Patrick Geddes: A European Scot (2004)




A European Scot: Patrick Geddes


Murdo Macdonald



Geddes’s Scotland embraced Europe and his Europe embraced the world. Lewis Mumford

Patrick Geddes’s thinking addresses key issues of today’s Europe. Geddes was a pioneering ecologist, a town planner, a botanist (indeed Professor of Botany at Dundee), a theorist of cities and regions, an advocate of the arts and architecture, a community activist, a publisher and an educator. He was born in Scotland in 1854 and died at the Scots College he had founded at Montpellier in France in 1932. As a student, both from a scientific and a cultural perspective he was drawn to France. There he studied biology in Paris and Brittany, and absorbed the sociology of Comte and the thinking of pioneering French geographers like Elisee Reclus. For Geddes this studying was in the spirit of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland which had, as Geddes was aware, remained an active political and cultural force from the time of Joan of Arc to the Jacobite wars of the eighteenth century.

High points in his career include the conservation of the old buildings which form the heart of Edinburgh, initiating good planning practice in Dublin, saving historic buildings – such as Sir Thomas More’s Crosby Hall – in London, and pioneering community-sensitive town planning in India. His work was recognised on a European level by the award in 1913 of the Gold Medal at the International Exposition on Cities and Social Progress in Ghent.

The great American urban theorist Lewis Mumford wrote of Patrick Geddes that his “Scotland embraced Europe and his Europe embraced the world” and it would be difficult to better express a commitment to Scotland as an active part of the international community. His inclusive approach to international relations can be found reflected in his interdisciplinary approach to knowledge which the Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo has seen as fundamental to effective thinking: “Specialisation, specialists, I consider in a way to be an accident of our present time. I think we should go back to the idea of the general view, and in Scotland you have a good grounding in this approach, not least because of the work of Patrick Geddes…”. In Scotland this tradition of generalist thinking has been called democratic intellectualism.[1]

Geddes’s farsightedness as an ecologist is no doubt one reason why there is at present a growing recognition of his importance. Consider this wonderfully-concise statement of an ecological vision: “How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon 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 fulness of our harvests.”[2] At a time when ecology is becoming a matter of general concern, the ability Geddes has to make it popularly accessible is exemplary.

But this ecological vision is matched by his cultural engagement. He writes in 1920: “The reunion of Europe, then, can most strongly, even if slowly, be made through the education of travel. Not merely in the recent tourist spirit, at least in the cruder forms; but in that combining of the best of modern cultural travel with something of the old spirit of pilgrimage which that helps effectively to renew. The Brownings and Ruskin in Italy were examples of this union in their day: why not renew it more widely? As Europeans grow more tolerant and more sympathetic … our scheme of educational travel will grow and spread into fuller pilgrimages … throughout Baltic and Mediterranean lands alike, from Scandinavia to Spain, and thence to Greece and beyond. Why not east and west, from Russia and Ireland, indeed to America as well? – with ever increasing appreciation of all their regional and civic interests, the natural, the spiritual, and the temporal together, and in aspects historic, actual and incipient. Does this seem ‘Utopian’? It is after all but what the tourist and the wandering nature-lover, the art-student, and the historian have long been doing, and what the regional agriculturalist and the town planner are now in their turn doing. Today it lies with re-education, with reconstruction, and with re-religion as well, to organise these contacts more fully.”[3]

Thus the idea of a unified but culturally diverse Europe, a Europe in which “contacts were more fully organised” was an idea close to Geddes’s heart, and like so many of his ideas it looks both to history and to international comparisons for its inspiration. At the same time it looks to the future, and the relevance of these views – published the best part of a century ago – for us today is obvious, for many of the developments Geddes envisaged as possible within Europe are coming into being. Geddes was one of the pioneers of the idea that close attention to the well-being of local, regional and national identities within a wider European framework was the best way forward politically, and that political control should be held at appropriate levels within that structure.[4] The European Union notion of “subsidiarity” expresses this, at least in theory.

Geddes’s thinking was always directed to the future but informed by the past. Hence his interest in medieval Europe, in which there was a culture of pilgrimage to places as different as Iona and Santiago de Compostella, and this, in a real sense, was a factor of European unity. For Geddes, while we cannot recreate medieval culture, we should be aware that the human impulse to pilgrimage is still with us. He writes that tourists may not “strike us as models of reverence; but none the less it is their element of reverence which has sent the bulk of them – so far therefore on true pilgrimage – to the historic places of the world.”[5]

His biographer Philip Boardman writes: “That Geddes was an ardent Scot is conspicuous in his writings …. That he was an equally loyal and intellectual son of France stands our in many a deed and thought since his first trip to Brittany in 1878. Yet with the approach of the twentieth century he placed himself no less convincingly in a third category, of world citizenship, without abandoning either France or Scotland.”[6]

Today Geddes’s inclusive vision: cultural and ecological, local and international, can symbolise the kind of processes of thoughtful co-operation which are needed at all levels in Europe and, indeed, globally.

[1] See The Democratic Intellect (Edinburgh,1961) and The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (Edinburgh,1986) by George Davie.

[2] Reported by Amelia Defries, The Interpreter: Geddes, London, Routledge, 1927, 175.

[3] Patrick Geddes The Life of Sir J C Bose, 118

[4] Christopher Harvie’s The Rise of Regional Europe (London, Routledge,1994) provides a informed context for Geddes’s thought within a modern European context.

[5] Geddes, Op. Cit., 111.

[6] Philip Boardman, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes, London, Routledge, 1978, 153.