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Book that Changed my Life

Derek Abbot

Cities in Evolution, Patrick Geddes, 1915

Marshal Stalley in his introduction to the life and works of Patrick Geddes stated 'There is probably no other man whose writings have been so little read, who has so greatly influenced thought and action in our time'(1972).

Geddes was a Scots biologist who had studied under Thomas Huxley. His life was exceptionally full and varied; and since Cities in Evolution was not published until he was 61, it must be seen in the context of his life's work until then.

Geddes travelled widely and knew Ruskin, Kropotkin, Annie Besant, Thorston Veblen, Tagore, and Gandhi. When he temporarily lost his eyesight in Mexico, he evolved 'thought diagrams' by folding pieces of paper which he used throughout his life, the most famous being his place- work-folk diagram. Returning in 1880 to teach at Edinburgh University, Geddes found the compartmentalised world of Academia very frustrating, but he now began respectfully attempting to tell social scientists what they could learn from physical sciences, and hence Geddes' lifelong work in sociology and town planning.

Although Cities in Evolution is not easy reading, it remains of fundamental importance. Its three main themes were the result of Geddes 'life-experience and practice in places as far apart as Cyprus, Dunfermline, India (both before and after World War 1), and his greatest commission - to plan the new University of Jerusalem (opened in 1925): the need for survey before plan, from local to regional level; the concept of evolution from Paleotechnic to Neotechnic cities, the need for Public Participation in the planning process, which he called 'civic involvement'.

Because Geddes was both a practical idealist and cultured intellectual, he has been widely misunderstood or even ignored by bureaucrats and academics who could not pigeonhole him. Geddes' work, writing and teaching is relevant for today's problems, whether sociological, ecological, spiritual or aesthetic. He deserves a far greater place in history, than it has so far accorded him.


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