155: Martin Melosi’s Sanitary City

In The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present, Martin Melosi shows that the technologies chosen for a city’s sanitation infrastructure depended heavily on the prevailing environmental concerns, available technologies, money, and politics of the day.  Because most American sanitation systems were built around the turn-of-the-century, when permanence was more valued than flexibility, and because this infrastructure is costly (socially, politically, functionally, economically) to replace outright, American sanitation systems are path dependent in that they are constrained by choices made early in their construction, and they are also determinist in the sense that they shape/ constrain development around them.  Melosi thus argues that “to function effectively the American city has to be a sanitary city.”

Working from the water management systems in several major American cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, Melosi traces the development of sanitation infrastructure through three phases:

  • The “Age of Miasmas” (colonial times to 1880): basically, if you can’t see or smell it, it isn’t there; dilution of waste water will purify it.  


Although Boston had a Water Board in 1797 and Philly had the Latrobe Waterworks in 1801, until the 1830s residents of most American cities were responsible for procuring their own water and disposing of their own waste.  In the 1840s, British Edwin Chadwick argued that the physical environment had a direct effect on individual well-being – that health depends on “environmental sanitation.”  Reformers on both sides of the Atlantic began to argue that better urban sanitation might reduce disease among the poor, and Boston, New York, and Chicago built wastewater systems based on Chadwickian miasma theory: massive structures that combined sewage and water lines, with centralized dilution.  Some disease was reduced, but contamination was a problem.

  • The “Bacteriological Revolution” (1880-1945): microscopic bacteria are what make people sick, not miasmas or vapors!  
While bacteriology discredited miasma-based sanitation, Progressive Reformers and the New Public Health believed that environmental sanitation had a “civilizing influence” on poor people and immigrants (and provided clean water and functional waste disposal for everyone), and control over public works had newly become the responsibility of city governments, so construction on sanitation systems continued.  Sanitation got swept up into the narrative of technologically-enhanced human progress, and sanitary engineers professionalized.  Also, the rise of mass culture after 1880 meant that garbage soared, so waste removal shifted form a public health issue to a public works issue; by 1920 it was the “third pillar” of sanitation, though it was never as centralized or monitored as water and sewage.
  • The “New Ecology” (1945-2000s): the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality of urban sanitation engineering and waste removal, combined with the suburban strain on old urban systems, was beginning to take a toll on the environment.
By the 1960s, solid waste removal as land pollution had become a national issue, despite the 1965 and 1970 Solid Waste Disposal Acts, by 1980 many smaller cities were having an infrastructure crisis, as cities were allocating money away from supporting or expanding legacy systems.  
Throughout, Melosi’s careful contextualization of sanitation technologies in sanitation theory, reform movements, politics, and existing infrastructure shows just how path dependent (and old!) the sanitation systems of many American cities are.

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