‘… by living we learn’ – The life of Patrick Geddes and his quest to re-connect man with nature in the new urban spaces

“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.”

Patrick Geddes (1888)


Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland, was at the heart of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment that witnessed great intellectual and scientific achievements. This progressive city was home to some of the greatest thinkers – philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, and the geologist James Hutton. Author Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, and actor Sean Connery, who played the dashing Cold War spy James Bond, were also born in this city. However, there was another great thinker from this city, who made his influence felt far outside his national boundaries with ideas that were far ahead of his time.


It all began on a sociological tour of the city buildings organized by the University of Edinburgh.


Outlook TowerA modest group of 15, mostly international students, followed the tour guide – a professor of Sociology at the university, as she walked from one iconic structure to another, explaining along the way the historical significance of each structure and ideologies of the time in which they were built. While most of the structures were used as spaces for residence or conventional formal occupation such as the college, hospital, theatre, and the museum, there was one structure that took us by surprise – the Outlook Tower (white building in the adjacent image). Our guide described this building as a civic museum that was developed by Patrick Geddes, a biologist and town planner, who wanted to provide the residents of Edinburgh a view of their own city. By standing atop the Outlook Tower residents could observe the good and not-so-good features of their own city; visible to the resident’s eyes as they stood next to each other. Patrick Geddes wanted these observations to increase the residents’ awareness of their place and surroundings and inspire actions to improve the city.


It is said that Geddes would conduct tours of the city in the 1800s; he would rush visitors to the top of Outlook Tower (in those days) and ask them to view the city through a camera obscura (an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen) and then make them sit in a darkened meditation room – the “Inlook room” – to internalise what they had learned, and make the observations their own. Geddes dreamed of making Edinburgh a city of cultural, educational and spiritual superstructure, where people of different classes and groups lived together in harmony, instead of cities that were arranged into functional zones.


Our tour guide moved on to the nearby buildings, but my mind was stuck on the tower. I had never come across such a structure that functioned as a live sociological laboratory and meditation room for all city residents. An idea that was much needed in today’s world – which is increasingly urbanized. Today’s congested conurbations (apparently a word coined by Geddes) such as Mexico City or Jakarta or Mumbai desperately need such living laboratories and reflection rooms.


The walking tour had left me thinking about Patrick Geddes and his idea of urbanization – involving people in observations of their own surroundings and moving from observation to action. I read that Geddes had turned down a knighthood the first time for democratic reasons stating that he was a ‘man of the people.’


I decided to explore and find out more about Geddes. I thought I would do so by using his espoused method of observation.


The next day I walked around the streets of Edinburgh (this time alone) and observed buildings in the Old Town that Geddes had helped revive and restore, through civic participation. Squalid and uninhabitable at one point in time, these buildings have now become a thriving part of the city with residents and international tourists alike, all thanks to Geddes’ vision and philanthropy. I visited the Outlook Tower and looked at the city from several vantage points. Standing on the Tower’s rooftop, I could see the city below me: bustling city streets with people walking by, green spaces that separated the buildings, the mountains and the sea beyond the urban sprawl. I could hear the sounds of the birds flying above mixed with the sounds of the bagpipe being played somewhere below along with the background hum of the city.


view edi outlook tower

View of the city of Edinburgh from the Outlook Tower


I had been in Edinburgh for almost two months but had never experienced it this way. Even though I had walked around the city before, never had I observed and sensed so much of this place, like I had while standing on the Tower’s rooftop. The view had heightened my senses – changed my outlook of the city.


IMG_4698-2I came down unwillingly and strolled through a network of gardens that Geddes had designed. Every time I sat to relax in these green spaces, I sensed immense tranquillity, and right there in the middle of a modern city I felt one with nature. This is exactly how Geddes had envisioned his city to be; a flourishing and nourishing space where people could live, work, love and be connected to their environment. The idea of urban gardens and gardening was also tried by Geddes and he not only tried to bring children and adults closer to nature but also attempted to bring the different social classes together.


