Design and Planning for People in Place:
Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) and the Emergence of Ecological Planning, Ecological Design, and Bioregionalism

Daniel Christian Wahl
28 min readMar 8, 2017

The central Geddesian lessons — his emphasis of the fundamental unity and interdependence of culture and nature, and his emphasis on transdisciplinary education and locally adapted direct action as a means of cultural transformation — are of profound contemporary significance. For Geddes the role of the designer was two-fold: i) to contribute to the material adaptation of people and their livelihood to the specific opportunities and challenges of the places they inhabit, and ii), to affect in the transformation of culture through education.


Geddesʼ aim was not only to contribute to the physical expression of culture in the form of material designs, but also to engage in cultural metadesign and affect the social and psychological expression of culture through transdisciplinary education that engaged hands, heart, and mind. Culturally transformative education has to make explicit and challenge the basic assumptions that underlie the culturally dominant worldview. Geddes advocated a design approach that encompassed bioregional integration, changes in culture and worldview, as well as transdisciplinary synthesis and holistic education. Almost a century ago, he wrote:

“Our greatest need today is to see life as whole, to see its many sides in their proper relations; but we must have a practical as well as a philosophical interest in such an integrated view of life.”1

At a time when the effects of humanityʼs exploitation of the Earthʼs natural resources, the decimation of cultural and biological diversity2, and the anthropogenic alteration of the planetʼs atmospheric composition are beginning to produce alarming ecological, social and economic effects, Patrick Geddesʼ call for an integrated view of life deserves even more attention, today, then it did a hundred years ago. Geddes firmly believed that ʻthere is a larger view of Nature and Life, a rebuilding of analyses into Synthesis…ʼ.3

Such a synthesis of knowledge and action that embeds economical, social and cultural considerations firmly into an understanding of the ecological limits of the biosphere will necessarily go hand in hand with a reintegration of the arts, humanities and sciences into a new transdisciplinary perspective that will guide collaboration and research. Design can play an important role as transdisciplinary integrator and facilitator of cultural transformation towards a sustainable human civilization during the 21st century.4

A Map of how to conceive of and relate to place (From ‘Cities in Evolution’ by Patrick Geddes, Source)

Seeing ʻlife as wholeʼ, which is to understand life as a dynamic ecological, social, and cognitive process in which humanity participates, raises awareness of the fundamental interconnection of nature and culture. Patrick Geddes understood that such a participatory worldview informed by detailed knowledge about the ecological, social, geological, cultural and hydrological conditions of the local region would be instrumental in facilitating the emergence of sustainable human societies uniquely adapted to their particular region.

Inspired by the French sociologist Frederic Le Playʼs (1802–1886) triad of ʻLieu, Travail, Familleʼ — which Geddes translated to “Work, Place, Folkʼ — Geddes developed a new approach to regional and town planning based on the integration of people and their livelihood into the environmental givens of the particular place and region they inhabit. He emphasized that sound planning decisions have to be based on a detailed regional survey, which established an inventory of a regionʼs hydrology, geology, flora, fauna, climate and natural topography, as well as its social and economic opportunities and challenges. As such the Geddesian methodology pioneered the bioregional planning approach more than 70 years before the emergence of bioregionalism.

Place — Work — Folk was Geddes version of Le Play’s triad Lieu, Travail, Famille (Image)

Since the first United Nations conference on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the ʻLocal Agenda 21ʼ approach to citizen participation in the creation of integrated responses to the challenges of sustainability has spread internationally. It may come as a surprise to many that the popular rallying call of sustainable development, ʻThink Global, Act Localʼ, can be attributed to Geddesʼ book, Cities in Evolution, which was first published in 1915.5 Patrick Geddes led by example, through his theoretical and practical work as a planner and educator both in his native Scotland and in India, Cyprus, France and Palestine.

Anybody who has enjoyed a scenic stroll through the old town of Edinburgh, up the Royal Mile or down to the Grass Market, owes part of this experience to the spirited regeneration work of Patrick Geddes and his wife Anna Geddes. Between 1887 and the early 20th century they engaged the inhabitants of the dilapidated old town slums in a collective clean-up of their own neighbourhood and established the first student-run halls of residence along the Royal Mile. During that time, Geddes also created a ʻsociological laboratoryʼ and centre for popular regional education in a global context that he called the ʻOutlook Towerʼ, he built Ramsay Gardens on the castle esplanade, took up the chair of Botany at University College, Dundee, and pioneered the first international academic summer school in Europe.

Geddes was an academic who could not be confined to a single discipline and neither a purely practical nor a purely theoretical focus for his endeavours. To him theory and practice formed a necessary continuum expressed in peoplesʼ lifestyles and ideally informed by insights from diverse disciplinary perspectives. He was a generalist who moved freely between the roles of biologist, sociologist, town and regional planner, exhibition designer, public and academic educator, as well as patron of the arts and natural philosopher.

