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  • Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change by Mansel G. Blackford
  • Brian Bonhomme
Columbus, Ohio: Two Centuries of Business and Environmental Change. By Mansel G. Blackford. (Columbus: The Ohio State Univ. Press, 2016. 232pp. Cloth $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8142-1314-8.)

Mansel G. Blackford is professor emeritus of The Ohio State University and has a prodigious record of scholarship in business history stretching back over forty years. In this well-crafted study he argues that Columbus’s basic urban development can be understood as the result of two centuries of “tension . . . between business growth and environmental change” (2) and the role played by city government in mediating this tension. Put more abstractly, in Blackford’s model, business acts upon and alters the natural environment to create value; environmental resources subsequently prove to be scarce or are harmed; public policy is crafted in response. The result is the unique and ever-changing urban fabric of the Ohio state capital, founded in 1812 in largely untouched forest. [End Page 90]

Overall, Blackford reckons water resources the most critical factor. Scarcer than developable land (whose area on the flat wooded plain, and in the absence of natural boundaries, could always be increased), water was from the start an important limiting factor. Although “there was never a period of laissez-faire in the history of the city” (2) for a little over a half-century, the private sector nonetheless dominated Columbus’s affairs, fueling impressive economic growth, population expansion, and the relentless growth of the city itself. But by the end of the Civil War, success had created its own problems: insufficient access to clean water for both residential and industrial use, and the spread of waterborne diseases such as typhoid threatened public health and economic expansion. At this point, city government began to assume a greater role in addressing these issues, such that henceforth an uneasy private-public interaction would drive the city’s physical development. Lacking the financial resources of a New York or Boston, Columbus policy makers, Blackford argues, proved especially innovative in water-use issues, for example, in the engineering design of sewer and drinking water infrastructure from the 1870s and further improvements in the Progressive Era (209). Improved infrastructure, in turn, underlay renewed economic vigor and especially the northward expansion of the city thereafter. From the late 1960s, environmental NGOs became important new players in conflicts over natural resource use, especially regarding Big Darby Creek, which after an acrimonious ten-year battle was given legal protection as a state scenic river.

Regarding land issues, Blackford emphasizes that the ease of incremental outward expansion often led to inefficient use of space, rampant sprawl, and the relatively late adoption of zoning laws. Public policy here, unlike with water issues, was typically less a counterweight to private interests than a “rubber-stamping” of what these demanded or had “already done,” especially regarding the routing and construction of roads, highways, bridges, tunnels, and water and power lines (210). Relatively unconstrained by natural or legal challenges, innovation similarly lagged.

Blackford also treats Columbus’s evolving social and economic heterogeneity. Inequalities across different communities’ political and economic influence meant that environmental benefits, such as clean water and convenient access to parks and recreation, accrued more often to wealthier, whiter sections of the city, while environmental burdens fell disproportionately on poor, immigrant, and minority communities. The positioning of sewage plants and waste dumps, for example, sometimes left these latter neighborhoods at the mercy of unpleasant odors and dangerous pollutants; and the [End Page 91] placement of highways often blighted or cut up minority communities, reducing property values, discouraging investment, and helping drive a vicious cycle of poverty.

The choice of Columbus was probably personal for Blackford, but he is no doubt correct in pointing out its ample qualifications as a case study in U.S. urban environmental history (beyond the mere fact that comparable studies have disproportionately focused on East or West Coast cities). Unlike many of these cities, which grew somewhat organically, Columbus has been subject to a greater amount of deliberate urban planning, and it has learned from the experiences of its older siblings. Columbus, in other words...


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