In his groundbreaking 1969 book Design with Nature, Ian McHarg advocated a framework for design that helps humans achieve synergy with nature. Design and planning which takes into consideration both environmental and social issues helps us to insure that our resources are used appropriately and responsibly, to help us move towards a better future for all. McHarg’s pioneering work not only had a fundamental influence on the up-and-coming field of environmental planning, but simultaneously solidified the core concepts of the young field of geographic information systems (GIS) as well.
In the 40 years since Design With Nature was written, a better world is the common goal all of us—geographers, planners, scientists, and others—have been striving for. In his book, McHarg laid out a process by which “environmental data could be incorporated into the planning process.” Rejecting the view of a future modeled after some idyllic environmental past, he instead was an early adopter of the view that we should be using our dominance of earth systems to help evolve the natural world and make it better, rather than conquer it. Powerful anthropogenic influence over earth systems represents not just a huge challenge, but an equally huge opportunity. Not humans vs. nature, but humans with nature. “While traditional ecological research selected environments with a minimum human influence, I selected arenas of human dominance,” McHarg said. Today more than ever it is important to recognize the overwhelming impact of humans on the environment, that massive human impacts on the earth are a fact that’s not going away, and that we stand at the crossroads. Thus, our challenge: providing designers, engineers, planners, other others with a set of tools and a framework for designing and managing the anthropogenic earth.
The relatively new field of earth systems engineering and management (ESEM) concerns itself with the design, engineering, analysis, and management of complex earth systems. ESEM takes a holistic view of multiple issues affecting our earth—not only taking environmental, social, and other considerations into account up front in the design process, but also looking at challenges from an adaptive systems approach, where ongoing analysis feeds back in to the continual management of the system.
Braden Allenby, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University and one of ESEM’s founders, often emphasizes the undeniably dominant role humans have in earth systems. “We live in a world that is fundamentally different from anything that we have known in the past,” says Allenby. “It is a world dominated by one species, its activities and technologies, its cultures, and the integrated effects of its historical evolution.” McHarg was already moving in this direction in the 1960s, and today we understand that it is even more important to emphasize the anthropogenic elements of earth systems. In other words, at this stage of ecological evolution, humans are a significant, if not dominating, component of the natural environment, and all problems need to be addressed and decisions made with anthropogenic elements in the forefront.
Allenby sees reasoned design and management in the age of the anthropogenic earth as our moral imperative, but the biggest obstacle to our success is that we are not set up to work, or even think, in this way. “We lack solid data and analytical frameworks to make assertions about the costs, benefits, and normative assessments of different … practices,” notes Allenby. And this is why GIS integrated with design is critical to the success of approaches such as ESEM and other logical and rational models for dealing with the environmental and planning problems of ours and future generations.
The key to developing a true understanding of our complex and dynamic earth is creating a framework to take many different pieces of past and future data from a variety of sources and merge them together in a single system. GIS is a sophisticated technology tool already in widespread use by planners, engineers, and scientists to display and analyze all forms of location-referenced data about the health, status, and history of our planet. GIS enables a design framework for analyzing and managing anthropogenic earth issues by allowing users to inventory and display large, complex spatial data sets. They can also analyze the potential interplay between various factors, getting us closer to a true understanding of how our dynamic earth systems may change in the coming decades and centuries. A GIS design framework also lets us design and test various alternatives, helping us make the most educated and informed decision about the best possible future.
Is the Earth getting hotter or colder? Is the stress human populations are putting on the planet contributing to climate change? What potential factors may significantly impact our ability to thrive and survive in the future? What additional sorts of environmental monitoring can we be doing today to improve decisions in the future? We are only beginning to understand how to approach these questions, let alone come up with scientifically valid answers. Only through careful observation of the data, application of scientific principals, and by using GIS and other technologies do we have any hope of truly understanding the stressors and impacts on the incredibly complex systems that comprise our anthropogenic earth.