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Patrick Geddes' and the network of gardens in the Old Town of Edinburgh

Conversations under a tree at Chessel's Court
For Jardins Publics. Edinburgh International Festival 2007


Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) was the pioneer of the environmental movement. His ideas, such as "think global, act local", have become commonplace. Words he created, such as 'conurbation', 'megalopolis',' habitat', seemed revolutionary during his lifetime but are now taken for granted. Concepts such as the 'green belt', to allow people living in cities maintain direct contact with nature, are now widely cherished worldwide. His idea that cities are organic entities constantly evolving in history launched the urban and regional planning movement around the world.

In the 1880s and 90s he chose to live in the then decayed and unfashionable Old Town of Edinburgh. With the help of his wife Ana Morton he galvanised the Old town resident community, and local architects and artists to bring about the Old Town's regeneration, without waiting for government action. But his influence reaches more widely. He was a polymath of world significance, a distinguished biologist, town planner and landscape architect, and a pioneer in sociology and environmental education.

In his lifetime, Geddes' work was considered ahead of his time. But with the increasing awareness of "green" and sustainability issues, his ideas are now recognised as visionary, and of supreme importance now and for future.

Geddes' vision of the future

Perhaps now, we are better able to understand what he meant by an inter-disciplinary approach organic and inter-related simultaneous thinking. Only now we are beginning to appreciate his concern with our dependence of non-renewable energy sources.

Much has changed since his life time. The greatest of these is the incredible speed of new technological advances. Geddes could not have imagined the microchip, personal computers and instant communication or nano-technology, but certainly he was expecting them.

Even the view and perception of our planet has drastically changed. We have seen the Earth, for the first time, from outer-space by satellite. It brought the realisation of how small our place is in the wider universe. It made us aware of our collective responsibility towards the preservation of our home in space. Maybe now we can understand Geddes urging us, trying to steer us into a new era which would bring about the integration of all aspects of men's lives and stimulate their highest impulses. Maybe now we will understand the importance of his message.

In his book Cities in Evolution published in 1915 he takes us through the development of history in three acts or phases. With his own penchant for inventing terms, he calls these: Eotechnic, Paleotechnic and Neothecnic.

The Eothechnic, or Life in balance, is a long period of man's history perhaps as late as the 18th century, in which mankind lived an organic existence using wind, water, and wood, as its main energy sources. (This term was added later y Geddes' disciple and interpreter the American writer Lewis Mumford)

The Paleothecnic or Life threatened, starts about the second half of the eighteen century, reaching its height about 1870 and continuing into the first part of the twentieth century, the new sources of energy were coal and steam. (Geddes would have included oil in this period had it began to be exploited in large scale in his lifetime). Technological progress at this stage consisted in substituting the organic for the mechanical.

This substitution brought about in the nineteenth century a new kind of city which Geddes calls a monstrous agglomeration, chaotic, dirty, wasteful. The Paleothechnic man is described as "seeking mostly short term gain, his outlook is highly competitive, his pleasures 'unreal' or at best merely consolatory". Money, the symbol of wealth, is mistaken for wealth itself with the consequences that people tended to accumulate and hoard money at the expense of the real wealth which for Geddes is a healthy environment.

In contrast with this gloomy picture Geddes sees a bright future in the last act in which Life will again surge triumphant. He held the view that machines do not determine human consciousness, but are the product of it.

There will be in the end a return to nature, but a return with a difference. This will be a return with a new technology based on new sources of energy, clean, unpolluting, efficient, with a new analytical knowledge acquired on the way. Not a return to an imagined perfect rustic past, but an advance beyond the present.

In Geddes' Neothechnic Age the ultimate goal is a healthy environment in its full meaning. Even in strictly pragmatic terms this would mean the creation of happier and more productive men and women.

Nature conservation becomes a priory, indeed, a necessity, not merely to provide a temporary escape from the rigours of the work place, but as an intrinsic part of peoples' lives. Hills and moorlands between cities need to be preserved, not only to provide a clean source of water but to be accessible to everyone.

For those who for some reason cannot visit the countryside regularly, cities must also preserve some evidence of the natural and the unspoiled: every city garden for example could leave a clamp of nettles to attract butterflies. A section of the garden could be left in its natural state to preserve some wild species of plants and animals.

The commercial quarters of the Neotechnic city should be interspersed with interconnecting city parks, streets should be lined with trees and greenery should be in evidence as much as possible.

If the Paleotechnic created the big city agglomeration of the machine age or Megalopolis, the new era of the Neotechnic will bring about a healthier environment. This, coupled with high technology tools, will cause the disaggregation of formerly large towns and mega-cities into smaller units surrounded by green cultivated or wild areas.

Nature will be available for first hand inspection and thus for education, not merely for contemplation from afar. This organic and inter-related city and region in harmony he saw extended to all nations of the world.

