‘India lives in her villages’, said Mahatma Gandhi. This is an injunction that the environmental movement in India has taken very seriously indeed. Thus scholars and activists have argued about such matters as the commercial bias in forest policy, the disappearance of species, the drying up of village tanks, and the displacement of adivasis by large dams.

These are all important issues, deserving careful attention and concerted action. Still, it is striking how the environmental problems of the cities have received scant attention in comparison. For India lives in her cities and towns, too, in cities and towns plagued by hazardous work conditions, insanitary living conditions, high rates of air and water pollution, and the like.

In addressing these problems today, we can seek inspiration in the work of a remarkable urban environmentalist of the past. His name was Patrick Geddes, and he was born in 1854, in Scotland. After making a considerable reputation as a town planner in Europe, he came to India in 1914, at the age of sixty. For the next eight years Geddes was based in the sub-continent, studying and writing about the culture and ecology of the Indian city.

Geddes wrote nearly fifty town plans in India, some no more than four or five pages long, others printed in more than one bulky volume. Running through these plans are three central themes. The first I shall term ‘Respect for Nature’. His approach to town planning was deeply ecological, emphasizing a city’s relationship to its water sources, the promotion of parks and trees, the importance of recycling, and the lessening of dependence on the resources of the hinterland. Particulary noteworthy is what he says about wells. These, he says, should ‘be regarded as a valuable reserve to the existing water supplies, even if these be efficient.’ As he continues, ‘any and every water system occasionally goes out of order, and is open to accidents and injuries of very many kinds; and in these old wells we inherit an ancient policy, of life insurance, of a very real kind, and one far too valuable to be abandoned’. Geddes was writing here about Thane, but his words might be pasted above the office desks of planners working today in Chennai, Hyderabad, and a dozen other cities of India.

The second of Geddes’s themes is what I call ‘Respect for Democracy’. He insisted that the residents of a city must help design plans made for them. His own plans paid special attention to the needs of such disadvantaged groups as women, children, and low castes. And he was implacably opposed to ‘sweeping clearances and vigorous demolitions [that] seem [to be] coming fully in fashion…’. In the Changar Mohalla of Lahore, he was appalled by a scheme for re-development which planned to destroy five Mosques, two Dharamsalas, tombs and temples, and shops and dwellings. It spared only one building: the Police Station.

Geddes condemned this scheme as an ‘indiscriminate destruction of the whole past labour and industry of men, of all buildings good, bad and indifferent, and with these, of all their human values and associations, profane and sacred, Police Office only excepted!’ His ground rule for clearance and eviction was that ‘these must in any and every case be deprecated until and unless new and adequate location is provided’—words that, in a just world, would guide the actions not only of the town planner, but of the dam engineer and missile builder as well.

The third of Geddes’s core ideas may be termed the ‘Respect for Tradition’. After a visit to Nadiad, in Gujarat, he said the town planner must have an ‘appreciation of all that is best in the old domestic architecture of Indian cities and of renewing this where it has fallen away’. It was absurd to destroy, as being ‘out of date, fine old carven housefronts, which Western museums would treasure and Western artists be proud to emulate’. He once offered a five-word motto which those interested in Heritage Preservation might adopt as their own, namely: ‘To Postpone is to Conserve’.

Patrick Geddes was that oxymoron, a Scottish internationalist. He worked for many years in his native land, but also had a notable influence on the Continent. He helped plan a university in Palestine, and did some of his best work in India. To press for the continuing relevance of that work I can do no worse than quote Geddes’s great American disciple, Lewis Mumford. Writing some two decades after his mentor’s death, Mumford remarked that

‘What Geddes’s outlook and method contribute to the planning of today, are precisely the elements that the administrator and bureaucrat, in the interests of economy or efficiency, are tempted to leave out: time, patience, loving care of detail, a watchful inter-relation of past and future, an insistence upon the human scale and the human purpose [above] merely mechanical requirements: finally a willingness to leave an essential part of the process to those who are most intimately concerned with it: the ultimate consumers or citizens.’

Published in The Hindu, 21/1/2007