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  • The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present
  • Steven J. Hoffman
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 exam>ples.

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, [End Page 194] 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 the 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 has 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...

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pp. 194-196
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