Patrick Geddes: A Solution to the City Planning Problem


By Sahil Bansal


This piece intends to explore the ideas of Patrick Geddes who was a biologist, sociologist, city planner, re-educationist, and the list goes on and on. He has indeed been an unsung hero who lies at the foundation of the most of so called ‘modern ways’ of doing things. Cutting through vainglory of specializations, Geddes revealed the importance of generality. He unraveled the interconnectedness of existence. He was a “jack of all subjects.” Some nastily even called him an “intellectual whore.”  Therefore, to engage with Geddes one needs not the pull of rationality but the strength of vision. Although Geddes gave the world various ideas on an even varied subjects but here, I shall only engage with his idea of city for it is of urgent importance to re-invigorate Geddes when the graves of Indian cities are being laid in the gridirons by the sanitarians in the name of ‘beautification’. Geddes himself worked extensively in India to improve the state of various Indian cities from 1914 onwards including cities like Indore, Kapurthala, etc. Therefore, one must read Geddes for he knows the secret to the life of Indian cities. He wrote, “the world is mainly a leaf-colony, growing on and forming a leafy soil, not a mere mineral mass: and we live not by the jingling of coins, but by the fullness of our harvests.” Here, I will attempt to explore Geddesian idea of the city from three vantage points – science, city planning, and sanitation.

The Science of City 


For Geddes city was not just a place; rather it was “a drama in time.” Geddes’ idea of the city was like that of a “dissident Darwinian.” He believed in the idea of evolution but without ascribing as much importance as Darwin did to ‘natural selection’ and ‘struggle for survival’. Unlike Tennyson’s pessimism of “nature, red in tooth and claw”, Geddes saw possibility of co-operation between humans and their environment. He believed earth to be a co-operative planet. Geddes offered a synergetic understanding wherein evolution of the city (society) progressed in tandem with the city’s residents. Explaining the science of city through the aforementioned diagram he wrote, “there are two divergent lines of emotional and practical activity, hunger, self-regarding, egoism, on the one hand; love, other-regarding, altruism, on the other. These find a basal unity in the primitively close association between hunger and love, between nutritive and reproductive needs. Each plane of ascent marks a widening and ennobling of these activities; but each has its corresponding bathos, when either side unduly preponderates over the other. The actual path of progress is represented by action and reaction between the two complimentary functions, the mingling becoming more and more intricate. Sexual attraction ceases to be wholly selfish; hunger may be overcome by love; love of mates is enhanced by love for offspring; love for offspring broadens out into love of kindred. Finally, the ideal before us is a more harmonious blending of the two streams.” Through his Place-Work-Folk method Geddes gave the world Bioregionalism, much before the 1970s semiosis of the idea took place.

City Lives in its Plans

The fresh imperialism which Central Vista Project has brought in the heart of the capital (Delhi) is no different from the Stalinist desire that tried to ravage Moscow a century ago. Maybe the two are sister cities after all. Interestingly, even right after India’s independence a controversy called for re-designing the central vista. A demand was made by the Indian parliamentarians of 1940s to rid the Central Vista of the statues of the British colonizers through largescale demolitions. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to take a more Geddes-like approach of “conservative surgery.” He said, “Our general attitude has been, first of all, to remove (those statues) as might be considered offensive, and that too, gradually without too much fuss.” Patrick Geddes viewed city as an organism which when ailing shouldn’t be killed but should be diagnosed and accordingly operated upon. Thereby preserving the city’s environment which is crucial for its progression. Instead of focusing on singular aspects of the city in aloofness from the others, he wanted to “grasp life as whole.” On the foundation of this interconnectedness Geddes as a city planner built an imagination alternative to the imaginations of Haussmann, Lutyens, Bimal Patel, and such others who are neo-colonial victims of the “crippled-mind syndrome.” Like their colonial predecessors, in the name of making everything “world class” all they do is impose a singular design in a procrustean manner. Globalisation is an added catalytic ingredient in this recipe for “destruction by grid-irons.” Central Vista Project is but just one of the many such examples of it in India. Charles Abrams, the worldwide housing expert, captures it perfectly in his remark that “if you scratched an Indian urban planner, you would find a fascist.”

In contrast to this, the Geddesian idea of city realised the co-existence of the built environment of the city, its people, and their culture. Unlike the abstract ‘utopia’, Geddes’ ‘eutopia’ is the existence of a city in its best possible manifestation and it is the task of a city planner to realise it. Sympathy, Synthesis, and Synergy are keys to unlock the Geddesian eutopia of a city. His idea of city laid in “grasping the whole environment in active sympathy with the essential and characteristic life of the place concerned.” For Geddes, ‘whole environment’ involves the built architecture along with drainage system, waste management, the education system, technological and industrial advancement, the beliefs of its people, etc.

