best knowledge available to him, a challenging feat that spanned physics, chemistry, biology, and other disciplines, to create his syntropic fitness–health theory. Today, socio-ecological scholars and practitioners face a similar need, to produce their own synthetic vision of present-day science and then to act on that vision through their derived methods and applications. This is the challenge of practice that is different from science; practice cannot be narrow or reductionistic. It must be holistic. This elevates the role of theory. Theories like McHarg’s cut through the noise and provide clarity of vision. They can be challenged, and they should be. They should grow and evolve, with input from many. Especially for design, poetic license is allowed. New theories and approaches, like adaptive design, are presently under development in the scholarly and practice communities. In the “standing on the shoulders of giants” fashion, new theories build on past insights. McHarg’s insights, and his theory in particular, have continued relevance today.

McHarg called himself a “crypto-pseudo-quasi-scientist” who developed a theory with “absolutely no status whatsoever” apart from its reliance on “excellent scientists” (McHarg 2007, p. 21). Like David Orr (2007, p. 9), we dispute McHarg’s self-deprecation. As Orr said, McHarg’s far-ranging observations and broad descriptions were remarkably accurate” (Ibid., p. 9). Xiang (2017) characterizes McHarg’s work as a model of socio-ecological practice, based on the depth of the reciprocal relationship between scholarship and practice that McHarg achieved. Today’s environmental needs require new crypto-pseudo-quasi-scientists who are willing to risk the kind of intellectual synthesis that McHarg attempted. Such a synthesis would help to achieve what Levin (2010) and others call for—a united effort across ecology, social sciences, and humanities to confront climate change and biodiversity loss.


  1. 1.

    Xiang (2017, p. 2244) uses the phrase scholar-practitioner to describe scholars who create new knowledge to inform socio-ecological practice. According to Xiang, McHarg is an exemplar of a scholar-practitioner who cultivated a reciprocal relationship between professional practice and scholarship. Xiang (2019, p. 7) defines socio-ecological practice as “human action and social process” aimed at producing “secure, harmonious, and sustainable” living conditions. Xiang includes these professional domains within socio-ecological practice: “planning, design, construction, restoration, conservation, and management” (2019, p. 7).

  2. 2.

    Note that Design with Nature was originally published in 1969. The 1992 edition is cited here. The value of the 1992 edition is that it contains McHarg’s own retrospective account of the legacy of the book, written in the preface. The remainder of the text of the 1992 edition is the same as the original.

  3. 3.

    Suitability can be defined as “the fitness of a given tract of land for a particular use” (Ndubisi 2002, p. 35).

  4. 4.

    The Canadian ecologist C.S. Holling (1973) originated the concept of ecological resilience, the ability of an ecosystem to absorb a shock and persist. Davidson et al. (2016) provide a lexical analysis of the evolution of the concept, addressing the various meanings attributed to the use of resilience in combination with the terms ecological, urban, socio-ecological, disaster, and community.

  5. 5.

    In this paper, adaptation policy, planning, and design refers to practice that is based on the concept of adaptive capacity, defined by Chapin et al (2009, p. 241) as “capacity of social-ecological systems, including both their human and ecological components, to respond to, create and shape variability and change in the state of the system.”.

  6. 6.

    The Dictionary of Energy (Cleveland and Morris 2014) defines the Second Law of Thermodynamics as stating that “any system that is free of external influences becomes more disordered with time, i.e., it tends toward a state of greater entropy,” and entropy is defined as “a measure of the disorder or randomness of a closed system.".

  7. 7.

    Turner (2017, p. 12) defines homeostasis as “a state of internal constancy that is maintained as a result of active regulatory processes.”.

  8. 8.

    Niche construction theory is the theory that organisms actively modify their own niches through their metabolism, choices, or activities. According to Odling-Smee et al. (1996, p. 641), “niche construction regularly modifies both biotic and abiotic sources of natural selection in environments and, in so doing, generates a form of feedback in evolution that is not yet fully appreciated by contemporary evolutionary theory.”.

  9. 9.

    Adaptive management was defined by Stankey et al. (2005) as an approach to natural resources management that accounts for uncertainty by employing iterative learning-by-doing with assessment that accounts for nested scales within a larger set of systems, or adaptive framework.



The genesis of this paper was a course, called Design With/In Nature, that the authors co-taught in 2016. The course benefitted greatly from the contributions of invited lecturers, several from architecture, who were colleagues and collaborators with the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Landscape ArchitectureState University of New York College of Environmental Science and ForestrySyracuseUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental and Forest BiologyState University of New York College of Environmental Science and ForestrySyracuseUSA

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