Meeting Report: By Leaves We Live: some thoughts about the continuing relevance of Patrick Geddes

14 March 2014
Jim Johnson (Former Director of the Old Town Committee for Conservation and Renewal)

New and Old Edinburgh: the enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes was the subject chosen by Jim Johnson, architect and former director of the Old Town Committee for conservation and renewal, when he spoke to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society in March.

Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), a polymath and man of action, was the youngest child of a very intelligent father who educated and guided his son, especially in practical mathematics. Geddes' views on city planning were formed by his home setting from Kinnoull Hill, Perth, where he spent his early childhood and from which the rural hinterland could be viewed.

Geddes gave up studying Botany at Edinburgh University after one week. He did not believe in exams, as a result of which his career advancement maybe suffered later in life. He went to London to work under Huxley, a follower of Darwin. In 1879 he became a demonstrator in Botany at Edinburgh University. His interest extended from the microscope to planning, where he learned to classify information according to a triad of place, work and folk. In the 1860s and 1870s he occupied a flat in James Court in the Lawnmarket, which had become a place for the poor living in poor conditions, since wealthier people had moved to the New Town. He did not want to demolish the whole area as Haussmann did in Paris and as had been done in Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Be gentle and don't lose the historical context were his guiding principles. Thus he practised 'conservative surgery' in the Lawnmarket. "The task of town planning is not to coerce people:" they must be given care as tender as for flowers.

In 1880 he married Anna, a remarkable lady, who accepted the slum conditions. They were always short of money. They had two sons and a daughter.

Geddes applied unsuccessfully for the chair of Botany in Edinburgh, despite having secured Darwin's support. In that capacity he would have been in charge of the Botanical Gardens.

One of his supporters set up a funded chair for him as professor of Botany at University College, Dundee, in 1883, where he worked only in the summer term. He and (Sir) John Arthur Thomson published five or six collaborative studies over the ensuing 30 years.

When working in India in the 1890s he started summer schools, for which he engaged good speakers from Europe where he had travelled widely. They were popular with women teachers and helped him reach a wider public.

In mid-career, he had a fundamental disagreement with Darwin and Huxley. Instead of the "survival of the fittest" he believed that "individual cells become diminishingly competitive and contribute to the whole."

At Ramsay Garden, Edinburgh, now a National Trust property near Edinburgh Castle he had a seven-bedroomed flat on the third and fourth floors. He could not afford to occupy it and let it to his son-in-law, Frank Mears, who in turn let it. Gradually people were attracted back into the Old Town. He began to buy up properties for use as student halls, at Riddle's Court for example, which extends three or four floors below ground level. It is now used as an education building; the hope is that it will become a Geddes Centre. He set up several of these hostels as self-governing co-operative settlements. Sadly for him students did not share his strong moral outlook.

He used the Camera Obscura on the roof of Observatory Tower in High Street as a teaching aid: the views far and wide helped to inculcate the principles of surveying which he had gained from Kinnoull Hill. The first ever Town and Country Planning Exhibition was staged in Edinburgh in 1911. He and Frank Mears planned it. During the subsequent voyage to India the exhibition sank and had to be re-done.

From 1915 he was regularly in India for the next 20 years. Instead of wholesale clearing of towns, he relieved congestion by opening up alleyways to let air in and he planted trees. The reservoirs were thought to attract mosquitoes. He cleaned them up by introducing fish and ducks. In India he was remunerated for his work.

The year 1917 brought personal distress: his elder son, who had served alongside his father, was killed by shrapnel; and his wife died.

In his later years his energies and enthusiasms continued unabated. He was invited to plan a Zionist University in Jerusalem. In 1923 on his last voyage back from India, he landed at Montpelier to set up a Collège des Écossais, a project which he continued until his death and which involved his love of building, creating gardens and planning the environment. He was in great demand as a lecturer in the USA and he was still engaged in his annual summer commitment in Dundee.

In 1931 he accepted the offer of a knighthood, an honour, which he had rejected 20 years previously. He believed it would prove to be more rewarding financially, although he was not a mercenary man. Unfortunately it entailed spending the winter in London — to the detriment of his health.

He was always fond of pageants and his funeral was his best pageant ever. "By leaves we live … and we live not by the jingling of coins but by the fullness of our harvests." Patrick Geddes.

Two years ago his statue was erected in the public garden of Sandeman House, off High Street, Edinburgh. His sculpted head sits atop a beehive on which the occasional bee crawls. Jim Johnson's book, Renewing Old Edinburgh: the enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes, will give further insight into a fascinating subject and an in-depth appraisal of 'The Father of Town Planning'.