Martin V. Melosi

University of Houston

Among other things, Progressive reform in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries promoted the belief in the modification of the physical environment for human ends and elevated the importance of technical expertise in the development and management of cities.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of American cities continued on a path begun in the 1830s. In 1880 approximately 14 million people lived in cities; by 1920 the numbers increased to more than 54 million. In fact, 1920 marked the first time in United States history that more than half of all Americans (51.2 percent) lived in cities or towns. And while the increase in total population per decade steadily declined--from 30.1 percent in 1880 to 14.9 percent in 1920--the increase in urban population per decade continually ran ahead of total population by as much as 30.9 percent (1890), or by an average of 18.3 percent per decade. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe as well as rural-to-urban migration within the United States, accounted for much of the increase in urban population at this time.

The number of urban centers also increased from 939 in 1880 to 2,262 in 1910, and the number of cities with populations over 100,000 increased from 19 in 1880 to 50 in 1910.

Urban boundaries extended ever outward. It was not uncommon for some metropolitan areas to spread over twenty square miles or more. Improved transportation, more extensive service delivery, and aggressive real estate development are typically recognized factors influencing growth. Also important was adjusting borders through annexation or consolidation. For example, in 1899 Chicago increased its area through annexation from 36 to 170 square miles, and in the most celebrated consolidation of the period, geater New York was formed in 1897 out of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island City, Richmond County, most of Queens, some of Westchester, and parts of Kings County.

Industrialization came to be closely identified with urban growth in this period. While industrialization and urbanization were not the same process, they became closely connected in the late-nineteenth century, especially in the Northeast and along the Great Lakes where the most dynamic city development took place during the period. By 1900 urban factories were responsible for 90 percent of American industrial output. Cities in a band from New York to Chicago became central places for amassing resources and labor, for developing extensive transportation and communications systems, and for opening up markets. By 1920, all of the Northeastern states, except Maine and Vermont, and all of the Mid-Atlantic states, except West Virginia, were 50 percent or more urbanized. The same was true for Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. Nine of the ten largest cities in the country were in the manufacturing belt.(1.)

Coming to grips with rapid physical growth, a changing and expanding population base, and dynamic economic forces was a daunting task for city leaders. Such a transformation in urban life inspired new political and bureaucratic responses. Earlier in the nineteenth century, machine politicians took advantage of disruptions in the status quo by gaining power in several major cities. By the late-nineteenth century, challenges to machine authority came from several sides, normally under the generic banner of reform. "Rapid urbanization and unprecedented industrialization had produced a city of ill-fitting parts," historian Jon Teaford observed, "but many who enjoyed the comfort, security, and self-confidence associated with middle- or upper-class status believed that they could refashion the city, creating a better, less divided urban community."(2.)

Urban environmental reform in this era took on a broad scope, largely because Progressivism cast a big net. Rapid and large-scale urban growth threatened to promote new rounds of epidemic disease, and to further degrade the air, water and land. Those interested in urban environmental reform openly defended city life, recognizing something more confounding than repulsive in the image of the grimy, teaming industrial city. They accepted the growth and expansion of cities, not only because they had little choice, but because they believed that cities were worth preserving. But they sought to eliminate physical threats to the city and its people without remaking the cities, but rather by improving its physical and moral climate for the benefit of urban dwellers. These reformers were not the first to confront physical threats to the cities, but they were better organized and more inclined to view pollution and health threats as problems affecting the whole city rather than individuals or neighborhoods. And they were encouraged by changing attitudes of decision-makers who were willing to give higher priority to environmental problems because of the community-wide implications.

Two distinctive but not totally independent groups promoted urban environmentalism in the late- nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. One was composed of professionals and quasi-professionals with technical and scientific skills who worked within the municipal and state bureaucracies. They were public-health officials, sanitarians, efficiency experts, and most especially engineers. Their main role was developing systems to combat health hazards and pollution, compiling vital statistics, and monitoring community health and sanitation. They transmitted their ideas directly to municipal decision-makers and through professional organizations, but were less successful in communicating directly with the public.(3.)

