held annually by the Royal
Town Planning Institute in
Patrick Geddes is widely regarded as
the founder of modern town planning. His interest in the natural sciences led
him to a professorship at
The first lecture was held in 2004 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Geddes' birth.
The seventh lecture is presented by Peter Head OBE FREng FRSA, Director, Arup on Wednesday 21 April 2010 at 17.45 in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, National Galleries of Scotland, The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL (entrance by Princes Street Gardens), entitled Sustainable Economic Development: towards the emerging Ecological Age.
All the available Geddes lecture texts are posted below, latest first –use these links to skip to earlier ones:
2004 Jonathon Porritt: Sustainable Development Past and Present
2005 Raymond Young: Cities in Devolution
2006 Greg Lloyd: Planning and the public interest in the modern world
2007 Richard Wakeford: Wanted: Visionary planners to apply levers for a sustainable world
The sixth lecture was presented on
Murdo Macdonald (Professor of the History of
Scottish Art at Geddes’ old University,
Sir Patrick Geddes and the Scottish Generalist Tradition
at the Royal Society of Edinburgh 22-
with a welcome by John Esslemont, convener
of the RTPI in
introduction by Stewart Stevenson, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change,
and a vote of thanks by Ben Tindall, chairman of the Sir Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust,
Sir Patrick Geddes and the Scottish Generalist Tradition
Professor of History of Scottish Art, University of
What do we know about Patrick Geddes?
He was a pioneering ecologist, an influential botanist, a highly-original theorist of cities, an advocate of the importance of the arts to everyday life, a committed community activist, a publisher, and – of course - a founder of town planning.
He was born in Ballater
in Aberdeenshire on
He had a life of extraordinary vitality,
variety and interest. He was appointed in 1888 as the first Professor of Botany
Geddes’ commitment to national revival was
profoundly international in outlook. As a student, both from a scientific and a
cultural perspective he was drawn to
So: that is a little of what we know about Geddes.
But my opportunity this evening is to deepen our understanding of Geddes’ diverse achievements by exploring his thinking from the perspective of the culture of which he was part. I hope that this deeper analysis of the wellsprings of his thought will illuminate his relevance, not only with respect to the history of Scottish thinking in general, but also with respect to the cultural benefits for today’s Scotland of understanding the powerful intellectual context from which Geddes’ thinking sprang. Thus I want to emphasise not just Geddes’ historical importance but the relevance of his vision for us here and now. For example: the current state of the global economy is a reminder that it is not wise to define the needs of the planet as though money were more important than the realities of the lives to which that money is meant to relate. Almost a century ago Patrick Geddes put it this way:
‘Some people have strange ideas that they live by money. They think energy is generated by the circulation of coins.’
That thought comes from Geddes’ final lecture to his students at University College Dundee in 1918, and the wider passage contains not just comment on global finance but a profound statement about planetary ecology. What Geddes says is this:
‘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. But the world is mainly a vast leafcolony, 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.’
What more apposite comment could there be with respect to the wider sustainable development of the planet? In the end it is vegetation, not money, which is the issue. In that same lecture Geddes reflects on the interdependence of arts and sciences and how each should inform the other and it is this interdisciplinary approach to thinking that I wish to consider this evening, for this is the Scottish educational tradition of which Geddes was part. For Geddes, the economist required the complementary insight of the ecologist and such opportunities for mutual illumination applied across all the arts and the sciences.
This generalist view gives insight into his
approach to planning. For Geddes, planning risks
losing touch with the communities, cities and regions that it sets out to
serve, if it does not take a multiplicity of approaches into account. Listen to
this summary of his philosophy of planning, which he submitted as part of a
1915 report. It was written at the behest of Lord Pentland, not in
‘Town-planning is not mere place-planning, nor even work-planning. If it is to be successful it must be folk-planning.’
What Geddes meant
by this was that what was needed was a full appreciation of the cultural,
historical and geographical antecedents of a community, and furthermore the
capacity to enable that community to be fully aware of those antecedents.
That’s why his cultural revival was at the heart of his
‘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.’1
1 Geddes, P., 1915, Report on the Towns in the
The architectural historian Norma Evenson wrote of Geddes that ‘his common sense approach was ... difficult to fault. He approached his investigations with receptivity to the local scene, seeking to understand the nature of the Indian settlement, and making no attempt to impose a foreign conception of urban environment.’2 This exemplary approach can be seen in two contrasting images from one of his Indian reports which show Geddes’ plan for the development of an area of an Indian town versus the municipal plan. The municipal plan is based on imposing an alien grid of streets, no doubt related to some utopian masterplan or perhaps just to lack of time or imagination.3 By contrast, Geddes’ plan is sensitive to the local building pattern, and it is centred on the planting of a tree in the centre of a human-scale, community-oriented space. Geddes knew how much difference a single tree could make. Back in Edinburgh every unoccupied site was an opportunity for him to develop a garden.
2 Evenson, N., 1988, The Indian Metropolis; 114-115. See also M. Fry, 2001, The Scottish Empire; 229-230.
3 Tyrwhitt, J., Geddes in India; 53-56. Excerpted from
the ‘Madura’ material in Geddes,
Report on the Towns in the
But, again, what concerns me this evening is not so much what Geddes did, but the background to what he did and how that background helps us to understand him. While Geddes’ influence as a pioneer of town planning has received considerable attention over the years, the Scottish generalism that drove it, has not. My aim in this lecture is, therefore, to complement other perspectives on Geddes by giving emphasis to the distinctive Scottish intellectual tradition of which he was part.
When the Italian architect Giancarlo De Carlo visited
4 Interview with the Italian architect Giancarlo
De Carlo by Peter Wilson, Newsletter No. 1 of the
So what is this generalism? Geddes put it this way:
‘[a] general and educational point of view must be brought to bear on every specialism. The teacher’s outlook should include all viewpoints. …. Hence we must cease to think merely in terms of separated departments and faculties and must relate these in the living mind; in the social mind as well – indeed, this above all.’ 5
5 Final lecture by Geddes to his
My own awareness of this generalist current
of thought stems from the teaching of the philosopher and historian of ideas
George Davie, at the
Traces of this generalism
7 For further consideration see M. Macdonald, ed., Edinburgh Review, Democracy and Curriculum Issue, No 90, 1993 and M. Macdonald, ‘The significance of the Scottish generalist tradition’, in J. Crowther, I. Martin & M. Shaw, eds., 1999, Popular Education and Social Movements in Scotland Today.
Hugh MacDiarmid, a generation younger than Patrick Geddes and a generation older than George Davie, and a friend of both men, wrote of Geddes in The Company I’ve Kept in these terms:
‘his constant effort was to help people to think for themselves, and to think round 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.’8
8 MacDiarmid, H., 1966, The Company I’ve Kept.
As Philip Boardman put it, Geddes ‘held constantly before both teachers and students the single goal of reuniting the separate studies of art, of literature, and of science into a related cultural whole which should serve as an example to the universities still mainly engaged in breaking knowledge up into particles unconnected with each other or with life.’9
9 Boardman, P., 1978, The Worlds of Patrick Geddes; 129.
While I want to emphasize the rootedness of Geddes’ thinking in
a Scottish tradition, I want also to stress its international context. As his
great American disciple Lewis Mumford said ‘[Geddes’]
While Scotland may have insisted on fostering generalism at a time when other nations were headed down a more specialising route, there is, of course, nothing exclusively Scottish about a generalist tradition of thinking. For example, from a central European perspective one of the great early modern generalists was the 17th century Moravian educator, Jan Amos Comenius, a thinker praised by Geddes in his book Cities in Evolution. Comenius put the rationale for generalism like this:
‘He deprives himself of light, of hand and regulation, who pushes away from him any shred of the knowable.’10
10 Quoted by David Masson, 1873, in his
monumental Life of
Geddes was never one to push away from himself any shred of the knowable, and he may well have read that very quotation for it appears in a work by his older Edinburgh contemporary, David Masson of the University of Edinburgh.
Comenius shares something else with Geddes. He was an advocate of visual methods, indeed in his
book, Orbis Pictus he
developed for the modern era the notion of visual experience as integral to
verbal explanation. In that work, according to another of Geddes’
older Scottish colleagues, the pioneering educationist Simon Somerville Laurie,
‘Comenius applies his principles more fully than
in any other.’11 I have noted the link between the visual and
the general, and one of my aims this evening is to draw attention to the
linkage in Geddes’ thinking, as in that of Comenius, between the ability to take a broad view of
knowledge on the one hand and the ability to think visually on the other. It is
important to note that such linkage is also crucial to understanding other
generalist thinkers, whether we think of a 15th century artist like Leonardo Da Vinci or a 20th century geneticist like C. H.
Waddington.12 It is not
hard to see why this psychological linkage should exist, for there is a holism
in a visual approach that is not evident in more linear methods of notation.
And there was, in Geddes’
11 Laurie, S. S., 1881, Comenius; 191.
12 See for example, Waddington’s The Strategy of the Genes, 1954, Behind Appearance,1969, and Tools for Thought, 1977.
For example, in The Democratic Intellect George Davie makes explicit the link between generalism and visual thinking in his discussion of the tradition of Scottish mathematics. In the 18th and 19th centuries, through Scottish editions of Euclid, this tradition had emphasised a geometrical rather than an algebraic approach and one can note that Geddes referred to geometry as ‘the greatest educational influence of all.’13 Further indication of the significance of this commitment to the visual and its concomitant generalism can be inferred from the fact that Geddes wrote the entry on ‘morphology’ for the 9th edition of that generalist, Edinburgh publishing project the Encyclopaedia Britannica, while James Clerk Maxwell had written the entry on ‘diagrams’ a few years earlier.14 Geddes’ friend and colleague at University College Dundee, the biologist D’Arcy Thompson, also contributed to the 9th edition and in due course wrote that classic of visual thinking about biology, On Growth and Form. This work followed a few years after Geddes’ own classic of visual thinking applied to the social, cultural and urban field, Cities in Evolution.15
13 Boardman, Worlds of Patrick Geddes; 20. Boardman also notes that in Perth Geddes was taught that other most visual of disciplines, geology, by James Geikie (1839–1915) who, along with his elder brother Archibald, was among the most influential geologists of his day. He was author of a number of books including the standard work on the glacial period. In addition he was a translator of the poetry of Heinrich Heine: truly a generalist and visual thinker to inspire Patrick Geddes.
14 Maxwell was, until his death in 1879, was also science editor of that edition.
15 The two works were published in 1917 and 1915 respectively. A further indication of the interest of Patrick Geddes’ work from a visual-thinking perspective can be found in Volker Welter’s illumination of his place within the utopian–spiritual strand of European modernist architectural thinking in his book Biopolis, 2002.
An understanding of Geddes must, therefore, take note of this Scottish generalist tradition for its visual as well as its interdisciplinary aspects. What flows from this is an appreciation of Geddes’ Scottish intellectual context as psychologically central to his wider achievement, not least as a planner.
