The Royal Town Planning Institute in Scotland

visiting General Maczek’s Great Map

Convener’s message

9 June 2008


On 4th June we were put on alert by a Patrick Geddes Memorial Lecture by Harry Burns, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer. A full audience gathered to hear him at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was introduced by Stewart Stevenson, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change. It was a chance to reconnect our own work in planning with its vital roots in public welfare.  And it recalled Geddes’ own lectures at the same Society more than 120 years earlier. As a lecturer and demonstrator in the medical school, Geddes’ first presentation to the Society looked at variegation and multiplication in seaweed. By his second –spread over three sessions- Geddes was ready to tackle social statistics, relating each small fact to a broad canvas of territory, production and community. In subsequent lectures he went from particulars like the sea urchin to explore overarching principles of physiology, morphology and economics. Like other Scots raised in a land of high relief, Geddes had learned to think big in three dimensions, looking down from his garden on Kinnoull Hill to the town and country and all its connections spread out in the Tay valley beneath.


That interrelatedness could be seen in the city too- especially in a high-relief city like Edinburgh when Geddes and Anna Morton began their work in the insanitary old town. No wonder contemporary Scots medics like Joe Bell (the real Sherlock Holmes) were able to divine every detail of someone’s early life and surroundings from the symptoms they presented. No wonder Geddes struggled to bring green spaces to the darkest parts of the city, -“by leaves we live”- and no wonder his Edinburgh follower in the next generation, milkman Thomas Adams, devoted his own life to town planning, garden cities and affordable housing, drafting the first planning legislation, founding planning Institutes in Britain, Canada and the United States, advising Asquith and Churchill, Mackenzie King and Franklin Roosevelt, and funding the first Town and Country Planning Summer School from his own pocket.  Because it is demonstrably life-improving.


The idea of a doctor understanding patients-in-place through a camera obscura was picked up by filmmaker Michael Powell in his 1945 classic “A Matter of Life and Death”. The big picture was evident in the great Scottish regional studies of Abercrombie, Mears and Dobson.  The big picture connecting place and well-being also appealed to General Maczek, the Polish commander, when he decided to create a great relief model of Scotland at Eddleston as his tribute to the hospitality of its people after the war. Now the Glasgow Centre for Population Health has started to revive the big picture, and the work by Harry Burns, Carol Tannahill and Russell Jones reads across to East End local plan community endeavours of Tim Mitchell and Etive Currie. Be sure to read Harry Burns’ Geddes Lecture.  And for more about the vital connection between public health and urban design see Howard Frumkin’s US perspective in his Glasgow talk to GCPH, linked from my website .



Roger Kelly


Roger Kelly convened the Royal Town Planning Institute’s Scottish Executive throughout 2008.

This message appeared in the June edition of the Scottish Planner


Roger Kelly: convener’s message January 2008  April 2008  June 2008 August 2008  October 2008  December 2008 

Review of the year 2008

Roger Kelly on the context of planning reform June 2009