Without question, the municipal engineer became the central figure in the protection of the environment in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American city. "One cannot get far in a discussion without taking account of environment," contemporary sanitary expert George Whipple argued. "[I]n fact, it is difficult to conceive of man apart from his environment....The environmental factors, however, are of especially interest to sanitary engineers." (4.) It was the descriptive title, "sanitary engineer," that came to represent what much of municipal engineering was becoming by the early twentieth century. Sanitary engineering was "one of the new social professions which is neither that of physician, nor engineer, nor educator, but smacks of all three," stated a writer in Charities and the Commons (1906). An article in Scientific American (1914) noted that sanitary engineering "relates to the practical application of the principles of public hygiene, through the medium of civil and hydraulic engineering, combined with chemistry, biology and physiology." And sanitary engineer William Paul Gerhard elevated his profession another notch by suggesting that "much of the sanitary engineer's work is necessarily of a missionary character, as the public must be educated to appreciate the benefits of sanitation." (5.)

Far from a narrow specialty, sanitary engineering combined the generalist’s perspective of environmental conditions with practical, technical know-how. As the eminent sanitary engineer Abel Wolman argued, "Sanitary engineers, more than any other single professional group, provided the engineering tools with which to attack the physical environment so closely related to the transmission of the diseases of man." (6.)

Some sanitary engineers acquired their skills on the job as the need arose for them. Some were trained as civil and hydraulic engineers and then later studied chemistry and biology. Others began as chemists and biologists and acquired engineering training. Many of the best schools in the country--including MIT, Carnegie Technical School, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan--began to offer courses in sanitary engineering by the early twentieth century. Preceding World War I, the number of sanitary engineering graduates in American colleges increased steadily.

As those primarily responsible for the development and maintenance of sanitary services in the age of bacteriology, sanitary engineers continued the momentum for these services begun in the nineteenth century. In the face of the breech between emphasis on public sanitation versus individual health--which came about as the germ theory of disease gained prominence--they continued to see the value in environmental sanitation as an integral part of protecting the public health. They also saw fewer contradictions between the goals of the Old and New Public Health than many of their colleagues in the medical or scientific communities. But, as engineers, they were more likely to concentrate on technical solutions to provide clean water and to eliminate waste than to rely on a variety of other preventive measures. The newly developing technical systems in water supply, wastewater, and solid-waste disposal were the monuments to their influence.

A second reform group was made up of citizens with strong civic and aesthetic values who usually operated outside city government, generating influence through organized protest, community programs, or public education. Lacking the expertise or power to implement most changes themselves, they supported the efforts of those in government who were of like mind. Civic environmentalists came primarily from two sources: voluntary citizens' associations, reform clubs, and civic organizations whose interest in urban life was broad and varied; and environmental pressure groups, such as smoke- and noise-abatement leagues and sanitation groups whose interest in city problems was more specialized. The membership of all of these civic groups came primarily from the middle- and upper-middle classes, and were well-represented by women. The Ladies' Health Protective Association of New York, the Woman's Municipal League of New York, and similar groups were major promoters of “civic cleanliness”--or “municipal housekeeping.” Women such as Jane Addams, Caroline Bartlett Crane, and Mary McDowell were leaders in the sanitation movement. Ellen Swallow Richards taught sanitary chemistry at MIT and was a pioneer ecologist. Julia Bartlett Rice, a New York physician, was the driving force behind the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise--the most important organization of its type in the nation. In Chicago, Mrs. Charles Sergel was elected president of the city's antismoke league. And Alice Hamilton was a pioneer in industrial medicine.

Civic groups increased from fewer than fifty in early 1894 to more than 180 by the end of the year. By 1896 every large city and many smaller ones had at least one reform organization. By 1909 there were more than 100 periodicals dealing primarily with urban affairs. National networks of civic groups also arose by the mid- 1890s.

Because Progressive reforms of several types were rooted in industrial cities, urban environmentalists had little trouble identifying themselves with the prevailing reform spirit of the day. In some cases, environmental reformers were urban protesters who accepted the Progressive ideology to identify what they were confronting. In other cases, those who called themselves Progressives took an interest in urban environmental issues. Both shared basic assumptions, most notably a desire to bring order out of the chaos induced by the economic revolution of the nineteenth century. They shared a faith in humanity and an environmental determinism that led them to expect that the good in people would prevail if the evils produced by imperfect social, political, and physical circumstances were eliminated. They also placed their faith in an expert elite and in the scientific method to solve society's problems. Moralistic, and often paternalistic in their goals, they decried poverty, injustice, corruption, and disease. Progressivism, therefore, offered a hospitable framework--rhetorically and practically--for those favoring environmental reform as well as a set of concepts and values applicable to the fight against pollution and disease. (7.)