Let me take the
Certainly the way Geddes developed his Outlook Tower can be thought of as a kind of three-dimensional response to Comenius’ Orbis Pictus in so far as it is ‘not only a … treatment of things in general, but of things that appeal to the senses’.16 But whether it owed a direct debt to Comenius or not, the organisation of the Outlook Tower was a physical expression of Geddes philosophy. The Outlook Tower was both at the heart of the social spaces of Geddes’ halls of residence and central to the wider historical and geographical context of the city and the region.17 In 1922 Lewis Mumford was to describe the Outlook Tower as the point of origin of the Regional Survey Movement,18 but as early as 1899 Charles Zueblin of Chicago University felt confident in describing it as the world’s first sociological laboratory.19
16 Laurie, S. S., 1881, Comenius; 191.
17 It was in 1892
that Geddes first began to experiment with this
tower, but not until 1896 did it become fully defined as a centre for
investigating the relationships of city, region and planet, from every
perspective. For the earlier history of the
18 Mumford, L., 1922, The Story of Utopias.
19 Zueblin, C., 1899, ‘The world’s first sociological laboratory’, American Journal of Sociology, vol iv, no. 5, 577-591. Heinz Maus, comments in his A Short History of Sociology (1962; 47), that ‘one may say that it is with Geddes that the town first moves into the purview of sociology, which, astonishing as it may seem, had up to then dealt with it only casually and occasionally’.
Three years earlier Geddes had emphasised the visual thinking inherent to the arrangement of the Tower, in these words:
‘While current education is mainly addressed
to the ear (whether directly in saying and hearing, or indirectly in reading
and writing), the appeal of this literal “
20 Geddes, P., et al., eds., 1896, The Evergreen Almanac.
The visitor to the
The way Geddes
used this tower, as a college, as a museum and as a laboratory is one of the
most developed examples his thinking. But we must remember that complementing
21 I owe this particular description to Kitty Michaelson.
22 University Hall, Edinburgh, Edinburgh: Town & Gown Association, 1900; 10.
23 Cf. ‘Geddes was emphatically not a conservationist, but a
passionate moderniser. As his own interventions in
the Edinburgh Old Town showed, he would happily demolish or alter old buildings
at will if they stood in the way of his wider cultural vision of the future.’
Miles Glendinning and David Page, 1999,
The teaching method that Geddes
helped to pioneer in this complex of buildings was a further expression of his generalism. This was his annual international summer
meeting, and for Geddes a crucial aspect of the
summer meetings was the interplay of different areas of knowledge. For example
the prospectus for August 1896 advertises Geddes
himself teaching courses on ‘Contemporary Social Evolution’ and ‘
24 Kennedy-Fraser, M., 1929, A Life of Song; 120.
In a weekly column that Geddes, or a close colleague, wrote to accompany these summer meeting studies, an intriguing glimpse is given of the interdisciplinary links being fostered. The writer addresses Helen Hay, asking her if she can find in her Celtic ornament ‘means for the pictorial representation and symbolism of current ideas’.25 This generalist challenge to explore art and ideas must be seen in the context of Hay’s ongoing work for Geddes magazine, The Evergreen. The Book of Summer, the third part of The Evergreen, had just been published and it begins with an almanac for the summer months by Helen Hay. These almanacs are conjunctions of art and ecological thinking, indeed they give The Evergreen a visual identity to complement its overall description as ‘a northern seasonal’. In Geddes’ mind also would have been Hay’s Celtic knotwork borders for a mural scheme in the student common room of Ramsay Lodge. These can be seen in old photographs, but sadly they are now mostly destroyed. Geddes’ enthusiasm for their formal beauty, and their diagrammatic and symbolic potential is clear: he wrote that ‘each device is a separate living thought.’26
Interpreter, no. 8,
26 This comes
from page 13 of a proof copy of The Interpreter dated April, 1896.
But while on the one hand Geddes was interested in how the interlace borders of these
murals had the potential to convey ideas, on the other hand he used the content
of the main mural panels, carried out by the artist John Duncan, to explore the
history of Scottish ideas. So one can see him interested here
in art as a generalist method of thinking in terms of the possibilities both of
its form and its content. The content of those murals begins with Celtic
myth, The Awakening of Cuchullin, a symbol of
the Celtic cultural revival to which Geddes was
committed. I hardly need to stress that there was nothing inward looking about
this, for Geddes’ re-evaluation of Celtic material
was part of an international network of cultural revivals, which included
27 In due course Geddes was to have close links with those concerned with Indian cultural revival, in particular Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rabindranath Tagore.
The Awakening of Cuchullin is the anchor image of the series and leads
on to The Combat of Fingal,28 which shows a scene derived from Macpherson’s Ossian. The third panel moves us from
Gaelic Celticism of Ossian, to the Brythonic Celticism of King Arthur
in The Taking of Excalibur. This is set, typically for Geddes, in the local context of Duddingston
Loch beneath Arthur Seat. The next panel continues that southern Scottish Brythonic theme with the image of The Journey of St Mungo, at the same time introducing quasi-historical
Christianity into this visual exploration of Scottish legends and ideas.
Following it is an image inspired by the writings of the great Gaelic-speaking
theologian of the 9th century, The Vision of John Scotus
Erigina. This dream is complemented in the next
panel by the thinking of the mage and early scientist from the Borders Michael
Scott, renowned for his translations of Aristotle. Note that these latter
two figures show a significant transition in the series for they indicate the
beginning, in the medieval period, of an intellectual tradition clearly
continuous with the present. The final figure of the first set was The
Admirable Crichton. Crichton
was the 16th century Scottish and European Renaissance scholar par
excellence, and his inclusion strikes a personal note for Geddes, for he was thought to have had his early education
at Geddes’s old school, the
28 Given in the exhibition pamphlet as ‘Fingal’, but in The Interpreter as Fionn.
Geddes underlined this visual generalism
further when he described the
‘the Tower may be best explained as simply the latest development of our Edinburgh tradition of Encylopaedias, and hence arising in turn in the very same street where are all the others, Britannica, Chambers, and minor ones. It is in fact the Encylopaedia Graphica. The Encyclopaedia Graphica for each science and art in turn and in order ...’29
29 National Library of
Of particular interest within this context
of a graphic encylopaedia is the use of stained glass
windows by Geddes for his generalist teaching
purposes. In one of these windows in the
30 The Lapis
image, this ‘philosopher’s stone’ is described in a guide to the Outlook Tower
published in 1906 as an image of ‘an obelisk whereon is outlined in graphic
notation a classification of the Arts and the Sciences’. Geddes,
A First Visit to the
The final window from the
Geddes’ holistic cultural and ecological vision
was thus given impetus and focus by the development of the
31 Zueblin, C., 1899, ‘The world’s first sociological laboratory’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. iv, no. 5, 577-591.
Geddes knew the value of specialisation: he was a biologist by training and he helped to bring into being the disciplines of sociology, geography, ecology and planning. But he understood that disciplines depend for their origin on interdisciplinary thinking. They emerge from the interaction of earlier formulations of study. They come from the spaces in between. The irony is that as they develop into disciplines, their interdisciplinary origins are often no longer seen as relevant and the significance of their relationship to other disciplines may no longer be perceived. Indeed, it will be in the interests, both financial and professional, of the practitioners of any new discipline to demarcate it clearly from other disciplines. Thus the geographer Brian Robson refers to Geddes’ ‘diluted legacy’ in planning, geography and sociology and comments that too often it was ‘the bare bones, not the spirit’ of Geddes’ work that was taken up.32 That lost spirit was, in large part, his generalism - his interdisciplinary - and it is this that I think we must revisit in all our thinking about Geddes.
32 Robson, B.T., 1981, ‘Geography and Social Science: The Role of Patrick Geddes’ in D. R. Stoddart, ed., Geography, Ideology and Social Concern; 187-207.
Let us, therefore, be inspired for the
future by Geddes as a generalist thinker in a
generalist tradition. If we value his planning vision we must value where it
comes from, and it comes from his intellectual generalism.
In turn that generalism is rooted in the intellectual
tradition of which he was part, in which one area of knowledge is honoured with
respect to the way it relates to others and informs the whole. George Davie
called this ‘democratic intellectualism’ and Geddes
is one of its greatest exponents. At the same time, we who advocate the
Two industrialised wars fostered specialisation in the 20th century and the second world war was a watershed for how Geddes was considered. Despite the best efforts of Lewis Mumford, after that war Geddes’ generalism began to be seen as an eccentric quality, not of importance in its own right. Yet just as Geddes’ generalism was fading from public consciousness, south of the Border, C. P. Snow was feeling the need to invent his ‘two cultures’ debate as though there had been no previous thinking about the relationships between arts and sciences. But by this time Geddes’ relevance to the debate was little noted and his reputation was seen primarily in terms of his role as a pioneering planner. Indeed had it not been for planners keeping Geddes’ generalist reputation alive during a period of specialisation, he would have risked being forgotten entirely. This evening’s lecture is a further example of how the discipline of planning has continued to honour Geddes, and I am deeply grateful to the RTPI for the opportunity to place Geddes’ role as a planner in a wider context.
My task this evening has thus been to explore Geddes’ life and career in such a way as to advocate his generalism rather than to regard it as an inconvenient distraction from a specialised career. Crucially, my task has been to remind us that this generalism was founded on a developed Scottish tradition of major cultural value, which deserves to be properly valued again.
As we stumble from financial to ecological crisis and back again, the value of Geddes’ Scottish generalist view could hardly be clearer. I would argue indeed that Geddes’ generalism didn’t simply allow him to look for sustainable solutions, whether cultural or ecological, it actually impelled him to look for those solutions and to see them as linked. And more widely, for Geddes, any sustainable place could only continue to be so if it took both its heritage and its ecology seriously. And for Geddes, appropriate action in the present, in the interests of the future, depended on an in-depth, generalist understanding of what had happened in the past. That was the essence of his
thinking whether applied to ecology, cultural revival or planning, the crucial point being, of course, that he saw all these activities as illuminating one another.
Geddes himself put it this way:
‘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.’33
33 Tyrwhitt, Patrick Geddes in India; 66.
My aim this evening has been to complement other perspectives on Patrick Geddes by drawing attention to the Scottish intellectual tradition of which he was part. In doing so, I have also drawn attention to the continuing relevance of that tradition of generalist thinking, and of the visual thinking that accompanies it. My wider message is that by taking heed of this aspect of our own intellectual heritage we may look in a more informed way at the issues that face us, whether cultural, educational or environmental.
20 May 2009
2007 Richard Wakeford: Wanted: Visionary planners to apply levers for a sustainable world
2006 Greg Lloyd: Planning and the public interest in the modern world
2005 Raymond Young: Cities in Devolution
2004 Jonathon Porritt: Sustainable Development Past and Present
Wanted: Visionary planners to apply levers for a sustainable world
Director General, Environment, Scottish Executive
Design with nature
In my new role as Director General,
Environment in the Scottish Executive my job is to ensure delivery of one of the
new Government’s five strategic objectives – the objective known as “greener”
– to improve
I defer to the experts about the
full significance of Geddes. Real specialists will recognise the link between Smetana’s
- the need to design with nature; and
- the concept of ecology.
Designing WITH nature emphasises that the human race has a special place with respect to the natural world. It’s a compelling theme. So why, after a whole century, has the design with nature thing not taken off?
And can thinking based in ecological systems help us with the challenge of climate change? The human race can’t detach ourselves from the huge natural system that is our planet. So, if the world is just a big system, can systems analysis techniques help us?
Those techniques can help us focus on breakthrough solutions where efforts can be especially effective in achieving change. In addressing climate change, a systems analysis approach points to a different role for planners in local, national and international partnerships. It suggests that there are limits to what can be achieved through government guidance and through bending the market using taxation or public spending. Changing people’s mindsets is the most powerful dimension of change.
So, just any old plan won’t do. The goal must be plans that are owned by the whole community; plans that have the power to inspire; plans that unite people to deliver the vision. The planning profession needs to lift its eyes and aim to engage the mainstream. It needs to communicate and compel from a sense of vision. After all, isn’t that what comes more naturally to planners than to the rest of us?
