The Evergreen: A New Season In the North

The Word Bank; £15

Patrick Geddes, whose shade hangs over The Evergreen, the first of four promised anthologies of new writing and art, defies knee-jerk pigeon-holing. To some he was a town planner and botanist, an unusual conjunction of vocations but understandable. Like Jane Jacobs, author of the highly influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Geddes was also what's been called an "understander of cities", thanks in large part to his 1915 book, Cities in Evolution. That he certainly was but it seems too modest a gloss to put on him. Some of his more fervent disciples might prefer to call him a visionary.

Born at Ballater in 1854, he was initially employed in banking but he soon morphed into botany, doing groundbreaking research on flatworms. Hopes were high of him becoming a "Scottish Darwin" but they were dashed after Geddes damaged his eyesight while on field trip to Mexico. During convalescence, however, he began to veer in another direction, organising knowledge through what he called his "thinking machines". It was the first of many projects, many of which never got off the ground or simply failed to thrive.

Back in Scotland by 1880, he secured an appointment at the University of Dundee as a Professor of Botany, which took up just half the year, allowing him to pursue other interests. By now living in Edinburgh, he moved from the New Town to the Old Town. There, he founded the Edinburgh Social Union, established "University Hall" on The Mound, ran some of the first European summer schools and introduced the "sociological laboratory" in the Outlook Tower, known now as the Camera Obscura, which Geddes purchased in 1892. His intention, he wrote, was to make it a "place of outlook and a type-museum as a key to a better understanding of Edinburgh and its region, but also to help people get a clear idea of its relation to the world at large".

Though his ideas are not always easy to digest, not least because his writing could be difficult to digest, Geddes brought to Victorian Scotland the fresh eye of the iconoclast. He questioned everything and when given no solutions came up with his own. Central to his philosophy was where people lived and how they worked, played, were educated and got on with their neighbours. He was no fan, for instance, of the Old Town's tenements, which in the late nineteenth century were more or less slums. In the 1890s, he began work on what would become Ramsay Gardens, one Edinburgh's hidden jewels and a model for what life in a city might be like.

The Evergreen takes its title - and inspiration - first from a publication of the same name produced by Allan Ramsay, the eighteenth-century poet and wig-maker. While it was not perhaps his most successful venture, Ramsay - after whom Geddes his Gardens - did succeed in reviving interest in early Scots poetry. Then, in the winter of 1894, Geddes, together with a few friends, produced Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, the first of four seasonal anthologies. Geddes' idea, notes Elizabeth Elliott in a scholarly essay, was to follow Ramsay's example and produce a collection of "simple verse" which, while of variable merit, might serve as an example to others. Diversity was paramount and contributions from scientists were placed alongside art work and creative writing, representing "a synthesis that disrupts the increasing tendency towards the fragmentation of knowledge into specialist disciplinary channels in the universities of Geddes' time."

A similar ethos prevails in this Evergreen's incarnation. There are poems, stories, critical essays, humour, photographs, charcoal drawings from established writers and artists together with contributions those who are yet to make their mark. The standard, as one might expect of such a publication, is variable but the eclecticism of the contents is commendable and the book itself is a handsome artefact which would surely have pleased its inspirer. In his introduction, its editor, Sean Bradley, argues that, "The debate about national identity must also be a question of local culture. How will citizens shape the distinctive life of their neighbourhood?" Geddes would approve of that. For of late there has grown a feeling that Edinburgh, like so many other destinations on the tourist trail, is a city in search of a soul, as the erosion of its distinctiveness and character continues apace.