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September 27, 2011 / Leo Hollis

Evolution and Planning: why has everyone forgotten Geddes?

I am currently reading David Sloan Wilson’s fascinating THE NEIGHBOURHOOD PROJECT.  It is a really interesting book on how someone from another part of the academy can have a real impact on the study of how cities work. Sloan Wilson is one of the leading thinkers on evolution, but he is perhaps going to be remembered even more for his desire to spread the message of evolution beyond the usual parameters of biology and life sciences. In the book he proposes that we can use evolution to help us understand the places where we live, to challenge the ways that they are run and overturn the assumptions that some kings can never be changed.


Yet, there is a surprising omission from the book. I was amazed to find that while the book brings together ideas from so many different places, Sloan Wilson does not mention Sir Patrick Geddes once. And, you may ask, who the heck is Sir Patrick Geddes? Fair question, indeed.

Just below the Castle at the end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh stands the Outlook Tower. Originally home to ‘Short’s Observatory, Museum of Science and Art’ it was purchased in 1892 by the then Professor of Botany at University College, Dundee, Patrick Geddes. Often considered the father of modern town planning, Geddes began life as a zoologist and as a young man was influenced by Darwin’s radical ideas of how evolution worked, later lecturing in the life sciences at Edinburgh University. While he was there, he watched with dismay as the medieval parts of the Old Town were being demolished to make way for new buildings. Knowing the importance of the environment and heredity as factors of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Geddes began to campaign for the preservation of historic buildings, believing that the city was the form that best housed man in his most evolved state. To destroy the urban ecosystem was to risk mutation and degeneration, just as the destruction of a rain forest threatens extinction. Instead, Geddess offered a policy of ‘conservative surgery’ to the ailing city. Work should be done where buildings could be preserved and improved, and only the places past saving should be demolished.

In his attempt to save Old Edinburgh he salvaged the Outlook Tower near to the castle and turned it into a museum that promoted his ideas of philosophical science of cities. The building was split into 6 floors, each divided into topics, from bottom to top: the world, Europe, language, Scotland, Edinburgh, and finally the tower containing the camera obscura through which the visitors could view the city and the countryside beyond for themselves. Thus he presented the story of the city,  the ‘amphitheatre of social evolution’ within the wider context of history, region and geography.  This idea was at the heart of his system of  regional planning that examined the relationship between place, history and region and the best conduct of the ideal citizen.

In his 1915 book, Cities in Evolution: An introduction to Town Planning Movement and the Study of Civics, Geddes set out his idea of the city as an instrument of evolution, and began to formulate his broader philosophy of regional planning. He proposed that the development of the city was just one part of a wider network and that city planning therefore was not just the relationship between streets and public spaces, but also the city and the surrounding countryside, the drama of human history being as important as geography. Urban planning therefore needed to take the past and geography in context. This may have made sense when preserving old Edinburgh but Geddes also predicted the continued growth of cities. He was the first to develop the concept of ‘conurbations’, ever-expanding urban communities,  estimating that the east coast of America could turn into one vast city stretching for 500 miles. This growth needed to be organised.

Geddes’s ideas were put to the test far from ancient capital of Scotland in the Holy Lands in the aftermath of the First World War. In 1919, Geddes was asked by the newly appointed Zionist government to develop plans for a University, as well as  new schemes for Jerusalem and the settlement of Tel Aviv in order to cope with the influx of new arrivals.  He began the process by walking around the site, ’at all times of the day and night . . As he went to this hillock or that, examined a sukh, peered into a house, reverently touched a tree, Geddes had no set plan in his mind but he followed some inner vision.’ Into the mix he also stirred childhood memories of reading the Bible. The result was a 36 page report ‘Jerusalem Actual and Possible’. It is said by some that if the government had listened more to Geddes’s ideas, and his understanding of ‘the harmonization of social customs and religious ideas with the work of modern reconstruction . . the subsequent history of Palestine would have been very different and might have included far less of betterness and conflict.’

Geddes’s ideas of the city were inspired by the science of life, moulded by empirical observation and intuition. Nevertheless, Geddes himself was a poor communicator of his own ideas and he found the perfect disciple in Lewis Mumford, an American writer who would later become the most influential architecture critics of his generation. Mumford would turn Geddes’s looping, mental peregrinations into coherent and urgent theory, ensuring that regional planning was one of the dominant ideas of how a city should be. In  his masterwork, The Culture of Cities [1938] Mumford acknowledged the debt: ‘Geddes gave me the frame for my thinking: my task was to put flesh on his abstract ideas.’

As a leading member of the Regional Planning Association of America, Mumford transformed and popularised Geddes’s theories, that allowing cities to grow unchecked was intolerable, promoting the idea that people, industry and land were an integrated network that needed to be planned. Mumford was offering terms and conditions for not just the efficient city but also a happy one and as a result the RPAA were perfectly placed to give shape to the urban projects of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Here they combined practical directives of urban planning and a positive social agenda that drove forward the rebuilding of America out of the Great Depression. In turn, Mumford’s synthesis of Geddes’s regional planning returned to England and was found fertile ground in the work of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the man who campaigned in the 1930s for a greenbelt around London to halt the spread of the city. Abercrombie was also in charge of rebuilding London after the Blitz, developing his 1941 master plan. This urgent, grand scheme  for the rebirth of the city included the de-slumming of the old neighbourhoods, reducing density and breaking up communities into New Towns on the outskirts of the city and reconfiguring the city for the new age of the motor car.

The influence of Geddes was therefore felt around the globe long after his death. Yet today is almost completely forgotten. Perhaps the disciple became so influential that he become a master in his own right. Whatever one feels about Geddes’s ideas at Tel Aviv or later in Mumbai and Dehli, he is worth remembering in his passion for combining evolution and the city. In addition, his predictions for conurbations have evolved into mega regions.




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