Some More about Patrick Geddes

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), Scottish biologist and eccentric polymath, laid the groundwork for what would become regionalist planning. Steeped in the Scottish intellectual tradition, he grasped the importance of both generalist knowledge and detailed study.

‘Breadth of thought and a general direction are not opposed to specialised thought and detailed work. The clear thinker realises that they are complementary and mutually indispensible.’ [quoted by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt in Patrick Geddes in India; page 66.]

Like Ruskin, and in line with the Victorian Hellenism of the day, he strove to develop a grand synthesis the arts and sciences, of idealism and materialism. Stricken with a parasitic infection in his eyes, rendering him blind for several months, he theorized connections between disciplines, especially the natural and social sciences. His interdisciplinary thinking led him to his big innovations in city planning.

As a naturalist, he realized that to understand and better design the built environment, that one first needed knowledge of the larger ecological context in which a city exists. Drawing on the scientific method, he offered up a new vision for architecture and panning based on observation and survey. The Valley Section (below) captures Geddes’ regional scheme, mapping out the classic sociological trio of place, work, and folk.


He aimed for a deeper understanding of the relationship between rural and urban and between various trades, crafts, types of places and their distinct characteristics. As big and sweeping some of his ideas were, he also advocated for very careful, site-specific architectural and planning interventions. He opposed colonial “gridiron” style plans precisely because they were so sweeping in action, beginning with clearing huge swaths of land and plunking down a predetermined city shape completely divorced from the geography unique to that region.

The region was not merely another spatial analytical tool though, it was meant to be the key to radical social and political change. Influenced by the French tradition of anarchist geography a la Reclus and Kropotkin. The former a Communard and the latter the theorist of stateless communism. So here we are at the radical roots of planning again. My next post will try to start tracing these threads through late Victorian era into the twentieth century. Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism” fits in here too, another interesting synthesis of the literary, political, and social, oh and we cannot forget the religious or spiritual too! There seems to be a powerful yet subtle mysticism that pervades these thinkers’ writing.

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