While not a planner by profession, I
am passionate for the cause of proper development planning and sustainable use
of our natural resources. That is invaluable in my latest role in Scottish environment
and rural affairs. It was central to the work of the Countryside Agency in
That was a year of so many inspiring
people. Professor Chester Rapkin, for example, taught
regional planning in the
Design with nature felt right to Lewis Mumford, as it had to Geddes, and to Ebenezer Howard who inspired the garden cities movement. It was the title of a book written by another great Scottish planner – Ian McHarg. It is a product of the late 1960s – the period of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. It was a time when mankind increasingly came to be aware of our impact on the world. It was a time when many governments came to create Departments of the Environment.
had been brought up on the edge of
“I spent my childhood and adolescence squarely between two diametricallydifferent environments, the poles of man and nature…
were two clear paths from my home, the one penetrating further and further to
the city and ending in Glasgow, the other moving deeper into the countryside to
the final wilderness of the Western Highlands and Islands. The road to
The other path was always exhilarating and joy could be found in quite small events, the certainty of a still trout seen in the shadow of a bridge, the salmon leaping or the stag glimpsed fleetingly, the lambing, climbing through the clouds to the sunlight above, a cap full of wild strawberries or blaeberries, men back from the Spanish Civil War at the firepot of a lift from an American tourist in a Packard convertible.” Ian McHarg, 1968
The book itself provides early
examples of strategic environmental assessment. A case study of highway
The traditional pattern of American development would see urban sprawl over the countryside as each neighbour in turn sold up. Each sale would lead to a self contained development, with little regard to what had gone before – a gas station here, a car showroom, a shopping mall, suburban tract housing. Before long, the original landscape character would be a distant memory lost under concrete.
McHarg investigated an alternative approach in which development would be concentrated along existing highway routes – not as ribbon development but as planned communities. Leaving the valleys as greenspace would provide capacity for greater storm water run-off. It would allow more attractive places, with views, and access to greenspace – for recreation that helps physical and mental health. In short, good planning with nature would provide a better way for the community at large to obtain the benefits of development while protecting natural resources.
How could the community persuade the individual landowners not to sell up each small farm to the highest bidder? Only by finding some way of pooling the profits of development – to benefit those whose land was zoned for open space, as well as those owning areas that could take denser development.
Economic analysis showed that planned development would be worth significantly more than uncontrolled sprawl. Here was hard financial proof, in a nation that can be pretty sceptical about it, of the value of planning to the community. All that was needed was a method of sharing the benefits fairly!
After more than half a century of
town and country planning, are we designing with nature now? After McHarg, in the US Anne Whiston Spirn took up the baton in a seminal book “The
Nature in the
Today in the
That means renewed attention to urban parks, from entire “green necklace” systems within metro areas to the emerald-green sanctuary of small vest pocket parks. Community gardens, green roofs, street trees and planted median strips all count. So-called green geurrillas alight on vacant lots and turn them green overnight.
US columnist Neil Pearce also reports on the “green blue” strategies -– handling urban water in more sensitive, planet-protecting ways, by “daylighting” streams once enclosed in concrete pipes and by filtering stormwater more slowly through landscaping features that avoid big engineering solutions in favour of nature’s more modest but ecologically sound ways.
There is also attention to health: for example, tackling asthma-inducing air pollution, and attacking the obesity epidemic impacting American society. Public health researcher Anne Lusk calls for linear urban parks to encourage not just walking and biking but such energetic activities as running, skating and rock climbing (giving adults a chance to socialize and witness youth’s athletic prowess). She also suggests “health enterprise zones” to encourage gyms, stores offering fresh groceries and other health-oriented businesses in rundown areas.
Scottish Executive support to the greenspace movement also helps the concept of design with nature. There is lots of good practice which Greenspace Scotland helps to spread. But design with nature should be second nature for us – for a whole range of reasons. And it isn’t yet.
At a presentation last month Harry Burns, our Chief Medical Officer, spoke about the environment and health. A lot of research was still needed, he said, and we may not be picking up all the elements in play. But he is convinced that the direct environmental impact of threats to health remains important; and how we perceive those risks may be more important than the direct effect. The poorest people already have the poorest health outlook, which is made worse by lack of exposure to nature and greenspace. So, the creation of supportive environments should play a significant part in improving the health of the most deprived sections of our community.
He was concerned that the pursuit of best value has usually meant pursuit of the best financial deal. Because the health benefits of good planning are difficult to quantify, they are often not taken into account. Those benefits can include personal fitness, mental health, shorter hospital stays – in short a range of benefits that would save society money in service costs, sickness benefits and the like, as well as creating a happier community.
If we are to make it easier to include such benefits in planning decisions, we must obtain better science backed estimates of the impact of environmental improvements on the prevalence of chronic ill health. That might add powerful impetus to the new administration’s Greener Government programme. Health and the environment could be a cross cutting issue for the new Government. They are part of the ecological system Geddes would recognise.
Do the planning system and other rules fail to look at whole systems – in a better partnership with nature? The UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has recently published a comprehensive report on the urban environment. Here is an illustration from it.
It illustrates a system, but just one part of a larger system. These are all ecological networks of a kind that Geddes would recognise – where the boundaries are not boundaries of separation but boundaries of identity.
The report concludes that the 'effective management of the urban environment requires a new approach to the governance of our urban areas'. Rather than focus on ever more technological fixes, it says that the collective failure to improve the urban environment is because 'much of what is conventional wisdom has not been implemented effectively'. Improving the urban environment is 'everything to do with human behaviour, institutional inertia, lack of joined up government, failure to frame problems appropriately and failure to recognise the complexity of different constraints'.
The Commissioners were strongly persuaded by the evidence. But their recommendations were more technical than transformational - amending planning guidance to recognise the health benefits of greenspace; incorporating Health Impact Assessments into strategic environmental assessments; a new environmental contract between central and local government; and higher priority to green spaces around social housing.
In short, we need designing with nature to be integral to our systems. For that, it’s important to understand where in systems action can lead to fundamental change.
Let me give you two examples of this – one modest and one regional.
Beacon Regeneration Community Partnership,
As a member of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, I helped judge the Deputy Prime Minister’s sustainable communities awards.
The Beacon Regeneration Community Partnership transformed the place. The source of success was a handful of determined local residents, supported by local health professionals, teachers, police and housing officers. When government challenge funds became available and the district council was required to find out about local ideas, it was two local health workers who suggested that tackling asthma should be the priority.
Hundreds of damp, mouldy homes were improved, by installing central heating, double glazing and other energy conservation measures. With dust and damp removed from the homes, children became healthier. They went to school more often, so parents could get jobs and hold on to them, with less need for child care. Children performed better at school, improving their life chances.
This success provided the catalyst for further action, including traffic calming, dog litter bins, tree and bulb planting, free security lighting for vulnerable people, a skateboard park, and courses and self help groups in the community office and youth club.
All this was triggered by a handful of people who cared enough to be leaders when cash became available. Those two health workers didn’t dare dream of transforming the estate; but they found the point to apply levers – where their small efforts had disproportionate effect.
Let’s look at another big system.
One of the best books I have ever read - William Cronon’s
“Nature’s Metropolis” - tracks the history of
At its hub, the entrepreneurs of
The establishment of food processing
And finally in the 1890s
Identifying the leverage points in a system – in other words, small actions that have a disproportionate influence – is important for anyone wanting to trigger a significant change.
The late Professor Donella Meadows, of the US Sustainability Institute used systems analysis thinking to identify a kind of league table of dimensions in which leverage points may exist . This is her list, in increasing importance as you go down it.
Points of intervention in a system
12. Numbers (standards, indicators)
11. The size of buffers and stabilising stocks, relative to their flows
10. Material stocks and flows (how much change can we cope with?)
9. Delays relative to rate of system change
8. Negative feedback loop strength (taxes)
7. Gain in positive feedback loops (incentives)
6. Information flows (eg consumer choice)
5. Rules of the system (laws)
4. Self organisation, spontaneous innovation
3. The goals of the system
2. People’s basic mindset (instinctive behaviour)
1. The power to transcend paradigms
At the top of the list we have
numbers – big numbers. Do numbers have the power to change anything? In the
main, we react to numbers with a sense of helplessness. How many people in
A long time ago, a very senior person told me that the only things that governments could do were to make laws (and enforce them) and to levy taxes (and spend them). While better than numbers alone, laws and taxes are only halfway down the table. The reason is that politicians are constrained by the public, by those who will vote for them in future.
And enforcement becomes difficult. Can we fine people for heating their homes, while having windows open for fresh air?
There should be a law against it, we hear people say. But unless people are persuaded of the need for the law – they will surely ignore them.
Look at speed limits; set too slow they are unenforceable – everyone breaks them.
Taxes aren’t a panacea either. You may recall the fuel price escalator. The idea was to encourage people to buy more fuel efficient cars by committing to increase fuel tax each year. Rural groups led demonstrations at refineries and cut the supply of fuel to filling stations; people needed to be better persuaded of the case for the increased tax.
In truth, our elected representatives need to use their powers of influence to make laws and taxes effective as levers. They can change people’s behaviour by their passion and rhetoric.
If their influence is to result in changed behaviour, it is the cumulative small decisions of individuals that will make a huge difference. Efficient markets require better information. Better information can help people to buy products in a more discriminating way. Labelling of embedded carbon content has just started. But changed decisions will only happen if people are looking for the labels and acting on them. People need to feel engaged, and informed by such labelling, and then they can change the market towards sustainability.
Breakthrough depends on the people’s mindset. Influence comes from every leader who helps to shift the basic mindsets – footballers, big businessmen, the Royal Family, planners.
Planners could play an inspirational role here, in changing people’s mindsets. “Hang on a minute”, I hear you say, “how many people have ever heard of an inspirational planner”. Architects maybe, but planners?
That world fair in
Could the visionary approach of past planners such as Geddes or Burnham have a modern parallel? Which modern planners will inspire people to change their mindsets and behaviours in ways that will change the way we use our planet? After all, the systems analysis approach shows that such action will be more powerful than rules, taxes and subsidies. What can planners do?
Design with nature? The industry responds to development control constraints
Whenever I say to people that I am interested in planning, it’s amazing how many respond with concerns about what their neighbour has just done. Just look at that satellite dish, or loft extension. Surely the planners should have stopped that? Or what about that new development down the road? How was that ever permitted? I once came back from a week advising the Hungarian government on green belts as a way of shaping strategic development to discover Ministerial consternation when we accidentally extended development control to garden wall demolition.
But some people would have liked that control in place. Because for many British people the basic paradigm is to be against development – except of course where the development is a new extension to their own house. By contrast, in many American cities – but not all suburbs, I stress - people are proud of development and look forward to their communities growing, getting richer and gaining more services.
So, how can we shift the focus? There have been suggestions that development control and building standards enforcement could be combined – freeing up well trained planners for proper planning. But that’s not easy to envisage in a development control system with lots of discretion, unlike the zoning code approach of other countries where compliance is easy to judge from the plan.
“Putting plans first, rather than development control…”
A stronger plan-led system has been another idea. I started work on development plans and policies for the English Government at just the point where the Minister, Sir George Young, decided that he needed to concede to a widely held view that the planning system should be “plan led”. The conservation NGOs had pressed for this, to guard against development in the wrong places. And the Government of the day came around to the view that developers themselves would benefit too – from certainty about where they would get consents. What’s more, there were revolutionary thoughts that the plans would also show where the infrastructure would go in to service the new developments.
