Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg

reviewed by Joy G. Bertling & Susan M. Gagliardi - October 15, 2019

coverTitle: Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg
Author(s): William J. Cohen
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439918287, Pages: 306, Year: 2019
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William J. Cohen, in his work Ecohumanism and the Ecological Culture: The Educational Legacy of Lewis Mumford and Ian McHarg, masterfully sketches the landscape of the ecohumanist movement, its philosophy, and resulting graduate curriculum. It is an extensive, thoughtful work that will inspire ecohumanists from many disciplines, including those in planning, design, architecture, and education, to move beyond disciplinary territories to work toward the establishment of an ecological culture. In detailing the ecohumanist philosophy of Lewis Mumford and its impact on Ian McHarg’s graduate curriculum in human ecological planning at the University of Pennsylvania, this work has the most relevance for higher educators in planning and design fields. However, this tome might appeal to any educator interested in moving beyond academic silos, particularly for ecological purposes. Higher educators interested in developing interdisciplinary programs as well as K-12 teachers inclined toward STEAM, environmental education, or place-based education might find the ecohumanist theory, interdisciplinary curriculum, and historical accounts of the program’s development to be capable of informing their own interdisciplinary, ecologically oriented curricular undertakings. Through examining the case of Mumford and McHarg, readers can experience the rich vitality of the ecological vision that was eventually institutionalized as a formal curricular program. As this program, sadly, diminished, the reader is charged with picking up this mantle and working for a Second Enlightenment.  

As the First Enlightenment was a response to the Age of Reason, extended by the rise of the machine, so this author proposes a Second Enlightenment to moderate the “rational-technical” (p. 8) frameworks of progress that distance humankind not only from the biophysical world but from our own humanity. Cohen recommends the checking of technological development and urban growth in relation to human and more-than-human needs. He advocates for an organic balance, a symbiotic relationship between biophysical and social environments that can be achieved through ecological planning and design. Consequently, he proposes the reinvigoration of a graduate curriculum that integrates design with human relationships, community needs, modern technology, and a concern for ecological health and integrity. In the process of extending that challenge, the author provides an overview of the ecohumanist philosophy, its origins and tenets, as well as the major theorists who have impacted the movement’s development and its post-secondary curriculum.

In the Foreword, Frederick R. Steiner, a professor at the same university and former student in McHarg’s program, makes a hortative appeal for the redesign of architecture curricula to become more inclusive of ecology. He discusses the need for “ecological literacy” among architects and makes an astounding assertion that the “only design or planning curricula ever to achieve” (p. xiii) that goal was McHarg’s curriculum of landscape architecture and regional planning at Penn. Experimenting with an ecohumanist curriculum has risks, Steiner admits, but it also has the power to create a “world where the wounds from past buildings are healed” and to “pass on the planet in sound condition to future generations” (p. xv). Thus, he joins Cohen in urging for a Second Enlightenment.

The author quotes Mumford in the Introduction, predicting that society has a “probable future” and a possible future (p. xxi). The probable future is based on past patterns of anthropocentric behavior that will lead humanity and the biotic world to destruction; however, the “other future” is more hopeful and “is based on possibility” if society can “transition from a technological culture to an ecological culture” (p. xxi). Cohen proposes ecohumanism, a holistic approach to life, community, and beauty, grounded in human ecology. He argues that life is too complex and interrelated for a reductionist lens: this is a “universe of complexity” (p. xxiii). His theoretical lens integrates ecohumanism with the planning and design principles of human settlements and their non-human environments.

Part One integrates the themes of ecohumanism with the theoretical frameworks of Mumford and McHarg. Designed as a historical review of the tenets of the ecohumanist movement and its development, this section establishes a rationale for a Second Enlightenment. The connections between the ecohumanistic lens of Mumford and McHarg transition “ecological vision to practice” and from “practice to education” (p. xxv).

Part Two introduces McHarg’s theory of ecological planning, articulates its relation to ecological design and regional planning, and details his shift toward the theory of human ecological planning. Through McHarg’s reflection on critiques of his inattention to cultural and “human-user values” (p. 99) in his seminal work Design with Nature, he came to recognize the importance of physical, biological, and cultural components in planning. This theory of human ecological planning later became central to the curriculum he developed within the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at Penn.

Part Three transitions from theory to practice by examining the context in which McHarg developed and instituted his graduate curriculum, chronicling his programmatic efforts and collaborations, and detailing the components of the curriculum. This section includes an examination of the success of the curriculum as it evolved over time as well as an analysis of the factors that contributed to its eventual decline. In both Parts Two and Three, we found this text could benefit from elaboration of concepts and practices in the form of specific examples. For instance, we were especially interested in learning more about the work conducted by Wallace, McHarg, Roberts, and Todd (WMRT), the architectural firm linked to McHarg’s program at Penn, particularly as that practice might further illustrate the methods he advanced.

Given the eventual disappearance of the ecohumanist curriculum at Penn, Part Four appraises McHarg’s legacy in practice and education. This analysis extends into a reflection on future educational prospects for ecological planning, including discussion of new thinkers and practitioners in the field, whom Cohen sees as joining Mumford and McHarg as “the first wave of pioneers to usher in the Second Enlightenment” (p. 258). Concluding with specific recommendations for the education of designers and planners, Cohen outlines a proposed interdisciplinary, ecohumanist curriculum, commingling coursework, studios, and field experiences with a multidisciplinary set of degree possibilities.

This work carries on Mumford and McHarg’s legacy and that of all the ecological thinkers mentioned in the text who worked toward the establishment of an ecological culture, whether philosophically or through the practice of regional planning and design. We join Cohen in hoping that readers will be inspired to pursue this quest, adopting ecological paradigms, designing ecologically sensitive, interdisciplinary curricula and educational infrastructure, and ultimately shaping culture for the betterment of all life on Earth.   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 15, 2019 ID Number: 23116, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:44:56 AM

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