Geddesʼ participatory approach to civic action, that emphasized the need for humanityʼs integration into the specific environmental conditions of the region, and his recognition of education as the facilitator of societal change, along with, his transdisciplinary design methodology, offers an integrated pathway to sustainability. The bioregional approach is increasingly being recognized as a central strategy in planning for sustainability.6

Geddes was keenly aware that fundamental change in the material domain requires fundamental immaterial changes in the underlying attitudes and consciousness, and identified transdisciplinary education as the facilitator of such social change. He believed in the possibility and necessity of societyʼs evolution towards higher levels of consciousness and co-operation. The author will discuss this aspect of Geddesʼ work in another publication.

Without specifically using the word ʻdesignʼ, Geddes provided an early example of a drastically expanded conception of design. As a promoter of the transdisciplinary exchange of knowledge, public education, and engaged citizen responsibility through direct participatory action, Geddes lived out the role of the designer as integrator of, and facilitator between, diverse knowledge domains, as well as theory and practice. The practical and theoretical work of Patrick Geddes expressed a thoroughly modern understanding of the role that design can play in the education and creation of a sustainable human civilization.

Regionalism, Ecology, Cooperation and the ʻEutechnic Ageʼ

The intellectual roots of regionalism can be traced back to the French sociologist, Le Play, who emphasized the importance of integrating people through right livelihood into the particular place they inhabited, and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921), who proposed a greater regional independence and self-governance based on decentralized and self-determined modes of production. Kropotkin argued that at a local scale of production human society naturally tends towards cooperative arrangements.

The work of Kropotkin and Le Play, as well as contributions by Le Playʼs student Edmond Demolins (1852–1907), and the geographer Elisée Reclus (1830–1905) formed the basis of Geddes regional planning approach. Patrick Geddes united different aspects of their work with his own evolutionary understanding as a biologist and created a planning strategy based on a regional survey of the geological, ecological, hydrological, and climatological as well as social and economical conditions of a particular place. He recognized the important role of cities in the evolution of culture and maintained that a city has to be understood and integrated in the context of its biological and geographical region.

Geddes developed Le Playʼs notion of the ʻvalley sectionʼ, into a schematic representation of a regional watershed that suggested a hierarchy of forms of human settlements from croft, to village, to market town to city adapted to particular environmental conditions and associated with different livelihoods and occupations. This integration of settlements and modes of production and consumption into the context and conditions of their natural region, roughly delineated by the local watershed later formed the conceptual basis of bioregionalism.7

The Geddesian Valley Section (Image)

Widely regarded as a cofounder of the town and regional planning movement, Geddes famously pronounced that ʻIt takes a whole region to make a city.ʼ8 Geddesʼ training as an evolutionary biologist under T.H. Huxley (1825–1895), as well as his collaboration and friendship with the German biologist, philosopher, and founder of ecology Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), added an important ecological dimension to the Geddesian planning approach. Geddes integrated ecological, social and economic considerations, based on his biological understanding of how organisms both adapt to, and adapt, their natural environment. Volker M. Welter suggests that Geddes identified ʻmisadaptation to the natural environment as the underlying cause of urban problems.ʼ Welter explains:

“For Geddes, conflicts arise not between classes but between occupational groups and the environment. As the aim is to adjust the whole city to the environment, cooperation among citizens becomes not only a viable option but a necessity.”9

According to Geddes, it was through the notion of right livelihood that humanity could begin to integrate into natural process rather than continue to dominate and exploit nature through ever more destructive technologies. He believed that eventually the destructive technologies that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and led to a progressive subjugation of human beings and the environment to the machine would give way to a new ʻgeotechnologyʼ that was to meet human needs within the limits of the planetary biosphere. Geddes talked about a shift from the ʻpaleotechnic ageʼ where life as a whole was threatened to the ʻneotechnic ageʼ — also referred to by him as the ʻeutechnic ageʼ when life would resurge (eu- is a Greek prefix indicating positive, healthy, or good).

In Geddesʼ eyes, life itself is the underlying process that connects nature and culture. During the paleotechnic age technological progress involves the renunciation of the organic and its substitution by the mechanical; wealth is measured in purely monetary terms rather than in terms of quality of life and environmental health. In contrast, during the emergence of the eutechnic age the goal of technology is to meet human needs and to integrate into ecological and social process thus creating a healthy environment.

Geddes believed that in this eutechnic age nature conservation and restoration would be a priority. It would lead to a greening of the cities and the development of ʻa new technology based on new sources of energy, clean, unpolluting, and efficient…ʼ.10 Was he foreseeing the emergence of new regional economies based on renewable energy? Geddes suggested that eventually a shift away from the predominantly competitive outlook that characterized the paleotechnic age would lead to a focus on greater cooperation at the regional, international and global scale during the eutechnic age.