Central to the reformist spirit of the age was the notion that urban problems were environmentally based. As M. Christine Boyer argued, "...the environmental chaos of the American city became linked in the minds of the improvers to the social pathologies of urban life. Long before poverty, poor housing, and slums were thought of as economic and political symptoms, improvers saw a link between environmental conditions and the social order, between physical and moral contagion." As a result, solutions to these problems could be "disciplined by proper environmental conditions. A sanitary, well-ordered environment could confine these undesirable traits, such that the natural, socially responsible man would appear from beneath the vice of depravity. If the external milieu was tolerable, then poverty would take care of itself." (8.)

This tenet of a burgeoning Progressivism in the cities, in some respects, was not far removed from the English sanitarian notions of an earlier era, which linked poverty and disease. However, it was greatly elaborated, if not systematized, undergirding a broad strategy for civic revitalization which not only sought social uplift but the preservation of urban life and the restoration of more pristine physical standards as well. Hardly an ecological perspective on the city in the more modern sense, Progressivism's urban environmental views moved well beyond the more limited notions imbedded in "the sanitary idea" popularized in nineteenth-century England.

Civic groups sought a variety of methods to achieve their goals. Clean-up and paint-up campaigns sought to recruit everyone in the community. Juvenile street-cleaning leagues and junior smoke-abatement leagues instilled a sense of civic responsibility in the young. Publicity programs--from distributing leaflets to public demonstrations--brought the problems directly to the public. Promotion of education programs, interest-group pressure on city government, and support for new city services and new city ordinances fell within the activities of the wide variety of community environmental groups. In essence, they were driven by three concerns: (1) consumerism (that is, as consumers--or users--of the environment and as recipients of its effects on the community); (2) health hazards (caused by pollution and other forms of environmental neglect); and (3) civic beauty (the aesthetics of a habitable physical setting).

In the face of the activities of civic groups and the technical elite, it is often forgotten that institutional changes in government during the Progressive Era also had a key influence on making urban officials more responsive to providing better city-wide sanitary services and other environmental changes. An emerging body of professional bureaucrats became firmly established in municipal government. As Teaford noted, well before the implementation of formal civil service laws, "mayors and commissioners deferred to the judgment and expertise of professional engineers, landscape architects, educators, physicians, and fire chiefs, and a number of such figures served decade after decade in municipal posts, despite political upheavals in the executive and legislative branches." (9.)

City leaders could better take advantage of a growing professional bureaucracy in an environment which increasingly shifted power away from the state capital to city hall. Beginning slowly in the 1870s, several cities made efforts to move away from state interference in their affairs by demanding more "home rule." The movement took many forms, including efforts to increase the appointive power of mayors and to gain control of various service departments.

Home rule proved viable in several states with large cities for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the cities demonstrated political clout which it could wield at the state level. In Colorado, Denver was granted some home rule powers in 1889, but this action was essentially a rubber stamp for powers the city had already accrued. When a new political party entered office, however, Denver temporarily faced the institution of state boards which cut into its local authority.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the rising success of Progressive reform efforts in the cities and states was a most powerful force leading to a conducive political environment to support greater home rule. Many municipal reformers made home rule a priority and gained adherents on the state level, leading to the end of many restrictive specifically designated powers.

While greater home rule did not ensure political and financial stability for cities, it did allow for some latitude in setting local priorities, or at least responding to perceived local needs. Among those programs was a wide interest in environmental concerns including pure water, cleaner air, and less waste.

In many respects, the transformation of the city bureaucracy, the increasingly important role of engineers, and the civic reformers' call for environmental improvement demonstrated the powerful faith in "progress through technology" advanced by engineers and shared by other contemporaries. Take note of the following observation in a 1918 issue of Scientific American: "For we live in the age of the engineer. He may be defined as the man who does things, as against the man who merely knows things."

But environmental reform in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries expressed more than a faith in technology. While environmental reformers did not end pollution or eliminate disease, they contributed to a rising consciousness about the importance of physical surroundings to the quality of human life. Unfortunately, much of the environmental reform spirit of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American cities did not persist through the middle years of the twentieth century--at least not as highly visible public issues. With the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s, however, many of the quality-of-life issues central to urban environmental reform caught public attention again.

The birth of the environmental justice movement in the late 1970s--primarily an effort to gain “environmental equity” for American minorities and the underclass--demonstrates some interesting and significant ways in which urban/industrial environmental issues resurfaced in the late twentieth century. What the environmental justice movement shares with Progressive environmental reform, most importantly, is a reaction to industrialization as a threat to the environment--but in a substantially different context.