This man had practically shaped the city of Edinburgh in the 19th century. However, his pioneering work in urban planning and education in Edinburgh also took him across the world to India, Palestine and France. Although, his ideas were original, ground breaking and beyond his time, but never did he enjoy the recognition due to him. Even today he is little known in Scotland (his place of birth) or even in India (his place of work) where he spent a decade trying to introduce holistic principles of urban planning and education and set up the sociology department at the University of Bombay. Perhaps Geddes believed in letting his work speak rather than his publications – a man believed in the walk rather than the talk – and encouraged others to walk in their own spaces and experience life first.


As we continue to drift from financial and environmental crises, and look for solutions to overcome these, the significance of Geddes’ generalist view could not be clearer. Throughout his life and career, he made a constant effort to help people to think for themselves, and to think around the whole circle, not in scraps and bits. He knew that ‘watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects’ (1).


By reflecting on his life and work, and even possibly putting to use some of his evergreen ideas, perhaps we can try to give this great thinker the rightful appreciation that he deserves.


Who was Patrick Geddes?

patrick-geddes_imagelargeSir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was a ‘polymath’— a man of many parts. He was a biologist by training, a pioneering town planner who influenced various generations of urban planners, a sociologist and an educator throughout his life. A powerhouse of intellect and energy, Geddes blazed his course from project to project at home in Scotland and around the world for half a century. Instead of a becoming a specialist, he was happy being a ‘generalist’, who held a holistic view that in order to live we must be able to see the intertwined link between the natural and social sciences.


Geddes had a lifelong contempt for examinations and never took a university degree. Yet, he held the position of Chair of Botany at University of Dundee (1888 to 1919), and Chair of Sociology at the University of Bombay (1919 to 1924). His teaching style was conversational and involved out of class learning through regular excursions and observational visits. He urged his students to practice this world view where life was a learning process and one could learn more by doing.


Geddes’ work was based on his fundamental principle of ‘Place, Work and People’ as he believed that geography; economics and anthropology were related, yielding a single chord of social life. He saw sociology as a quintessentially interdisciplinary subject that was essentially the science of man’s interaction with a natural environment, and improved urban planning was one of the key applications of sociology.  Geddes revived the Old Town of Edinburgh using his ground breaking concepts of ‘diagnostic surveys’ and ‘conservative surgery’, which he went on to implement in town planning projects across Scotland, India and the Middle East. In fact, Tel Aviv is a city whose core was entirely built around Geddes’ plan. He also introduced the concept of ‘region’ to architecture and planning and coined the term ‘conurbation’.


Many have been influenced by his work, including urban theorists such as Lewis Mumford. Geddes also set the foundation for future urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanism movement which focuses on walkable neighbourhoods, variety of housing and occupation types.


Yet very few people know of the name Patrick Geddes, including in the University where I obtained my master’s degree in Sociology, located in the city of Bombay (now called Mumbai) which desperately needs massive amounts of urban planning to make it hospitable for man and nature alike. At first I thought it was sad that almost no one from my own department knew of this man. Yet, on further reflection I saw this as a refreshing change from the celebrity academic culture of today where many academics brandish their publications, yet have very little substance or no effect on the world.


A true learner, Geddes believed that one learned not by sitting in ivory towers but by being in the world, by walking in the world, by observing and asking and listening to people and incorporating their ways of life and their natural environment into the design of sustainable solutions.


Early life and influences:

Born in October 1854 at Ballater in West Aberdeen, Scotland, Patrick Geddes was raised and educated in the countryside of Perth. His was a childhood spent gardening with his father, conducting science experiments in the shed, exploring the nearby woods and cliffs; and these experiences taught Geddes deep lessons in ecology, inspiring his personality and career (2,3).



View from Kinnoull Hill near the Tay Valley in Perth, where Geddes spent a lot of time as a young boy.