One of Geddes complex maps of a participatory holistic view of life (Image)

In a recently published book The Chaos Point — The World at the Crossroads, Ervin Laszlo, founder of the Club of Budapest, has argued that human civilization is currently at a bifurcation point where the collective design decision we take over the course of the next decade will either steer us towards eco-social breakdown or a breakthrough towards fundamental social, cultural and psychological changes and sustainability.11 The work of Sir Patrick Geddes comes alive and gains contemporary significance within the context of this unprecedented transformation of the human presence on earth.

The frequent calls for the consideration of ethical, social and environmental responsibility in business, government and civil society, along with the progress made in fields like green product design, renewable energy technologies, and in integrated planning approaches, could be regarded as an indication that we are finally — a hundred years after Geddes proclaimed his vision of the eutechnic age — reaching the critical mass for such a shift to actually occur. The systems theorist, Buddhist scholar and deep ecologist Joanna Macy describes this shift from the currently still dominant ʻindustrial growth societyʼ to a ʻlife sustaining societyʼ as ʻthe time of the great turning.ʼ12

Like Geddes, Macy clearly recognizes that such a profound shift in societyʼs guiding paradigm needs to express itself not simply in the physical dimension in terms of new technologies, products, buildings and planning approaches, but needs to go hand in hand with a change in human consciousness. Sustainability requires a fundamental change in worldview resulting in a change in self-perception that reintegrates humanity into natural process as a conscious participant and integral part of nature. Such changes can be facilitated by transdisciplinary education of the whole person. Profound societal change emerges from the bottom up through direct participation of citizens in their local communities and the ecological context of their regions.

Global solutions to humanityʼs current environmental problems are only to be found and brought about through local actions at the scale of communities and their bioregion. Such actions require a socially and ecologically literate citizenry. Geddes understood the importance of thinking global and acting local. He was at once a strong supporter of the preservation of Scottish regional and national identity, as well as international cooperation within and beyond Europe.

Geddes knew that the creative integration of nature and culture would ultimately require humanityʼs collaboration at a global scale. Regionally adapted work, i.e. local production for local consumption, is the most parsimonious way to achieve the ecological integration of culture and nature. Regionally appropriate livelihoods connect people to the place they inhabit. The emergence of a globally sustainable civilization requires participation of locally adapted sustainable communities in regional, national, and international networks of cooperation and knowledge exchange.

Transdisciplinary and Integrated Solutions for Sustainability

Practical ways to achieve the integration of ecological, social, cultural, economic and psychological concerns within the context of the globalised world of the 21st century are currently being researched and developed through disciplines such as ecological economics, industrial ecology, bioregional planning, urban ecology, integral ecology, ecological engineering and the various design approaches that aim to meet human needs while integrating human activity into the limits posed by the biosphere. Among them are: design for sustainability, deep design, green design, eco-design, cradle-to-cradle design, and ecological design.13

At the University of Dundee, where Geddes taught for more than 30 years, researchers at the Centre for the Study of Natural Design are investigating the emerging transdisciplinary synthesis and integration that is beginning to unite all these diverse disciplines into a movement aiming to provide pathways towards humanityʼs appropriate participation in the complex dynamics of social and ecological process and therefore true sustainability. This movement is tentatively referred to as ʻthe natural design movement.ʼ

Without specifically using the word ʻdesign,ʼ Patrick Geddes pioneered such a transdisciplinary or holistic approach to design, planning and education over a century ago. Geddes has sometimes been dismissed as an idiosyncratic generalist — a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none — but could it be that this was the judgement of focussed specialists from within the confines of their disciplinary boundaries? Within the context of the complex and interconnected problems that are facing modern society, which all seem to require profoundly transdisciplinary approaches to develop viable and sustainable solutions, it may be time to reconsider the influence of Patrick Geddes and some of his insights in a totally new light.

Geddes was a generalist by conviction and not by circumstance. He understood that we needed both specialized knowledge and an understanding of how the various disciplines relate. Geddes spent a large part of his life developing a methodology for transdisciplinary collaboration and a synthesis of the diverse aspects of human knowledge about the world. To him ʻseeing life as wholeʼ was the solution. He understood that life was a process fundamental to the emergence of both nature and culture. The unity of nature and culture and his ecological understanding served as the basis for his transdisciplinary synthesis of knowledge.

Geddes understood that a successful shift towards a sustainable human civilization — at a local, regional, and global scale — ultimately depends on profound metadesign changes in peopleʼs attitudes, values, worldviews, and perceived needs. Only such immaterial changes in awareness and consciousness — informed by transdisciplinary integration and synthesis — have the transformative power to affect all material design and planning decisions downstream.

