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.

WATCH: HISTORY Vault: New York City

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.

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