The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the modern city by Patrick Joyce

Order and anarchy in the republic of the streets
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The Independent Culture

An old notice has been reinstated in our local park, detailing 47 council by-laws about unacceptable activities. These include spitting and swearing, the riding of horses or other beasts of burden, the sorting of rags and mending of chairs, the taking off or landing of balloons and aircraft, and countless other transgressions anticipated in exquisite detail.

It is easy to forget how the licensing of human behaviour was once a central part of public administration. This is one of the principal themes of Patrick Joyce's intriguing book. Despite the jargon, it is worth persevering with because the material itself is so rich, thoughtfully ordered and fascinating.

The 19th-century city was surveyed in extraordinary detail, from the commissioning of street maps and studies of population flows to the design of public toilets, from the regulation of slaughterhouses and the layout of parks to the architecture of free libraries.

With this increasing regulation of the public domain came associated pressures for individuation, whether in the form of a postal service which delivered letters to one's home, or in the triumph of the single WC. A significant part of this story is how rationality met scatology and won. All this was done in the name of good government, but beneath the urge to uplift was the urge to control.

The author is described as a chief exponent of postmodernist history, and a Foucauldian - which is to say that he does the police in different voices. He also has multiple ways of seeing: within 20 pages, we are treated to the medical gaze, the spatial gaze, the cartographic gaze, the masculine gaze and the feminised gaze. We are not, however, treated to the Chartist gaze, or the story of how these bureaucratising processes were at times contested.

Joyce is attentive to how the various strands of Benthamite utilitarianism got mixed up with the ideas of JS Mill on fair government, and how towards the end of the 19th century a quasi-religious "civic gospel" emerged as a new Third Way. (He may be wrong about how much the planning of Chicago owes to rationalism, since recent evidence suggests that Burnham modelled it on Swedenborg's "Heavenly City").

Towards the end the story lightens up as the 19th-century crowd reasserts some of its old wilfulness, whether in the proliferation of pub parlours for sing-songs, in the street market, or the banter of the bus and tram. Joyce's material on urban walking and omnibus rituals is fascinating. Ever-present is the argument that the rule of freedom developed in the formidable regulation of the city, and that this new kind of urban freedom and character-formation was itself a form of control.

The interplay of freedom with regulation still preoccupies urbanists, given that the city has always been a place where conflicting freedoms clash and have to be negotiated. We are told the story of a journalist who during his daily walk from Kennington to Fleet Street was able to read a newspaper in its entirety, so disciplined was the flow of the pedestrian crowd. But then, as one 19th-century savant said, "Your only true republic is a crowded street".