Geddes on Ecological Economics

With regard to the field of economics, Geddes took his initial inspirations from John Ruskin (1819- 1900). In an early paper, entitled ʻJohn Ruskin: Economist,ʼ first published in 1885, Geddes agrees with Ruskinʼs assessment that market forces should not control economics, but what was needed was a new approach to economics that focussed on true quality of life by answering to the biological and aesthetic needs of humanity.14

Based on his biological understanding of the dynamics of ecosystems, Geddes suggested that a high degree of specialization in the function of an organism within a highly complex society would lead to a decrease of individual competition. At the same time he was aware of the inherent dangers of such specialisation and the fragmentation of knowledge into disconnected disciplines. Geddes emphasized the need for a holistic perspective that contextualises specialist knowledge.

In ʻAn Analysis of the Principles of Economicsʼ, a paper that Geddes presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1883, he compared the physical principles of economics based on mechanical metaphors of industrial production and the absorption and dissipation of energy, with the biological principles of economics that took an evolutionary perspective of life as the process that connects culture and nature.

Geddes warned that the specialization of labour — if not balanced by a profoundly transdisciplinary education — could have a detrimental effect on individual, cultural and eventually environmental health. He was convinced that a clear focus on education was needed to support the continued evolution of culture and society.

Rooted in his biological conviction of the fundamental unity of nature and culture, Geddes argued that the ʻkey objective of the biological principles of economics was not food and shelter but culture and educationʼ. For Geddes, the creation of an educated, and regionally adapted culture was the prerequisite for the long-term assurance of the provision of food and shelter for all its citizens.

Geddes believed that a society was able to evolve healthily if its people and their livelihoods were adapted to the specific conditions of their local region. Such adaptations required a form of transdisciplinary education that made people aware of how their livelihood fitted into the overall adaptive and integrative process that joined local culture to local nature.

In Geddesʼ opinion, art and architecture had the dual function of expressing, and educating, about this symbiotic relationship between nature and culture. To him, an ecological economics that followed biological design principles would meet human needs through creative and flexible adaptation to local and regional limits. The focus of such an economic system was not economic growth but biological, ecological, and social health.

The field of ecological economics has developed significantly over the last three decades. A diverse range of researchers, entrepreneurs, and activists has contributed to the maturation of ecological economics.15 Geddes set one of the earliest impulses for the emergence of ecological economics and the wider movement aiming towards a reintegration of humanities economic activities within the limits to allow for the long-term sustainment of healthy ecological and social processes.

Geddesʼ Influence on Regional and Urban Planning

Various authors have discussed the Geddesian influence on regional and urban planning over the last decade and they have come to varying conclusions ranging from regarding it as marginal to crucial.16 In a recent article, Kenneth Maclean reviewed some of Geddesʼ legacy. He suggested, Cities in Evolution, Geddesʼ most widely read book, ʻeffectively spread his innovatory message that the key to dynamic social and urban improvement lay with an educated citizenryʼ and emphasized that ʻawareness and participation were essential to Geddesʼs ideas of citizenshipʼ17.

Maclean lists a number of people whose work was particularly influenced by Patrick Geddes, among them: the geographer and anthropologist Herbert John Fleure (1876–1969) who set up the first BSc./Ba. Programme in geography at the University of Aberystwyth; the geologist and geographer L. Dudley Stamp (1898–1966), who chaired the Regional Survey Committee of the Geographical Association and oversaw the Land Utilization Survey of Britain while lecturing on Economic Geography at the London School of Economics; and the geographer and environmental educator Tom H. Masterton, a student of Geddesʼ son Arthur Geddes at the University of Edinburgh and later lecturer in geography at Moray House College of Education. In his influential textbook Environmental Studies: A Concentric Approach which had a significant effect on primary school education in Scotland, Masteron advocates that teachers should centre education around the local region.18

Helen Meller mentions Geddesʼ direct inspirational influence on the Clyde Valley Plan that was developed for Strathclyde Regional Council. Meller also points out that when the Architectural Association assisted in the development of correspondence courses for ex-service men after the Second World War these were supervised by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt (1905–1983) a strong supporter of the Geddesian approach to planning.

These courses at the School of Planning, for which over 1600 students enrolled focussed on four essential aspects of planning: ʻthe need for the activity to be multidisciplinary, the use of the region as a planning unit, the necessity of a holistic approach, and the importance of economic and social factors.ʼ Meller concludes that ʻall four were derived from her [Tyrwhittʼs] Geddesian perspective.ʼ19

A curious phenomenon about the academic influence of Geddes is that even today his work seems to be better known and more respected outside Britain. His planning work in India, Palestine and Cyprus has left relatively little remaining physical testimony in the form of existing buildings or towns, but his planning approach remains influential in Indian and South American planning departments.