What a revolution! Planners would lead a process, with developers engaged from the start rather than in an opportunistic way, and with infrastructure providers having to shape their investment plans as a result!
Enthusiasm for the new approach caused a widespread failure of delivery. The change we made to the law was modest; and it was backed by a change in policy. That was enough to persuade developers that they had to get involved at the early stages of plan preparation. Local communities dug in around every village boundary. John Gummer coined the phrase NODAMs for those articulate new country people who somehow felt that “no development after mine” had to be the bit they would do for a sustainable countryside. Planning departments struggled and eventually won the argument about the need for extra money to make planning work properly.
There are lessons here about strategy and delivery. Don’t promise more than there are resources to deliver. And never underestimate how many specialist advisers today’s inflated land prices can fund, in the race to get permissions.
“Delivering better planning?”
The latest chapter in this story is the English White Paper on planning and housing published last month. Gordon Brown has taken a big interest in the role of planning in shaping society – but planning has been too much on the defensive. When will we get to the point where local communities – towns and cities, within their regions – are proud of the plans their local councils have adopted? When will we see the positive approach to planning communicated well here?
How will we see this new structure flex to the policy imperative of our current government to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050? There is a risk that this seems just like the big numbers in that systems analysis league table. Interesting idea, but not much I can do about it. That won’t be good enough: we shall need the overall plans to reduce carbon emissions to show the shaping of development that we will need. And that has to start now.
Yet those plans will be so much more effective if people all buy into this framework of plans and see it as a positive vision for the future of Scottish society. When I mean “all”, that can only be as a result of proper and enthusiastic communication.
And better communication?
Good communication is essential. It’s not just planners who need to engage people to see what good quality development can do for us. How many local authorities spend time explaining their strategic plans for the area, and how all the various agencies will be working together under their leadership to deliver better places? If we are going to make progress, and make the world a better place, we have to take the people with us.
We need plans that inspire – just as
Daniel Burnham’s plan of
What’s more we need land use
planning not to be an afterthought to the latest policies on schools, or
housing, or transport, or rural development, or whatever. We need it to be at
the heart – to be the key integrative mechanism that helps to ensure that the
systems in our society work well. In my view, the land use consequences of new
policies should be considered at the same time, and explained in the White
Papers and policy statements. So, for example, we should not just be saying
that we want rural development, and then finding that there isn’t the transport
infrastructure to support it; or urban regeneration in
The Green Alliance test to judge political parties’ green credentials included one for planning . “Value, support and develop our planning system as a democratic tool for protecting and enhancing the natural and built environment of our countryside and towns”. I believe that planning needs to be much more ambitious – setting the vision and delivery arrangements for a sustainable world in which climate change is the most significant driver to be tackled, for the benefit of all who follow us.
For whose benefit?
Remember that the rules we are putting in today are probably those we needed 10 years ago. So what will tomorrow’s rules be, that we should be putting in place today?
Planners need to engage, knowing that they are acting in the world of global capitalism – but that their values are more likely to be the creation of sustainable communities based on ecological literacy and the practice of ecodesign. As Fritjof Capra has pointed out, the goal of global economy is to maximise the wealth and power of its elites; the goal of ecodesign is to maximise the sustainability of the web of life. Planners need to help harness the first to deliver the second.
predicted catastrophic dehumanization, and for that reason opposed the
imposition of the
He argued passionately for a restoration of organic human purpose in the larger scheme of things, a task requiring a human personality capable of “primacy over its biological needs and technological pressures”, and able to “draw freely on the compost from many previous cultures.”
Mankind has a special place in the global system, deriving from our knowledge and our potential capability to work together for the common good. We have a unique responsibility to try to restore the natural system, including our role within it, back to reasonable equilibrium. That responsibility is to achieve sustainable development; action to address climate change is a big part of it.
This is not a task that can be left
to politicians alone. All of us interested in planning should rally to the
cause. We need to make sure that plans for the future are realistic, fully engaged
with the new climate change agenda and seeking to encourage sustainable
development. Planning needs to break out of it own cosy
world of dedicated guidance notes; every government policy development should
surely encompass land and development issues – in a properly joined up
We need to boost some planning personalities. Has any planner ever been on Question Time? Such leaders might win more respect for proper planning – as distinct from the development control that so many of the population mistake for planning. We need good communication and inspiring leadership, based around a real sense of mankind’s responsibility to fix the world, and working with nature.
That’s surely what Geddes would expect of us. It’s what Mumford championed. It’s what McHarg showed so well in his time. And it’s in what Ebenezer Howard demonstrated in the Garden Cities movement. Maybe in Gordon Brown’s enthusiasm for “eco-cities” down south, we do see a new champion emerging. And here, we see John Swinney in charge of the sustainable economy, the ever more modern planning system and new infrastructure – all together evidence of a new joined up approach.
So I end with Burnham’s famous quote: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistence.”
As U2’s great track One Tree Hill reminds us, probably not inspired by Geddes, ecology or the Valley Section, life flows like a river to the sea.
One Tree Hill
We turn away to face the cold, enduring chill
As the day begs the night for mercy love
The sun so bright it leaves no shadows
Carved into stone
On the face of earth
The moon is up and over One Tree Hill
We see the sun go down in your eyes
You run like a river, on to the sea
You run like a river runs to the sea
Planning and the public interest in the modern world
Good evening. My sincere thanks to the Minister, Malcolm Chisholm, who now has a very ‘well kent’ face in the planning community. I am grateful for your time when I guess that the last thing you really want is yet another rant about (what you should be doing about) the future of land use planning and (of course) the new world order.
My deep felt
thanks to the Royal Town Planning Institute in
It is also
daunting to follow in the footsteps of Jonathon Porritt
and Raymond Young. In their
commemorative lectures, both gave enormously refreshing insights into how land
use planning, property development and environmental management still have
substantive roles to play in enhancing the wellbeing
That is essentially the remit of what I would like to touch on with respect to the public interest both as a concept and its content for land use planning. I believe that the public interest is the forgotten dimension to the modernisation of land use planning – and it goes much further than simply stating and re-stating the purpose of land use planning in a modern world. As Geddes stated:
As in all true progress, we must not only comprehend and transform the environment without but develop our life within.
Jonathon Porritt’s recently published book – Capitalism as if the world really mattered – asserts an optimism about the state of nature, the relationship between the business world and the environment, and the perceptions and willingness of societies, communities and individuals to engage with current agendas. This evening I will present a rather more contrary view – one that is much more pessimistic, declinist and even dismal in nature. My fear is that we now live in an ever more dynamic, dangerous and uncertain world. I fear that without an unambiguous re-assertion of the public interest (in general) and for land use planning (in particular) we will not get to grips that that uncertain world.
In his book - The Great Unravelling: Losing Our Way in the New Century, the US economist Professor Paul Krugman states A lot has happened these past times…..-stock market decline and business scandal, energy crisis and environmental backsliding, budget deficits and recession, terrorism and troubled communities. To which I would be tempted to add climate change, sectarianism, racism, community violence, ill health, political complacency, personal greed, conspicuous consumption, collective myopia and the disenfranchisement of individuals and neighbourhoods.
Paul Ormerod in his recent book (Why Most Things Fail) questions why government designs interventions, measures and policy initiatives which seek to mimic the perceived (and artificial) business economic model. This itself is flawed, and does not work perfectly, as indeed it is assumed to do. If the model does not work, why try to replicate it? It is clearly time for land use planning to be seen to be different, and to deal with the intricate and complex land use planning and development issues and relationships in a more realistic manner.
In populist terms we could call these prevailing conditions as indicative of the ‘post-modern’, and yet with the land use planning system as we have it today (and even with land use planning modernisation) we are attempting to manage change and conflict using a model which was forged in the age of modernity. This would suggest a very fundamental tension in practice.
Whilst the land use planning reforms are an exciting re-configuration of what was already in the land use planning system – the National Planning Framework, development hierarchy, development management and the opportunities for greater civil engagement – these mimic the apparatus which was already in place. The invocation of a needed culture change is new, and needed but is it enough? I would argue that we need to re-invent a much deeper thinking around the public interest concept and shopping list to guide the new land use planning system.
The importance of context
My presentation is based on a personal celebration of 30 years of being fortunate enough to live and work in Scotland, engaging with ideas associated with land use planning and development, of observing and having the privilege of meeting and working with a vast array of challenging people – across and within very different communities, in professional practice and policy communities, and in the planning academy – and I will draw on these diverse influences in my presentation.
Indeed, I should
declare that notwithstanding my very pessimistic outlook, I would point to many
examples of innovation in land use planning practice in the last 30 years in
Scotland: the introduction of National Planning Guidelines, which represent a
considerable innovation in devising a strategic approach to land use planning
practice and priority setting, joined up strategic spatial planning in areas as
diverse as the Highlands and Islands, the North East of Scotland and the West
Central belt, and the reliance on robust forecasting led land use planning in
areas of growth. Indeed as Urlan Wannop
showed in his learned discussion of regionalism in west central
Early in my career, I was fortunate enough to work alongside Professor JB McLoughlin – an Olympian in terms of developing ideas and thinking around land use planning – and his early death robbed us of a philosopher par excellence about the changing spirit and purpose of land use planning in contemporary society. Brian taught me never ‘not to contextualise’. He argued that we always need to position land use planning in the bigger picture, and that will enable us to understand the individual ‘episodes’ that take place.
This position is confirmed by the work of others. Professor Sir Peter Hall (in his magisterial book Cities in Civilisation) demonstrates there is always a need to maintain cognisance of the bigger picture, particularly with respect to the very pressing shifts in technology, economic structures, ideas and governance arrangements. All these dynamic changes impact on our attempts as a society at large to devise a land use planning system which is, in the words of Jim McKinnon, ‘fit for purpose’.
Criticisms of land use planning
There can be little doubt that the land use planning apparatus, processes, outcomes and operation are criticised from all quarters – from within government, by government agencies, by the private sector, by the business community, by think tanks (often in very graphic language), by academics, by community groups, and by the public at large.
What are the grounds for this criticism? Essentially it rests on the perceived under-performance of the land use planning in practice. The critiques rest on a shifting composite of deficits around efficiency, effectiveness, equity and performance. Yet these are very different perspectives about land use planning practice, and may well be missing the point. Is a delay in getting development onto the ground the result of a procedural delay, of political interference or a lack of an available infrastructure resource? Or is it a failure to ensure that land use planning is in a position to ‘join up’ key decisions? These are very different things and have to be addressed in very different ways.
This confusion about the role of land use planning is not new of course. As JK Galbraith observed wryly: For a public official to be called a planner was less serious than to be charged with communism or imaginative perversion, but reflected adversely nonetheless.
In light of this barrage of criticism, frustration and exasperation with land use planning I would like to examine the changing role of the public interest. This is the hidden dimension of land use planning practice. My argument is a simple one. The villain of the piece is not the land use planning system itself although that does not negate the need for modernisation, it is the lack of a clear understanding and articulation of the public interest to which it is working.
The erosion, dilution and labile nature of the public interest has isolated land use planning from its principal economic and social purpose. To regain a sense of what land use planning is trying to do, we need to re-assert the public interest, and arguably only once we have achieved this can we then engage in a meaningful modernisation of land use planning.
