Geddes as Town-Planner

(From a letter by Professor Patrick Abercrombie, Department of Civic Design, University of Liverpool; Editor of "Town-Planning Review;" Town-Planner for Sheffield and Dublin)

It is perhaps safe to say that the modern practice of town-planning in this country would have been a much simpler thing if it had not been for Geddes. There was a time when it seemed only necessary to shake up into a bottle the German town-extension plan, the Parisian Boulevard and Vista, and the English Garden Village, to produce a mechanical mixture which might be applied indiscriminately and beneficiently to every town in this country; thus would it be "town-planned" according to the most up-to-date notions. Pleasing dream! First shattered by Geddes, emerging from his Outlook Tower in the frozen north, to produce that nightmare of complexity, the Edinburgh Room at the great Town-Planning Exhibition of 1910.

It was a torture-chamber to those simple souls that had been ravished by the glorious perspectives or heartened by the healthy villages shown in those other ampler galleries. Within this den sat Geddes, a most unsettling person, talking, talking, talking ... about anything and everything. The visitors could criticize his show-the merest hotch-potch-picture postcards-newspaper cuttings-crude old wood-cuts --strange diagrams-archaeological reconstructions: these things, they said, were unworthy of the Royal Academy-many of them not even framed-shocking want of respect; but if they chanced within the range of Geddes' talk, henceforth nothing could medicine them to that sweet sleep which yesterday they owed. There was something more in TownPlanning than met the eye!

This was Geddes' first town-planning emergence into public; but he had long been subterraneously at work, and his disciples were scattered over the face of the land gradually spreading his doctrine, until now all the leaders of the movement base their practise on his theory.

Bluntly, what Geddes taught was, that if you wish to shape the growth of a town, you must study it: it sounds simple, but the Civic Survey, by whose agency it can be done, is a sinister and complicated business. And, indeed, a Civic Survey is not sufficient: it is necessary to go outside the town and survey its Region-to grasp in a word its relation to the country and further to the world at large! It may with safety be said that the errors of our national Reconstruction can be attributed to the neglect of this teaching of Geddes. For while the town-planners of this country are converts, the politicians are not, though the regional devolution of Housing shows some faint appreciation.

But Geddes is no centripetalist, concentrating on the individual town to be dealt with. His subsequent exhibitions take the whole world within their scope; but always the intensive study of the particular city prevents the application of facile generalization, that fatal danger to town-planning.

Geddes' influence will never be known to the world at large-he works by his disciples-his teaching is of such sort that it does not get watered down In transmission: it is a sort of vital idea-a divine inoculation that goes on spreading its infusion without exhausting its original élan.

And the hard-headed business man is beginning to recognize that the Geddesian method is the only safe one-Sheffield, the hardest-headed town in this country, has found schemes under the Town-planning Act (the politicians' solution) not enough: they begin just about where you should be ending; you can't plan for the future growth without improving the centre; you should not build houses without studying where the people want to work; you can't understand what the future of Sheffield will be, unless you know something about her past; in a word, you need a Civic Survey. So Geddes the prophet, the magician of the enchanted Edinburgh Tower, is being recognized as the practical man, the one who shows how to build town-planning on a sure foundation – social, geographical, historical, industrial. It was fitting that Sheffield, the most coldly scientific of our technical cities and the one whose historic legacies and difficult site make town-planning obviously an involved problem, should be the first to adopt publicly the Geddes method. The work of the War Civic Surveys carried out in London, Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere, under H. V. Lanchester's direction, will bear similar manifest fruit elsewhere.

But the full extent of the debt which England, Scotland, Ireland, India and Palestine owe to Geddes will never be adequately realized.

Defries, A., (1927), The interpreter Geddes: The man and his gospel, pp322-325