Sunday, 22 January 2012

Geddes - planner, polymath or protester

This week it was reported that a campaign to raise funds for a statue of Patrick Geddes was launched, but is a statue the most fitting tribute to the man who shaped the evolution of society, planning and education with his novel approach? Perhaps an arts project demonstrating cooperation between community and artist-intellectuals, which describes the social and cultural legacy of Geddes in Edinburgh and gives opportunity for skills development, would be more fitting.

Born in Ballater in 1854 without the privilege of a wealthy background, Patrick Geddes was to become a major influence internationally for developing a new type of evolutionary education based on his idea 'by living we learn'. He is many things to many people, having influenced direction and development of so many subjects like botany, biology, sociology, education, arts, civics, housing, environmentalism, politics and of course town planning which he developed through his methods of surveying and analysis, bringing together social science and evolutionary science
Patrick Geddes with Bombay students (image source The Patrick Geddes Memorial Trust)

He studied and worked in Paris, Montpelier, Mexico, Palestine and Bombay, as well as in Dublin, Edinburgh, London and Dundee where he promoted civic activism, education, cultural revival and preservation of heritage and craft as a key to social improvements. 

Believing that whether poor or prosperous, life would be improved by evolving to a higher, healthier cultural affinity with an aesthetically enhanced environment, he applied his methods of survey and analysis to understand the important links between the physical, environmental and cultural aspects of each place. He understood that urban development depended on a grasp of environmental context and historical and cultural tradition and that civic action and evolutionary education was required to redress social justice in our

'largely Paleotechnic working-towns with their ominous contrasts of inferior conditions for the labouring majority, with comfort and luxury too uninspiring at best for the few' (Geddes, 1915).

A key advocate in the development of visual arts and traditional crafts, through his work with the Edinburgh Social Union he promoted the Celtic revival and commissioned artists to undertake works of art, murals, drinking fountains which would uplift the spirit and reinforce the public connection with their national traditions and culture. This development in arts and crafts traditions complemented his programmes for local residents to improve themselves and their local environment through participating in childcare, household management and gardening classes.

It was through his development of methodology for survey and analysis, which also recognised the importance of art, heritage and culture, that the 'conservative surgery' approach to development and urban renewal was developed and reinforced by those who followed him and had responsibility for managing development in the city

The importance of the connection between public health and environment is again being recognised as society struggles to find solutions to the current global environmental, social and economic problems.

Geddes is today often celebrated through exhibitions, plaques and books but his influence can also be seen today in the work of his followers in the communities which continue to evolve using his approach. Whether restoring gardens or holding conferences, his influence is felt today not by gazing on pictures or statues of him but through discovery of the vast body of international work which he influenced. The continued activism of  citizens who carry on his work whether reviving a centre for Learning and Conservation or campaigning internationally on issues of environment, peace and social justice is a lasting tribute to him.

No comments:

Post a Comment