Today, I will argue that our overly focussed concern with the mechanics of land use planning is in danger of missing that big canvas. Land use planning cannot be disentangled from the wider forces of change. nor can land use planning and its modern idiom, spatial planning, operate effectively in a vacuum where there should be a public interest.
We must beware then of making instrumental changes and responses and seek the opportunity for a more transformative outcome. We should also be cautious about ‘reinventing the wheel’ and perhaps take the time to critically reflect on insights from the past. Action is imperative in deciding on the role of the public interest, and what is really is. Only then can land use planning do its job for the wellbeing of us all.
Towards a new public interest?
My colleague and friend Professor Mark Tewdwr Jones, in a recent paper discussing the planning films of John Betjeman, referred to the term’ planning wizards’. As Welshmen we are both drawn to the imagery. He has assured me that he did not invent the term, but we both agree that it is an appropriately evocative term to inform the current debates about the future of land use planning, and the real purpose that we would wish it to serve.
In order to consider the nature of the new public interest, I will draw on some selected ideas of 3 very special planning wizards. They offer some sobering and reflective ideas about the nature of the public interest and land use planning today – Patrick Geddes, Jane Jacobs and JK Galbraith.
Helen Meller, a biographer of Geddes, suggested that he was someone who “pioneered a sociological approach to the study of urbanisation; discovered that the city should be studied in the context of the region; predicted that the process of urbanisation could be analysed and understood; [and] believed that the application of such knowledge could shape future developments towards life enhancement for all citizens’.
What can we learn from this? Essentially, Geddes had a sense of the public interest even though he may have expressed it a rather more individualistic way. Furthermore he was operating in very particular economic and social circumstances, and specific political conditions. Individualism was the dominant ideology in society at that time, and it permeated all facets of economic, community and political debate. His influence was profound, across a range of fields that are relevant today – such as the close reciprocal relationship between social and spatial structures and processes, the potential of city regionalism and the need for evidence based land use planning (the regional survey).
In the context of city-regionalism, for example, he stated in 1904: What is the vital element which must complement our provincialism? In a single word, it is regionalism – an idea and movement which is already producing in other countries great and valuable effects.
This is a
salutary insight for those engaging with devising a city regional canvas for a
JK Galbraith (who died recently) also offers insights into contemporary land use planning practice. In perhaps his most famous work, The Affluent Society, he demonstrated the importance of investment in infrastructure to support development in the public interest, and the development of the public interest. He argued that private business "creates" consumer wants (through advertising) and artificial affluence through the production of commercial goods and services. As a consequence leading to the “private wealth – public squalor” duality. Systematic attention to the infrastructure resource then becomes important for the public interest at large. Again lessons for today.
Jane Jacobs (who also died earlier this year) celebrated the need to encourage individualism within a planning framework. She advocated organic development of cities and neighbourhoods, and the nurturing of community based social capital. For her, land use planning was an essential pre-requisite for the assertion of individualism, diversity and plurality in a modern society.
These individuals were critical analysts, deep thinkers, brilliant communicators, creative dramatists and active popularisers who sought to bring the issues alive to what was (at different times) probably a disinterested and even hostile self satisfied society and polity. A strong resonance with the challenges and issues today. Their ideas did not go uncontested. Jacobs was held to be impractical, and not reflect the reality of urban politics, which are controlled by real estate developers and suburban politicians. Galbraith was held to be anti-business, and it was suggested that he sought to restrict consumer choice. Geddes is criticised for being apolitical, and for not recognising the power relations then prevailing in his specific life world.
I would suggest that all are of real relevance to present day debates about the future of land use planning in a post modern and fragile world. Ideas are important. As John Maynard Keynes declared in his very famous book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money: “sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous”
Planning and the concept of the public interest
In practice, the public interest refers to the "common well-being" or "general welfare". The concept and its content is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself. While nearly everyone claims that aiding the common well-being or general welfare is positive, there is little, if any, consensus on what exactly constitutes the public interest. Indeed, the concept and articulation of the public interest is not only crucial, it is a poorly defined concept in political thinking. The public interest involves a range of issues around political thinking, legal theory, welfare economics and mediation. I will not be able to do all these justice this evening – and I apologise for my blatant reductionism.
John Dunn in his history of democracy traces the development of democracy through the maturing of political thinking and argument, the evolving forms of political organisation and the associated struggles. He notes the sophisticated articulation of our form of democracy and its relationship with free market capitalism, the articulation of private property rights, and its expression in representative and participative forms. What we mean by the public interest was and is forged in this cauldron of societal and individual change, power and influence.
There are different views on how many members of the public must benefit from an action before it can be declared to be in the public interest. Does an action have to benefit every single member of society in order to be in the public interest? Can an action benefit some and harm none and be considered to be in the public interest? Welfare economics, for example, allows for a compensation test to be applied to demonstrate a ‘net’ gain to society. in practice, this compensation test has only to be demonstrated to exist, it does not necessarily follow that it will be.
The public interest is often contrasted with the private or individual interest, under the assumption that what is good for society may not be good for a given individual and vice versa. The public interest is bound up with the prevailing and inherited culture in society, with the mediation and expression of power, of the construction of knowledge, of ideology and political thinking, of property rights, an rules of law – all of which make it difficult to pin down exact definitions of the concept. Indeed some observers have suggested that other issues like gender, class, race have rendered the very notion of the public interest untenable.
How do we
articulate the public interest in practice?
There are a number of different options here (Here I follow Campbell
& Marshall, 2002). First, the
virtual representation approach that the public interest can be distilled
through political processes and rational deliberation. This demands a robust set of procedures, and
assumptions about vested interests and ideologies. Second, the liberalism approach to the public
interest is associated more with the
The content of the public interest for land use planning
If the concept has changed then what of its content? How has the public interest fared in the transition from land use planning as part of the modernist agenda to the post modern context.
First, in 1947, for example, land use planning was tangible, recognised and able to be articulated. It was a formidable part of the welfare state. It was intended to serve the concept of the public interest as then understood and to define it in practical terms. What was its content? These were pressing maters. Slum clearance, new housing at higher standards, rebuilding of towns and cities, construction of industrial estates, council housing and community facilities, full employment, regional industrial policy – carrots and sticks – roads and infrastructure, community health and education provision, new towns, national parks (in England and Wales), environmental designations.
It was put into place in that period where social democratic ideas were paramount. Government was characterised by rationalism, bureaucratic processes and hierarchical arrangements (Weber’s iron cage). These which were top down, and have been described as dirigiste and assertive. It was driven by the activities of Mark Tewdwr Jones’ wizards with: “vision, rationality and the desire to bring about change for the good of society”.
It was also driven by a public interest concept that acknowledged that markets alone would not secure full employment, nor achieve that across national economic space. It also recognised that public expenditure was required to lead the market, and to provide key facilities such as infrastructure. Regulation was also accepted as the means of controlling business where it imposed wider social costs which were not absorbed in market prices.
It was enabled too by the relatively limited rights of the citizen. Yet these were very particular times and the public interest could be set out in such practical terms. There was a confidence in asserting that form of social construction of the public interest. The citizenry was relatively passive, and the results were evident.
Arguably, by the 1960s, this very tangible, and visible concrete action agendas was well on the way to completion. This and the particular economic conditions (the long post war boom) now created very different conditions. The land use planning system and its processes of change were now being criticised. Perhaps land use planning had been too successful in that particular form.
A number of observers were critical of the way in which land use planning acted, and which appeared not always to be in the public interest. Commentators included John Rex and Robert Moore – 1967 – “Race, Community and Conflict”; Norman Dennis -1970 - 'People and Planning”; Jon Gower Davies – 1972 – “The Evangelistic Bureaucrat”; Norman Dennis - 1972, “Public Participation and Planners”; and Robert Goodman – 1972- “After the Planners”. Heady stuff!
Perhaps the most famous study of them all – by Michael Young and Peter Wilmott observed that: Yet even when the town planners have set themselves to create communities anew as well as houses, they have still put their faith in buildings, sometimes speaking as though all that was necessary for neighbourliness was a neighbourhood unit, for community spirit a community centre. If this were so, then there would be no harm in shifing people around the country, for what is lost could soon be regained by skillful architecture and design. But there is surely more to a community than that.
This was an international
We must not forget the wider changes taking place – in economic conditions, in changing political and policy ideas about planning at large and for regions and cities, the social shifts and the rise of an articulate environmental lobby. Here, the public interest became less concrete as a concept, and indeed its content began to be questioned. Indeed the state itself has been described as over-crowded. How this came about is important.
The rise of public participation, the powerful surge of neo-liberal thinking, the commodification of land and property and its associated values, the lack of interference with that landed windfall, economic growth and a very dysfunctional spatial economy have all contributed to the demise of the very concept of the public interest, and a very blurred understanding (as a result of competition over the public interest) of what it should be in practice.
My thanks to John Watchman at this juncture for reminding me of Patrick McAuslan’s study of the ideologies of planning law. This identifies the competing ideas around the competing ideologies underpinning land use planning practice. The traditional common law approach to protect private property; the orthodox public administration approach to advance the public interest; and a relatively more ‘populist’ approach which seeks to advance public participation as a countervailing force against the other ideologies. The latter has also matured from process to more substantive concerns. At the time of writing (1981) the public interest was clearly acknowledged a role in land use planning practice.
Along the way there have been important shifts in emphasis. On the one hand, public participation as an ideological practice has become much more complex. It has matured from a simple opportunity to participate in the decision making for the future land use planning context for a locality. We can see this by looking at the intellectual threads in public participation. These ideas are set out by Heather Campbell and Robert Marshall (2000), and I paraphrase here.
Participation can be based on instrumental participation (to secure individual self interest); communitarian participation (to secure a collective well being, and based on rights and responsibilities); consumer politics (to exercise rights as a consumer and the facilitate choice); politics of presence (for social exclusion); and deliberative democracy (open dialogue and shared solutions).
I would argue that the instrumental participation and the concern with consumption have asserted themselves. Over time, however, changing political ideas, the remorseless rise of individualism, commercialism, materialism and expectations at large have transformed the concept of the public interest.
I am reminded of a Vivienne Westwood T-shirt slogan “Be Reasonable – Demand the Impossible”!! Changing times!
On the other hand, the public interest has been subject to capture. Greater competition between private property and public participation has taken place for the public interest, along with the sublimation of the public interest in general. Arguably then, public participation in land use planning has made the concept of the public interest even more complex and layered. It has also rendered the content of the public interest more difficult as new agendas are asserted in a competitive manner.
What is the result? Sir Donald Mackay has helpfully drawn attention to the shouting loudly syndrome, which extends not only to the private sector but to the fragmented and congested elements of the public sector as well. Essentially the public interest is now invisible. It has been desiccated and filleted and to all intents and purposes does not now exist.
Essentially the public interest is now invisible. It has been desiccated and filleted and to all intents and purposes does not now exist. As Mr. David Blunkett recently asserted: Too often people demand rights, without understanding the corollary of developing a sense of duty, a way of thinking which takes them beyond the satisfaction of their immediate personal needs into supporting their family and the broader community.
What of its content?
In a recently published and very perceptive essay, for example, Jill Grant very usefully explored the changing basis of the public interest for land use planning She argues that, at the present time, land use planners view the public interest as an abstraction. It is now a concept that is necessarily fluid, tenuous and very context sensitive.
Land use planning has been divorced from economic policy for regional and urban regeneration. There is a lack of a spatial redistribution policy so land use planning does not have a role to play in preparing the way for new patterns of economic activity. The recent introduction of community planning completely separate from land use planning simply served to destroy the vast experience that the land use planning system had developed with respect to community engagement.
