The Crank Who Made Cities Livable
Posted by Richard Conniff on April 8, 2014
Visiting a city in a tropical nation a few years ago, I was puzzled to see that the trees opposite a makeshift slum were all plastered in a thick, almost congealed, layer of shopping bags.
“Why doesn’t the government just ban plastic bags?” I asked my taxi driver stupidly.
“People would be angry,” he explained and then grew vague. It turned out that in makeshift slums without plumbing, those bags were the closest thing a lot of people had to a toilet. And because there was no proper way to dispose of them afterward, the nearby trees and bushes had become a waste disposal system.
That spectacle clung to me after I retreated to my hotel room, with its polished chrome hardware and its sanitized porcelain throne. And it made me think that what the world needs now is a terrible crank—sorry, I mean, a brilliant social reformer—named Sir Edwin Chadwick, Knight Commander of the Order of Bath.
Chadwick is, admittedly, an unlikely hero for our day. He was so arrogant and self-righteous in his campaigns on behalf of the poor that he managed, despite ample competition, to make himself one of the most hated men in 19th-century Britain. He was also a terrible bore, in the fashion of
people obsessed with a great idea—but even more so because he insisted on talking to polite Victorian society about a problem it preferred to pretend didn’t exist: how to live in crowded cities without being buried or drowned in human waste.
This cause made Chadwick a relentless explorer into East London and other British slums, which suddenly teemed with newcomers working in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. Their world was as foreign to politicians and bureaucrats as Calcutta, but Chadwick went out to see firsthand how the working poor lived. He described what he found in merciless detail: cellars three feet deep in human waste and houses where “every article of food and drink must be covered” lest swarms of houseflies attack it and render it unfit for use, “from the strong taste of the dunghill left by the flies.” In the process, he contracted a case of typhus that nearly killed him.
Chadwick went on to launch a sanitary movement that would make life better in the slums and far beyond. Even if he was an intolerable intrusion on the complacency of the London establishment of the 1850s, Chadwick and his counterparts, among them Max Joseph Pettenkofer in Germany and Lemuel Shattuck in the United States, made city living tolerable for the rest of us, introducing services city dwellers in the developed world now take for granted, including street cleaning, garbage collection, public water supply and sewerage systems, and urban planning of open spaces for better air circulation.
The sanitary movement even changed the way houses looked: The airy open hallways, large windows, and screen porches of upper-middle-class houses of the late 19th century are one minor vestige of the sanitary movement’s salubrious work. Through his key ally Florence Nightingale, Chadwick also helped make hospital sanitation and infection control accepted practice.
There is a tendency now to dismiss Chadwick and his ilk, because they were proponents of “filth theory,” the old idea that diseases resulted from filth, bad air, and even “morbific effluvia.” Thanks to Louis Pasteur and development of the “germ theory” of disease, we know that microbes, not filth, are really to blame. But the truth is that filth theory and the sanitary movement worked: Deaths from epidemic diseases, notably cholera and typhoid fever, began to decline long before medical researchers understood what caused these diseases or how to treat them. The sanitary movement had removed many of the conditions in which germs could thrive.
Why should all this matter to the modern world? Because the squalid conditions of London in the 1830s now flourish in the impromptu slums that have sprung up around cities all over the developing world. And the issues that obsessed Chadwick and his fellow sanitarians are the same ones that will shape our increasingly urban future. So-called megacities are the ones with a population of 10 million plus, and by 2025—that’s closer to us than the year 2000—650 million people will live in 37 megacities around the world. By 2040, when babies being born now reach their 20s, 5.7 billion people will live in cities.
People often talk about this urban future with New York or Tokyo in mind. But the reality is São Paulo, Kolkata, Lagos. The unplanned neighborhoods in these new megacities typically have no toilets. They lack sewers or sanitation. The winding, narrow alleyways often make it impossible to bring in trucks for water supply or waste disposal. So people who flee rural poverty to inhabit these cities will die as they did in Dickensian London, of epidemics, pollution, crime, and misery. They will die of cholera, as they died in Chadwick’s time.
That’s why we need an Edwin Chadwick, or a hundred Chadwicks, today. However unheroic, or boring, or bad-mannered it may seem, we need relentless campaigners for access to sanitation. Bored civil servants and lazy politicians will no doubt prefer to look elsewhere, as they did in Chadwick’s day. But we need a new sanitary movement to remind them that the slums of the megacities are not beyond hope or caring, any more than were the slums of London in the Industrial Revolution.