In October, 1991, a multi-racial group of more than 600 met in Washington, D.C. for the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. In its "Principles of Environmental Justice," conference participants asserted the hope "to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities..." resting upon the re-establishment of "our spiritual interdependence on the sacredness of our Mother Earth," and, among other goals, "to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples...." (10.)

For the most part, the movement has found its strength at the grassroots, especially among low-income people of color who face serious environmental threats from myriad toxics and hazardous wastes. According to sociologist Andrew Szasz, in his book Ecopopulism: Toxic Waste and the Movement for Environmental Justice (1994), "The issue of toxic, hazardous industrial wastes has been arguably the most dynamic environmental issue of the past two decades." By 1980, "the American public feared toxic waste as much as it feared nuclear power after Three Mile Island."

The reaction of local groups to toxics (such as lead poisoning or exposure to pesticides) and to hazardous wastes may have begun as NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard), but has evolved into something much different. Lois Marie Gibbs of the Citizen's Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes stated, "Our movement started as Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) but quickly turned into Not In Anyone's Backyard (NIABY) which includes Mexico and other less developed countries."(11.)

What has emerged, according to Szasz, is a radical environmental populism--ecopopulism--within the larger tradition of American radicalism, rather than an outgrowth of the modern environmental movement. By one estimate, almost 4,700 local groups appeared by 1988 to oppose toxics. Before the publicity over Love Canal (1978) contact between the groups was scant, but into the 1980s a more vibrant and better networked social movement appeared to be emerging. Some scholars argue that the struggle for environmental justice for people of color may predate the 1970s, but these efforts generally were contested under the rubric of "social" as opposed to "environmental" problems.

For those articulating the goals of the movement, grassroots resistance to environmental threats is simply the reaction to more fundamental injustices brought on by long-term economic and social trends. According to Cynthia Hamilton, associate professor of Pan African Studies at California State University-Los Angeles, the consequences of industrialization "have forced an increasing number of African Americans to become environmentalists. This is particularly the case for those who live in central cities where they are overburdened with the residue, debris, and decay of industrial production."(12.) In some cases, the critique extends to a questioning of the capitalist system, private property, and Euro-centric social viewpoints.

For some in the movement, especially among African Americans and other people of color, the struggles against "environmental injustice" are--as sociologist Robert D. Bullard noted--"...not unlike the civil rights battles waged to dismantle the legacy of Jim Crow in Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and some of the 'Up South' communities in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles."(13.)

The environmental justice movement, therefore, is characterized as having its historic roots in civil rights activism, but not in conservationism nor the more recent environmental movement. It appears that this distinction emerged out of a desire to maintain a separate, albeit unique, identity for the sake of the movement's political objectives, and also to eschew what it perceives as the antithetic goals of mainstream environmental groups.

Mainstream environmentalism--especially as represented by the so-called "Group of Ten" or "Big Ten"(14.) -- is characterized by those in the environmental justice movement as white, often male, middle- and upper-class, primarily concerned with wilderness preservation and conservation, and insensitive to--or at least ill-equipped to deal with--the interests of minorities. Token representation of people of color in mainstream organizations, especially in positions of authority or on the staffs, is an additional reminder of the gap between the movements.

There is division of opinion within the environmental justice movement, nonetheless, over whether to join forces with mainstream environmental groups, to cooperate with them in areas of common interest, or simply to follow a separate path to achieving its goals.

However, among people of color criticism of mainstream environmentalism is not meant to leave the impression that minorities have little or no concern for a full range of environmental issues--although this impression is widespread. As social scientist Paul Mohai argued in a 1990 study, "Although blacks and other minorities appear to be disproportionately burdened by [environmental] hazards, little is known about the extent of awareness, concern, and political activity of these groups regarding environmental quality issues."(15.)

To counteract the assumption that people of color lack an interest in the environment supporters of the environmental justice movement have attempted to broaden the discussion of the issue. Dana A. Alston, director of the Environment, Community Development and Race Project of the Panos Institute in Washington, D.C., attempted to place environmentalism in a larger social context: "Communities of color have often taken a more holistic approach than the mainstream environmental movement, integrating 'environmental' concerns into a broader agenda that emphasizes social, racial and economic justice."(16.) In an effort to dispel the notion of environmental advocacy as "a white thing," several studies point to the strong environmental voting record of the Congressional Black Caucus and the commitment of minorities to key clean-air and clean-water legislation.