Land use planning has been made the conduit for wider social goals, but this is done in a ad hoc manner – witness the ongoing debates for the provision of affordable housing. Infrastructure, especially water and sewerage is a separate matter.
Land use planning is saddled with very complex ideas which only serve to pander to the smokescreen of democracy, and only serve to raise expectations, and the interest in Good Neighbour Agreements, Mediation and Third Party Rights Of Appeal all suggest an abject failure of the public interest to be articulated.
Society sits on a cleft stick – it has blurred consumption with politics, or choice. Richard Sennett points to the creation of the new economy, which is based on short termism, expediency, potential ability rather than achievement, a willingness to discount or abandon past experience. No critical reflection. He suggests this is indicative of ‘enfeebled culture’.
Thus society wants its cake and wants to eat it - to be technologically connected but not to have to live with mobile telephony masts; to be comfortable but to contest pylons, or being to travel but not to have to tolerate motorway extensions; to be able to fly but no extra runways, thank you; to have cheap energy, but not wind-farms; to enjoy a high environmental premium but leave our green belt alone, and we are not minded to have marine national parks; to be assured of a quality of life but not to locate water and sewerage facilities.
Thus planning is not able to look forwards as we are confused about the concept of a public interest, and we cannot devise what it should be in practice. Thus land use planning is always looking over its shoulder, or glancing furtively sideways and it is certainly always moving backwards.
Indeed even in the utilitarian strand of thinking, Richard Layard in his recent book dealing with happiness argues that measuring happiness is the new science as notwithstanding our material wellbeing, we are less happy. Layard argues that we have lost that measure of happiness and that as a result people are calling out for a new articulation of the common good: “the greatest happiness of all…….to care for others as well as ourselves”
This is a metaphor for devising a new sense of the public interest to guide society at large, and activities such as land use planning. Maybe there is a wider awareness of the need to articulate a new agenda for change.
The public interest is essentially the common good, or the common weal, or the community stake in a well ordered society. Thus, the intended outcomes of land use planning centre on guiding and regulating land and property developments in order to serve all our best interests. Importantly, it is acknowledged that the public interest is greater than the sum total of all the individual interests in society. This is not an easy task, but it does sit at the core of contemporary state-market-civil relations.
Today, a very real concern with devising appropriate arrangements for a land use planning for the modern world is in danger of being an instrumental response to the criticisms of planning. There is a need to re-assert, to re-discover the public interest, to define what we want for society at large and how land use planning can go out and achieve it. What is needed?
Will Hutton (2005) in an elegant essay about land use planning stated: that, in turn, requires a richer national conversation in which all the phenomena that connect - insecurity, inequality, distrust of the new, disbelief that private ambitions can have public benefits and scepticism about the effectiveness of any public action - are openly talked about and resolutions sought. That requires politicians prepared to dare and citizens prepared to respond.
Richard Layard in his study of Happiness adds: Human beings have largely conquered nature but they still have to conquer themselves. We still have a long way to go, particularly if we recall JK Galbraith who observed: Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.
Today the public interest is much more layered, atomistic, contested and is something competed over by various different interests. In short, the public interest is difficult to define and assert, and this is where the problems for land use planning begin.
Thank you for your patience – you have been very kind.
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Architecture and Design
It is a privilege - and a somewhat daunting
prospect - to be asked to give this lecture. As an architectural student in the
1960’s I came across Cities in Evolution and it had an important
impact on me - Geddes one of the inspirations behind
This is not a lecture on what is in Cities in Evolution. I want to look at the relevance of some of his
ideas in the book to
I should admit right away that I am not a planner; I am not an economist; I am not an urban designer, and I am certainly not a botanist! I am an architect by training but not by practice! (I am still a member of the RIAS, and now as chair of Architecture+DesignScotland) I am basically a housing and community regeneration policy person. And in some ways Geddes can be considered as one of the founding fathers of a community based approach to regeneration.
Housing cannot be looked at in isolation – when we set up ASSIST in 1970 in Govan we were immediately bombarded with planning, legal, social and economic questions, so we learnt very quickly that interconnection or what Geddes would describe as ‘Holism’ was essential - place /work/ folk was very important.
And through my time in Scottish Homes, I became more aware of the need of considering place not just as the built environment, but more in terms of sustainability. Last year in this lecture Jonathan Porritt looked at Geddes as the father of sustainable development. I will try and avoid that area!
And although I now live in a small village of
under 1000 population, and have a particular interest in rural housing and
rural development, I have lived and worked in Glasgow (lived in Govan for 20 years), worked in Edinburgh and has had
working relationship with the other cities.
I have also worked in
It is through that experience that I look at cities, and through these eyes that I reread Geddes. So this is by way of an apology that I will only make passing reference to issues about city regions and conurbations which Patrick Geddes vividly describes in Cities in Evolution, and to some of the town planning issues that members of the RTPI hold dear.
Even rural dwellers like me recognise
Cities in Evolution
Before getting into the subject in more depth, I
would like to make a couple of comments about the book itself. It was published
in 1915; although it was mainly written before the War (Curiously it has major
In his introduction Geddes explains what he is trying to do in the book: It is ‘not a technical treatise for the town planner or city councillor, nor a manual of civics for the sociologist or teacher… nor is it solely an attempt at the popularisation of the reviving art of town planning, of the renewing science of civics, to the general reader… He appeals to his readers ‘To enter into the spirit of our cities, their historic essence and continuous life.
It was aimed at a wide audience – effectively an
introduction to Civics. This remains a challenge for us in
It is a book that is full of optimism. Geddes was an internationalist and a Eutopian – not with a ‘U’ of Sir Thomas More that implied an idealised ‘no place’ but Eutopia with an ‘Eu’ – that Geddes believed could be achieved through local and international co-operation. It is essentially an ideal of consensus, of cities and communities where everyone shares common goals. ‘Essential harmony of all these interests and aims’
But can it be considered as too naïve? This kind
of consensual approach ignores the socio-political context of the time - e.g.
demand for universal suffrage, growth of trade unions, of the new left, Marxist
inspired, like the ILP, and other ‘bottom up’ struggles that were brewing
through the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. It is intriguing to think of
some of the key events that were happening as it was published – e.g. Mary Barbour
and the rent strikes in
It is as if planning can be separate from socio-politics. Indeed there is some evidence that Geddes was not fond of politicians, although in Cities in Evolution he thinks that ‘A better attitude in town and county councils has been arising. Old councillors are improving or retiring; and new ones are coming in who may be as yet immature, and only semi-articulate, but are more awake to public and civic interests, to the condition of the people and their need of improved housing’.
Murdo Macdonald in his essay Patrick Geddes: Environment and Culture suggests that Geddes was interested in anarchy as a political philosophy as it proposed a co-operative self-government based on a minimum of vested power –
not the anarchy of bombs but that of thoughtful social reformers. In our modern parlance is this devolution and subsidiarity?
The Geddes vision and the importance of housing to it
Besides optimism, the other key thread that
comes thru’ Cities in Evolution is that of vision – of seeing and promulgating
a new world. As a disciple of Huxley, Geddes was an
evolutionary Visionary – a believer in the cooperative development of life’s
processes towards equilibrium rather than the barren struggle of
• The Paleotechnic age: which he describes as life threatening – the exploitation of coal, steel, oil and people in the growth of the grimy industrial city, which ignores the natural world to satisfy human greed.
• The Neotechnic age: which he describes as life insurgent – the transition to a healthier environment using new cleaner energies (mainly electricity), in which nature conservation becomes a desirable imperative; with people being valued, a balance struck between work and leisure, and the natural environment becoming a necessary part of people’s lives.
Where, one might ask, 90 years later, does
Among Geddes’ visions
for the future, housing played a critical role. He has ideas to propose about
how housing systems, layout and design should be altered and the impact that
these would have upon the Neotechnic city. As ever,
he has learnt from abroad. And he is concerned that
Thus was created the basis of housing policy
that determined the main thrusts of city development in
Geddes was an enthusiast for the Garden City Movement. He advocated them strongly in Cities in Evolution – an antidote to overcrowding; the separation of home from grimy workplaces; an opportunity for people to be close to nature; of ‘social co-operation and effective good will’. And of course they required proper town planning. But he stresses that such suburban development depends on good transportation systems, and emphasises that the development of suburban railways, trams and now buses allows for the growth of suburbia.
What, one wonders, would Geddes of made of suburbia as it has become? Closely packed rows of virtually identical houses, grouped not round the village green as Howard and Unwin would have anticipated, but round the car. Cul-de-sacs designed to ensure that through traffic is kept to a minimum; indeed some people have suggested that the greatest influence on modern suburban layouts are not planners, but a mixture of insurance companies and the police, for whom ‘Secured by Design’ appears to mean trying to see how close one can get the car to the living room, and to ensure that any stranger feels unwelcome walking around the place, and therefore stays away. It is a complete contrast to ‘chumminess’ of Geddes’ vision of the Garden City, of the cooperativeness and what later Jane Jacobs would describe as the ‘eyes in the street’ approach of mixed communities.
And of course, Geddes
would have expected developments to be properly serviced by public transport.
One suspects that he would have been horrified by the way we approach the
transportation issue now; our dependence on the car and the impact that it
makes both on climate change and on city center congestion. He would have
lauded the example of
While there are exceptions to the modern suburban layouts – e.g. the Drum – the majority come nowhere near the criteria developed in the Scottish Executive’s placemaking policy statement Designing Places:
• Contributing to a sense of identity
• Creating safe and pleasant places
• Creating easier movement
• Offering a sense of welcome
• Contributing to adaptable places
• Making good use of resources
In the introduction to Designing Places, we are reminded that Sam Galbraith (then Minister) asked the question ‘Where are the conservation areas of tomorrow? And it’s back to Geddes.
Geddes did of course advocate not only Garden Cities, but the regeneration of older town centres and the conservation of buildings that are part of the story of the development of our cities.
And while Cities in Evolution may be the book which inspires and sets out the vision of Eutopia; the Geddes that has
always intrigued and inspired me personally has been his approach to the regeneration
With the creation of the New Town (what would
now be regarded as a kind of posh suburb), the more prosperous folk moved out
leaving the poorest people in the Old Town – a stinking, unsanitary place. No
wonder that it was said in the 18th century that
you could smell the
Geddes was appalled by the living
conditions. He may have drawn our attention to the conditions of the working
class in Cities in Evolution, but unlike many other commentators, he was also
prepared to do something about it. 6 months after marrying Anna, the Geddeses moved into
Geddes was not just about
improving the conditions of the poor. He clearly believed that socially and
economically mixed communities were essential for the wellbeing
of the city – and to encourage the better off to come back he developed
And then there was the creation of a series of self-governing student hostels, including Riddle’s Court.
But Geddes was not
just concerned with the social and built environment. He had set up the
Environment Society to improve and renew the
Then of course there was the Outlook Tower – taking over the Short’s observatory and camera obscura and turning it into a place of information and of study – not just for aspiring professionals (particularly women) but for the general citizen who was to be enthused and excited about how cities have developed and the possibilities for the future – both here and abroad and to understand their own potential. Education was clearly fun!
Of course the amount of physical change that Geddes was personally able to achieve in the Old Town was small, but he inspired and set in motion an approach of combining the improvement of living conditions with building conservation, with (what we would now call) environmental improvements, with a socially mixed community.
