Towards a Civic Renascence?
by Neil Grieve, Deborah Peel, and Greg Lloyd

In the second of three articles on Patrick Geddes, Neil Grieve, Deborah Peel, and Greg Lloyd examine contemporary Geddesian resonances in the emergent interest in urban renaissance and regionalism

Public policy increasingly turns on a perceived need for a 'civic renascence' in modern society. This aspiration is not confined simply to the economic, social, and physical renaissance of towns and cities and the regeneration of communities, but embraces ideas of lifelong learning and the re-thinking of ideas around the nature and cultures of places and spaces.
Such concepts are contested. City-regions, for example, are being advocated as a means of managing the needs, growth, and development potential of urban areas while ensuring that there are appropriate and functional labour and housing market links with their hinterland. Yet, as Peter Hall demonstrates, there is a need to keep an eye on the bigger picture of shifts in technology, economic structures, ideas, and governance arrangements.1 These perspectives and ideas remain elusive, and there is a danger of becoming overly instrumental in policy design and delivery. Can Geddes' work provide theoretical insights into the contemporary culture of civic renascence? Do his ideas of surgical intervention - promulgated over 100 years ago - offer a way forward today?


As a first step in answering these questions, it is important to assert the immediate context. There are a number of very important changes taking place in the planning and development world.
First, reflecting contemporary political ideas and priorities, together with an overriding emphasis on delivery, an active programme of devolution, decentralisation, and modernisation is under way. In the land use planning context, the modernisation process is principally a response to the perceived weaknesses of the existing system - articulated in terms of delay, congestion, and overlap. This perspective is presented as an opportunity to make planning 'fit for purpose' in the modern world. It is about devising a planning system that can meet the developmental, cohesiveness, and social justice needs of a nascent modern state.

Second, and as part of the modernisation overhaul, planning practice is being increasingly exposed to new ideas, such as demonstrating a greater sensitivity to 'spatiality', and to the need to ensure delivery and implementation. This involves configuring planning practice to the specificities of local circumstances, meshing with the emerging arrangements for community planning, and adapting to the changing interpretations of public service priorities and delivery mechanisms.
This new found energy and enthusiasm for land use and development planning in terms of strategic guidance and place-making is clearly not developing in an intellectual vacuum. At a general level, for example, there remain the ever-present liberal market critiques, with their attendant advocacy of solutions to resolving land use conflicts and development agendas based on private property rights.2 These different viewpoints suggest that there remains much to be gleaned in terms of understanding the spirit and purpose of contemporary planning practice in a modern world.
Although thinking in a much earlier period, under different prevailing social and power relations, Patrick Geddes addressed many of these issues. Importantly, however, he deployed a different mind-set to explain and interpret arguments involved in such debates, and he used a different language to engage with the then prevailing relationships between social processes and spatial form. The beginning of the 20th century was generally dominated by neo-liberal market economic thinking, and Geddes was seeking to justify planning intervention in this particular context. He was also attempting to articulate that intervention in a practical way in appropriate community settings. Moreover, his ideas about how to 'treat the patient' differed radically from those, say, of Howard, whose approach embraced large-scale clearance and rebuild.

As is widely acknowledged, Geddes engaged with an expansive range of intellectual ideas and reflections, and contributed to a number of very practical outcomes, relating to the full gamut of planning's social and community agendas. He was concerned particularly with urban design matters, and the associated relationships of physical change and improvement as these related to the promotion of social and environmental justice. He noted, for example, that in promoting change, and in advocating the need for regulation over change, with appropriate civic engagement, society had to be alert to the broader societal considerations involved: 'Here, as in all true progress, we must not only comprehend and transform the environment without but develop our life within.' 3, p.215
This quotation suggests an individual who was sensitive to wider social change, and alert to the fact that change itself requires robust management. There is a salutary lesson here, as debates too often become quickly polarised into an 'us and them' stand-off, or a 'people versus property' choice. And reinforcing his 'joined-up' thinking and 'hands-on' approach, Geddes embodied an active environmentalism. The contemporary relevance of Geddes' work has been highlighted, for example, by the John Muir Trust, as Graham Purves has asserted.4
Purves pointed out that Geddes applied his basic principles of natural science, and particularly that of Darwinian evolutionary theory, to the study of society: 'The objective was to gain sufficient understanding to enable the raw evolutionary forces which were shaping society to be harnessed and guided in positive directions towards the greater fulfilment of Mankind. His aims, aspirations and values were spiritual rather than material. What he sought was the restoration of a 'harmony' or 'balance' to human life and social relationships which he believed to have been lost during the trauma of the industrial revolution; in short, the recreation of physical and social environments in which human beings could enjoy greater personal fulfilment and creative expression.4
Purves argues that Geddes' commitment to community empowerment and the active involvement of local people in the restoration and improvement of their own physical and cultural environments provides particularly important insights and valuable inspiration to the management and sustainable development of rural communities, at a time when the thinking around city-regions seems to lead principally with the urban driver. What of the associated inter-relationships between town and country?