Meller mentions that Geddes encouraged Howard Odum (1885–1954) to establish the Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina. She argues that through this, and his impact on the work of Lewis Mumford (1895–1988) and Benton Mackaye (1879–1975), Geddes had an indirect but significant influence on the often cited Tennessee Valley Authority regional planning and economic regeneration project.20 Through his effect on Mumford and Mackaye, Geddesʼ ideas spread to the Regional Planning Association of America and to university planning departments internationally.

Ecological Planning and Design

Another crucially important person in the propagation and further development of the interdisciplinary regional planning approach pioneered by Geddes was the Scottish planner and landscape architect Ian L. McHarg (1920–2001). McHarg was one of the ex-servicemen who enrolled in the post-war correspondence course in planning mentioned above, before studying city planning and landscape architecture at Harvard. He went on to set up the department for regional planning and landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and is today widely recognized as the founder of ecological planning.

McHargʼs systematic development of Geddesʼ regional survey into a planning methodology ultimately led to the development of the Geographic Information System software that has become an important tool in most planning departments. G.I.S. represents a modern day, concretised version of the Geddesian valley section. The programme allows for the inclusion of diverse regional survey results in a series of overlaid maps to enable planners to site new developments in their most environmentally opportune location. McHarg adopted and developed Geddesʼ transdisciplinary approach, and his emphasis on the importance of education and citizen participation, into an ecological planning methodology.

Like Geddes, McHarg understood that a reassessment of societyʼs guiding value system with regard to the relationship between culture and nature was crucial for the reintegration of humanity into natural process. In 1969, McHarg published Design With Nature. The book marked the re-emergence of ecological planning in the modern world (most vernacular or traditional land- use patterns are predominantly based on natural limits and opportunities), and can be regarded as the foundation of ecological design.21 In a more recent article McHarg defined the terms ecological planning and ecological design as follows:

Ecological Planning is that approach whereby a region is understood as a biophysical and social process comprehensible through the operation of laws and time. This can be reinterpreted as having explicit opportunities and constraints for any particular human use. A survey will reveal the most fit locations and processes. Ecological design follows planning and introduces the subject of form. There should be an intrinsically suitable location, processes with appropriate materials, and forms. Design requires an informed designer with a visual imagination, as well as graphic and creative skills. It selects for creative fitting revealed in intrinsic and expressive form.”22

The Geddesian influence is undeniable. The understanding that all design from the scale of the individual product, architecture, settlements, and on to an entire region and its economic system needs to be integrated into ecological and social processes constitutes an important link between design and planning in theory and practice. Unfortunately academic compartmentalization has separated the disciplines of planning and design that should really be understood and practiced as one. Ecological design is clearly aiming to re-establish the fundamental unity of these disciplines.

Victor Papanek (1927–1999) was among the first industrial product designers to stress that there is an important ethical dimension to all design and explored its ecological and social significance. Papanek emphasized that ʻthe designer-planner shares responsibility for nearly all of our products and tools and hence all our environmental mistakes.ʼ23 Papanek also advocated the Geddesian lesson of the appropriate local scale for design intervention. He wrote: ʻThe problems may be world-wide, yet they will yield only to decentralized, human scale and local intervention.ʼ Like Geddes, Papanek was convinced that ʻdesign must be the bridge between human needs, culture and ecology.ʼ24

There is a steadily growing movement of ecologically and socially responsible design practitioners. The work of the economist E.F. Schumacher (1911–1977), author of Small is Beautiful, supported a redesign of production, consumption and governance at a local and human scale. Since the late 1960s, John and Nancy Todd have continued to develop and test many ecological design solutions suited for a local and bioregional scale.

Amory Lovins and his wife Hunter Lovins, through their work at the Rocky Mountain Institute, have provided detailed strategies for a shift towards decentralized energy production and cleaner transport solutions. The design philosophy and practice of ʻpermacultureʼ, first developed by Bill Mollison, has since expanded into a global, grass-roots movement, that operates along bioregional design principles.25

In their book Ecological Design, Sim van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan pay tribute to Geddes as one of the pioneers of the ecological design movement. They emphasize that ʻecological design works with the inherent integrities of a given place, recognizing that the extent to which we rely on far-flung resources is the extent to which we are no longer accountable to our own place.ʼ Furthermore, they suggest that ʻdesign transforms awareness. Designs that grow out of and celebrate place, will ground us in place. Designs that work in partnership with nature articulate an implicit hope that we might do the same.ʼ26 All this clearly expresses an understanding of design that was already present in the work of Patrick Geddes and his emphasis on the fundamental unity of nature and culture and the importance of ʻseeing life as whole.ʼ Van der Ryn and Cowan reiterate Geddes when they lament that:

“We have individually and collectively denied the interdependence of nature and culture. The tragedy is that dumb design has provided so little of enduring value at such a great environmental and social cost. The industrial world, with its science, technology, and borrowed affluence, has developed by denying wholeness within the art of living.”27

Bioregional Solutions

Geddes and McHarg pioneered a planning approach based on social and ecological responsibility and literacy. Together with Kropotkin and Le Play, Geddes was one of the first advocates of a regional focus for planning and design. He first emphasized the need for more transdisciplinary integration, holistic education, and citizen participation. Geddes was also the first to suggest that local watersheds indicated the appropriate regional planning scale.

