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  • Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago
  • Matthew Osborn
Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago. By Harold L. Platt ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. xvi plus 628 pp. $49.00).

The dust jacket illustration of this book is L.S. Lowry's The Lake (1937). As Lowry's definitive statement on the urban scene in Salford/Manchester, The Lake evokes some of the central subjects of Harold L. Platt's Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago. Dominating the center is a nightmarescape of miasmatic water; the milky colored river Irwell spills over its banks and overwhelms the industrial city. The Irwell in this painting, as described by Michael Howard,

brings dissolution to the city. The polluted urban waterways, once a dynamic transport system serving Victorian industry, have now grown stagnant. The water, which should be clean and life-enhancing, has become denaturalized and dead. Here, in stark contrast with the clean waters of the countryside, nature has been damaged and now, it would seem, takes its revenge.1

We are presented with a visual representation of an "industrial ecology," the creation of which is the central focus of this work. Lowry suggests that it is industry, [End Page 762] trade, and the polluted river, not the inhabitants, that is responsible for the city's dissolution.

In this book Platt grounds his analysis in the "people, rather than their technological systems and institutional structures."2 The inhabitants of these industrial sacrifice zones were living the shock, as opposed to travelers or those wealthy enough to live upwind and upstream. He recognizes that this is a two-way relationship; the creation of these industrial ecologies then reflects back on the human community's health and well-being, leading to demands for reform. This is a very ambitious endeavor, not only exploring the creation of these "shock cities" (a term coined by pioneering urban historian Asa Briggs) through a comparative approach, but also detailing their reform.

For social historians there is much here to recommend. By putting questions of social and environmental justice at the center, Platt does an exemplary job of uncovering the cultural and political construction of physical space in these two revolutionary cities. The cross-Atlantic trade in ideas and their impact on urban development and reform is a well-developed theme, and Platt lends support to Daniel Rodgers' contention that late 19th century Progressivism took shape within a trans-Atlantic context.3 Edwin Chadwick's "Sanitary Idea" of the mid-19th century, along with the accompanying miasmatic theories of disease causation, greatly impacted Chicago's response to water pollution and urban disease. The spread of this idea, and the later development of scientific biology and germ theory, clearly demonstrates the complex interplay between science, technology, and political and social movements. But we also see the cross-pollination of grassroots urban reform movements, such as those of Charles Rowley in Manchester, and Jane Addams in Chicago. A "politics of social and geographic exclusion" is also well-mapped in this book, as alongside environmental sacrifice zones we see the concurrent development of the "garden suburb".4

Each chapter begins with either an individual or an event that crystallizes the theme of that part of the book: Alexis de Tocqueville's notes on a visit to industrializing Manchester; the dispatches from Manchester by the London Morning Chronicle reporter Angus B. Reach; Chicago's great spring flood of 1849; the 1867 opening of Chicago's "Two-Mile Crib" drawing fresh water from Lake Michigan; the 1852 winter flood of Manchester and the Holmfirth dam catastrophe. This device humanizes the narrative, and helps Platt build his case around the people who lived and died in these places.

In these cities the search for an ultimate sink for human and industrial wastes (in both liquid and gaseous forms) was an on-going dialectic between technological fixes and unintended consequences. Platt's comparative approach shows the selective use of science and technology as determined by each city's institutional structures and political cultures. There were no simple answers to these complex issues, and there was no universal scientific truth...


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