THE PRESSURE FOR REFORM
As urban populations and the density of urban development increased, pressures for reform mounted. U.S. planning history and tradition to a large extent mirror concern with the problems arising from urban growth. Over the years these problems have included sanitation and public health, the disappearance of urban open space, housing quality and overcrowding, the ugliness and grimness of the nineteenth-century industrial city, traffic congestion, and the problem of providing urban populations with adequate mobility. In recent years planning effort has also been directed to problems of urban unemployment, to urban fiscal problems, to a variety of issues that might be lumped under the heading of social justice, and to issues of environmental preservation and quality, among others.
In the mid-nineteenth century, sanitary conditions in most cities were appalling by modern standards. Human wastes were generally disposed of on-site in a backyard septic tank or cesspool—a situation that is a major menace to public health at high population densities. The menace was compounded because most water for household use came from wells and streams. Thus contamination of drinking water sources was common. In an age before antibiotics and vaccinations, water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever were major killers. So, too, were insect-borne diseases like malaria, yellow fever, and typhus. The mechanics of disease transmission were not known in the mid-1800s, as the relationship between bacteria and disease was still undiscovered. However, it was understood that large amounts of decaying material or stagnant water bred disease, perhaps because of "vapors" given off by putrefying materials.
Sewers, where they existed, served not to carry away organic wastes but to carry off storm water and prevent flooding. Very often they were constructed large enough for a worker to go inside to make repairs. Water flow was too slow and too intermittent to carry off wastes, and so sewers themselves often became "elongated cesspools."4
About 1840 a simple but very important invention that promised to be the agent of reform was made in England. This was the "water carriage" sewer. The insight behind the invention was remarkably simple. If a sewer pipe was made with a relatively small diameter, a cross-section like an egg sliced through the long way, and provided with a sufficient source of water, it would essentially be self-cleansing. The water velocity would be sufficient to carry off animal carcasses, fecal matter, and so on. Household wastes, instead of being dumped in on-site cesspools, could be piped into a common sewer and transported for miles before being released. The prospect for improvement in public health was enormous.
But building a water carriage sewer system for a city required planning on a major scale. Since the system was operated by gravity, the topography of the city had to be taken into account in the layout of streets. Because the system depended on a necessary volume of flow, streets had to be built with crowns to divert rainwater into sewers. Deciding where to install sewer lines meant that data on population distribution and health conditions were needed. The "sanitary survey" of the late nineteenth century—a mapping of houses, cases of contagious disease, and the presence of outhouses and cesspools and the like—was perhaps the first systematic data collection and mapping effort to be seen in many cities. The amount of planning required to provide sewers to a city did not constitute comprehensive planning. But it did require that at least one aspect of the city be considered as a whole.
Planning for adequate waste disposal was only a part of the larger goal of a generally healthful environment. It was understood that dark, damp, crowded places were associated with higher rates of disease and death. Thus a more complete planning effort would include provision of open space, consideration of sunlight and ventilation, and some contractual arrangements (see Chapter 9) to prevent excessive density of development. In densely developed urban areas, little could be done about these latter considerations. Providing sewers was largely a matter of fitting a system to an existing pattern of development. However, in developing new areas, a more comprehensive approach could be taken.
Sanitation and Integrated Design. Frederick Law Olmsted, probably the outstanding U.S. planner/urban designer of the second half of the nineteenth century, designed a number of new communities in which all of these elements were part of an integrated design. The design was carefully keyed to the contour of the land for adequate drainage of both sewage and storm water. The location of swampy areas, brooks, streams, and other physical features was taken into account for health as well as aesthetic reasons. For example, it was known that malaria, which was widespread in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, was somehow associated with swampy and poorly drained areas. Thus design that was sensitive to drainage patterns could minimize its incidence. The location of open spaces and plantings was also considered for their effects on the adequacy of light and ventilation. In Olmsted's mind, planning was largely to be judged by the extent to which it reduced disease. Sunlight, good air circulation, and an adequate amount of vegetation were, in his view, the most effective preventives of disease.