Drawing on a policy issue of considerable contemporary importance in Scotland, for example, Andy Wightman noted that the ownership and use of land is one of the most fundamental issues in any society and yet is a subject which in Scotland still remains poorly understood: 'Not only does ownership convey significant and far reaching privileges to those in possession of land but the system and pattern of landownership has extensive economic, political, cultural and environmental impacts on the economy and the development of the country.'5 There is a real need to reflect critically on these underlying relationships in modern society - something Geddes certainly appeared to do. His holistic perspective allowed him to actively consider the tangible and intangible aspects of social and economic change.
Another contemporary resonance concerns 'regionalism'. Today, particularly in Scotland, the city-region is promoted as a foundation to the management of the modern spatial economy. Geddes viewed the modern region as the product of continuous interaction between the human species and its environment; each of its communities adapted to its particular geographical setting and responding to changing circumstances by a process of cultural evolution. He therefore rejected any standardised solutions to environmental and social problems, believing that proposals should be individually tailored to local conditions, with due regard to existing customs and systems of social organisation. Here, there is a real challenge to the 'one size fits all' mentality, and to the idea that a particular approach may be indiscriminately transferred between locales.

Practical work - Dunfermline 1904
There is a graphic illustration of Geddes' approach in his work 100 years ago in Dunfermline (where recently, and to mark this long association, the RTPI in Scotland held its annual conference).
In 1904, Andrew Carnegie gifted the Pittencrieff Estate in the centre of the town to the people of Dunfermline, his birthplace. The Dunfermline Carnegie Trust Trustees invited Geddes and others to submit proposals as to how the park and estate could be developed to benefit the people. In the event, two competition entries were submitted - by Patrick Geddes and Thomas Mawson in 1903-04.
Mawson, an established and acknowledged landscape designer, had developed the 'composite style of formal and informal, and marked architectural tendencies'.6 This contrasted very much with the work of Geddes, who held the view that the park and garden was a potent factor in the regeneration of the city.6, p.221 Indeed, in comparing both reports, Chadwick asserted that 'one is marked by technical competence, elegant perspectives, yet lacks a compelling motive, whilst the other, ugly, ill-presented in comparison, has the vitality of new ideas'.6, p.227 Neither scheme was adopted but both influenced the subsequent layout of the park.
Chadwick noted that the Dunfermline report submitted by Geddes was 'a general statement of ideas rather than a precise set of proposals to be carried out within a definite, limited time'.6, p.225 Furthermore, 'the value of his scheme, and his book, lies not in the crude details of the photographs and sketches and in dissecting his layout in detail. It lies in many original contributions: to the part that the park can play in town life, linked to other urban spaces and buildings of sympathetic function; to the idea of the open air folk museum, the character and history of town and region expressed in living exhibits… to the realisation that recreation is active both physically and mentally.6, p.227

These ideas laid the foundations for his subsequent thinking articulated in Cities in Evolution. Geddes asserted that the Dunfermline report 'is of practical purpose' and 'a plan and plea for conserving and developing the amenities of a small provincial city, and its constructive proposals are based upon a photographic survey of its present, a re-reading of its past.3, p.2
In considering Dunfermline as a town and a city, Geddes suggested his approach was concerned with a 'civic renascence', and 'the larger possibilities of civic life'.3, p.215 The following quotation captures this line of reasoning. All the ingredients of contemporary urban agendas are represented here, together with an apparent clarity of understanding of what planning intervention can seek to achieve: '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. It begins by recognising that while centralisation to the great capitals was inevitable, and in some measure permanent, this is no longer so completely necessary as when they practically alone possessed a monopoly of the resources of justice and of administration, a practical monopoly also of the resources of culture in almost all its higher forms.3, p.216
When Geddes was articulating his ideas about 'living breathing' cities which drew on their intrinsic urban and rural cultures, he highlighted the essential sustainability of resource management. Nonetheless, he never appeared to lose sight of the individual and the importance of any historical context to change. His personal humanist inclinations framed his approach to urban development in time and space - looking to the past and to the future in creative symbiotic tension. These were not the utilitarian and instrumental fixations of the planning debates that we associate with the substantive-procedural epoch of the 1970s; these were visions driven by intended outcomes on the ground.
One of the insights Geddes left us was that we should focus on the potentialities of transformation - not just of the physical, but also of the cultural identities involved. Critically, Geddes asserted the importance of the individual. In our attempts to articulate a contemporary resonance for the processes associated with modern land use planning, we can do worse than heed the insights of Geddes' 'civic renascence', which asserts the importance of culture and individuals' relationship with land, place, and space. n
Neil Grieve, Deborah Peel, and Greg Lloyd are based at The Geddes Institute in the School of Town and Regional Planning at the University of Dundee.

1 P. Hall: Cities in Civilisation: Culture, Innovation and Urban Order. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1998
2 See, for example, M. Pennington: Liberating the Land: The Case for Private Land Use Planning. Institute of Economic Affairs, London, 2002; and D. MacKay: The Planning Famine: Reforming Land Use Planning in Scotland. Economy Series Paper 8. Policy Institute, Edinburgh, 2004
3 P. Geddes: City Development: A Study of Parks, Gardens, and Culture Institutes. A Report to the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust. The St George Press, Bourneville, 1904
4 G. Purves: Scottish Environmentalism - The Contribution of Patrick Geddes. Undated. Available online at geddes/britain.htm
5 A. Wightman: Who Owns Scotland. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 1996, p.10
6 G.F. Chadwick: The Park and the Town. The Architectural Press, London, 1966