As mentioned earlier Geddes had a lifelong contempt for examinations and never took a university degree. After a period of private study, he chose to study Botany at the University of Edinburgh (1874), but left after one week. He then went on to study Botany and Zoology with individual teachers and mentors in London and Paris (4). In London, he trained at the Royal College of Mines, under the great biologist and evolutionist of the time, Thomas Huxley, whose influence on Geddes is said to have been profound (2). Being a student of Huxley opened doors for him to study in France, and he subsequently trained at the Sorbonne University (5). From then on and for the rest of his life, he was an ardent Francophile, enjoying an empathy with France and French intellectual ideas which greatly influenced his thinking. It was during this time that Geddes came into contact with some of Europe’s progressive and radical thinkers.


“Quite a lot of Geddes’ thinking comes from Anarchists. Anarchy did not mean throwing bombs or anything. Anarchist means without government…..it means government by the people. From Geddes’ point of view, well informed individuals, with the certainty of what they are doing and fully participating….that was anarchy for him.”

Sophia Leonard

Trustee, Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust (3)


‘Place, Work and People’

Geddes was impressed by August Comte’s positivist philosophy and was especially attracted to Herbert Spencer’s idea of applying the concept of evolution to society. But the biggest ideological influence for Geddes was Frederic Le Play’s method of survey. It was in Le Play’s work that Geddes found an inter-link between several sciences, and this interdisciplinary approach became his worldview for life.


Le Play’s [in image] survey method was based on the postulate that the three key units for the study of le playsociety were ‘lieu’, ‘travail’, ‘famille’ (place, work and family). ‘Place’ implied geographical locality which presents the environmental pressures (needs) and the possibilities (resources) and in turn determine the nature of the work. ‘Work’, determines the organisation of the family which is the biological unit of human society. Conversely, the needs and potentialities of the family shape the character of the work, which in turn progressively modifies the environment (6). Geddes replaced the unit of ‘famille’ (family) in Le Play’s work, by ‘people’ or ‘folk’, and believed that this approach synthesised knowledge from different disciplines and would help him develop his own evolutionary approach to social sciences. Place, work and people, in his scheme, have not to be “separately analysed as into geomorphology, the market economics and the cranial anthropology which still go on, in necessary detachment from each other…Within the single chord of social life all three combine” (7). Geddes argued that geography, economics and anthropology were so closely related that their union within sociology was sure to yield rich results (2).


Social Experiments in Edinburgh:

From 1880 onwards, Geddes began teaching Zoology at the University of Edinburgh. It was in this decade that he would take up some of his most celebrated social experiments – reviving the Old Town in Edinburgh, setting up student halls of residence and developing the Outlook Tower.


In 1886, Geddes along with his newly married bride, Anna Morton, moved from Edinburgh’s modern and welloldtown3 planned New Town to the decayed Old Town [image] that was plagued by poverty, overcrowding, squalor and disease (2). The Old Town, and its inhabitants, were increasingly marginalised and ignored by the affluent New Town dwellers; and these two parts of the city highlighted an unequal duality that led to an increased social separation of classes. The Chambers Improvement Act for Edinburgh, passed in 1867, further widened this divide between the two, by getting rid of ‘unhealthy houses’ and thereby clearing away the poor people (8). Geddes was a strong critic of this act and saw slums and its inhabitants as an integral living part of the city. With the view that a city is the superstructure erected on the basis of place, work, and folk, he set out to transform Edinburgh’s Old Town.


His strategy was to attack the problems from all directions. Geddes purchased a row of slum tenements in James Court, in the Old Town, making it into a single dwelling. In terms of ‘Place’, he advocated ‘conservative surgery’ which meant weeding out the worst of the houses that surrounded them, widening the narrow closes (lanes) into courtyards and thus improving sunlight and airflow. The best of the houses were kept and restored. Geddes believed that this approach was both more economical and more humane (9). Based on the principle of work, he galvanised the folk – the local resident community, local architects and artists to bring about the Old Town’s regeneration and preserve their locality, without waiting for government action.


“Geddes was massively culturally informed and opportunistic. If he saw a gap, there goes a garden. If there was an area that was at the risk of becoming dilapidated, then perhaps he would clear something out, do a bit of renovation, and a bit of conservation.”

