Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Newfields and Ecological Planning

Newfields started out inspired by Reston, and this early sketch shows the intent a bit, to dam up Wolf Creek for a lake and put a community college and shopping center near by, with housing all around.

Instead Newfields would be influenced by the new concept of land use suitability planning, also called ecological planning.

The approach was developed during the 1960s by Ian McHarg and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania. McHarg was a Scot, trained in landscape architecture at Harvard, and a sort of public intellectual during the 1960s (with his own TV show), as well as an innovative planner and designer. The concept was to overlay constraints to determine the best place to build.

The concept, via examples alternating with biographical and philosophical writings, was popularized via McHarg’s book, Design With Nature, published in 1969, just in time for the New Communities legislation. McHarg himself would design one of the Title VII new communities, The Woodlands, north of Houston, using ecological planning principles.
Design with Nature was perhaps one of the most influential books of its era, influencing generations of landscape architects and planners. Eventually the overlay technique would be the intellectual foundation for computerized Geographic Information Systems, AKA GIS.

It’s interesting to think of Design with Nature next to Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (published in 1961). Both books bracket the decade, but are quite different in their conclusions. Jacob’s book was a ringing endorsement of the old urban world of the pre-automobile city just as it was about to die. McHarg’s was the apotheosis of the garden city concept, transcending that hoary idea and pointing to the future, the start of ecologically based planning.

The planning technique introduced in Design with Nature was to ascertain land use suitability via overlay. The procedure was to map various constraints, such as soil quality, depth to bedrock, wetlands, watercourses, floodplains, aquifers, steep slopes, forest and vegetation cover, cultural resources, and other factors as layers. The sum of the overlays would show areas were one could build and where one could not.

An early example of this technique was the plan for The Valleys, an exurban area northwest of Baltimore, where an overlay of constraints led to recommendations for controlled development based on the nature of the land itself

The technique would become more robust over the course of the decade.

It was a convincing technique, except the one thing that was not overlain was private property, which meant this concept was somewhat utopian for regional planning. But it could be used for large areas controlled by a handful of landowners, or one large owner, which was case in Newfields.

In the case of Newfields, there is this evidence that the land use suitability approach was being used, as soil classifications, depth to bedrock, woodlands, and slopes were being mapped as “Natural Systems Sensitivity” to determine developable areas and suggest a form for the new town.

One can already see the valleys of Wolf Creek and its tributaries surfacing as a constraint.

Next we will look at some actual planning for Newfields.


Greg Hunter said...

Thanks Jeffery! This history is interesting as well as the dilemma of Private Property which exacerbates the Tragedy of the Commons.

Bruce Kettelle said...

I don't know if you have the state park's plans after they acquired the property but they went through another phase of lake planning that met too much local resident resistance. I beleive their lake plan was on the main branch of Wolf Creek.

Jefferey said...

No, not familiar with the states original plans, actually. I can't imagine anything too large here for a lake.


Greg, good call on the tragedy of the commons regarding land use. One would think the lack of any commons would mean no tragedy, but that is a simplistic way of looking at it.