By Leaves We Live – From Geddes to Monbiot

A interesting article from George Monbiot recently in The Guardian which taps into the FPC’s interest in the great visionary generalist and ecologist Patrick Geddes.

Monbiot’s piece of 10th August, (‘We have allowed developers to rob us of our village green’ ) recounts a camping trip to an ‘ordinary campsite’ where the tents were situated around a square field. He observed the curious effect this had on the children staying there. Drawn towards the centre of field, children of all classes started playing together and engaging in communal activities whilst the parents started talking to each other. As Monbiot says: “it hit me with some force: we had reinvented the village green”.  The key point of his anecdote is that: “we are, to a surprising extent, what the built environment makes us”.

Inspired by this, Monbiot performs a trawl on related research papers which include conclusions such as:

  • People’s use of shared spaces is strongly influenced by trees: the more there are, the more people spend time there;
  • Vegetation in common spaces increases social ties;
  • Social isolation is commonly associated with an absence of green spaces;
  • Wealthy parts of a city usually have tree cover of c.10%. Poor neighbourhoods just 2%.

Monbiot’s main contention is that we have allowed property developers and weak planning to define who we are and what we shall become.  His prescription is pretty simple. Houses or apartment blocks should be built around a square of shared green space.  It ishould be big enough for playing ball games, contain trees and rocks or logs to climb on and perhaps a corner of uncut meadow or flowerbeds and fruit bushes. The space will work best when it is designed and managed by the people who live there.  Most important is that the houses face inwards and no cars can access the square.  The space is overlooked by everyone which means that children can run in and out of houses, unsupervised and create their own tribes.

The point that struck me most about Monbiot’s article is that almost all of his arguments were made equally forcibly in theory and practice by Patrick Geddes in the Old Town of Edinburgh in the late 1800s.

The themes that emerge in all of Geddes’s work include a pioneering, ecological approach to cities and their problems; arguments for self management, decentralisation, and the need for co-operative mutual aid. As Jonathan Porritt, the Green activist has commented:

‘For me he is one of those pioneers of what we now call sustainable development’.

During the 1880s, Geddes, was a lecturer of zoology at Edinburgh University and contributing entries to the Britannica and Chambers Encyclopaedias on scientific subjects whilst his range of interests had widened so that he was now publishing papers on subjects such as Statistics, Economics, Art Criticism, and Co-Operation as a political philosophy. Interestingly, after having studied with T.H. Huxley – ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ – Geddes did not subscribe to the tooth and claw, survival of the fittest doctrine. Like his friend Peter Kropotkin, Geddes considered mutul aid and co-operation as equally evident in the natural world – for example in the bee colony.

In his spare time, Geddes assembled a collective of like minded individuals to form an presciently named Environment Society which began a series of urban interventions using the Old Town of Edinburgh as a ‘social laboratory’ to develop both his social thought and to engage in practical social action. This was against the backdrop of the Old Town having some of the worst living conditions in Europe at the time and the observation was not lost on Geddes that the rent payments of the impovrished Old Town tenants helped to maintain the comfortable citizenry on the other side of Princes Street in the New Town.

Three months after marriage to Anna Morton, Geddes and his wife moved from the New Town into James Court in the Old Town.  James Court was a six-storey tenement housing some twenty-five families, primarily in single rooms, located on a common stair. This initiative allowed the Geddeses to acquire intimate knowledge of how slum dwellers were actually affected by their surroundings and what could be most readily done to improve them. The occupants of James Court were filled with a population belonging to the lower ranks of skilled labour including cobblers, blacksmiths and chimney sweeps. At first, the Geddeses were viewed with suspicion, but with customary zeal, they began the practical transformation of their immediate environment. His daughter, Nora, has recounted how Geddes quickly mobilised the tenement residents into clearing, whitewashing and window gardening.

In 1884, Geddes formed the Edinburgh Social Union (“ESU”) and it was Anna Geddes who encouraged Patrick Geddes to take cognisance of the philanthropic housing work being undertaken in London by Octavia Hill with the support of John Ruskin.  To give a sense of scale, beginning with two properties in 1885, by 1897, the ESU was responsible for managing 23 properties housing 450 families. It is also worth stressing that many of these properties would have been demolished by the municipal authorities without the intervention of the Social Union and Geddes’s practice of Conservative Surgery, which he likened to pruning the branches of a tree. What this meant was the preservation of old, structurally sound, buildings and transforming them into clean and usable habitations with rents maintained at levels that the working classes could afford.

From the outset, Social Union funds were also used for window box gardens and flower shows and art classes were given to ‘help to render homes beautiful’. These classes included: wood-carving, brass beating, stencilling, mosaic, and leather stamping. Entertainments were given in a number of properties on Saturday evenings consisting of music, recitations, magic lantern entertainments and tableaux. Libraries were also installed in many properties. Geddes as Head of the ESU art committee was also responsible for the introduction of decorative art into various public buildings. Some were quite modest such as reproducing Millais’ Parables in a Grassmarket Mission Hall whilst a history of corn in six panels was commissioned from the young Edinburgh Artist Charles Mackie. One of the major projects undertaken was the decoration of the mortuary chapel of the Sick Children’s hospital undertaken by Phoebe Traquair in 1885.  Also, as Glendinning and Page say, Geddes ‘almost single handedly set about the revival of mural painting in Scotland in the hope that decorating homes, schools and workplaces with scenes of national history and legend might help regenerate modern materialistic society’.

The important point about all these initiatives were that they were visible to the tenement inhabitants. As Geddes would later write: ‘to improve the condition of the people, the improvement must be on a scale that they can observe and realised; not frittered away piecemeal as are so many municipal improvements’.

Geddes’s initiatives in James Court were rooted in direct action from within the community and locality. His interventions were not party political but a recognition that the future depended upon creating the self-awareness and determination of the community at large in the development of the city’.

Geddes also began to provide University Halls of residence for students, which was unique in Britain, in that it was entirely self-governing with no warden or master. Students were required to co-operate and take mutual responsibility for its operation and student numbers increased to over 200. This initiative was part of Geddes’s vision of using the University as a means of cultural renewal and his objective was to bring students back to live in the Old Town where the great eighteenth century scholars had lived. This initiative also attracted a core of student acolytes to help him in his work and the spirit of this initiative was encapsulated in Geddes’s motto for the Hall: Vivendo Discimus – ‘by living we learn’.

Geddes’s always considered himself to be a garden-maker and the creation of gardens is a recurring feature of his urban initiatives throughout the world. For Geddes ‘the garden’ was an educational tool and apart from the aesthetic qualities he considered it as the ‘very best of savings banks, for in return for deposits of time and strength, the worker reaps health for themselves, and their children in air, in vegetables and in fruit’. They were also social spaces that brought people together and humanised the urban environment. Geddes’s Environment Society began to cultivate waste ground by making small gardens and planting trees, trying to encourage the tenement dwellers into a dynamic relationship with their environment. This was at the core of Geddes’s approach to urban social problems. Engaging folk with place to encourage an active and dynamic relationship with their environment.

I’m sure that George Monbiot would approve.

Now Playing: Ben Frost: Theory of Machines