Urban Concentration and Density
The distinguishing features of many nineteenth-century cities were concentration and density. As the century progressed, the more gracious and open pattern of the colonial city disappeared. The spaces between buildings vanished, and buildings were built higher. Streets became increasingly congested, and the natural world was replaced by a none-too-attractive human-made world.
Population densities that have never again been seen in the United States were built up in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries. For example, Manhattan Island in 1900 had about 2.2 million residents on 22 square miles for an average density of 100,000 people per square mile. In the most densely populated part of the island, the Lower East Side, densities in some wards were several times that figure.3 By 2000, Manhattan's population had fallen to slightly over 1.5 million, a drop of approximately 700,000.
What made nineteenth-century cities so concentrated? Much of the answer lies in the transportation technology of the age. At the opening of the nineteenth century, water transportation was cheap, and land transportation was expensive. The ton-mile cost of transporting freight by canal boat was about one-tenth that of transporting it by horse and wagon. The cost of transporting freight by sailing vessel was still lower than that for canal boat. One effect of these cost differences was to favor the growth of port cities.4 But another effect was to concentrate economic activity in those areas of the city with direct water access. Since most people got to work by walking, concentration of workplaces inevitably meant concentration of residences as well.
The coming of railroad technology beginning in the 1820s continued the concentrating effect. Over long distances railroad ton-mile rates were a very small fraction of the ton-mile rates for horse and wagon. Thus rail- served sites permitted manufacturers and wholesalers very large cost savings. But achieving these savings meant tremendous concentrations around rail terminals and sidings.
In port cities an ideal industrial location was one between rail lines and docks. The remains of such a configuration may be seen on the Lower West Side of Manhattan today. Old loft buildings once occupied by manufacturers lie immediately to the east of the Hudson shore and up against the former rail lines that connected Manhattan to the rest of the nation. Today the rail lines are gone, and cargo handling has ceased along the Manhattan waterfront. But in the nineteenth century, the port was busy, and lower Manhattan was a major manufacturing and goods-handling center. Goods could move between Europe and the Midwest through
Manhattan and make all but a few hundred yards of the trip entirely by low-cost modes.
The desirability of rail- and water-served sites made centrally located land very valuable. That feature, in turn, caused the builders of industrial, commercial, and residential structures to use the minimum amount of land for a given amount of structure. Manufacturing and commercial uses were located in multistory loft buildings constructed side to side. For residences the same desire to crowd a maximum amount of structure on a given amount of land led to the tenement, with conditions of crowding that seem appalling by modern standards.
The residence of the worker in New York City and other large industrial cities in 1850 was frequently the "railroad flat," a walk-up structure that was generally 5 to 7 stories high, 25 feet wide and 75 feet long on a 25 by 100 foot lot. Constructed solidly in rows across entire block faces, these units had four apartments on each floor surrounding a common staircase. The rooms in these apartments were constructed in tandem, with just one room in each apartment provided with a window or two for light and air. No sanitary facilities or water supply were provided for in these structures. The small rear yard contained a multi-seat outhouse and often a well, resulting in deplorable conditions of sanitation and public health.5
Thus a population of well over 100 people might be housed on a plot not much more than one-twentieth of an acre in size.
Several other features of emerging nineteenth-century technology also contributed to very dense patterns of development. In contrast to a modern factory, where power to run individual pieces of machinery is supplied electrically, power was generally supplied by a steam engine and transmitted through a system of belts, pulleys, and shafts. The distance that power could be sent in this manner was limited, thus further contributing to the use of compact loft buildings with transmission belts taking power from one floor to another. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, there emerged two other technologies that contributed to higher urban densities: the elevator and steel-frame construction. Together they made the skyscraper economically and structurally possible.
Congestion had more than just aesthetic or psychological consequences. In an age before treatment of water supplies, before modern sewage disposal, and before antibiotics—an age when communicable diseases were the major threat to health—the congestion of the city exacted a huge cost in death and illness. In fact, for much of the nineteenth century most large cities experienced natural decrease (more deaths than births). They grew only because of inmigration. The situation was well understood at the time, and decongestion of the city was a major goal of reform-minded citizens and planners.
Few municipalities have planned intelligently for this rapid urban growth. Buildings have been crowded upon land and people have been crowded
Tenements on New York's Lower East Side (left) at the end of the nineteenth century. Note the narrow building width and side- by-side construction. The four windows across the building front represent two narrow apartments side by side. Behind them are two more apartments, whose windows open onto the rear yard. Photos like that of the men's sleeping quarters (below) in a New York tenement about 1905 helped put housing conditions at the top of the reformers' agenda.
within buildings. Urban living has become in many ways inconvenient, unsafe and unhealthful. ... Transit facilities fail to develop much in advance of demonstrable need, so the population becomes crowded within a limited area. ... It becomes used to living a life quite divorced from nature. The responsibilities of homeownership are felt only by a few. The sense of citizenship and the sense of moral responsibility for evils suffered by neighbors become weak.
In the interests of both hygiene and public morality, the cottage home is much to be preferred to the tenement dwelling. . Tuberculosis is responsible for nearly one-tenth of all deaths in the United States. ... The tubercule bacillus can live for weeks outside the human body in a sunless, damp room, hall or cellar. The tenement house may thus at once reduce vitality, through absence of sunlight and fresh air, and may provide abundant opportunity for transmission of prevalent and dangerous diseases.6
This widely held view helped shape the agenda and direction of the planning profession in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.