Some called Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) a genius. Others likened him to an Indian “rishi of yore” and yet others dismissed him as an arrogant crank. But there was no denying his passion to renew and improve cities and towns to benefit humans as well as nature.

Geddes, a Scotsman, was best known as a sociologist, urban planner and ecologist. Many regard him as the father of urban planning. Like many sensitive minds of the late 19th and early 20th century, he too was appalled by the congested, disease-ridden, monotonous, joyless and ugly industrial towns springing up everywhere – poet PB Shelley captured this sentiment when he wrote, “Hell is a city much like London”.

Cities not only exhausted natural resources, but created degraded living conditions for the poor – “slums, semi-slum, and super-slums”, as author Marshall Stalley wrote in the 1972 book, Patrick Geddes: Spokesman for Man and the Environment. But Geddes was convinced that better urban planning could change this.

Geddes worked extensively in the Indian subcontinent between 1914 and 1924. He was unsparing in his efforts to study the towns and cities spread across the vast subcontinent, to understand their problems, critically review the official policy for urban development, suggest alternative plans and plead for implementing his suggestions, which he demonstrated were more economical and just.

His suggestions opposed the demolition and destruction of old structures and he advocated the preservation of the social and cultural character of urban spaces. For Geddes, evicting and displacing residents violated a basic principle of human dignity. His work was deeply concerned with ensuring a good quality of life for all human residents of any town or city.

Geddes’s approach was far ahead of his time, shaped by the social as well as the scientific and the human. In an age where governments aspire to build buzzword cities – “smart”, “global”, “mega cities” – Geddes’s vision provides a simpler and sustainable alternative.

A photograph of Mumbai’s Kalbadevie Road from 1890. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Urban planning, beyond the science

Geddes combined insights from multiple and apparently disconnected disciplines – such as botany and the natural sciences, sociology and civics, art, philosophy and health – to develop a socio-ecological approach to urban regeneration. His synthesis of science, the natural and social, envisioned a humane and beautiful city through systematic intervention.

Within Geddes’s broad framework, it was important to recognise that every city was different, with its strength and weakness and its past and present. He did not have a blueprint for an ideal city – no such blueprint could even be developed and applied to towns and cities in varying geographical, cultural and political conditions. Besides, like other living things, cities were constantly changing.

For Geddes, sociology helped comprehend social processes and trends while civics provided practical guidance to create urban environments where built and natural spaces were complementary parts of a whole and where the development of human potential could reach its highest level.

The crucial actors in this task were the university, professional town planner and administrators who were together responsible for educating and motivating citizens to play a central role in creating desirable living and working conditions for themselves.

Geddes and India

Geddes held contempt for the dominant professional and official view that recommended urban planning without considering the needs, desires or demands of the residents. Although many rejected his views as fanciful, they appealed to several contemporaries who collaborated with him and he impressed many great minds of his time – across the world, in India, Europe and America.

His many trips to India, with his eldest son Alasdair, his wife Anna Morton and younger son Arthur, were probably the most active and fulfilling years of his life. The people of India gave him and his family much love and respect. He also formed lasting relationships with eminent personalities, including Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and scientist JC Bose.

In India, he prepared nearly 50 town planning reports, each a testimony to his commitment to building a better urban environment, by involving everyone concerned. He visited universities, published papers, held workshops and conferences all over India in his efforts to educate the public and intellectuals.

An image of Geddes’s “thinking machine”, which the National Library of Scotland said was a visual method he used to present and connect facts. Credit: National Library of Scotland, via Wikimedia Commons.

Planning – the larger purpose

Geddes believed that town planning was not merely place planning but was essentially people planning. It was not a new or special branch of engineering, sanitation, building, architecture, gardening or any fine arts, as many mistakenly believed. It was not even a new specialisation to be added to the existing ones – its larger purpose was to combine all of them “towards civic well-being”.

To town planning, he brought the methods of “diagnostic survey” and “conservative surgery”. The diagnostic survey implied an extensive, preferably walking, tour of the city that involved meeting and talking to residents to acquaint oneself with how the city had grown and what problems it faced at present. Geddes’s “diagnosis before treatment” may seem too obvious to warrant attention today, but it was a novel idea in town planning then and remains neglected even in present times.

