Robert R. Gioielli
By the late 19th century, American cities like Chicago and New York were marvels of the industrializing world. The shock urbanization of the previous quarter century, however, brought on a host of environmental problems. Skies were acrid with coal smoke, and streams ran fetid with raw sewage. Disease outbreaks were as common as parks and green space was rare. In response to these hazards, particular groups of urban residents responded to them with a series of activist movements to reform public and private policies and practices, from the 1890s until the end of the 20th century. Those environmental burdens were never felt equally, with the working class, poor, immigrants, and minorities bearing an overwhelming share of the city’s toxic load. By the 1930s, many of the Progressive era reform efforts were finally bearing fruit. Air pollution was regulated, access to clean water improved, and even America’s smallest cities built robust networks of urban parks. But despite this invigoration of the public sphere, after World War II, for many the solution to the challenges of a dense modern city was a private choice: suburbanization. Rather than continue to work to reform and reimagine the city, they chose to leave it, retreating to the verdant (and pollution free) greenfields at the city’s edge. These moves, encouraged and subsidized by local and federal policies, provided healthier environments for the mostly white, middle-class suburbanites, but created a new set of environmental problems for the poor, working-class, and minority residents they left behind. Drained of resources and capital, cities struggled to maintain aging infrastructure and regulate remaining industry and then exacerbated problems with destructive urban renewal and highway construction projects. These remaining urban residents responded with a dynamic series of activist movements that emerged out of the social and community activism of the 1960s and presaged the contemporary environmental justice movement.
Joel A. Tarr
Urban water supply and sewage disposal facilities are critical parts of the urban infrastructure. They have enabled cities and their metropolitan areas to function as centers of commerce, industry, entertainment, and human habitation. The evolution of water supply and sewage disposal systems in American cities from 1800 to 2015 is examined, with a focus on major turning points especially in regard to technological decisions, public policy, and environmental and public health issues.
The creation and evolution of urban parks is in some ways a familiar story, especially given the attention that Frederick Law Olmsted’s work has commanded since the early 1970s. Following the success of Central Park, cities across the United States began building parks to meet the recreational needs of residents, and during the second half of the 19th century, Olmsted and his partners designed major parks or park systems in thirty cities. Yet, even that story is incomplete. To be sure, Olmsted believed that every city should have a large rural park as an alternative to the density of building and crowding of the modern metropolis, a place to provide for an “unbending of the faculties,” a process of recuperation from the stresses and strains of urban life. But, even in the mid-1860s he sought to create alternative spaces for other types of recreation. Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux successfully persuaded the Prospect Park commission, in Brooklyn, New York, to acquire land for a parade ground south of the park as a place for military musters and athletics; moreover, in 1868 they prepared a plan for a park system in Buffalo, New York, that consisted of three parks, linked by parkways, that served different functions and provided for different forms of recreation. As the decades progressed, Olmsted became a champion of parks designed for active recreation; gymnasiums for women as well as men, especially in working-class areas of cities; and playgrounds for small children. He did so in part to relieve pressure on the large landscape parks to accommodate uses he believed would be inappropriate, but also because he recognized the legitimate demands for new forms of recreation. In later years, other park designers and administrators would similarly add facilities for active recreation, though sometimes in ways that compromised what Olmsted considered the primary purpose of a public park. Urban parks are, in important ways, a microcosm of the nation’s cities. Battles over location, financing, political patronage, and use have been a constant. Through it all, parks have evolved to meet the changing recreational needs of residents. And, as dominant a figure as Olmsted has been, this is a story that antedates his professional career and that includes the many voices that have shaped public parks in U.S. cities in the 20th century.
Megan Kate Nelson
During the American Civil War, Union and Confederate commanders made the capture and destruction of enemy cities a central feature of their military campaigns. They did so for two reasons. First, most mid-19th-century cities had factories, foundries, and warehouses within their borders, churning out and storing war materiel; military officials believed that if they interrupted or incapacitated the enemy’s ability to arm or clothe themselves, the war would end. Second, it was believed that the widespread destruction of property—especially in major or capital cities—would also damage civilians’ morale, undermining their political convictions and decreasing their support for the war effort.
Both Union and Confederate armies bombarded and burned cities with these goals in mind. Sometimes they fought battles on city streets but more often, Union troops initiated long-term sieges in order to capture Confederate cities and demoralize their inhabitants. Soldiers on both sides were motivated by vengeance when they set fire to city businesses and homes; these acts were controversial, as was defensive burning—the deliberate destruction of one’s own urban center in order to keep its war materiel out of the hands of the enemy.
Urban destruction, particularly long-term sieges, took a psychological toll on (mostly southern) city residents. Many were wounded, lost property, or were forced to become refugees. Because of this, the destruction of cities during the American Civil War provoked widespread discussions about the nature of “civilized warfare” and the role that civilians played in military strategy. Both soldiers and civilians tried to make sense of the destruction of cities in writing, and also in illustrations and photographs; images in particular shaped both northern and southern memories of the war and its costs.