Murdo MacDonald

Professor in the History of Scottish Art, University of Dundee (3)


In 1884, Geddes established the Environment Society (later the Edinburgh Social Union) to encourage local residents to survey, plan, and improve the local environment (4). In its first year, the Union grew from six to over fifty members, and these included a number of influential churchmen. Funds were collectively raised; and beginning with two properties in 1885, the Union was responsible for maintaining 23 properties housing 450 families by 1897 (8). Geddes supported the mixing of class groups and wanted them to inhabit common spaces. He saw gardens and gardening as one way of engaging people especially children and connecting them with their living space. He encouraged young students from the Castlehill School, to cultivate small plots of land in a nearby garden and learn about nature by direct experience. This garden – the ‘Johnston Terrace Garden’ exists till date, and is now a wildlife garden administered by World Wildlife Fund (14).


johston old new

 To the left is the image of Geddes’ young students from the Castlehill School conducting practical work in the Johnston Terrace Garden, and to the right is the same garden today.


In 1887, Geddes took over a few tenements in Lawnmarket in the Old Town and converted them into halls of residence for the students of the University of Edinburgh. Geddes’s innovation, (quite unorthodox for its time) was to separate the academic environment from the living space, and let the students govern themselves in a community of co-operative living for learning and intellectual inter-action (10). These buildings now collectively known as Milne’s Court [image below] was also the first student hall of residence in Scotland. Milne’s Court is currently managed by the University of Edinburgh, and is also one of the most famed students’ accommodation sites owing to its historical significance.

 800px-Milne's_Court,_Lawnmarket_Edinburgh_wiki commons


Geddes conducted yet another social experiment by setting up the Outlook Tower in 1892. He acquired another tenement in the Old Town and rechristened it the ‘Outlook Tower’ because he wanted to change people’s outlook of the city they lived in, and educate them to understand their region and the larger environment in all its complexity and from all possible viewpoints (11).


As described earlier, Geddes would rush the visitors to the top of the tower and show them the view of the Outlook-Towercity through the camera obscura (an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen) and a direct view from the terrace. After seeing the Camera Obscura, visitors sat in a darkened meditation room – the “Inlook room” – to internalise what they had learned, making it their own (11). Geddes wanted people to view the city without any preconceived notions by reading any literature beforehand. After building their own perceptions of the city, the theoretical exploration, cultural and ecological experiences, would follow floor-by-floor below, in rooms devoted to Edinburgh, Scotland, English-speaking nations, Europe and the world [illustrated in the adjacent image].


Geddes ensured that the starting point in the Outlook Tower was the direct perception of a real city not an idea of it, and this perception was the basis for any further exploration (12). Geddes’ emphasised that the local context (down to the level of individual perception) must be the basis for the understanding of the regional, the national and the global. He wanted to change the citizens’ attitudes towards the city and encourage informed participation in civic life. The Outlook Tower was one of the most developed examples of Geddes’ thinking, and still retains much of the spirit of its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century usage.


Today these key structures in the Old Town, that were developed and restored by Geddes, are inhabited by Edinburgh locals, international students and visitors. Because of his efforts, this place has thrived for decades and has also been given a heritage status. These structures continue to stand strong as the living legacy of Patrick Geddes.



 City View from the Edinburgh Castle


His approach towards reviving the Old Town was utopian but only in a more pragmatic sense. To Geddes, Utopia really meant making the best of each place “in actual and possible fitness and beauty” (13). Throughout the 1880’s and 90’s, Geddes was responsible for projects that led to the improvement of Edinburgh’s Old Town and also involved in the development of the famed Royal Botanic Gardens, the Edinburgh Zoo, the Water of Leith and the Roseburn development (14). He basically started a movement in urban planning and civics that emphasised meditating upon the historical and cultural context of the region and involving local people as informed participants in development, maintaining and restoring their city. Edinburgh was the starting point of this movement, where he implemented pioneering concepts that would be acknowledged and adopted by urban planners and architects across the world, only much after his death.


