How Pandemics Spurred Cities to Make More Green Space for People

Cholera ravaged New York City in the summer of 1832, leaving its victims with sunken eyes, blue skin, severe diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. It had swept its origin in Asia, then had crossed Europe before arriving on the coasts of New York. It only took a few weeks for cholera to kill more than 3,500 of the city’s 250,000 residents (at a similar death rate, deaths in New York would reach 118,000 in 2020).

When cholera returned for a second round in 1849, the city’s death toll exceeded 5,000. Throughout the 1800s, recurrent cholera epidemics left an indelible mark not only in terms of the number of deaths, but by stimulating elements of urban design such as wide boulevards and parks that transformed New York and other big cities in emblematic metropolises that we know today.

Cholera is blamed on “harmful air”

The cities of the 19th century were overcrowded and dirty places that provided the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as cholera. As garbage, animal manure and human waste dumped freely into drinking water sources, it was the cocktail of pungent smells they produced that many health professionals accused of spreading the disease.

Public health officials have embraced an idea dating back to the Middle Ages that infectious diseases were mainly caused by harmful vapors called “miasmas” emitted by decomposing organic matter. Proponents of the miasma theory have argued for better ventilation, drainage and sanitation practices to rid cities of smelly and smelly air. New York City leaders, for example, responded to the cholera epidemics by banishing 20,000 pigs from the heart of the city and building a 41-mile water system that provided clean drinking water north of the city. city.

“The fear of miasma has probably had the most significant impact on the built environment following the epidemics of cholera and yellow fever,” said Sara Jensen Carr, assistant professor of architecture, urban planning and landscape at Northeastern University. “Primarily, he has led massive infrastructure initiatives in emerging cities, such as the installation of underground wastewater treatment systems. This infrastructure in turn often meant that the streets above them were made straighter and wider, as well as paved so that they could more easily be washed at the end of the day so that the heaps of garbage didn’t do not emit miasmic gases. The marshy areas of the cities were also filled, which also allowed the expansion of industry and housing. ”

Carr, author of the forthcoming book The Topography of Wellness: Health and the American Urban Landscape, says that although the familiar grid of city streets dates back to ancient Rome, it has grown in popularity due to infrastructure improvements implemented in response to pandemics. The long, straight tracks eliminated the buildup of foul water in the curves of the roads and allowed the installation of long pipes for drinking water and sewers.

Central Park and other Olmsted Park plans find support

Another enthusiast of miasma theory, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, argued for the healing powers of parks, which he said could act like urban lungs like “stale air outlets and inlets of ‘fresh air”.

“His writings often refer to the importance of large open spaces for people to access fresh air and sunlight, and explain how air can be” disinfected “by the sun and foliage Says Carr. Planning for Central Park, which would be designed by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, began immediately after the second cholera epidemic in New York. Thanks to the success of this project, Olmsted, whose first child died from cholera, then designed more than 100 public parks and recreational grounds, including in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit.

Cholera transforms London and Paris

As cholera crossed London in 1854 and claimed the lives of around 10,000 people, British doctor John Snow mapped cases of the disease in a neighborhood and found a link not with the contaminated air, but with a public well contaminated by leaks of wastewater. That same year, the Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini isolated the bacteria responsible for cholera, but it will take decades before the discovery is widely accepted.

Meanwhile, the raw sewage continued to overflow into the Thames, and in the summer of 1858 it caused the “great stench”, a smell so repulsive that it forced the closure of the Houses of Parliament and the construction of a modern sewer system that transported city waste far enough from London for the tides of the river to transport it to sea. In addition, the muddy banks of the Thames were narrowed and replaced by embankments with roads and gardens by the river.

On the other side of the English Channel, Emperor Napoleon III came to power in France in 1848 in the midst of an epidemic of cholera which claimed the lives of around 19,000 Parisians. Admirer of London’s parks and gardens, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte seeks to remake Paris in the aftermath of the pandemic. “Let’s open new streets, make the working class neighborhoods, which lack air and light, healthier, and let the sunlight shine all over our walls,” he said.

Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the French authorities destroyed 12,000 buildings, built boulevards and tree-lined parks, erected fountains and installed an elaborate sewer system that transformed Paris into the modern city of the light.

“Haussmann’s plans were partly designed to bring fresh air and light into the dense urban network, and were cited as such when they inspired the plans of Chicago and Washington, DC,” says Carr, “But it should also be noted that Haussmann’s long boulevards were also a practical means of eliminating damaged accommodation, facilitating surveillance and quickly deploying soldiers to all corners of the city. ”

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