Sir Patrick Geddes, biologist and social scientist, died on the 17th of April, 1932.
Sir Patrick Geddes is regarded as the ‘father’ of town planning. Although Geddes was trained as a biologist, he used his biological knowledge in striving to create an ideal environment for human existence. As the author of ‘City Development’ and ‘Cities in Evolution’, perhaps Geddes’ greatest achievement in life was as a cultural champion, bridging biology and social science. His wide field of interests included biology, botany, town planning, social thinking, politics and literature. Patrick Geddes became an international giant, was compared to da Vinci and admired by Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, which is a pretty good recommendation. Today’s environmentalists consider Patrick Geddes to have been a prophet of land stewardship and sustainable activity. His friend, Hugh MacDairmid, said of Geddes, “...he was one of the outstanding thinkers of his generation, not merely in the world, and not only one of the greatest Scotsmen of the past century but in our entire history.”
Patrick Geddes was born in Ballater on the 2nd of October, 1854. Nevertheless, he was brought up in Perth and educated at the Academy. After school, he began work in the National Bank of Scotland. Three years later, he went to study botany at Edinburgh University, but he hated the formal study and left after a week. Instead, he went to London, where he was influenced by Thomas ‘Bulldog’ Huxley, a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Geddes studied under Huxley at the Royal College of Mines, between 1874 and 1878 and, by the age of twenty-four, he was a biologist of great promise, his research papers already published by the Royal Society.
Darwin once wrote to him, stating, “I have read several of your biological papers with very great interest and I have formed, if you will permit me to say so, a high opinion of your abilities.” Charlie wasn’t the only one to have a high opinion of Geddes. In 1879, the British Association for the Advancement of Science employed him to set up a zoological station for Aberdeen University and then sent him on a research mission to Mexico. The following year, he returned to work at Edinburgh University as a biology demonstrator and zoology lecturer; until 1888.
Significantly, in terms of his career and subsequent fame, Geddes contracted an illness during his time in Mexico, which made him temporarily blind. Even when he recovered, he was unable to use a microscope and, so deprived, he turned his enquiring mind and biology expertise to the needs of mankind. He developed theories for the appropriate conditions needed to stimulate the bodies and minds of urban dwellers. These led him into a number of innovative renewal projects, including the creation of the first student halls of residence at Edinburgh University.
Geddes advocated improvements to the environment on the basis that people thrive and prosper in healthy conditions, where there is fresh air, gardens and good housing. These are the kind of ‘basics’ we take for granted today, but his ideas were revolutionary for the time. This radicalism, as it was seen, cost him the Botany Chair at Edinburgh. University College Dundee was less pernickety, where he was employed between 1888 and 1919. He lectured at Dundee during the summer terms and, for the rest of the year, travelled extensively, lecturing wherever he went. During that period, he also published widely on town planning and urban studies – what we now call ecology.
In 1896, the war between the Ottoman Empire and Armenia caused a flood of refugees over the Eastern Mediterranean area. Geddes was troubled by the plight of these displaced people and he spent time in Cyprus helping to resettle some of them, by establishing small agricultural and industrial units. These events proved to be a watershed and over the next thirty years Patrick organised a series of international exhibitions, which taught that good planning always gives priority to the wellbeing, both physical and mental, of the inhabitants.
Geddes put his advanced ideas into practice, in Edinburgh, reconstructing Ramsay Gardens and renovating old housing on the Royal Mile. He established the Outlook Tower that houses the famous Camera Obscura, near Edinburgh Castle, and converted it into a ‘sociological observatory’. He also introduced civic planning in Dublin and made frequent trips to India, where he met Gandhi, and created plans for fifty cities between 1915 and 1929. In recognition of his work there, he was appointed Chair of Sociology at the University of Bombay, in 1919, a post that he held until 1924.
In his 1915 book, ‘Cities In Evolution’, Geddes was the man who coined the term ‘conurbation’. That neologism referred (it still does) to the merging of a number of large towns and other urban areas, through population growth and physical expansion, to form one continuous urban and industrially developed area. With new technologies such as electric power having come to the fore at that time, cities began to spread and agglomerate together as transportation simultaneously developed to link areas and create single, urban labour markets and – as we would call them today – a commuter belts. Examples would be the West Midlands conurbation in the UK, known as ‘Midlandton’ or the Ruhr complex in Germany.
Geddes travelled widely and influenced ideas in the USA, Europe, and the Middle East. In 1919, he was invited to Israel, to design the Jerusalem University and he was present at its opening, in 1924. He dreamt of a united Europe and despite the First World War, advocated such a union up until the time of his death. By the time he died, Patrick Geddes had written about economics, sociology, history, art, museums, exhibitions, politics, literature, agriculture, gardening, geology, religion, philosophy, education, geography, science, astronomy, biology, town planning, printing, mathematics, navigation, travel, public health, housing, music, the evolution of sex, and poetry. His achievements were officially and belatedly recognised when he was knighted shortly before his death. Perhaps his radicalism and independent mindedness rankled the establishment. Patrick Geddes died on the 17th of April, 1932, in Montpellier, France, where he had founded the international Collège des Écossais.
In today’s materialistic world, think on this, Geddes’ most famous quotation, “This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live. Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins. Whereas the world is mainly a vast leaf colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.”