Environmental racism, not surprisingly, has become the central concern of the environmental justice movement. Some in the movement connect class and race, but many others view racism as the prime culprit. Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., former head of the NAACP, is credited with coining the term "environmental racism" while executive director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ).

Rev. Chavis became interested in the connection between race and pollution in 1982 when residents of Warren County, North Carolina--predominantly African American--asked the CRJ for help in resisting the siting of a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) dump in their community. The protest proved unsuccessful, resulting in the arrest of more than 500 people, including Chavis, Dr. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy of Washington.

The Warren County incident and other cases--some affecting middle-class blacks as well as the poor-- convinced Chavis and his colleagues that a national study correlating race and toxic-waste dumping was in order. After five years of work, the CRJ produced Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States (1987). The report was the first comprehensive national study of the demographic patterns associated with the location of hazardous waste sites. The findings stressed that the racial composition of a community was the single variable best able to predict the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities in a community.

The CRJ report--especially its strong inference of deliberate targeting of communities because of race-- gave powerful ammunition to those interested in broadening a concern over ill-defined "environmental equity" into the movement for environmental justice.

The question of deliberately targeting communities of racial and ethnic minorities is viewed by some leaders of the movement as indispensable in keeping the focus on the relationship between race and pollution. The perceived culprit in deliberate targeting is not simply private companies, however, but also government.

There is little doubt that the environmental justice movement has reintroduced, and in many ways broadened, the issue of "equity" as it relates to environmentalism. The movement has persuaded--or possibly forced--environmental groups, government and the private sector to consider the importance of race and class as central features of environmental concern for Americans as well as for people of color in the Third World. It has helped to elevate the toxics and hazardous waste issue to a position of central importance among a vast array of environmental problems. It has shifted attention to urban blight, public health and urban living conditions to a greater degree than earlier efforts by environmental reformers. And it has questioned the demands for economic growth at the expense of human welfare. Whether or not the environmental justice movement grows beyond its current strength, it has altered- and could possibly transform--the debate over the goals and objectives of environmental policy in the United States.

The movement, however, is not without its limitations, especially (1) its stance, sometimes inconsistent, on the issue of race as the singular factor influencing the siting of toxic and hazardous facilities, which has not been persuasively documented; and (2) its underestimation of its friends and sometimes mischaracterization of its foes has limited its potential allies.

Nevertheless, both the Progressive reform efforts and the environmental justice movement have been important in raising crucial issues about environmental problems and in broadening environmentalism from the narrower interests imbedded in the conservation and preservation movements with which the American environmental movement has been so closely identified with over the years.


  1. For information on urbanization and industrialization, see Joel A. Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy, eds., Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America (Philadelphia, 1988), pp. xiv-xvi; Maury Klein and Harvey A. Kantor, Prisoners of Progress: Cities 1850-1920 (New York, 1976), pp. 145-46, 163.

  2. Jon Teaford, The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870-1900 (Baltimore, 1984), p. 30.

  3. Martin V. Melosi, "Battling Pollution in the Progressive Era," Landscape 26 (1982):36-37.

  4. George Whipple, "The Sanitary Engineer," Scientific American 118 (February 16, 1918): 90.

  5. William Paul Gerhard, Sanitation and Sanitary Engineering (New York, 1909), pp. 58-59.

  6. Abel Wolman, "Contributions of Engineering to Health Advancement," ASCE Transactions, pp. 583-84.

  7. Melosi, "Battling Pollution in the Progressive Era," pp. 36-37.

  8. M. Christine Boyer, Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning (Cambridge, MA., 1983), p. 17.

  9. Teaford, Unheralded Triumph, p.7.

  10. Quoted in Karl Grossman, "The People of Color Environmental Summit," Robert D. Bullard, ed., Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (San Francisco, 1994), p. 272.

  11. Lois Marie Gibbs, "Celebrating Ten Years of Triumph," Everyone's Backyard 11 (February, 1993):2.

  12. Cynthia Hamilton, "Coping with Industrial Exploitation," in Robert D. Bullard, ed., Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston, 1993), p. 63.

  13. Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder, CO, 1994; second ed.), p. xiii.

  14. The Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Policy Institute/Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and so forth.

  15. Paul Mohai, "Black Environmentalism," Social Science Quarterly 71 (December, 1990): 744.

  16. Dana A. Alston, ed., We Speak for Ourselves: Social Justice, Race and Environment (Washington, D.C., 1990), p. 3.

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