“Conservative surgery” meant improving the city with minimum human and financial cost. He believed that every city had its rundown areas with dilapidated houses, ugly and unhealthy quarters and congested and narrow lanes that could be upgraded without drastic and expensive measures such as removal or destruction.

He viewed the city as an organism, not a machine the parts of which could be easily discarded. This approach provided new spaces for communication and even fresh building sites and open spaces where trees could be planted or shrines for recreation created. Apart from the benefit to public health and well-being, it saved resources as well.

Improving mohalla after mohalla in this manner preserved the best traditions of Indian community life and culture. In most cases, Geddes was protesting against the type of planning, which, although rendered obsolete in England since the Town Planning Act of 1910, was still practised in India.

His first recommendation to improve cities, therefore, was to stop the sweeping demolitions that he saw were being thoughtlessly carried out everywhere. In Indian as also in European cities, Geddes had witnessed the widespread demolition of old and unsanitary quarters, neglected homes and monuments and the expansion of new streets and thoroughfares alongside large-scale construction that was out of sync with the character and essential needs of the city.

A view of Colaba in Mumbai. Credit: © Vyacheslav Argenberg /, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most often, it resulted in high expenditure as well as great human suffering. It also meant the loss of history and valuable traditions. Much of the work he found was in the hands of civic officials and engineers who were not trained to deal with the social aspects of urban sprawls and whose views on hygiene and sanitation were based on European notions. Their attempts to clean up the city or to broaden roads often lead to the eviction and displacement of residents, and were, therefore, extremely unpopular.

For Geddes, it was a violation of a basic principle and he made every effort to find the best possible living conditions and facilities for all sections of society, including the most underprivileged. This, he believed, did not always require drastic and expensive measures.

Civic renewal, for Geddes, implied a good quality of life for every citizen, including sweepers, carpenters, leather workers, potters and other workmen – “the mistries” whose skill and diligence he so greatly admired.

For instance, in Lahore in 1917, he was astonished to find that the layout plan proposed by municipal officials for a particular site swept away not only old buildings but also temples, mosques, dharmashalas and tombs. All dwellings, shops and existing roads and lanes were to be destroyed. Geddes could see the enormous financial and social cost of such an exercise: the compensation in addition to the outrage to the religious communities. To him, this plan was a classic example of extravagance and irresponsibility. He opposed the shifting of a market in Lahore because it would affect the trade of the small shopkeeper as well the homemaker who would have to walk longer to shop for her daily requirements.

In Broach, modern-day Bharuch in Gujarat, where similar plans for the arbitrary widening of streets were made in committee rooms and offices in 1915, Geddes had to remind the administrators and experts that “roads and streets are for houses, not houses for roads”. A conservative plan could improve street openings and squares by using a vacant spot or clearing a dilapidated house without too much destruction. Where demolition was necessary, it was essential to prepare an extension scheme to settle the displaced. Geddes cautioned the officials that in planning it is too easily forgotten that lives are at stake.

In another instance, to improve an old, dilapidated market in a crowded, dirty, rundown area, shifting the market to another location was being considered. In Geddes’s experience, inconsiderate municipal schemes to shift markets had often failed in Indian cities as they had in European ones.

“The essential question in planning a market must be – can we be sure of taking the public with us?” he wrote in “Reports on re-planning of six towns in the Bombay Presidency”, asking if it would benefit or harm the old neighbourhood. Because good town planning, be believed, must aim to minimise injury to the old neighbourhood while undertaking the creation of the new one.

A view of the Bharuch Jami Masjid in this image from 1896. Credit: James Burgess, Henry Cousens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Role of the planner

For town planning to succeed, the town planner had to be a visionary, but also be sensible and have deep social concern. Geddes was different from other city planners, his predecessors as well successors – in another sense. He did not want to design a city in accordance with a pattern. There was no one pattern, one design. Cities were not made from nothing – they grew and had life of their own.

