Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Sheffield's Richard P. Wakefield: Advocate for Human Values, World Futures, and the Environment

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Sheffield's Richard P. Wakefield: Advocate for Human Values, World Futures, and the Environment

Article excerpt

Sheffield's Richard P. Wakefield, an internationally-known urban planner with the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, was a seminal thinker who stimulated others to think and undertake significant work. The foundation for much of what he accomplished was his early life, education, and work experiences in Massachusetts. A distinguished son of the Commonwealth who brought credit to the state of his birth, his career is best defined as advocacy for development of human values, discerning of alternative world futures, and improvement of the environment.

All of Wakefield's advocacy came together when he was instrumental in initiating what has become known as human ecological planning to improve human health and well-being. He did this in association with Ian L. McHarg, renowned chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's department of landscape architecture and regional planning. Wakefield and McHarg had been students together in the Harvard Graduate School of Design from 1947 through 1950. In 1973, at Wakefield's urging, McHarg established the University of Pennsylvania's academic program in human ecological planning, which was the first such program anywhere in the world.

What is known about Wakefield? What led Wakefield to persistently urge McHarg to add the human dimension to McHarg's existing ecological planning? How did they make it happen? This article seeks to add insight into Wakefield's life and career and his instrumental role in establishing McHarg's pioneering program. McHarg is best remembered as author of the path-breaking book Design with Nature, which in 1969 revolutionized environmental or ecological planning. In McHarg's autobiography A Quest for Life, he discusses the phone call he received in 1973 from Wakefield:

He had a proposition. Ecological planning had developed very well and was efficacious, he said, but it concentrated on physical and biological science. Could it not be extended to include social science and people? Moreover, could it not focus on planning for human health and well-being? This seemed reasonable, but difficult. I had experienced several years of graduate social science at Harvard and concluded that most of it was oblivious to the environment, could not perform useful work and that much of it, notably economics, was antithetical to the ecological view. Wakefield persisted: surely there were compatible views within the social sciences that could transform ecology into human ecology and enrich planning.

The National Institute of Mental Health was the principal agency within the federal government focusing on behavioral science and cultural and social problems related to mental health. In 1969 the NIMH Center for Studies of Metropolitan Problems, in which Wakefield held a key position, had funded establishment of the Center for Urban Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.1

After careful deliberation, McHarg wrote a grant proposal and received a half million dollars NIMH grant to employ faculty and establish a curriculum in human ecological planning. The new curriculum drew most heavily from the social science of cultural anthropology, applying especially ethnography and medical anthropology to the practice of landscape architecture and regional planning, with emphasis on studying man's values and processes in adapting to his environment. As John G. Bruhn states: "Perhaps the most relevant and useful ecological studies in anthropology are those concerned with the relation between cultural behavior and environmental phenomena. These studies show either how cultural behavior affects environmental phenomena or how environmental phenomena affect cultural behavior."2

Ethnographic history, to the extent that it can ascertain changing human values and attitudes toward changing land-use over time, was the core of McHarg's human ecological planning. As Jon Berger of the University of Pennsylvania later wrote in an article illustrating teamwork between ethnographers and regional planners: "The project, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, involved explicit consideration of local diversity in land-use values, and of who would suffer and who would benefit if any particular set of values were used in landscape planning. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.