As an aside, while considering the Old Town of
Edinburgh, what would Geddes have made of the
Scottish Parliament at the foot of the
And what of Geddesian lessons for us in the early 21st century? There are three particular ones I want to draw out.
1 The centrality of the citizen in regeneration process
Cities are made by citizens; we in the design
professions provide a framework or backdrop to their actions. Whatever we do as
design professionals, as citizens we alter, adapt and change our built
environment. In our new
Several years ago, Charles MacKean, then the Secretary of the RIAS, coined the phrase the ‘Medicis of Maryhill’ to describe the Community Based Housing Association movement. They may not be the totally self help build groups that Geddes may have had in his Eutopian vision, but in many ways they are the natural successors to his co-operatives and to his Edinburgh Social Union. They have been concerned with housing conditions, have masterminded the regeneration of whole districts, have pioneered new urban housing, and are at the forefront of sustainability with attempts to both reduce fuel poverty and carbon emissions.
Perhaps, however, their major achievement has been as vehicles for community empowerment. Associations have undertaken social and economic programmes that have created communities of confidence. They have provided the basis for many people in so called ‘deprived neighbourhoods’ with the opportunity to manage change in their own communities, and to grow in self confidence. This fits very strongly with the Scottish Executive’s regeneration policy ‘Better Communities in Scotland: Closing the Gap which talks about community empowerment as a key component of transforming areas of social inclusion: ‘a higher priority on providing individuals and communities with the skills and confidence necessary to take advantage of opportunities and to play a full part in the life of their communities‘.
One of the key things that have helped in this area of community empowerment is that of commissioning and working with design teams – particularly architects. There are a lot of young architects who have developed their skills in conjunction with local people in housing associations. Working with architects, with surveyors and contractors is a crucial empowering process. Communities are proud of having been involved in the process – “I was involved in that development; I have made a contribution to my community” I recently enjoyed a morning with Committee members of Community Based Housing Associations who were very keen to talk about how they were involved in design issues.
However, the pressures on the housing associations and on their regulator and paymaster – Communities Scotland – are such that efficiency drives (in other words – can we get more houses for the same or less amount of money) are proposing to reduce the number of developing associations, so that smaller (and community based) may have to buy their houses from a larger (and probably more professional) supplier.
So what does this say to people in these kind of communities – you can only have the cheapest houses, you are not to be encouraged to take charge of the process (buy your houses from ‘experts’?), being a client is too complex a task for you? Are community based associations only to be regarded as capable of managing houses and not commissioning them? And if the design process is a major part of empowering people – what price is put on that?
We are about to have a modernised planning system. Much is made in the Consultation paper about the planning system becoming more inclusive – especially by front loading the process. This is clearly a sensible approach, but requires a cultural change amongst all stakeholders, including councillors and the public. To make the new planning system work, we need to equip people to engage effectively – what in regeneration terms has been called capacity building.
And capacity building applies equally to the professionals who have to develop new skills to work in new ways with stakeholders. How do we do this? Will there be sufficient resources made available for training?
2 Promoting good architecture and design
This leads me to my second point. I believe that 21st century Scottish citizens are becoming more and more interested in planning, architecture and design. They are aspiring to higher quality buildings. This month thousands of Scots will pour through buildings of all shapes and sizes, old and new as part of Doors Open Days. The most unlikely people (like my local over 50’s club) are queuing up to see round the new Parliament and are being stimulated by it – they may not all like it, but there is a debate going on. How do we capitalise on this interest?
There is a question of whether the planning system that we have encourages or could encourage better design. Close to where I live a little bungalow is being redeveloped – into a three storey mock Tower house, with numerous extensions. Friends ask me – how did it get planning permission when we (admittedly in a conservation area) have to match 19th century windows at an extension at the back of the house? Or are required to put up chimney stacks in a new all-electric house? There is some attraction in the notion of shifting away from asking the question – is this good enough to approve? (that is: ‘it will just do’) to the question is it bad enough to reject? (it will just not do!) But there is circularity here – it is back to the question – the critical question - of capacity building and training.
The general interest in architecture
particularly may also have been stimulated by the appearance on our turf of
some of the architectural superstars – like Foster, Gehry,
Hadid. And how good are we
at promoting our own talent? Tonight
So where are the correspondents in our national
papers on architecture, planning and the built environment? Do new buildings
and planning proposals not deserve to be reviewed (and perhaps given stars!) as
other parts of the creative world – and not just reviewed in the professional
magazines? How about a few less makeover programmes,
and few more programmes that look at current
developments both in the
3 Sustainability is not just about economics
Geddes was first and foremost a Botanist who became a renaissance man. ‘A lad of pairts’. His triad - place/work/folk – is in that order because he believed firmly that folk could only be understood when work and place had been studied thoroughly. When folk chose their work they could shape the place according to their needs.
We live in generation that puts economic (work)
at the top of the agenda. For our cities to thrive, they must be economically
viable. That becomes the driving force. Scottish Cities are vitally important
as our economic powerhouses, as the major meeting places for people, and for
tourism. But the quality of our cities, the quality of places, is fundamental
to the quality of life we can offer to our citizens. The Executive has recognised the importance of placemaking
- “The quality of
There is a new confidence growing in
Geddes was a botanist and for him
a garden and green space was critical. The whole question of the status of
landscaping and public spaces within regeneration is still to be accepted in
I want to finish with a suggestion –
particularly relating to the issues of capacity building and the participation
of citizens in our place making activities. Mention the name of Patrick Geddes to many people and after they have stopped saying
‘Think Global, Act Local’, ‘Place, work, folk’, and ‘sympathy, synthesis,
synergy’, will say ‘
We need to ‘up our game’, not just as
professionals, but as citizens. And the
• An education centre – for schools and for the general public; with potential relationship with local colleges and university
• A history of how the city has evolved
• The plans for the city
• A huge model
of the city (whatever happened to the
• Awareness raising on issues such as sustainability, environmental protection
• Capacity building for the new planning system
• An opportunity for citizen participation in future planning
• A place for visiting exhibitions on placemaking (like the Bavarian exhibition)
• A base for more formal courses for professional groups
• Design advice
• Local planning aid
• A 21st century form of Camera Obscura – using CCTV technology!
Such a series of local arrangements should be complemented
by national programmes including study visits abroad.
And we need to see placemaking and the citizens’ role
therein as a fundamental part of developing the new
Geddes, P., (1915) Cities in Devolution Ernest Benn
by Percy Johnson-
Welter, V.M., Lawson, J., (Eds) (2000) The City after Patrick Geddes Lang,
Stephen, W., (2004)Think Global, Act Local Luath Press,
Scottish Executive (2001) Designing Places
Sustainable Development Past and Present
Sir Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture
I feel deeply honoured to have been invited by the Royal Town Planning Institute and Saltire Society to give the first Patrick Geddes Commemorative Lecture on the 150th Anniversary of his birth. Unbeknownst to those rash enough to extend this invitation to me, I have for a long time been a great admirer of Patrick Geddes, and believe him to be one of the most important of those early pioneers of what we now know as sustainable development.
I discovered his work by chance, more than ten
years ago, when running a course at
One star in my galaxy at
I subsequently came across an extraordinary book edited by Frank Novak called “Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence”, which provides a compelling account of this lopsided relationship conducted almost entirely through correspondence over seventeen years. Mumford was quick to recognise the principal sources of inspiration for Patrick Geddes’s work, particularly Thomas Huxley, Frederic le Play, Peter Kropotkin and Ernst Hãckel (whose “_kologie”, published in 1869, is seen by many as the first major ecological text). In “Cities of Tomorrow”, Sir Peter Hall comments on the way in which Mumford built so successfully on this body of work, using it to underpin his own regional planning association in America – and if you want to know where the contemporary notion of bio-regionalism came from, look no further than the work of Mumford and Geddes.
Although it’s true that a lot of Geddes’s writing is opaque, he was a dab hand at the odd sustainable development soundbite! I much enjoy pointing out to sustainable development activists that one of their favourite catch phrases, “Think Global, Act Local”, did not emerge from that crucible of catchphrases, the 1992 Earth Summit, but rather from Patrick Geddes’s “Cities in Evolution” in 1915! Beyond that, he was constantly seeking to provide snappy summaries of his ideas – often in the form of verbal troikas! His educational troika, “Head, Heart and Hand”, remains one of the best known of these, and I shall be touching on that at the end of my Lecture, just as I shall be returning to his concept of “Place, Work, Folk”.
My own favourite, however, lies in his three Ss: Sympathy (for all people and for the natural world); Synthesis (of the different parts of a system); and Synergy (the combined, cooperative actions of people working together to make their place a better place). It’s clear that Geddes would have been a great champion of today’s “stakeholder approach” to getting things sorted out, let alone of the “Planning for Real” movement!
Enough history! Here we are now in 2004, giving new voice to many of those earlier insights, picked up and amplified through the increasingly influential concept of sustainable development. I must of course declare a vested interest here: as Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission it is my job to extol both the intellectual authority and the convening power of sustainable development, and to go on pointing out to those in politics still flailing around to find a genuinely “big idea” to match the massive challenges of the 21th Century, that it’s already right there under their noses - and it’s called sustainable development.
As we know, some of those challenges are environmental – climate change, overfishing, water shortages, deforestation and so on. Some are social – security issues, poverty, growing wealth disparities and so on. And some are economic. But what is more important than any one of those challenges in its own right is the degree to which its impacts on all the others. It’s for that reason that the main principle used by the Sustainable Development Commission is “putting sustainable development at the centre”: “Sustainable development should be the organizing principle of all democratic societies, underpinning all other goals, policies and processes. It provides a framework for integrating economic, social and environmental concerns over time, not through crude trade-offs, but through the pursuit of mutually reinforcing benefits. It promotes good governance, healthy living, innovation, life–long learning and all forms of economic growth which secure the natural capital upon which we depend. It reinforces social harmony and seeks to secure each individual’s prospects of leading a fulfilling life.”
With that in mind, I sometimes despair when I hear of politicians talking about “joined-up politics”. Joined-up politics really isn’t a question of improved crossdepartmental cooperation in policy-making, but of a completely different way of looking at what we now have to do to build a secure, equitable and sustainable future for human kind.
That’s not a prospect available to us today with any of the “business–as-usual” models of progress advocated by mainstream politicians. The degree of institutionalised denial remains astonishing. To give but one example, it’s all but impossible to discuss the blindingly obvious reality that the growth in human numbers between 1950 (when our population was around 3 billion), 2000 (around 6 billion), and 2050 (likely to be around 9 billion) is probably the single most important reality that we have to take stock of in coping with today’s interlocking crises. Yet such an assertion is so politically incorrect that I’m not even sure I should be uttering it in my capacity as Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission!
But let’s get a little bit more logical about this. With climate change, for instance. After twenty years of painstaking research and sophisticated computer modelling, mediated for the most part through the impeccable authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we now know that climate change is a demonstrable phenomenon, in our midst right now, and threatening increasingly severe disruptions in the future. Even the benighted administration of George Bush would now appear to have accepted that reality.
We’ve heard over the last few weeks that
The most serious policy contender for this next
phase of climate change diplomacy goes by the name of “contract and converge” -
requiring the nations of the rich world dramatically to contract their
emissions of greenhouse gases to allow nations of the poor world to grow their
economies in part through an inevitable increase in the consumption of fossil
fuels. At some stage, (still to be defined, but a lot closer than a lot of
politicians imagine), we must then move towards a situation where every human
being, (be they in
You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that it’s going to be a lot harder to get that sorted out with 9 billion people claiming an equal share of this particular finite resource than it would be with 6 billion – let alone 3 billion (which is where human numbers were just fifty years ago). All those who continue to think that we are somehow immune from the operations of the Laws of Nature are as sorely deluded today as they have been at any other point in history. As Patrick Geddes himself once put it: “what was decided among the prehistoric Protozoa cannot be annulled by Act of Parliament”.