Author and literary critic Wendy Lesser spells it out: city planners concern themselves with street lay-outs, transportation lines and distribution of industrial, residential and recreational land and try to solve the problems of apparent chaos by imposing their own pattern to provide a kind of order. But Geddes, with his knowledge of biology, understood the idea of an organic order that is not created entirely by human beings.

The planner had a responsibility, along with administrators and experts, to involve citizens in formulating and implementing the plan for their city. The education of civic responsibility for every city dweller rested on their shoulders. Geddes himself used every means at his command – the publication of books and articles, pamphlets, exhibitions, pageants, public lectures – to disseminate his philosophy and practical ideas among the residents of a city or town.

Living, breathing cities

Geddes’s idea of a city incorporated – besides housing considerations – sanitation and adequate infrastructural facilities, open green spaces, parks, gardens, trees and water bodies. For the health and beauty of a city, building with and in cooperation with nature was crucial. Geddes’s city plans in India demonstrate this concern to improve, preserve and aid the natural environment in every city and town. He believed that the prevalent approaches arose from two disparate philosophies, one that was based on a mechanical division of labour and the other on a unified view of life.

Geddes’s love for nature, imbibed from his family’s close contact with the countryside while he was growing up, remained with him all through his life. It figured in his town plans as an essential part of the urban environment, which had to be built with respect to the natural environment because they were so completely intertwined. Not merely in the form, for example, of an isolated garden, or a fountain or a flower bed, to beautify a city, as is seen today, but as an important part and presence in the built environment. Simply put, it was to build with nature and to treat nature as an integral part of the contours of the cityscape. He believed that for human beings, close contact with nature was necessary and beneficial as it had the power to heal, teach and nurture. The presence of nature ensured mental and physical health and happiness to all and life itself.

In every Indian town planning report, Geddes discussed the state of the existing water tanks, big and small, gardens, parks, rivers, ponds and trees in general. He commented extensively on their existing state, and suggested ways to restore their health.

In towns and cities such as Balrampur, Baroda, Thana and Dacca, he found that traditional practices ensured better natural conditions: for example, where the community participated in cleaning the streets or water bodies for religious reasons. He appealed to the municipal authority and planners to mobilise men, women, the youth and even children, in doing so to evoke “city pride”.

His famous Indore experiment from 1917 to 1918, when he was invited by Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar II to rid the city of the dreaded plague, involved having every resident to first clean the city and every house, drain, temple, shop, lane and street and then repair and whitewash the dilapidated structures. This was achieved within a year and, as expected, the clean up operation drove away the rats.

Patrick Geddes with Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar II.

Revisiting Geddes today

There has been a renewed interest in Geddes, reflected in the efforts of archivists, librarians, social scientists, architects and city designers’ to make large volumes of his writings accessible to researchers and practitioners.

Today’s hostile economic order that puts a premium on monetary value subverts all that is reasonable and democratic. The disastrous consequences of modern-day development are all too obvious, as are the environmental and social effects.

But hope lies in the growing environmental awareness, the articulation of dissent and citizen initiatives, with or without official support, that are striving to make urban social and natural environments more just, liveable and healthy.

Across the world, organisations, activist groups, individuals as well as a few farsighted politicians and bureaucrats are attempting in different ways to save open spaces, hills, water bodies, forests, cultural heritage, community settlements and the way of life from multinational commercial interests that influence state policy in their favour.

Others focus on better living conditions, housing, healthcare, improved public transport system, greater livelihood options and human rights that must be available to all everyone who has made the city their home.

Most of them may be unfamiliar with Geddes’s work and his vision, but they resonate the Geddesian idea of what a city should and could be. At the moment, they are disparate and disconnected, lacking a broader political aim. But perhaps one day, there could emerge a collective, alternative vision – inspired by Geddes or one that would inspire even Geddes – to build a humane and just urban future.

Indra Munshi is the executive editor of the Indian Journal of Secularism, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai, and retired Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai. This article is based on the author’s book, Patrick Geddes’ Contribution to Sociology and Urban Planning Vision of A City, Routledge India, 2023