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Sir Frank Mears

Sir Frank Mears

Frank Mears was Scotland’s leading planning practitioner during the 1930s and 40s.  In 1944 he was elected President of the Royal Scottish Academy, in 1945 he received an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University and in 1946 he was knighted in the New Years Honours.  Yet in the period since his death in 1953, his distinctive contribution to the early development of planning in Scotland has been largely forgotten.

Mears was born in 1880.  His architectural training in Edinburgh at the turn of the Century had a strong Medieval emphasis and as an apprentice he worked on a number of important ecclesiastical projects, such as the Coates Memorial Church in Paisley.

It was as a result of his work with Patrick Geddes that Mears developed an interest in planning.  In around 1908, Mears became involved with the circle of artists, intellectuals and civic activists associated with Geddes’ Outlook Tower.  Geddes lamented the loss of the intellectual pre-eminence which Edinburgh had enjoyed during golden years of the Enlightenment, and the great variety of environmental and educational projects which he promoted in the city were designed to stimulate a cultural and intellectual renascence. Early in their relationship, he wrote to Mears of his hopes for Edinburgh in the following terms:

“The scheme is a great one – that of planning the cultural future of Edinburgh – a renascent capital – and of Scotland as again one of the great European powers of culture.”

An appreciation of Geddes’ close engagement with the fate of Edinburgh as a national culture-capital is crucial to an understanding of the particular perspective which he brought to planning.  His conception of the nature and purpose of planning was quite different from that of other planning propagandists.  For Geddes, the central concern was not with the technical problems of urban expansion or the creation of brave new utopian settlements but with the task of inspiring communities to an active participation in their own cultural and social renewal.

Mears soon became one of Geddes’ principal assistants and played a key role in a number of important projects, including the Survey of Edinburgh and the preparation of the award-winning Cities Exhibition. In his subsequent career, Mears was the planner who most faithfully sought to translate Geddes’ ideas on social and cultural renewal into practice.

In 1913, Geddes and Mears were engaged to lay out Edinburgh’s new Zoological Park at Corstorphine.  Much of the work was done by Mears and Geddes’ daughter, Norah, whom Mears later married.  He was keen to avoid the use of traditional cages as far as possible and his designs for rock dens and enclosures was influenced by the innovative approach to the display of animals pioneered at New York and Hamburg.

Dublin Reconstruction - 1922

Greater Dublin Reconstruction Movement proposals, 1922

After the Great War, Mears undertook important work in two other culture-capitals during crucial periods of transition.  In 1919, Geddes and Mears were commissioned by the Zionist Commission for Palestine to prepare plans and an architectural design for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  In 1922, Mears assisted the Greater Dublin Reconstruction Movement with the preparation of plans for civic renewal and the accommodation of new national institutions in the early days of Irish independence.

During the twenties and thirties, Mears maintained a close interest in planning and development issues in Edinburgh.  He had an close ally in Councillor Thomas Whitson and when Whitson became Provost in the late twenties, Mears was commissioned to prepare preliminary suggestions for the City Centre.  The vision which he offered was of the historic city renewed as a modern Scottish capital and the plan placed emphasis on meeting the needs of expanding national and civic institutions.


New tenement housing for Greenock

Mears was a pioneer of conservation in Scotland’s historic burghs.  In Edinburgh, he campaigned for the renewal of the Royal Mile and undertook the restoration of Huntly House and Gladstone’s Land.  In the period between 1936 and his death in 1953, he acted as planning consultant to the burghs of Dumfries, Elgin, Girvan, Greenock, Perth, Stirling and Thurso.  Perhaps the best example of his reconstruction work in historic burghs is his scheme for the renewal of Stirling’s Old Town.

Mears was keenly interested in rural issues and played a key role in the establishment of the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland.  He stressed the importance of providing modern services and infrastructure in rural areas and in East Lothian and the Borders he applied community planning principles to the development of strategies for rural resettlement.  He was also concerned about the quality of new development in the countryside and, on behalf of the APRS, he prepared standard designs for low-cost rural houses.


One of Mears’ designs for low-cost rural housing

Mears was a strong advocate of regional planning.  In 1943, under the autonomous administration established by wartime Secretary of State, Tom Johnston, he was asked to prepare a regional plan for Central and South East Scotland, an area encompassing the entire Forth and Tweed catchments.  The Plan reflected Mears’ strong concerns about the impact of rural depopulation and advocated the return of approximately 10% of the urban population to the rural areas.  It included a strategy for the resettlement of depopulated Border valleys and its proposals for the reafforestation and recolonisation of the Slamannan Plateau laid the foundation for what was to become the Central Scotland Forest.

Towards the end of his career, Mears addressed the issue of rural depopulation in its most acute form in a strategy for the revitalisation of Sutherland.  Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, he rejected the notion that the problem could be solved “by a simple process of decanting a given proportion of large-scale industries into partially depopulated areas.”  Instead, in a plan strongly influenced by Frank Fraser Darling’s Preliminary Report on the West Highland Survey, he advocated a strategy based on the regeneration of the crofting economy through measures such as land rehabilitation, tenure reform, investment in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and the encouragement of small rural industries based on indigenous resources.

Following the 1945 General Election, the initiative in matters of planning and reconstruction passed from the Scottish Office to Whitehall and in the post-war period a technocratic planning profession was to become increasingly preoccupied with systems, procedures and regulation.  In this climate, those aspects of Mears’ planning philosophy which did not conform to British planning orthodoxy were largely disregarded.  Today, his commitment to social, cultural and environmental renewal, and the emphasis he placed on urban conservation and rural regeneration can be seen to have abiding relevance.  

This article was first published in the Autumn 1999 issue of the Saltire Society Newsletter. In 1981 the Society awarded me a Robert Hurd scholarship to enable me to undertake research on Frank Mears.