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Ian McHarg


Arguably, Ian McHarg’s 1969 landmark book Design With Nature has had a greater influence on the development and application of Geographic Information Systems than any other single event in GIS history.  "McHarg's Method" describes how, thorough and multidisciplinary analysis of a region's ecological sensitivity, different information can be layered and combined geographically to identify suitability for different types of development and use. Design With Nature discusses the effects of what we now called sprawl and advocates a means of sustainable development. Today, McHarg's approach, the polygon overlay, forms the basis of many complex analyses and reports performed with (GIS). McHarg was one of the true pioneers of the environmental movement. Born near Glasgow, Scotland, his childhood exposure to both the harsh industrial city and the beautiful countryside encouraged him to turn toward nature and gave him an early interest in landscape architect. McHarg attended Harvard University where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in landscape architecture and a master's degree in city planning. In 1954, McHarg was invited to create a department of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, which became one of the most interdisciplinary programs in the country.

McHarg laid forth the argument that form must follow more than just function; it must also respect the natural environment in which it is placed. At the time, the environment played a small role in planning and design, partially due to a lack of good methods to quantify spatial information about the natural environment and the values placed on it. McHarg demonstrated his approach by overlaying transparency maps, each of which reflected social values placed on different environmental factors. The composite map showed where development was more suitable given the set of values placed on each factor.

By the early 1960s, McHarg was bringing his holistic approach to the public by producing and hosting the television series "The House We Live In." For a year, the series engaged intellectuals, including Lewis Mumford, Margaret Mead, and Harlow Shapley, in televised discussion of the relationship between humans and their environment. In 1969, he wrote and produced the PBS documentary "Multiply and Subdue the Earth."

McHarg died March 5, 2004 at the age of 80. But his impact on GIS and its applications in landscape architecture, land use and environmental planning, and related disciplines will last as long as these fields are still practiced and GIS is used in them.

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