Geddes planned cities like playing chess, realising the interconnectedness of the whole board and turning his difficulties into opportunities. For instance, in Balrampur of 1917 he approached the problem of Malaria through his naturalist scientific approach and revealed that upkeep of reservoirs and tanks instead of filling them up with stones is more efficient, conservative, economical, and remunerative approach. Geddes wanted a University Militant to be established in every city which would be a microcosm of an interplay between the world and the city, to enhance the synergetic growth of a city. Geddes characterised the unchecked capitalist hunger as ‘Paleotechnic order’ where men work as corporate slaves with no will or desire of their own. He believed a transcendence to ‘Neotechnic order’ will awaken the productive citizen in the working man who will “set his mind towards house building and town planning, even towards city design; and all these upon a scale to rival – nay, surpass – the past glories of history. He will demand and create noble streets of noble houses, gardens, and parks; and before long.” It is in this Neotechnic order, demanded and created by the ‘productive citizen’ that the Geddesian idea of planning a city lies.

A Sanitarian’s City

For Geddes sanitarian solutions like passing ‘sweeping clearance’ orders were not only ‘politically coercive’ but also ‘biologically illiterate’. Embedded in such orders is “Haussmannic notion of order.” But the Indian courts of law have been nothing but Haussmannic in the name of sanitation. For instance, the Supreme court and the Delhi High Court turning into “slum-demolition machines.” The courts at more than one occasion have pathologized dirt as the disease of poor and gone about firing shots in name of sanitation like their colonial predecessors. The Government Building Act, 1899, itself a British construction, allows the central government to build anywhere without permission of the urban local body. Despite the government’s much trumpeted abhorrence of colonial rule that made it target Central Vista in the first place, this old colonial law is activated. For instance, in Almitra Patel case, the Supreme Court skewedly ordered slum demolition as one of the solutions to a petition about solid waste management. The saddest part is that these violently sanitarian court orders were issued with ‘aesthetics’ as one of their concerns. One needs to realise that Indian courts are but just one of the many manifestations of the existent Haussmannic order.

Unlike this uninformed and violent approach, Geddesian ‘Science of the City’ methodologically begins by conducting a ‘diagnostic survey’ of the city before its ‘conservative surgery’. It was his intrinsically informed approach that made his solutions a success. The rubber hit the road in the plague-ridden Indore of 1915. Geddes was invited by the Maharaja of Indore in order to rid the city of disease and misery. Geddes invested himself in the task and wanted to understand the life of the city before conducting any sort of surgery on it. After his diagnosis he realised that cleaning chores of Indians were quasi-religious in nature. “That people cleaned the house and threw the collected garbage outside but, on a mound, right in front of the house. That it is thrown over a “conceptual boundary.” That people did not regard the street as one’s own, and it therefore lacked any association with their obligation to clean. He realized that not a sweeping clearance but a call for sweeping would be the solution. Geddes, having taken charge of Indore as its Maharaja for a day, with the ruling prince’s assent, expanded this ‘conceptual boundary’ by announcing that Gods will not just be adorning the houses but also the cleanest streets of Indore during Indore’s annual Diwali pageant. Thereby, making even the street a concern of people and obligating them to clean it in anticipation of their godly domiciliation. Finally, what Geddes left back was a clean and plague free Indore.


Although he was called to India by the likes of Lord Pentland who were male, pale, and stale, with an aim to ‘control’ Indians, Geddes was far from anything colonial. He was highly critical of the British sanitarians and their measures which reeked of oppressive colonialism. He was very vocal at multiple occasions about his disagreement with the ways of the colonizers. As Ram Guha writes, “In the Changar mohalla of Lahore, he was appalled by a scheme for redevelopment which planned to destroy five mosques, two dharamsalas, tombs and temples, and shops and dwellings. It spared only one building: the police station.” Guha continues: “Geddes condemned the scheme as an “indiscriminate destruction of the whole past labour and industry of men, of all buildings good, bad and indifferent, and with these, of all their human values and associations, profane and sacred, Police Office only excepted!”.” For the various yet only few of the many reasons enlisted above it is high time that Indians revived the Geddesian idea of city lest we may by the architects of our own necropolis. There are umpteen vantage points to approach a Geddesian idea of the city and with every new vantage point one is bound to be amazed by the futuristic nature of Geddes. Therefore, one wouldn’t be wrong in using the Greek epigraph, “Everywhere I go in my mind I meet Geddes coming back!”

Sahil Bansal is a Masters of Law (LLM) Candidate at the University of Cambridge. He recently graduated from Jindal Global Law School, India. His academic interests include reading and writing about Law, Gender, and History.


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