Urban Planning and Sociological Action in India:

Geddes’ next big project brought him to India in 1915. After having heard of his successful urban experiments in Edinburgh, Lord Pentland, the then governor of the Madras Province, invited him to exhibit his work on urban planning in the country. Through Lord Pentland, Geddes also found admirers in Lords Willingdon and Carmichael, governors of the provinces of Bombay and Bengal respectively (2). He spent the next eight years preparing nearly 40 town planning reports for both the colonial government and the rulers of princely states in India, describing the nature of urban problems and solutions (15). These reports represent the first major contribution to the development of modern town planning in India on a fairly large scale (2).


‘Town-planning is not mere place-planning, nor even work-planning. If it is to be successful it must be folk-planning. This means that [the task of town-planning] is not to coerce people into new places against their associations, wishes and interest – as we find bad schemes trying to do. Instead its task is to find the right places for each sort of people; places where they will really flourish. To give people in fact the same care that we give when transplanting flowers, instead of harsh evictions and arbitrary instructions to “move on”, delivered in the manner of officious amateur policemen.’

 Patrick Geddes (9)


During his ten year long stay in India, Geddes travelled extensively, but his work in the city of Indore [image:pg in indore 1919 Geddes in Indore] is remembered as a classic example of his holistic approach in town planning. The Maharaja of Indore invited Geddes to Indore in 1918 to improve the malaria and plague infested conditions of the city (2). After spending eight months of thorough field investigation and consultations, he prepared a detailed report on the problem and its determinants, and suggested the establishment of a University that would train students for civic reconstruction in Indore and elsewhere. More importantly, Geddes conducted another social experiment in the city that not only helped to free the city from plague but also instilled in the residents enthusiasm to participate in cleaning and maintaining their neighbourhoods and the city.


Geddes went to the ruling prince of Indore and asked to be made the Maharaja for a day, giving him the authority to pursue his plans. He then made announcements that there would be a grand procession on Diwali Day (a religious festival that also calls for cleaning of homes and keeping living spaces tidy) and that this procession would neither follow the traditional Hindu or Muslim route through the city, but along the one on which most houses had been repaired and cleaned. This announcement motivated the people to start cleaning and repairing their homes and neighbourhoods, and inspired communal action, as everyone wanted the procession to pass along their street.


On the Diwali Day, a grand procession with cavalry and infantry marched through the city, followed by elephants, rich merchants, and figures of the Goddess Laxmi (symbol of prosperity). This was followed by an enactment of scenes of poverty, with giant models of dirt and rats, crying and wailing. After a brief break came cheerful music heading the long line of sweepers in spotless white, with new brooms and freshly painted carts.


indoreBehind the sweepers marched a civic procession of labourers, firemen and police, officials, mayor and Maharaja Geddes himself, and after them, enthroned on a stately car, a new goddess evoked for the occasion, the Indore city. Her banner bore the name of the city on the one side, and on the other, the city plan showing proposed changes to be made. Finally thousands of pots with seedlings of the Tulsi plant to be distributed among the households of Indore. This novel procession passed through almost every part of the city, finally ending at midnight in a public park where the giant of dirt and plague rats were burned in a great bonfire. After the symbolic destruction of the enemies, the festival was brought to a close with a grand display of fireworks. The effect of the exercise was immediately apparent. A new wave of confidence spread among the people to be clean and beautify their homes and the surroundings. Above all, the plague came to an end. Geddes was of the view that people are capable of improvements but it is for the government and municipalities to realise what improvements are needed and desired.


In 1914-15, Geddes was invited to deliver a series of four public lectures on the study of Bombay which are said to have been a great success (2). Subsequently, he was offered the post of professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of Bombay (1919), which was the first institute in the country and the second in Asia to start a department in this discipline (16).


Characteristically, Geddes gave his daily lectures in the form of conversations and seminar (a style which his successors tried but with little success), and every Saturday was devoted to excursions to various parts of Bombay and neighbouring villages, and whenever possible, to more distant places (17).


