Patrick Geddes: an introduction to an old New Urbanist

The history of Geddes place within the history the Scottish city and urban planning theory demonstrates the shifting roles communities have made on the development of the city. While Geddes’ ideas faced academic wilderness for much of the 20th century, they now enjoy a resurgence in the form of New Urbanism ideas and sustainable development.

According to Hysler-Rubin, Geddes is the city thinker most associated with ‘anything that is sensitive, local and humane in planning’ after Jane Jacobs. Influenced by anarchist and communist thinkers of his day, Geddes coined the term ‘conservative surgery’ on how urban planning should be done. Here, he proposed minor adjustments, ‘enlarging existing lanes…removal of a few of the most dilapidated and insanitary houses…’ and replacing some with gardens and public squares. This compares well with Engels’ 1872 piece How the Bourgeoisie Solves the Housing Question where municipalities paved “long, straight and broad streets through the closely-built workers’ quarters” and erected “big luxurious buildings”, in Paris with the intention of making guerrilla warfare more difficult. It is known that Geddes would have listened to tales of Baron Haussmann from the refugees of the Paris Commune that he worked with him in his Outlook Tower.

Patrick Geddes

But the biggest influence probably came from listening to disgruntled locals being forced from their home. The now notorious William Chambers’ Improvement Scheme of 1867 in Edinburgh may have had the most direct influence on Geddes conservative surgery approach. It is hard to imagine the discontent held by Old Town residents from the widespread clearance of 2,700 dwellings, without consultation, not being mentioned during his early surveys. The improvement scheme attracted controversy partly for the mass evictions but also the wholesale destruction of historic local buildings.

He became involved in the community in the wake of several slum clearances in Edinburgh. To him, planning was a game, like chess, where he may ‘suggest certain advantageous moves… from a survey of the situation as it has arisen’ rather than avoid the reality ‘by attempting to make a clean sweep’ and design motorways, dividing ‘masses of building blocks’ as seen in Australia and the US.

Green spaces were a common theme in his planning. This tied to his rural upbringing and botany background. Geddes was a polymath, which, in part, explains his theoretical development. Notable philanthropists like Octavia Hill mentored him early on, though his dissatisfaction with their paternalistic approach led him to anarchist thinkers like Pyotr Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus and Ebenezer Howard. Though Howard stressed building ‘garden cities’ to alleviate the overcrowding in the cities at the time and Kropotkin stressed decentralising cities to improve working conditions, Geddes focused on what would happen next to those city centres once those ideas were enacted.

He believed in ‘cities and regions operating in concert’ but what separated him from other thinkers was the synthesis of these principles with his botanic background By viewing the city as an organism, a complex network of people and place. This is where the term ‘conurbation’ originally came from.

The ‘Valley Section’ from which Geddes explains his idea of Conurbations

Academic thought about New Urbanism, collaborative planning and environmentalism have given rise to new discussions on Geddes as an early advocate for numerous debates on environmentalism and civic action. Geddes was recognised for his ecological-regionalism by his early acolytes like Lewis Mumford and now his work has growing relevance to the pursuit of sustainability in the city.

Geddes’ proposal for the Old Town of Edinburgh

Today, Scotland celebrates his work through the Footsteps of Geddes Festival, promoted by Planning Aid Scotland, and the RTPI hold annual commemorative lectures in Geddes name and often carry a sustainability or civic engagement theme. Geddesian theory points to the very civic engagement necessary to enact the decentralised spatial frameworks espoused by urban thinkers like Jan Gehl, Rob Hopkins or Wulf Daseking, all of whom have spoken at Geddes Annual Commemorative lecture.
This renewed interest in the ideas of Geddesian ‘folk planning’ and civic society ties with a modern planning community which favours the growth in community engagement and inclusivity. In ‘sharing communication, social and urban processes,’ and by viewing the city as a network (though organism based) Geddes anticipates the development of ‘smart’ city thinking and environmentalism. His community-driven initiatives, appreciation of walkability and public space saw beyond both the laissez-faire, now neoliberal, city and the state-driven socialist city that would dominate British planning soon after his death.