Contagious diseases have long posed a public health challenge for cities, going back to the ancient world. Diseases traveled over trade routes from one city to another. Cities were also crowded and often dirty, ideal conditions for the transmission of infectious disease. The Europeans who settled North America quickly established cities, especially seaports, and contagious diseases soon followed. By the late 17th century, ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia experienced occasional epidemics, especially smallpox and yellow fever, usually introduced from incoming ships. Public health officials tried to prevent contagious diseases from entering the ports, most often by establishing a quarantine. These quarantines were occasionally effective, but more often the disease escaped into the cities. By the 18th century, city officials recognized an association between dirty cities and epidemic diseases. The appearance of a contagious disease usually occasioned a concerted effort to clean streets and remove garbage. These efforts by the early 19th century gave rise to sanitary reform to prevent infectious diseases. Sanitary reform went beyond cleaning streets and removing garbage, to ensuring clean water supplies and effective sewage removal. By the end of the century, sanitary reform had done much to clean the cities and reduce the incidence of contagious disease. In the 20th century, public health programs introduced two new tools to public health: vaccination and antibiotics. First used against smallpox, scientists developed vaccinations against numerous other infectious viral diseases and reduced their incidence substantially. Finally, the development of antibiotics against bacterial infections in the mid-20th century enabled physicians to cure infected individuals. Contagious disease remains a problem—witness AIDS—and public health authorities still rely on quarantine, sanitary reform, vaccination, and antibiotics to keep urban populations healthy.
Cindy R. Lobel
Over the course of the 19th century, American cities developed from small seaports and trading posts to large metropolises. Not surprisingly, foodways and other areas of daily life changed accordingly. In 1800, the dietary habits of urban Americans were similar to those of the colonial period. Food provisioning was very local. Farmers, hunters, fishermen, and dairymen from a few miles away brought food by rowboats and ferryboats and by horse carts to centralized public markets within established cities. Dietary options were seasonal as well as regional. Few public dining options existed outside of taverns, which offered lodging as well as food. Most Americans, even in urban areas, ate their meals at home, which in many cases were attached to their workshops, countinghouses, and offices.
These patterns changed significantly over the course of the19th century, thanks largely to demographic changes and technological developments. By the turn of the 20th century, urban Americans relied on a food-supply system that was highly centralized and in the throes of industrialization. Cities developed complex restaurant sectors, and majority immigrant populations dramatically shaped and reshaped cosmopolitan food cultures. Furthermore, with growing populations, lax regulation, and corrupt political practices in many cities, issues arose periodically concerning the safety of the food supply. In sum, the roots of today’s urban food systems were laid down over the course of the 19th century.
The eighty years from 1790 to 1870 were marked by dramatic economic and demographic changes in the United States. Cities in this period grew faster than the country as a whole, drawing migrants from the countryside and immigrants from overseas. This dynamism stemmed from cities’ roles as spearheads of commercial change and sites of new forms of production. Internal improvements such as canals and railroads expanded urban hinterlands in the early republic, while urban institutions such as banks facilitated market exchange. Both of these worked to the advantage of urban manufacturers. By paying low wages to workers performing repetitive tasks, manufacturers enlarged the market for their products but also engendered opposition from a workforce internally divided along lines of sex and race, and at times slavery and freedom. The Civil War affirmed the legitimacy of wage labor and enhanced the power of corporations, setting the stage for the postwar growth of large-scale, mechanized industry.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
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 tall building—the most popular and conspicuous emblem of the modern American city—stands as an index of economic activity, civic aspirations, and urban development. Enmeshed in the history of American business practices and the maturation of corporate capitalism, the skyscraper is also a cultural icon that performs genuine symbolic functions. Viewed individually or arrayed in a “skyline,” there may be a tendency to focus on the tall building’s spectacular or superlative aspects. Their patrons have searched for the architectural symbols that would project a positive public image, yet the height and massing of skyscrapers were determined as much by prosaic financial calculations as by symbolic pretense. Historically, the production of tall buildings was linked to the broader flux of economic cycles, access to capital, land values, and regulatory frameworks that curbed the self-interests of individual builders in favor of public goods such as light and air. The tall building looms large for urban geographers seeking to chart the shifting terrain of the business district and for social historians of the city who examine the skyscraper’s gendered spaces and labor relations. If tall buildings provide one index of the urban and regional economy, they are also economic activities in and of themselves and thus linked to the growth of professions required to plan, finance, design, construct, market, and manage these mammoth collective objects—and all have vied for control over the ultimate result. Practitioners have debated the tall building’s external expression as the design challenge of the façade became more acute with the advent of the curtain wall attached to a steel frame, eventually dematerializing entirely into sheets of reflective glass. The tall building also reflects prevailing paradigms in urban design, from the retail arcades of 19th-century skyscrapers to the blank plazas of postwar corporate modernism.
The transformation of post-industrial American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries includes several economically robust metropolitan centers that stand as new models of urban and economic life, featuring well-educated populations that engage in professional practices in education, medical care, design and legal services, and artistic and cultural production. By the early 21st century, these cities dominated the nation’s consciousness economically and culturally, standing in for the most dynamic and progressive sectors of the economy, driven by collections of technical and creative spark. The origins of these academic and knowledge centers are rooted in the political economy, including investments shaped by federal policy and philanthropic ambition. Education and health care communities were and remain frequently economically robust but also rife with racial, economic, and social inequality, and riddled with resulting political tensions over development. These information communities fundamentally incubated and directed the proceeds of the new economy, but also constrained who accessed this new mode of wealth in the knowledge economy.