PennDesign Establishes Wilks Family McHarg Center Directorship

PennDesign Establishes Wilks Family McHarg Center Directorship

The University of Pennsylvania School of Design has received $1.25 million from the Harry T. Wilks Family Foundation to establish the Wilks Family McHarg Center Directorship. The Director leads research and programming at The Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology, an interdisciplinary think tank bringing environmental and social scientists together with planners, designers, policy makers, and communities to develop practical, innovative ways of improving the quality of life in the places most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The gift was initiated by PennDesign alumna Barbara Wilks (MLA’93), founding principal at the Brooklyn-based firm W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, who co-leads the Foundation with her sister Nanci Lanni.

The McHarg Center is named for the renowned environmental planner and landscape architect who was chair, then professor, in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at PennDesign for more than three decades. McHarg’s Design With Nature (1969), in which he illustrates the necessity of understanding of natural processes in determining land use and introduces his ecological planning method, is widely considered one of the most important and influential books of its kind. McHarg also initiated generations of aspiring designers through his teaching. His course Man and Environment—which featured guest lectures by theologians, philosophers, ecologists, and anthropologists as well as designers—attracted thousands of students from across the University.

“Ian’s lessons have still not been absorbed—certainly not by the general public, and hardly by landscape architects,” said Barbara Wilks, who studied with McHarg at PennDesign in 1991. “There’s a tremendous need to help people understand that climate change is about much more than building walls around cities.”

“The McHarg Center has a major role to play in mitigating disasters and improving the quality of life for city dwellers around the world, and we’re deeply grateful to the Wilks family for bringing that goal closer to reality,” saidFrederick Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at PennDesign. Steiner is co-executive director of The McHarg Center, a role he shares with Richard Weller, Martin and Margy Meyerson Chair of Urbanism, professor and chair of landscape architecture at PennDesign.

“This is a transformative gift for the Department of Landscape Architecture at PennDesign,” said Weller. “As we ramp up our public programs and outreach, our work could galvanize the design community.”

The Directorship is currently held by Billy Fleming (pictured above), whose work is focused on the intersection of science, politics, and design as they pertain to climate change. Fleming is co-author of The Indivisible Guide—a progressive, grassroots organization with more than 6,000 groups—and co-creator of Data Refuge, an international consortium of scientists, librarians, and programmers working to preserve vital the environmental data at risk of erasure during the Trump Administration. Before coming to Penn, Fleming worked on urban policy development in the White House Domestic Policy Council during the Obama Administration. There, he worked on a variety of urban initiatives, including the inter-agency Sustainable Communities Initiative, the Promise Zones program, and the landmark Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. He served as the guest editor for LA+RISKand his writing on disaster, resilience, and climate change has been published widely, including in The Guardian, Houston Chronicle, Places, CityLab, and Landscape Journal. He is currently finishing a book, entitled Sinking Cities: The Nature and Politics of Adaptation, for the University of Pennsylvania Press (expected 2020). Fleming earned his PhD in City and Regional Planning from PennDesign in 2017.

The McHarg Center will formally launch with Design With Nature Now, an international conference and trio of public exhibitions opening in June of 2019. For more information, visit

To support The McHarg Center’s work, contact Jeffrey Snyder, assistant dean for development and alumni relations, at or 215.898.8738.

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