APWA Book Review

The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present, by Martin V. Melosi, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8018-6152-7

2001 Abel Wolman Award Winner

Review by Steven J. Hoffman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
Southeast Missouri State University

Martin Melosi's The Sanitary City 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. Well-written and thoroughly documented, The Sanitary City tells a national story, effectively using case studies to provide numerous local examples.

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 both a sense of change over time and how the larger context shaped particular outcomes.

The "sanitary idea" borrowed from England, that epidemic disease arose from miasmas, led American cities to establish "protosystems" that influenced the form and function of modern water and wastewater systems. As Melosi recounts in Part II, the bacteriological revolution provided the means to combat epidemic disease effectively. Building on the protosystems developed earlier, 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. As Melosi notes, however, the success of the bacteriological revolution introduced its own limitations, such as continuation of the "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, including a growing concern over decaying infrastructure. Once seen as permanent solutions, the sanitary systems of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries began to require enormous resources for repair and replacement. A new environmental awareness developed after the 1960s, affecting the ability of cities to respond to this growing "urban crisis." Amid declining financial resources for infrastructure construction and repair, the major developments during this period included a changing focus from "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).

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, combining them with original research to present a detailed account of the development of urban America's sanitary systems. Over 120 pages of footnotes and numerous tables, figures, and photographs help place Melosi's argument in its larger perspective, and he presents examples from metropolitan centers, suburbs, rural areas and small towns as he describes the issues involved in the development of American sanitary systems, making this truly a national study. Well-grounded in the literature of urban history and its related fields, The Sanitary City is an important work, one that helps us better understand American cities and how they got to be the way they are.

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