An outline of the career of a Scottish planner who sought to apply a Bioregionalist perspective to the challenge of rural regeneration.
In the Spring 1995 issue of Reforesting Scotland, Douglas Aberley showed that the philosophy and practice of modern Bioregionalism has been strongly influenced by the ideas of Scottish naturalist-activists such as John Muir, Patrick Geddes, Frank Fraser Darling and Ian McHarg. Another figure who can he placed firmly within the Scottish Bioregionalist tradition is the architect-planner, Frank Mears.
Illustration from the Regional Plan for Central and South East Scotland.
As a young architect, Mears worked as assistant to Patrick Geddes at the Outlook Tower in Edinburgh and was involved in several of Geddes’ overseas projects. As a result of this involvement, he gained early experience in applying what today would be described as “ecological restoration techniques” to problems of rural regeneration. In Palestine during the 1920s he promoted reforestation schemes as a means of restoring the water table so that long-abandoned cultivation terraces could be brought back into agricultural production.
In his subsequent career in Scotland, Mears was the planner who most faithfully attempted to translate Geddes’ ideas on cultural evolution and regional development into practice. He had a strong commitment to the revitalisation of Scotland’s rural areas which he regarded as the source of all that was distinctive and valuable in Scottish culture. In lectures delivered before the First World War, he had presented Geddes’ vision of the coming “neotechnic” age in which electricity and modern communications would liberate industry from the old locational constraints, allowing its benefits to be distributed more evenly between town and country and encouraging a revival of skilled craftsmanship. He had argued that the early Norwegian hydro-electric schemes offered new hope for the Highlands and suggested that the experiments in co-operative agricultural production then being pioneered in Denmark and Ireland pointed the way forward for Scottish rural communities.
Like Geddes, Mears saw the problems of urban and rural areas as complementary and believed that satisfactory solutions could only he achieved by planning on a regional scale. In the course of his propaganda work in the Twenties and early Thirties, he took every opportunity to promote the Geddesian concept of regional survey. At the same time, in England, a regional approach to planning was being advocated by organisations such as the Town and Country Planning Association and prominent individual planners such as Abercrombie. However, the concept of the region which gained general currency in the interwar years was not derived directly from the thinking of Patrick Geddes but mediated through a new generation of scientifically-minded regional geographers. For them, the region was primarily a physical and economic entity, with none of the cultural significance which Geddes had ascribed to it.
Mears maintained the cultural emphasis in his own approach to regional planning. He saw the modern Region as the product of continuous interaction between the human species and its environment; each of its communities adapted to its particular geographical setting and responding to changing circumstances by a process of cultural evolution. He frequent1y emphasised the geographical and cultural heterogeneity of Scotland and argued that the diverse cultural traditions which had contributed to its development were still potent forces in the life of the modern nation and should be respected in planning for the future. He therefore rejected standardised solutions to contemporary problems, believing that planning proposals should he individually tailored to local conditions, with due regard to existing customs and systems of social organisation.
The growth of Scottish national consciousness during the interwar years was reflected in the emergence of a specifically Scottish dimension to planning and as Scotland’s leading planning advocate and practitioner, Mears made a seminal contribution to this development. The principal problem facing Scotland was the increasing centralisation of economic activity within the British State. While the Midlands and South of England wrestled with the problems of urban expansion, Scotland was confronted with an altogether bleaker picture of industrial stagnation, rural depopulation and chronic bad housing. Mears believed that Scottish circumstances demanded a planning system capable of initiating as well as controlling development. His cultural perspective accorded well with the prevailing spirit of national assertiveness and throughout his consultancy work he sought to devise development strategies which built upon indigenous physical and human resources and traditional Scottish settlement patterns.
The first generation of Scottish regional plans.
Under the autonomous administration established by the wartime Secretary of State, Tom Johnston, Mears was given the opportunity to apply his ideas about regional planning across a broad canvas. In 1943, he was asked to prepare a regional plan for Central and South East Scotland. This was no mean task. The territory to he covered stretched from the Tay to the Tweed and, to the west, at a point near Milngavie, its boundary fell within two miles of the built-up area of Glasgow. While this area contained a wide diversity of physical and social conditions, two principal sub-regions could he identified; the open, semi-industrial landscape of the Forth estuary contrasting sharply with the largely rural character of the steep-valleyed Tweed basin.
In the 1930s,Mears had been active in the campaign to provide improved infrastructure and modern services to rural communities and had prepared designs for low-cost rural housing. His Central and South-East Scotland Plan identified rural depopulation as the most pressing problem facing both the region and Scotland as a whole. It called for a joint campaign by central and local government to encourage “recolonisation” of the countryside, suggesting that the ultimate goal should be the return of approximately 10% of the urban population to the rural areas. One of the most original features of the plan was the application of community planning principles in a rural context to provide a strategy for the resettlement of depopulated Border valleys. The Plan also contained proposals for the reforestation and recolonisation of the Slamannan plateau, laying the foundations for what was to become the Central Scotland Forest.
In his 1949 Central and South East Scotland Plan, Mears made proposals for forest planting in Central Scotland.
Towards the end of his career, Mears addressed the problem of rural depopulation in its most acute form in a strategy for the revitalisation of the County of Sutherland. Against the prevailing wisdom of the time, he rejected the notion that the problem of rural decline could he 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 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.
With the election in 1945 of a Labour Government committed to centralised economic and social management, 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’ Bioregionalist philosophy which did not conform to British planning orthodoxy were largely disregarded. Today, his views on land rehabilitation, community empowerment and the importance of the cultural dimension in regional planning can be seen to have abiding relevance.
This article first appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of Reforesting Scotland.