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The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. (Reviews).

The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. By Martin V. Melosi (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xii plus 578pp. $59.95).

In The Sanitary City, Martin Melosi charts the development of sanitary systems in American cities from their eighteenth century origins through the late twentieth century fears of impending infrastructure crisis and collapse. Focusing on the issues of water supply, sewerage, and solid waste disposal, The Sanitary City provides a comprehensive history of these important "technologies of sanitation." Well-written and thoroughly documented, The Sanitary City tells a national story, effectively using case studies to provide numerous local examples.

Melosi divides The Sanitary City into three sections: "The Age of Miasmas" (colonial times to 1880), "The Bacteriological Revolution" (1880-1945), and "The New Ecology" (1945-2000). Each topic Melosi explores--water supply, sewerage, and solid waste disposal--is developed chronologically within the three sections, giving the reader not only a sense of change over time, but also how the larger context helped shape particular outcomes.

In Melosi's narrative, the development of American sanitary services following the rapid urban growth of the 1830s involved borrowing ideas from England. The English "sanitary idea" suggested that epidemic disease arose from miasmas--accumulated filth and foul smells increasingly found in urban places. Although incorrect, this belief led American cities to engage in various forms of environmental sanitation, and, in Melosi's view, established "protosystems" that influenced the form and function of modern water and wastewater systems. The practice of wide-scale environmental sanitation during this period, although focused primarily on removing wastes from the city center, provided the foundation upon which all future work developed.

The rise of modern sanitary systems following the discovery of the germ theory of disease, according to Melosi, relied on the systems derived in the earlier era. As Melosi recounts in Part II of The Sanitary City, the bacteriological revolution provided the means to effectively combat epidemic disease. Water supply, wastewater, and solid-waste disposal systems began to be seen as ways to provide permanent relief from epidemic disease and other threats to health. Solid-waste also emerged as a growing concern, and cities and towns experimented with various technologies for disposal. The success of the bacteriological revolution, however, introduced its own limitations, as Melosi notes the continuation of "a preoccupation with biological forms of pollution at the expense of a better understanding of chemical sources, especially industrial pollutants" (p. 13).

Part III, "The New Ecology," brings the story to the present and details the problems associated with the demands of continued urban sprawl on the providers of water, wastewater, and refuse collection and disposal services, including a growing concern over decaying infrastructure. Constructed as permanent solutions to the problems of water supply, sewerage and waste-water treatment, the sanitary systems developed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries now began requiring enormous resources for repair and replacement, much to the dismay of both policy makers and tax payers. A new environmental awareness developed after the 1960s, affecting cities' ability to respond to this growing "urban crisis." Amid declining financial resources for infrastructure construction and repair, Melosi notes that the major developments during this period included "the changing focus on purely biological forms of pollution to chemical/industrial pollutants and pollution from municipal sewers," (p. 14) as well as t he rise of solid-waste disposal as "a national issue as 'third pollution,' alongside water and air pollution problems" (p. 14). Following this comprehensive analysis, Melosi concludes by stating that "to function effectively the American city has to be a sanitary city," (p. 426) but suggests that, as his study shows, "the quest for the Sanitary City ha[s] yet to be achieved" (p. 14).

In many ways, much of what Melosi writes is neither new nor innovative--the contribution of this work lies in its comprehensiveness. Melosi pulls together an extraordinary number of secondary sources, and combines them with his original research to present a detailed and methodical account of the development of urban America's sanitary systems. Over one hundred and twenty pages of footnotes and numerous tables, figures and photographs help Melosi place his argument in its larger perspective, and he presents examples from metropolitan centers, suburbs, rural areas and small towns as he describes the issues involved in the development of American sanitary systems, making this truly a national study.

As a result of his comprehensive analysis, Melosi is able to comment on trends and patterns that are not readily visible in the countless case studies he examines. For example, in offering his perspective on city building, Melosi suggests that although the technology available in a given period is ultimately the "key variable in determining the form and structure of the physical city," the "environmental paradigms" of each period are what affected the choices between available technologies (p. 6). Thus, for example, as people's understanding of the origins of disease changed due to advances in bacteriological science and public health, people made different choices from among the available technologies. Merely providing sufficient quantities of water was no longer adequate, that water needed to be treated to eliminate bacteriological contamination (p. 134). As Americans embraced the environmental paradigm of the New Ecology after World War II, people began to make different choices regarding the standards of treatment due to increases in both municipal and industrial waste, broadening their concern from "biological contaminants to a wide variety of chemical contaminants" (p. 311). This analysis, drawing on a wide range of sources encompassing cities of varying size and regional location, carries the weight appropriate to a major work of synthesis that The Sanitary City represents.

From exploring the technologies available at a given time, to the financial constraints affecting their implementation, Melosi's wide-ranging narrative is convincingly argued. Well-grounded in the literature of urban history and its related fields, The Sanitary City is an important read for anyone concerned with understanding American cities and how they got to be the way they are.
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Author:Hoffman, Steven J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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