The movement of ʻbioregionalismʼ emerged in the 1970s, promoted through the work of Kirkpatrick Sale, Raymond Dasman and Peter Berg.28 But it is only in recent years that the ecological design approach integrated into a bioregional planning strategy is increasingly being recognized as the most comprehensive strategy to bring about the crucially important shift from a thoroughly unsustainable industrial growth society to a new integration of nature and culture through sustainable practices at all scales. Such a shift will require full participation of civil society, industry and governments alike. In recent years a number of excellent books about the bioregional planning approach have been published.29

The sustainability consultants Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone of the London based consultancy ʻBioRegionalʼ suggest that we need to reconsider the scale of our production systems and create more locally self-sustaining communities in compact cities. They argue that ʻregional scale development encourages people to become engaged, creating an environment in which the political ideal of subsidiarity can be expressedʼ and suggest that ʻcreating stable regional economies can help to create a sense of community and security that can alleviate the stresses inherent in a globally competitive world.ʼ Just like Geddes suggested over a hundred years earlier, Desai and Riddlestone propose that ʻa sense of community can be supported by fostering a sense of place, through locally distinct neighbourhoods and industries linked to the ecology and heritage of the area.ʼ30

“Bioregionalism is land-use planning that integrates industry, agriculture, economics and governance together with the ecology of the region. It begins from the premise that humans evolved in response to their environments, and are subject to natural laws and limits; therefore, communities should be designed to fit their bioregion. However, bioregional planning could also be designed to assist in the transition to a bio-based economy.”31

In a recently published compendium of ecological design solutions, Janis Birkeland suggested seven basic scales of ecological design. These are eco-design at the product scale, eco- architecture, construction ecology, community design, industrial design, urban design, and all of them integrate at the scale of bioregional design. In the same compendium Birkeland and Walker explain that ʻbioregional planning starts from the recognition that humans are biological entities and therefore need systems for living that are designed to meet their cultural, economic, and physical needs, but in ways that foster symbiotic relationships with the complex ecological systems of the bioregion.ʼ32 They suggest that in contrast to conventional planning approaches that still ʻtransform natureʼ, bioregional planning integrates nature and culture through transforming society.

To Geddes conurbation was a symbiosis between nature and the built environment. Volker Welter argued that ʻfor Geddes a conurbation was the potential pinnacle of [hu]mankindʼs tendency to urbanize large stretches of land; today the term has become a synonym for [hu]mankindʼs allegedly self-destructive tendency to create unsustainable artificial environments.ʼ33 While Geddes was in favour of conurbation, he emphasised that this process had to be controlled to occur within the natural limits of the region.

A contemporary bioregional vision includes cities of high densities with integrated urban agricultural systems and generous greenbelts and wildlife corridors in and around the cities. The Geddesian vision of an ecologically and socially sustainable culture may need some adjustments to the conditions of the 21st century, but the underlying call for an ecological worldview that informs our approach to planning and design and recognises the fundamental unity of nature and culture has not lost, but gained importance. Geddes can clearly be regarded as an early advocate of design and planning for people in place. Today, such a health generating and contextualising design strategy can still help to provide more sustainable solutions to our most pressing social, ecological and economic problems.

The vision of a sustainable human civilization composed of internationally collaborative, bioregional economies was born a century ago. Bioregionalism, bioregional planning, and ecological design will carry the modern expression of this Geddesian vision into its practical implementation during the 21st century.


Sir Patrick Geddes emphasized the need for transdisciplinary education as a facilitator of cultural change. He advocated ecologically and socially appropriate practices, and stressed the need for an integration of human settlements and livelihoods into the natural conditions of their particular region. According to Geddes, appropriate local action requires global awareness and international cooperation. Globalisation, climate change, resource depletion, and national and international inequality are complex and interconnected challenges requiring such holistic design solutions. As the author has previously emphasized, the creation of a sustainable human civilization is the central challenge for design in the 21st century.34

Geddes saw adaptation as a two way process. On the one hand, regional cultures are adapting their regional environment to suit human needs, but on the other hand the limits of such adaptations are set by the social and ecological conditions of their particular environment. An adaptation of local cultures to specific ecosystem conditions is therefore the equally important complementary process to the adaptation of ecosystems by their inhabitants. In a healthy system nature and culture are indistinguishable and mutually supportive. This is the crucial lesson humanity has to re-learn at the global and local scale, if the 21st Century is to mark the end of ecological overshoot and a re-integration of humanity into natural processes and limits.