Geddes' intention was not merely to change the natural environment alone, but also to change men and women too. Mankind could not merely go along as before, unchanged in the improved environment, as if completely unaffected by it. Nature in the Geddesian world will be shaped into continually improve and improving forms in which ideas and personalities can achieve their best expressions. In this ideal world of emerging humanity, experience amends ideas and behaviour. Thus Geddes' motto: 'Vivendo discimus' (By living we learn)

We seem to be still a long away from this vision. There is a great imbalance at present between the speed of change in technology and the speed of change in socio-economic terms. Only when the three elements of Geddes trilogy "Place-Work-Folk" are in equilibrium his vision will be realised

Geddes extends this principle of the integration of the whole of mankind. But such re-integration is based in the rejection of war, and it requires an entire change of outlook. This concept was too early for his contemporaries, perhaps it is still too early now.

"Nature and her forms of plant and animal life constitute the earliest environment for human activity and experience and these are constantly associated with their progress.
Hence, each new up-rise of civilisation, each great cultural advance has to be associated with a 'Return to Nature" From: Dramatisations of History. Patrick Geddes. 1923


Network of gardens in the Old Town of Edinburgh

In the derelict spaces left in the Old Town by wholesale demolition of the late nineteenth century, he created a network of gardens to be cultivated by school children.

He had envisaged about 75 such gardens up and down the High Street measuring about ten acres in all, according to a map by the Open Spaces Committee, led by Frank Mears, enthusiastically helped by Alastair Geddes, Mabel Barker and Norah Geddes:

In the Transactions of the Cities and Town Planning Exhibition prepared by Patrick Geddes at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in 1911, 10 or 12 had been already reclaimed into gardens in the Old Town, others were in preparation. Now in 2007, only a few are still extant.

1.-The Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden, off the Patrick Geddes Steps, adjacent to 25 Johnston Terrace, where the children of the Castlehill School spent many days in the newly created garden cultivating small plots of land and learning about nature by direct experience. Now it is a wildlife garden administered by World Wildlife Fund.

2.- Granny's Green Garden, now in preparation was formerly called King's Stables Road Garden in the Geddes' survey.

3.- The Dunbar's Close Garden, next to the Canongate Church on the north side. It was restored in 1977 in the style of a 17th century town garden.

4.- Chessel's Court Garden, 6b Chessels Court, Canongate. The garden was created out of the rubble of demolished old buildings. It is approached by a communal garden.
5.- Boswell's Garden. 4/1 Chessels Court, Canongate. James Boswell spend half of his married life here. Latterly the play area of St Savior's Child Garden

6.- Westport Garden. Until recently it was used by a Scout group for, now in urgent need of attention.

7.- Scottish Book Trust Garden.- An award winning garden behind the John Knox's house and the Moubray House in the Royal Mile. It is accessed from Trunks close.

8.- White Horse close. It used to be the old coach station for the London coach at the bottom of the Royal Mile.


Geddes' ideas about children's environmental education

Geddes maintained that environmental ideas should be taught an early age and in collaboration with the teachers from the Old town of Edinburgh especially from the Castlehill School, he put his ideas into practice by keeping the children, both boys and girls, at school only in the mornings learning the usual diet of three r's of the Victorian school with a change. Under his influence they were taught by his three h's rule that is:

First Heart, engaging their curiosity and sense of wonder; next Hand, touching, feeling, and working directly with a subject; and finally, Head, conceptualisation and internalisation of ideas derived from experience and reflection.

In the afternoon he himself took the children on walks, to the Pentlands, Arthur Seat or the Water of Leith and taught them about LIFE by direct observation of nature. (geology, geography, biology,
botany became alive under his spell)

With the Outlook Tower as his headquarters, he converted it into a 'Sociological Laboratory' meant to change attitudes amongst ordinary people and promoted informed citizen's participation in the running of the city. In Edinburgh, Geddes was also involved in: The Botanic gardens, The Zoo, The Water of Leith and the Roseburn development.

The importance of Geddes' gardens:

With a background of recent news of crime and antisocial behaviour committed by young offenders, Geddes offers a way of turning attitudes by way of creating a network of inner city gardens.
The restoration of Geddes gardens could include the following elements amongst others.

1.-Part of a network.- The value of the Geddesian garden lies in being part of a network complementing each other and also complementing the system of local parks and ultimately the green belt and the countryside.

2.- Biodiversity. They should have an element of bio-diversity. That is a section of the garden has to include wild species of plants and small animals.

3.-Accessible and welcoming. They should allow users direct contact with nature and nature's processes.

4.- Artistic leisure activities. They should foster leisure activities for higher individuals through all forms of art: music, open air theatre, sculpture, pottery and dance.

5.- Peaceful and educational. The gardens should replace former violent uses (war, drug ad alcohol abuse, crime etc) for new green areas with peaceful and redeeming uses. (e.g. meditation and calming areas, spaces for open air concerts, etc spaces for children to cultivate their own plants).

"Despite all that is commonly said about rough population and the rest, no mischief worth mentioning is ever done. Quite the contrary, the gardens are thoroughly appreciated, and their educating, civilising influence already plain is spreading in ways too varied and complex for consideration here." From: PG Transactions of the Cities and Town Planning Exhibition. Edinburgh. 1911.

Sofia Leonard
26 August 2007