Category Archives: urban

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.


133: Edward Relph’s Modern Urban Landscape

Edward Relph’s The Modern Urban Landscape examines the landscapes of large cities since 1880 for clues as to the relationship between modernization and urban form.  In particular, he studies the visual landscapes of the “modern parts of towns and cities” in North America, Britain, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; building on this firsthand experience, he concludes that “the modern urban landscape is both rationalised and artificial, which is another way of saying that it is intensely human, an expression of human will and deeply imbued with meaning.”  He thus shifts the focus of human geography from the rural to the urban, while retaining the discipline’s focus on empirical observations of coherent visual landscapes.

To collect data on the changes in urban architecture, planning, technology and social conditions since 1880, Relph takes the “geographical” approach of “watching:” he starts with “the totality of what I see,” then follows “several directions more or less at once,” looking for unusual details, new developments, and ironic juxtapositions within the larger context of the urban fabric.  Landscapes, to Relph, are the “visual contexts of daily existence,” and he insists on retaining the wholeness of the urban landscape because so much of landscape is about context, about the relationships between buildings and the streets and spaces and other structures around them, that you cannot study any one element in isolation.  Only by preserving landscape’s “fragile wholeness” can we hope to learn anything about how it functions.

Using this method, Relph traces a history of ideology in the landscape, from 1890s Progressive Era landscapes, through the Machine Age and into the Postmodern city.  He shows how Bellamy, Morris and other Utopians created landscapes of the future in the 1890s; how the Machine Age created both unornamented, standardized. geometric factory buildings and a chaotic mess of wires and tracks, the results of business needs, consumer demands, and municipal safety engineering; how the Modern “international style” was only briefly popular, but dominates the landscape because it belonged to an era of skyscraper-building; and how the Information Age has both refined and profoundly changed the forms of the Modern era, so that like “plastic flowers: things are left looking much as they always did but their materials and meanings are profoundly changed.”

Relph also discerns two sweeping trends with huge impacts on urban landscapes in the last 100 years:

  • internationalism: new building technologies, combined with faster communications and transportation, mean that “virtually identical bits of cities now seem to crop up almost everywhere, and behind any national or regional differences that might be visible there are always widely shared patterns and an international habit of thought.”
  • a “conviction in the merits of self-consciousness:” “everything now is subjected to cool analysis and technical manipulation, leaving little room for the traditions which stood behind most preindustrial landscapes.”  Elements of landscapes, from buildings to parking meters, follow an increasingly rationalised and institutionalized (and specialized) process, so very little building happens in a vernacular sense.
While Relph retains human geography’s emphasis on the coherent “fragile wholeness” of landscape, he also discerns power differentials and the impacts of capitalism on the landscape.  While he needs to work on his positionality (he argues at one point that everyone in cities works a sedentary job), I suspect this use of social theory is Relph’s way of making a few plastic flowers of his own.

126: Groth & Bressi’s Understanding Ordinary Landscapes

The essays in Paul Groth and Todd Bressi’s collection Understanding Ordinary Landscapes are compiled from a two-day symposium at Berkeley in 1990 called “Vision, Culture, and Landscape” that was intended to both celebrate and critique JB Jackson’s version of cultural landscape studies.  In general, while the essays underscore Jackson’s reliance on and use of visual and spatial information as a way to understand past and present cultures, they grapple with ways to deal with the realities of social and cultural pluralism and their effects on the landscape.  While in many ways Jackson’s work was radically subjective and Postmodern before its time, in others it is distinctly Modern, particularly in its emphasis on underlying universals, empirical research, and continuity.

According to Groth, cultural landscape studies defines landscape as the combination of people and place, with an emphasis on the history of how people have used everyday or vernacular space – buildings, rooms, streets, fields, yards – to establish and articulate identities, social relations, and cultural meanings.  When JB Jackson started publishing Landscape in 1951, he also emphasized the activist mission of cultural landscape studies: the more people know about ordinary environments, the more they will become attached to them and the less likely they will be to wantonly destroy them.  Groth and Bressi build on cultural landscape studies via a 6-part framework updated for the 1990s:

  1. focus on ordinary landscapes to get at cultural meaning and environmental experience
  2. shift from a rural emphasis to both rural and urban landscapes, as well as landscapes of production and landscapes of consumption
  3. continue to study diversity and uniformity, but emphasize difference, fragmentation, intertextuality and hybridity instead of a single, unifying narrative
  4. continue to write for the intelligent lay reader
  5. support a broad notion of interdisciplinarity that includes cultural, human, social, critical, landscape architecture, art history and other approaches
  6. engage with visual and spatial information, either in support of or in direct opposition to it; the landscape must remain the primary object of study.  Respect JB Jackson’s argument that “landscape… must be regarded first of all in terms of living rather than looking.”
This collection includes many heavyweights: David Lowenthal, Peirce Lewis, Dolores Hayden, Wilbur Zelinsky, and more – all folks who are contributing to and thinking about what a new cultural geography might mean and how it might be updated to include social difference and PoMo cultural theory.  It also holds up JB Jackson as the methodological exemplar of cultural landscape studies – which makes sense, because as far as I know, he invented it.