Designing with Nature in British Columbia


The Legacy of Ian McHarg

In British Columbia, a provincial goal is to advance this ‘new business as usual’: settlement change that is in balance with ecology. Commencing in 2003, consistent and repeated use of the phrase ‘design with nature’ has proven effective in facilitating a paradigm-shift in the local government setting.

The phrase is borrowed from the title of a seminal book by Ian McHarg, published in 1969. He was a renowned landscape architect and writer on regional planning using natural systems. His book Design with Nature pioneered the concept of ecological planning. Ian McHarg’s premise is simple: “that the shaping of land for human use ought to be based on an understanding of natural process.”

His philosophy was rooted in an ecological sensibility that accepted the interwoven worlds of the human and the natural, and sought to more fully and intelligently design human environments in concert with the conditions of setting, climate and environment.

Hierarchy of ‘Green’ Vocabulary

To develop a common understanding plus help advance a new way-of-thinking about land development, the Water Sustainability Action Plan for British Columbia developed the following hierarchy of ‘green’ vocabulary:

  • Green Valuemeans land use strategies will accommodate settlement needs in practical ways while protecting the ecological resources upon which communities depend.
  • Design with Nature is one approach to achieve Green Value, and is supportive of community goals that relate to building social capacity.
  • Green Infrastructure is the on-the-ground application of Design with Naturestandards and practices.
  • Water Sustainability is achieved through Green Infrastructure practices that reflect a full and proper understanding of the relationship between land and water.

This cascading vocabulary was unveiled at the Creating Our Future Workshop that was held in conjunction with the Gaining Ground Summit in Victoria in June 2007.

Settlement Change in Balance With Ecology

“British Columbia communities enjoy many natural amenities that are in the resources bank and producing returns. Lakes, streams, sea coast, forests, topography, flora and fauna are assets,” writes Tim Pringle, President of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.

Tim pringle (120p) - 2008 photo“These assets enable communities to draw on nature for infrastructure services needed for the built environment.  By designing with nature, as it were, communities lessen and sometimes avoid the expense of engineering and building various kinds of infrastructure: “

“Settlement and ecology are equal values and they must be as much in balance as possible for wellbeing of human and natural systems. Settlement is human actitivity of any kind upon the land. It is habitation. Ecology is natural systems. It is water, climate, flora and fauna…and their relationships.”

“While we are very good at measuring settlement, mainly in financial terms, we have not been that effective in quantifying the ecological impacts. This disconnect in measuring what matters has historically resulted in an unbalanced approach when making development and infrastructure decisions.”

Linkage to Infrastructure Management

“In British Columbia, we are seeing a shift in the way some engineers and planners see the world. They are connecting the dots between land use planning, development, watershed health AND infrastructure managment,” states Kim Stephens, Executive Director of the Partnership for Water Sustainability in British Columbia.

Kim stephens (120p) - dec 2010“A catalyst for holistic solutions is this financial challenge: the initial capital cost of infrastructure is about 20% of the life-cycle cost; the other 80% largely represents a future unfunded liability….because ultimately gray infrastructure must be renewed as it ages and replaced when it fails.”

“We are seeing opportunities to bring together two streams of thinking: watershed-based planning and infrastructure asset management. This is a remarkable shift.”

More About Designing with Nature

To read an article by Tim Pringle that elaborates on a ‘design with nature’ approach, click on The Most Efficient Infrastructure is ‘Design with Nature’ – Start With Water Sustainability. Also, click on the links below for more information about what is happening in British Columbia in the local government setting:

British Columbia’s Living Water Smart and Green Communities initiatives are encouraging ‘green’ choices that facilitate a holisitic approach to infrastructure asset management: Start with effective green infrastructure and restore environmental values within the urban fabric over time.

Posted February 2011