Rediscovering Patrick Geddes

Patrick Geddes

Thinker. Teacher. Doer.

Biologist. Geographer. Sociologist. Environmentalist. Philosopher. Town planner. Cultural champion. Anarchist. Free Churchman. Educator.

Protégé of Thomas Huxley. Disciple of Le Play, Reclus and Prince Kropotkin. Friend of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Tagore. Admired by Charles Darwin. Influenced Lewis Mumford. Correspondent of Gandhi.

“A sparkling mind.’”
“Peace Warrior.”
“A most unsettling person.”
“Father of the environmental movement.”

Who was Patrick Geddes?

And why are so many inspired by him today?

Early influences

“I grew up in a garden,” said Geddes. His family moved to Tayside when he was three and his formative years were influenced by the Tay’s beautiful and fertile river basin. His parents were broad-minded and his father, an army quartermaster, encouraged wide-ranging ‘home studies’ when Patrick left school in 1871. Another early influence was the anti-authoritarianism of the Free Church of Scotland. 

Geddes’ subject of choice was biology and he studied in London under Thomas Huxley at the Royal College of Mines. He was then a demonstrator in the Department of Physiology at University College London where he met and impressed Charles Darwin.  A year abroad in Brittany and at the Sorbonne exposed him to the political anarchism espoused by Prince Kropotkin. Another influence was Le Play’s circular theory of geographical locations and analysis of the key units of society being constituted of “Place, Work and Family.” Geddes changed Family to Folk (people). 

Geddes' 'Thinking Machine'

An early manifestation of Geddes’ connectivity resulted from being struck blind in Mexico in 1879. Robbed of this primary sense, Geddes began to devise a ‘Thinking Machine’, which today we might call a mind map, aligning different strands of thinking. Geddes regained his sight but was affected enough to discontinue working with a microscope. From that point on Geddes’ work both as a lecturer and a town planner drew on biology, sociology, geography, ecology and philanthropy with humankind, culture and the environment at the centre.

This connectivity is best expressed by Geddes himself writing in 1917 on seeing a city as an “inseparably interwoven structure’” akin to a flower. “Each of the various specialists remains too closely concentrated upon his single specialism… Each … seizes firmly upon one petal of the six-lobed flower of life and tears it apart from the whole.”