Whatever happened to biological thinking in urban planning?





Since 2007 the proclamation of the ‘urban age’ by the UN has been heralded as a critical moment in human society and history. The ‘urban’ has taken its place alongside the anthropocene as a new era for humanity. Its importance as a transformational moment has been underscored by scientific interest in cities. Anxiety about urbanisation was a motivator for early town planning activity in the 19th century. The tools developed by different disciplines to solve the crisis of 19th century urban development were designed around human welfare needs. With our cities forming both the origin and the solution to our planetary environmental crisis, a broader set of planning thoughts, languages and metaphors are needed that go beyond the mere human. Thinking biologically about Homo Sapiens in cities will be critical to our survival.


Planning history has a role to play in this project, drawing on the past to identify a biological lineage in urban planning and reveal what has and has not been successful. The aim of this paper is to start that identification. It forms part of a larger project to trace a lineage of biological thinking in urban planning history during the twentieth century. The paper analyses and reinterprets the use of science and biology by two influential planning visionaries: Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and Le Corbusier (CharlesÉdouard Jeanneret, 1887-1965). Among the luminaries of his age, Geddes as a biologist turned sociologist was a unique figure. He attempted to grapple with the early 20th century urban age in biological terms. Le Corbusier, also used science and biology to argue for universal rules to guide urbanism and as an aesthetic. The paper describes the biological work of these canonical planning thinkers to consider why humanism became the hegemonic frame for urban planning in the twentieth century.