Without such integration, sustainability will remain an empty promise, abused for political spin. When we see ʻlife as wholeʼ culture is recognized as either a sustainable or unsustainable expression of nature. As such, culture either faces continued evolution and change, or extinction. Without the services provided by natureʼs life-support systems, no culture can sustain its existence. Human, ecosystems and planetary health are fundamentally interdependent.35 Geddes believed that ʻour greatest need today is to see life as wholeʼ because he understood that healthy communities depend on healthy ecosystems and a healthy biosphere, and because how we design depends on how we see the world and ourselves.

The work of Patrick Geddes can be regarded as an early impulse in the emergence of ecological planning and design, as well as, ecological economics and bioregionalism. Many of Geddesʼ ideas are still influential today, although not always recognized as originating from his work. His theories have naturally been adapted in language and context to the contemporary discourse. Nevertheless, there are fundamental lessons about sustainable development to be deduced from Geddesʼ work.

In summary, the key Geddesian impulses that still deserve further attention in the contemporary context of sustainable development are: the bioregional planning approach that integrates ecological, socio-cultural and economical considerations at a regional scale; the emphasis on transdisciplinary education as a prerequisite for informed civic participation and cultural change; and a holistic methodology for decision making and design that considers the contributions of diverse fields of human knowledge.

[This paper was written in 2005 and I have published it here without further editing. I just added a few images. For a more recent example of my work, see the reviews of Designing Regenerative Cultures and many excerpts from the book and articles on my Medium page.]


1 This quotation of Patrick Geddes is from Sir William Holford’s introduction to P. Mairet, Pioneer of Sociology — The Life and Letters of Patrick Geddes, 1957.
2 In January 2005 an International Conference on Biodiversity highlighted the fact that we are currently living through a global mass extinction of species at a rate comparable to the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. 15,589 animal and more than 60,000 plant species have now been listed as endangered, while only 1.8 million of an estimated 30 million species have even been named and identified. Over the last millennium the earth has lost 45% of its forest cover. The conference highlighted that human intervention in natural systems has to be considered the main cause of this increase in extinctions. (Source: El Pais, January, 25th, 2005, p. 28.

3 .P. Geddes, ‘The Sociology of Autumn’, in M. McDonald ed., Edinburgh Review Issue 88, ‘Patrick Geddes –Educator, Ecologist, Visual Thinker’, Edinburgh University Press, 1992, p. 32.
4 D.C. Wahl, ‘Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature’, Wessex Institute of Technology Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, vol. 87, 2006, pp.289–298.