Bombay Uni

Geddes with his students at the University of Bombay


Geddes emphasised practical work and through his teachings at the University encouraged social action. He sent his students to conduct field work in different parts of India. For him, the sociologist should be a sort of flaneur: ‘the productive sociologist should thus be of all investigators a wandering student par excellence; in the first place, as far as possible, a literal tourist and traveller’ (18). One of his students, Govind Sadashiv Ghurye (eminent Indian sociologist), who was given a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at Cambridge University, also went on to succeed his teacher as the head of the department of sociology at the University of Bombay. Despite being ahead of his time in education, Geddes’ radical style of teaching sociology did not find supporters in Bombay, and by the end of his five year contract, his health had suffered greatly and so did his ability to enthuse his students with his unconventional courses (2).


Geddes’ deepest support came from the great Indian scientist – Sir Jagadish Chandra (19) [seen sitting in the image below, seated in the center of the front row, and PG sitting third from left in the top row]. JC Bose pioneered the investigation of radio and microwave optics, made very significant contributions to plant science, and laid the foundations of experimental science in the Indian subcontinent. Banerjee (20) writes that Jagadish Chandra Bose’s interest in plant physiology may have been prompted by his growing intimacy with the European neo-vitalists, like Geddes, who formulated a new kind of science that refused to submit to the mechanistic interpretation of the world and spoke for a spiritual kinship with nature. Geddes also went on to become Bose’s first biographer despite being much older than him.


PG JC Bose


Another strong friendship that has been recorded in literature (21) was the one shared with Rabindranath Tagore [image to the right], the Indian polymath, poet, novelist, educator, and Nobel Laureate.


Both these R Tagoregreat minds shared similar ideas on education and the environment and co-operated on plans for an international university in India ‘to bring East and West together for the benefit of humanity’ (22). While Tagore showed deep interest in Geddes’ triad Place-Work-Folk, Geddes, in turn, appreciated Tagore’s vision of learning and the arts, of native, national and international life and despite their erratic friendship with long periods of intermittent silences they collaborated closely over their separate dreams of an international learning center. Geddes went on to start the Scots Montpellier in France, and Tagore established Santiniketan in Bengal.


Geddes final contribution – Scots College in France:

Geddes suffered greatly after the death of his wife Anna and their son Alasdair in 1917. Anna fell ill with typhoid fever and died, not knowing that their son Alasdair had been killed in action in France. She was cremated in India. It was the urban planning project in Palestine (1919) that gave Geddes the much needed break and took him to design the city of Tel Aviv (23). In 1924, Geddes conducted his final experiment of setting up an unofficial student residence in Montpellier, an ancient university town in the south of France. He hoped that this institute would go on to become a Scots College (the Collège des Ecossais) for wandering students, creating unity among scholars who saw a wholeness in their studies and in where they lived with others from other lands (5). While this institute no longer runs as was initially envisaged, it has been integrated into the University of Montpellier, and a part of this structure serves as a center for professional development of teachers and administrators of the institute (24).


PG Scots

Geddes with Scots College Students


Disappointed by the Victorian models of education of his time, Geddes had actually started practicing initial forms of his teaching method right here in Edinburgh itself.


“We see millions of young people leaving school and thousands leaving college without any grip of the history of their race, without live knowledge of the world in which they are going to live, and without even an elementary realisation of the laws of health and happiness. To the biologist these appear to be radical defects in education. They were not tolerated in tribal days, nor even old rural ones – nor can they be much longer.”

Patrick Geddes (25)


Instead of the existing model of rote learning and the emphasis on the three R’s – Reading, Riting and Rithmetic, Geddes taught young students based on the three H’s – the vital education of Heart that would engage the students’ curiosity, Hand that would touch, feel and work directly with the subject, and Head for the conceptualisation and internalisation of ideas derived from experience and reflection. In collaboration with teachers from the Old Town and the Castlehill School, Geddes ensured that students spent their mornings in the classroom, and in the afternoons, he himself would take them out for practical work in the nearby inner city gardens that he had created.


