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Issue 58 - Sir Patrick Geddes

Scotland Magazine Issue 58
August 2011

 

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Sir Patrick Geddes

The father of town planning.

One of the great social thinkers of our times, Patrick Geddes was born in Ballater, Aberdeenshire, on 2 October 1854. He was the son of a soldier but chose a different career path of his own.

He has been credited with the inception of green politics and was the founding father of sociology and town planning.

His passion for the environment developed in his childhood when he explored Perthshire and the Highlands. He studied at the Perth Academy, then tried his hand at banking, geology, chemistry, biology, drawing and cabinetmaking. These eclectic tastes finally solidified into one area of study: zoology.

He later explained that his viewpoint had always been ‘biocentric’, seeing life “both individual and collective”.

Geddes saw the world and its human population as a living organism. “We live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.” After completing his studies in London, Geddes lectured in zoology at Edinburgh University from 1880 to 1888. He kept his holistic approach, lecturing on the application of biology concepts to other disciplines, cooperation and socialism, and campaigning on educational reform.

In 1886 Geddes married the musician Anna Morton and together they founded the Edinburgh Social Union.

Geddes believed that proper diagnosis could lead to the re-design and ‘treatment’ of an urban area in a way that would solve social problems. He didn’t believe in wholesale regeneration, but ‘conservative surgery’. He put his theory into practice when he built residential halls for the University of Edinburgh in the city’s deprived Old Town, in 1892. The building includes Geddes’ famous Outlook Tower, designed to be “the world’s first sociological laboratory.” All this urban planning and socialist thinking was driving biology into the background, but in 1889 Geddes did publish his famous book, The Evolution of Sex. After that, Geddes went global.

He travelled to Cyprus with his wife in 1897, trying to clean up the aftermath of thoughtless colonial policy and re-establish farms and rural industries with the people living there.

In 1899 and 1900 Geddes toured the United States, giving a series of lectures.

He was so well known that in 1919 he landed the job of designing a masterplan for Jerusalem, and in 1925 he submitted a masterplan for Tel Aviv, which is the only known city whose core is laid out entirely according to Geddes’ design.

His influence was even greater in India. He carried out ‘diagnosis and treatment’ surveys of 50 Indian towns and cities, producing definitive town planning texts that are still on the standard reading list for any planning student today. He introduced the concept of ‘region’ to architecture and planning, and coined the term ‘conurbation’. He was the first British citizen to credit the professional title of ‘landscape architect.’ Geddes’ socialist principles shine through in the Bombay Town Planning Act (1915), which promoted urban planning as a way of achieving civic pride, seeking happiness, health and comfort for all residents, not just the rich and privileged.

Geddes understood that the human race is dependant upon the natural world. He was one of the first biologists to campaign for an appreciation of habitat in what would now be called ecology. His biological, sociological and planning theory was based on the principle of “Place-Work-Folk.” As founder of the Franco-Scottish Society, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and cofounder of the University of Bombay and the Sociological Society, Geddes was a busy man. He was a passionate Francophile and founded the Collège des Écossais (Scots College) in Montpellier, France, in 1924. That was to be his last major project.

In 1932 Geddes was knighted for his services to education, and died shortly afterwards in Montpellier on 17 April, 1932.