For Geddes, by contrast with today’s “wise leaders”, was firmly of the opinion that humankind should indeed be following the same core rules of nature as other organisms do. The relationships may be different, the complexity that much greater, but the goal is the same. I can’t help but think that he would approve of the Sustainable Development Commission’s second main Principle:
“We are and always will be part of Nature, embedded in the natural world, and totally dependent for our own economic and social wellbeing on the resources and systems that sustain life on Earth. These systems have limits, which we breach at our peril. All economic activity must be constrained within those limits. We have an inescapable moral responsibility to pass on to future generations a healthy and diverse environment, and critical natural capital unimpaired by economic development. Even as we learn to manage our use of the natural world more efficiently, so we must affirm these individual beliefs and belief systems which revere nature for its intrinsic value, regardless of its economic and aesthetic value to human kind.”
It is the speed with which this is all happening that understandably leaves today’s politicians floundering. We’re finding it incredibly difficult to get a proper sense of perspective on this – which is where planning comes into the frame! For all sorts of reasons, planners now find themselves on the front line of delivering sustainable development for real people in real life situations. And I guess my principal message this evening is to suggest that there is now a unique opportunity to bring about the most significant reform in the Scottish planning system for a very long time to help improve performance against that lofty mission.
As I understand it, a new Planning Bill is anticipated in the next Parliamentary Session. We very much hope that the Scottish Parliament will seize that opportunity to define a formal purpose for planning – namely, “to deliver sustainable development”. Such a purpose was originally supported by Lord Falconer as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill was under consideration in Whitehall, but by the time Parliamentary Counsel had had its way, not only did this purpose disappear, but the sustainable development duty which has now been laid on all plan-making bodies in England and Wales had somehow slipped to Clause 38! Great that it’s there at all (and we are now hoping that the new Policy Planning Statement 1 (due out in the near future), will provide the clarity of guidance about planning for sustainable development that has been so lacking in the past), but it would have been so much better if he’d stuck to his original guns.
In that respect, there is now a gathering consensus about what “planning for sustainability” means in practice. In broad terms, it should:
• focus on specific sustainable outcomes and improving quality of life
• promote the highest quality development and most beneficial land use in the most appropriate locations at the right time
• prevent inappropriate development
• ensure prudent use of natural resources
• integrate social, economic and environmental benefits – win-win outcomes
• provide a longer term perspective
• protect critical natural capital; avoid, or if not possible, minimize environmental damage
• include new techniques for assessing and calculating the longer term impacts of development
• be better resourced, with better training for planners and local councillors
• be based on a strong national framework
This year, the Scottish Executive published its own National Planning Framework – a welcome first step. In terms of sustainable development, the Framework says a lot of the right things, but is somewhat limited in scope and was subject to a very late and very limited form of Strategic Environmental Assessment. In addition, Scottish Planning Policy 1 (“The Planning System”) specifically states that planning should encourage sustainable development in all sorts of different ways.
Perhaps the single most important thing emerging from all of this is that planning for sustainable development is not about trade-off but about integration – putting extra effort into solutions that deliver win-win outcomes, and not accepting mediocre schemes as “good enough”. Trade-off process is common in the lexicon of planners, but it is only OK so long as it means that all issues have been properly and robustly assessed, that they are based on as full an understanding as possible, that all alternative solutions have been explored first, and that the best location and development option has been chosen. If, on the other hand, trade-off means arriving at the solution that does least harm to each interest, then it is not acceptable and should be resisted.
Planners therefore need to be able to take time to negotiate and improve schemes - go the extra mile – with all the consequent problems that this raises in terms of meeting government determination deadlines. They might in this respect be mindful of something that Patrick Geddes stressed throughout his life: “planning requires long and patient study. The work cannot be done in the office with ruler and parallels, for the plan must be sketched out on the spot, after wearying hours of perambulation”.
And isn’t that still one of the key elements in a fairer planning process? In a speech at the Sustainable Communities Conference on September 3rd this year, Margaret Curran (then the Minister for Communities) picked up on the Geddes axiom of “Place, Work, Folk” and added a fourth item - namely, fairness. She went on to say : “We know that for regeneration to work in the long term – for it to be sustainable – then the local community has to be at the heart of the process.
This is because we can’t expect local people to have full ownership of regeneration issues if they haven’t been involved in them from the outset. And we may waste valuable time and resources - and risk setting up ineffective schemes – if we don’t make sure we are focussing on the true priorities for local people. A key part of environmental justices is making sure that everyone – not just the “usual suspects”, or the privileged few – has the chance to influence decisions that affect their day to day lives.”
The Sustainable Development Commission wholly concurs with that vision. But at the moment, as you know, applicants for planning permission have a right of appeal if their application is refused under the current planning system. In contrast, there are very limited rights of challenge for individuals, communities or NGOs if a development is approved. Is this fair? Many developments are granted consent despite being contrary to the Development Plan. Is this fair? And those who are least able to represent their own interest as are most likely to suffer from unwanted developments. Again, is this fair?
What we need is a modernised planning system that ensures public engagement thoughout the process – sustainable development depends upon participation and trust, by all parties, on a level playing field. In order to deliver this, the Commission believes that the introduction of a widened Right of Appeal is essential as part of the overall programme of modernising the planning system.
I appreciate this is a controversial
recommendation – as evidenced by the response to it from the CBI in
I also appreciate that this is not the view of
our hosts for this evening, the Royal Town Planning Institute in
Based on that, I have one specific idea for the
Scottish Executive: why not apply the “Patrick Geddes
test “ to this particularly vexed question? If Patrick
Geddes were able, from the grave, as it were, to
contribute a rather late submission to the ‘Widening the Right of Appeal’
consultation, how do you think it would read? To take that a little bit
further, perhaps the Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust,
as part and parcel of its admirable work to restore the work of Patrick Geddes to its rightful place, might launch a competition
for the best “in his own words” submission to the consultation, drawing on his
lifetime’s work and key ideas. Though I would not in any way claim to be a Geddes scholar, I can’t honestly imagine how he wouldn’t be
strongly in favour of some kind of third party rights
of appeal. Otherwise, what does this mean: “Town planning is not merely
place-planning, nor even work-planning. If it is to be
successful, it must be folk-planning.”? To use such a quote,
is, of course, a little unfair. (Almost as unfair as the wonderfully robust
debate currently raging in the
And in that spirit, let us try to imagine what Patrick Geddes might have said on today’s highly controversial debate about wind power. Here again, I have to admit that I’m a little biased, not only in believing that wind power is capable of making a critical and substantial contribution to our overall energy needs (which is now very much part of orthodox government thinking), but also in perceiving wind turbines to be objects of compelling physical beauty, capable of enhancing as many landscapes as they may impair. (Not such an orthodox view!). The Sustainable Development Commission is currently undertaking a new piece of work to review the current range of arguments for and against, to expose them (on both sides) to some kind of “truth test”, and to come down hard on those guilty of peddling misperceptions or deliberately mendacious propaganda (on both sides), and to make some recommendations to Whitehall, the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly Government as to ways in which the quality of this debate might be improved.
So here’s the Patrick Geddes
test on this one: would he have been putting in a planning application to erect
a number of mini-turbines alongside the Camera Obscura
on the top of the
Geddes was a systematically holistic thinker, believing that one can only make sense of things by seeing them as parts of a bigger system. As regards the concept of “Place”, he thought in terms of what might be described as “nested layers”, with each spatial layer critical in its own right, but only properly comprehensible (and therefore “plannable”, as it were) by reference to those other spatial layers nested in it or in which it was nested. As you know, this was taken fairly literally in his layout for the Outlook tower, where visitors were required to start at the top, with the Camera Obscura allowing for a survey of the surrounding area, and then work down from displays about Edinburgh on the fifth floor, Scotland on the fourth floor, Great Britain on the Third floor, Europe on the second, and the world on the first.
Thinking of this in context of the wind power
debate, I couldn’t help but speculate how useful it would be to be able to take
the different protagonists involved in any planning dispute to a latter day
equivalent of the
By the same token, a visit to the
And that of course puts planners right back in the hot seat – which from my perspective, is exactly where planners should want to be! For if we know one thing for certain about Patrick Geddes, it is this: that if we applied the Patrick Geddes test to the whole question of the state of planning and the planning profession today, one can’t help but conclude that he would be a disappointed man. Indeed, there are some who have argued that there is now so little of the radicalism and holistic thinking of Patrick Geddes left in contemporary planning practice as to cause the father of modern town-planning to disown it all together. One such critic, Michael Small, puts it as follows: “Geddes has been hijacked by the planning fraternity, who have, in preserving his name from oblivion, also narrowed it into a space in which it cannot breathe. Gone is the pioneering ecology, the arguments for self management, mutual aid and decentralisation, and in its place an insipid and technocratic paternalism. The glaring contradiction between Geddes’s vision and the crimes that have been done by planners, who still claim Geddes is their inspiration, is breathtaking”.
That, I suspect, would be considered by most people in this audience to be an excessively harsh viewpoint. But others would certainly concur with a less inflammatory viewpoint that one of the reasons why the standing and the reputation of the planning profession as a whole would appear to have become somewhat shrunken is that it has lost that inspirational purpose that drove Patrick Geddes throughout his life.
Tonight is certainly not the kind of occasion to try and do justice to such a complicated area of enquiry, but let me give one oblique but I hope still relevant example of what I mean, drawing on the canon of Patrick Geddes’s work that still has such relevance to us today: should there not be a presumption, in every plan-making process and every individual planning decision (where relevant), to maximise the opportunities for people to be in contact with the natural world – physical, sensory, tangible contact? At the heart of Patrick Geddes’s anxiety about the direction the world was taking in the early part of the 20th Century, was the phenomenon he described as “nature starvation”. He despaired of one-off, piecemeal decisions that gradually stripped out nature from town and city centres, claiming on one occasion that: “since the Industrial Revolution, there has gone on an organised sacrifice of men to things, a large-scale subordination of life to machinery”. He found it impossible to imagine sound educational systems that didn’t constantly place children in nature, rather than reading about nature from afar or looking out on it from behind safe windows and walls. He hated two-dimensional maps, and scorned those educationalists who supposed that one can “read the world” through a map: “The child’s desire of seeing and hearing, touching and handling, of smelling and tasting are all true and healthy hungers, and it can hardly be too strongly insisted that good teaching begins neither with knowledge nor discipline, but through delight.” I would argue that most of us are still suffering from chronic nature starvation, and that this is as much a challenge for planners today as it was when Geddes was alive.
So let me end with a very Geddesian assertion; that if we really want to save the world, then we must be constantly in the world, celebrating the indivisibility of all living matter, and bravely owning the oneness of life on Earth.And I much look forward to seeing how that pans out in the new Planning Bill!
(May I add, as a brief post script to this written version of the Lecture originally given on 1st October 2004, that I’m hugely indebted for some of the quotes from Patrick Geddes that I have used here to the authors of a brand new book: “Think Global, Act Local: the Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes”. I can only say that this would have been a much better Lecture had I had access to the book before rather than after delivering it!)
Jonathon Porritt 2004
NUMBER 13 of the 25
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