C DarwinThroughout his life, Geddes tried hard to implement his progressive ideas of holistic and experiential learning with the appreciation of both natural and social sciences, in Edinburgh, India and finally in France. Even though he was unable to realise his dream of finalising the Scots College, he gained appreciation from other great men of his time, including Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. In a letter to Geddes, Darwin [in image] wrote:


“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. I can entertain no doubt that you will continue to do excellent service in advancing our knowledge in several branches of science. Therefore I believe that you are well fitted to occupy any chair of natural history, for I am convinced that example is fully important as precept to students.

Yours faithfully,

Charles Darwin (26)


Having once turned down a knighthood for democratic reasons as he was a ‘man of the people’ and also, noting less seriously, that the title would ‘increase his hotel bills along the way’ – Geddes assented to becoming a knight shortly before his death in 1932, in Montpellier (27).


Today, half of the world’s population lives in urban cities (28); and both developed and developing countries are faced with the problem of managing rapid urbanization and overcrowded cities;  and climate change along with depleting natural resources, food, water and energy crisis. These challenges are interrelated and interdependent, and cannot be addressed in isolation of each other. They are transnational in nature, interdisciplinary, and trans-institutional. Their solutions call for collaborative efforts, and therefore it is now more than ever that we should reflect upon Patrick Geddes’ ideas and approaches in order to find sustainable solutions for preserving life.


Geddes pioneered urban planning methods such as diagnostic surveys and conservative surgery, in Scotland and around the world. But his core approach of ‘Place-Work-People’ remains relevant to current debates on growing urban cities, community regeneration, sustainable development and social inclusion. Can we re-organise and re-energise cities based on Geddes’ fundamental principle of ‘Place-Work-People’?


Yes, we can.


We can inform ourselves about the spaces we live in, galvanising others around us to understand their spaces in their historical, socio-economic and environmental context, and most importantly regaining a sense of ownership of our world through the spaces we live, play and work in. Geddes emphasized the strategic role of a citizen or a ‘civic person’ in urban planning and restoring processes, and in a way, suggested a new model of participatory urban governance, by providing people with knowledge and the power to act, irrespective of their social or economic class. Urban municipalities and townships could follow this approach of ‘Place-Work-People,’ by conducting comprehensive diagnostic surveys in partnership with their citizens, and implementing participatory civic initiatives in order to address the actual needs of growing cities, and sustain urban life, as Geddes would say, ‘in its fitness and beauty’ (13). Examples of such collaborations between urban municipal governments and citizens could include conservation of residential areas, monitoring and supervision of sustainable water and sanitation interventions, setting up local food cooperatives, maintenance of public spaces, and even encouraging local industries to sustain gainful employment.


It was through his teaching experiments and initiatives in Edinburgh, the University of Bombay and the Scots College in France, that Geddes propagated a pragmatic approach of learning: observe and reflect. Geddes wanted us to learn from our past and our present, by observing and experiencing life around us, and constructing our individual perceptions after reflecting on these experiences. It is through such an organic process that we are able to see the interconnectedness of the several institutions in society and how they could work together in harmony.


How often do we encourage our students and our children to explore beyond the boundaries of their books and leap into the environment outside, to broaden their understanding and deepen their knowledge? Do we teach students to discern between the several pieces of information that they are exposed to in this current age of social media explosion, and form their own perceptions and outlook? Educationists can learn a lot from Geddes’ method of teaching and learning, and influence a generation of socially and environmentally conscious citizen-scientists.


Geddes’ life teaches us to be aware of our history and the present alternatives, listen to people, be culturally sensitive, stir public engagement and long-term involvement, and look for sustainable solutions, whether cultural or ecological, and most importantly see human life and human growth as intertwined with all human institutions and most of all with the environment.


Patrick Geddes did not merely intend to create sustainable urban spaces; he wanted us to constantly learn, improve and achieve our potential as a society. Throughout his life and work, Geddes demonstrated that our observations, experiences, and reflections help us to construct and reconstruct our ideas and behaviour.


“Vivendo discimus” (By living we learn).



© Genevie Fernandes, 2014




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Edinburgh City Images Courtesy:

Bridget Zhang

Angeena Barua

Genevie Fernandes


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