Tag Archives: Cities

On the Subconscious City: Top Ten Books on City Regulation

In the last few decades, there’s been a real interest in urban design, yet its ugly cousin, regulation, remains largely unmentioned. To this end, Richard Florida’s Creative City is a best seller, yet the Building Code of Australia is now being given away for free. It’s odd what we value.

This isn’t new; people remember the Coliseum far more than Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s handbooks on building design because one is obvious and interesting and the other obscure and boring. Regulation is, almost by its nature, dull, but it’s also incredibly powerful; more so because of the limited degree to which it is understood and, subsequently, controlled.

A while back I was at a forum on artist run spaces in which regulation was described as a ‘many headed hydra’; you cut off the head of planning approval and liquor licensing pops up, and by the time you’ve cut that off, there’s building certification, and once that’s cut off there’s a re-zoning which has turned your shitty little gallery into a development hotspot. Each conflict is draining, depressing and seemingly illogical.

Yet, the problem isn’t that regulation is illogical, but that it has a logic that extends beyond anyone negotiating or enforcing it.

Much like the cities it governs, regulation is accumulative; formed across generations, outlasting the people who made it and the contexts from which it arose. Rather than a clear set of rules and laws, it works like the subconscious of a city; retaining the memory of past policy trends and traumas, to subtly control our behaviour at a level so deep we’re not even aware of it.

I read a fair few books about regulation, town planning and cities; some directly so, and some not so much. I thought I’d continue my theme of book reviews by picking a ‘top ten’ books about regulation as the subconscious of our cities.

I thought I’d start with that Freudian ode to town planning, L Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz – which I’ll post in the next couple of days.

‘The Victorian City’ by Judith Flanders, ‘Georgian London’ by Lucy Inglis and ‘Culture Class’ by Martha Rosler

In my ongoing quest to understand the origins of planning law, I’ve been reading a lot of histories of London. That, after all, is where most of our town planning systems come from. Particularly I’ve just finished Lucy Inglis’ Georgian London: Into the Streets and Judith Flanders’ The Victorian City: Every Day Life In Dickens’ London.

Both of them focus a lot on poo.

For example, Inglis starts with an analysis of the building code designed by Christopher Wren in 1667, shortly after he was appointed King’s Surveyor of Works.But then she grounds things in the more immediate and brutally personal:

On a Saturday in 1762, in a run-down alley near Tothill Fields, Mary Flarty left her toddler Jerry with five-year-old Anne Ellison. They alley had no traffic, and seemed safe for young children. Jerry tried to use the special low seat for youngsters in the communal privy, and fell into the cesspit. Although the community rallied immediately to retrieve the boy, Jerry was already dead.

London grew massively during the 18th century and, as it did so, the volume of effluent being produced began to seep into the water table. In 1831, it infected the water table with a cholera, killing 52,000 people. In London, the City declared ‘a Day of Fasting and Humiliation’ in the belief it was a curse from God.

Incidentally, Inglis has her own adorable Youtube channel here where she films things with her phone and talks about them:

Similarly, Judith Flanders devotes an entire chapter to waste water, giving a more graphic depiction of the source of the cholera outbreak:

By the late 1840s, there were so many cesspools under even the most expensive housing in the West End, that the walls between them frequently collapsed, and so fashionable London was perched on top of what one sanitary reformer called not cesspools but ‘cess-lakes’.

By 1858, there was so much shit in the Thames that the summer became known as The Great Stench. The smell was so bad it disrupted Parliament. The Times reported, “Parliament was all but compelled to legislate upon the great London nuisance by the force of sheer stench.” Disraeli passed a bill to establish a Metropolitan Board of Works and install sewerage systems across the city.

We live in far less dangerous, far more resilient cities today. Much of that resilience emerged because the consequences of poor policy have been so dire. One of the other books I’ve been dipping in and out of is Martha Rosler’s Culture Class, in which she cites Richard Florida et al as proof that “empirical inadequacy and faulty predictive power are no barriers to success.” Looking at contemporary urban studies, it’s interesting to contemplate whether the increased resilience of our cities has made them less responsive; allowing poor policies to succeed by virtue of not having produced disasters big enough to disprove them.

Note: If you don’t think that’s an interesting point of contemplation, you can watch Rosler’s ironic Semiotics of the Kitchen here:

Would My Mother Enjoy These Books:

The Victorian City by Judith Flanders: She would read and enjoy parts of it, but it is quite long and the font is quite small.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis: She would read ten pages and then give it to me for Christmas

Culture Class by Martha Rosler: She would read a few pages and then ring me up to tell me about art and Feminism in the Seventies. The conversation would quickly turn to focus on teaching in the Eighties.