5 P. Geddes, Cities in Evolution: an introduction to the town planning movement and the study of civics, Williams & Norgate.
6 See for example: D.J. Brunckhorst, Bioregional Planning: Resource management beyond the new millennium, Routledge, 2002; and M.V. McGinnis, Bioregionalism, Routledge, 1999.
7 For a more detailed discussion of the intellectual roots of the Geddesian approach to regional planning see W. Stephen, Think Global, Act Local — The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes, Luath Press, 2004, pp.41 & pp.85; as well as H. Meller, Patrick Geddes — Social Evolutionist and City Planner, Routledge, 1993, pp.34.
8 P. Geddes, ‘Civics: As Concrete and Applied Sociology. Part I’, in Sociological Papers 1904, Macmillan, 1905, p. 106.
9 V. M. Welter, Biopolis — Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, MIT Press, 2002, p. 66.
10 S. Leonard, ‘The message of Patrick Geddes — the Green Pioneer’, in M. Macdonald ed., Edinburgh Review 88: Patrick Geddes — Ecologist, Educator, Visual Thinker, Edinburgh University Press, 1992, p. 76.
11 E. Laszlo, The Chaos Point — The World at the Crossroads, Piatkus Press, 2006
12 J. Macy & M. Y. Brown, Coming Back to Life — Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, OurWorld, New Society Publishers, 1998, pp. 17- 18.
13 See for example: J. Birkeland ed., Design for Sustainability — A Sourcebook for Integrated Eco-logical Solutions, Earthscan, 2002; D. Wann, Deep Design — Pathways to a Livable Future, Island Press, 1996; D. Makenzie, Green Design: Design for the Environment, Laurence King, 1997; W. McDonough & M. Braungart, Cradle to Cradle — Remaking the Way We Make Things, North Point Press, 2002; S. Van der Ryn & S. Cowan, Ecological Design, Island Press, 1996; S. Esbjörn-Hargens ‘Integral Ecology: The What, Who, and How of environmental phenomena’, World Futures: Journal of General Evolution, Routeledge, 2005, Vol.61 Numbers 1–2, pp.5–49
14 P. Geddes, John Ruskin: Economist, Brown, 1885. Reprinted in International Monthly 1, 1900, pp. 280–308, under the title ‘John Ruskin, as Economist’.
15 See for example: E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful — Economics as if People Mattered, Harper Collins, 1973; R. Costanza edit., Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability, Columbia University Press, 1991; H. Daly, Steady-State Economics, Island Press, 1991; P. Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, Harper Collins, 1993; T. Trainer, Towards a Sustainable Economy, Envirobooks, 1996; H. Henderson, Beyond Globalization: Shaping a Sustainable Global Economy, Kumarian Press, 1999; B. Milani, Designing the Green Economy, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
16 See for example: V. M. Welter (2002); H. Meller (1993), W. Stephen et al. (2004).
17 K. Maclean, ‘Patrick Geddes: Regional Survey and Education’, in W. Stephen et al., Think Global, Act Local — The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes, Luath Press, 2004, p.86.
18 ibid. p.109.
19 H. Meller, Patrick Geddes: Social Evolutionist and City Planner, Routledge, 1993, pp. 323–324.
20 ibid. p. 322.
21 I.L. McHarg, Design with Nature, Doubleday/Natural History Press, 1969
22 I.L. McHarg, ‘Ecology and Design’, 1997, in McHarg & Steiner, To Heal the Earth — Selected Writings of Ian L. McHarg, Island Press, 1998, p.195
23 V. Papaneck, Design for the Real World — Human Ecology and Social Change, Thames and Hudson, 2nd revised edition, 1984, p.57
24 V. Papanek, The Green Imperative — Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture, Thames & Hudson, 1995, p.25 & p.29
25 See: E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful — Economics as if People Mattered, first published in 1973, new edition with commentaries by Hartley & Marks, 1999. For the work of John and Nancy Todd, see for example: N.J. Todd & J. Todd, From Eco-Cities to Living Machines — Principles of Ecological Design, North Atlantic Books, 1993. For the work of Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute see and for example: A.B. Lovins et al., Small is Profitable — The Hidden Economic Benefits of Making Electrical Resources the Right Size, Rocky Mountain Institute, 2002. For the work of Bill Molison, see for example: B. Mollison, Permaculture — A Designer’s Manual, Tagari Publications, 1988.
26 S. Van der Ryn & S. Cowan, Ecological Design, Island Press, 1996, p.72 & p.162
27 ibid. p.14
28 For the work of Kirkpatrick Sale see e.g. Dwellers in the Land — The Bioregional Vision, New Society Publishers, 1991. The writer Peter Berg and the ecologist Raymond Dasman working through a organisation called ‘Planet Drum’ in California and a magazine called ‘Raising the Stakes’ collaborated during the early 1970s with the poet Garry Snyder in promoting the grass-root based involvement of local communities in the movement of bioregionalism.
29 Among the recent publications that document the growing academic and practical interest in the bioregional planning approach are: D.J. Burnckhorst, Bioregional Planning: Resource Management Beyond the New Millenium, Harwood Academic, 2000; P. Calthorpe & W. Fulton, The Regional City, Island Press, 2000; P. Desai & S. Riddlestone, Bioregional Solutions — For Living on One Planet, Schumacher Briefing №8, Green Books, 2002; H. Girardet, Creating Sustainable Cities, Schumacher Briefing №2, Green Books, 1999; K.N. Johnson ed., Bioregional Assessments: Science at the Crossroads of Management and Policy, Island Press, 2001; M.V. McGinnis, Bioregionalism, Routledge, 1999.
30 P. Desai & S. Riddlestone, Bioregional Solutions for Living on One Planet, Schumacher Briefing 8, Green Books, 2002, p.77 & p.75
31 J. Birkeland & C. Walker, ‘Bioregional Planning’, in J. Birkeland ed., Design for Sustainability — A Sourcebook for Integrated Eco- logical Solutions, Earthscan Publications, 2002, p. 236
32 ibid, p.236
33 V.M. Welter, Biopolis: Patrick Geddes and the city of life, MIT Press, p.251
34 see also: D.W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention, Oxford University Press, 2002, p.50; and D.C. Wahl, ‘Bionics vs. Biomimicry: from control of nature to sustainable participation in nature’, Design & Nature III: Comparing Design in Nature with science and Engineering, Wessex Institute of Technology Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, Vol.87, WIT Press, 2006, pp.289–298
35 see also D.C. Wahl, ‘Design for human and planetary health: a transdisciplinary approach to sustainability’, The Ravage of the Planet, Wessex Institute of Technology Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, WIT Press, 2006, forthcoming



Daniel Christian Wahl

Catalysing transformative innovation, cultural co-creation, whole systems design, and bioregional regeneration. Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures