Martin V. Melosi

University of Houston

According to geographers Thomas R. Detwyler and Melvin G. Marcus in a 1972 book, "in man's history this is an era of exploding environmental and urban problems. To a large extent our environmental ills are caused by the demands, functions, and expansion of cities. Conversely, healthy urban life requires understanding of, and wise accommodation to, the complex physical environment in and near cities." While Detwyler and Marcus are too narrow and somewhat critical of the role of cities in the environment, they nonetheless recognized the central place of cities in shaping the physical circumstance of contemporary humans.

Indeed, urban-generated environmental problems no longer affect isolated populations, but regions, even nations and the world. In the United States, we cannot talk about environmental problems as isolated phenomena, because this country is not simply a nation with cities, but an urban nation.

However, the importance of the city to the environmental conditions of the modern world tends to foreshadow the historic role of the city in reshaping the physical environment of many civilizations, including the Greeks, Romans, Ancient Chinese, the various cultures of the Middle and Near East, as well as the cultures of the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans.

In many cases, our understanding and appreciation of nature emerges as a result of its contrast with the built environment or because of its frequent collision with the growth of cities. But cities, and the built environment in general, cannot be simply viewed as "the absence of nature." Rendering cities artificial is to consign them to a separate place in the physical world, as if they were the anathema of what we consider "the environment" to be.

Cities are a major part of the physical world--from the early days of human habitation on the earth. They are not separate from the natural world, in the sense that they share no boundaries with it. Indeed, cities are interactive in the world environment with the wilderness, the countryside, the "middle landscape" or other gradations of the physical environment.

Cities are a form of human cultivation in the sense that corn fields and irrigation ditches are an expression of human presence on the earth. They transform the natural environment in ways related to all manner of human intrusion on nature. At their worst, cities unalterably destroy the sanctity of nature; at their best, they provide an efficient and effective use of land for human habitation.

The Industrial City

The industrial city was the physical expression of America's nineteenth-century economic revolution. It was a magnet for factories and a haven for immigrants from abroad and migrants from the countryside. It was the distribution center for a wide variety of goods and a hungry consumer of raw materials. This was a "new city," as Raymond A. Mohl has stated in The New City: Urban America in the Industrial Age, 1860-1920 (1985), "big, sprawling, crowded with newcomers, full of opportunity, and full of risk."

Because of the profound connection between urbanization and industrialization, urban historians have labeled the years between approximately 1840 and 1920 in the United States as the "era of the industrial city." To many, the period prior to the American Industrial Revolution is, in turn, often referred to as the "era of the preindustrial city." Only after 1920--in the so-called "metropolitan era"--does the industrial moniker fade into the background.

This periodization owes considerably to the relationship between economic change and urban growth-- understood as central to the process of city building. It depends largely on the assumption that changes in economic activity--for example, from commercial to industrial--resulted in a requisite change in urban development.

Yet the periodization of urban growth in the United States, especially to 1920, continues to reflect an overwhelming focus on economic forces shaping cities. If the industrial city was the tangible expression of the economic revolution of the nineteenth century, however, it was also the spatial expression of a complementary technological revolution which transformed the physical city in the process of recasting the nation's economy. In his recent synthesis of American urban history, America Become Urban: The Development of U.S. Cities & Towns, 1780-1980 (1988) Eric H. Monkkonen stated that "in both structure and form the modern American city was born in the nineteenth century, a century of dramatic transformation on practically every front."

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, an array of sophisticated technical systems blanketed American cities, irreparably altering city-building practices and the delivery of services. As Joel A. Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy persuasively argued in Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America (1988) "Although technology and cities have always been interdependent, only since the advent of industrialism in the nineteenth century have urban technological networks evolved." Technological innovations in transportation, communications, energy, and environmental services (water, waste-water, garbage disposal)--originating in Europe and the United States--were stimuli to economic growth as well as to the physical transformation of the cities.

Ironically, whereas industrialization remained local or regional for many years, these new technological innovations were quickly diffused nationally. This suggests that while American cities did not uniformly benefit from the direct economic impact of the Industrial Revolution (or conversely suffer from its results), they were physically modernized--in varying degrees--as a result of new technologies generated in the era.

The city of the industrial era, therefore, was also a technically networked city growing upward and outward in ways never imagined and at a pace which was difficult to comprehend. The sophistication of civil engineering and public health contributed to more elaborate and more effective water delivery and sanitation systems. Building technology and related infrastructural development underwent extraordinary changes as skyscrapers dotted the skyline and newly paved streets radiated outward from the central business district. Investment in and implementation of electrical power led to major changes in transportation, communications, and heating and lighting. Electric streetcars soon replaced horses; telegraph and telephone lines crisscrossed the skyline; arc lights and incandescent bulbs challenged gaslighting; central stations undercut home and industrial uses of wood and coal. The compact "walking city" of the preindustrial age was replaced by an upward rising, mechanized core city with expanding suburbs.

The technically networked city ushered in a remarkable period of modernization with a legacy extending well into the twentieth century. Significantly, several of the technical innovations of the nineteenth century--the automobile, electrical power networks, and the telephone--were instrumental in transforming industrial cities into metropolises, that is, large, increasingly decentralized urban regions.

However, urban infrastructure--including its various technical systems--was not simply a static backdrop for economic transactions, social mingling, cultural events or political maneuvering, but an interactive part of urban life. City building is primarily a process of city transforming, or as Hans Blumenfeld suggested, "The city is a historical process; its image at any given time is merely a cross-section through a continuous stream."(1.) Changes or modifications in urban structures, technical systems, and various services, may reflect fluctuating aesthetic tastes, but are more often meant to serve practical ends. The demand for more and better housing results in altering existing buildings or changing current land uses. Laying water mains or extending sewer lines improves neighborhood health conditions or even creates new neighborhoods. Paving streets and building highways relieves congestion in a specified area or may simply reroute traffic.

In many cases, the outcomes of change may not always be predictable. Decisions which alter the physical city may increase or decrease accessibility from point to point; encourage the concentration or deconcentration of residential, commercial or manufacturing property in a given location; expand or contract greenspace for recreational use; and enhance or diminish the quality of service delivery. Modifications of the infrastructure and related services--barring natural disasters--while most often intentional, produce results that are often unintentional.

The ability to concentrate people and factories in dense central cities also exacerbated pollution and health threats. While city-wide sewer systems alleviated sanitation problems of the inner city, they often redirected waste to nearby rivers, lakes and bays, thus creating a new set of health and pollution hazards. Electrical power reduced the individual's dependence on wood and coal, but often increased the use of polluting fuels at the centralized power plants. Electrical lines above ground and in street rails posed a danger to humans and animals. Even suburban communities, often dependent on the central cities for their services, did not altogether escape the ubiquitous pollution and variety of health problems in the industrial era and beyond. The use of various technologies to remedy urban problems, therefore, are often immersed in profound contradictions. On the one hand, new technologies--such as the electric streetcar or the telegraph/telephone--have encouraged building density and concentration of population and economic activity at the urban core. On the other hand, these same technologies fostered outward residential and commercial growth into the suburbs. In essence, new urban technologies were forces of cohesion and diffusion; their implementation was not automatic, coincidental nor inadvertent. A complex set of decision makers--political leaders, technical experts, businessmen, civic groups, and others--played roles in making choices for the cities. Especially in the major cities of the industrial era, the determination to implement new technologies grew out of--as Jon Peterson argued--"struggles to surmount the limitations and failings of older urban arrangements that became apparent as a consequence of big- city growth." These struggles helped to define the environmental agenda and priorities in the delivery of urban services, and led to the implementation of technical systems which "assured the viability and even the special vitality of the new urbanism."(2.) Decision-makers, therefore, presented choices for surmounting the limitations and failures of older urban arrangements and often promoted new technologies as a means to fulfill those choices. A key to understanding the transformation of the physical city--beyond the impacts of the technologies themselves--is determining whose choices prevailed or the degree to which compromises were reached.

The Metropolis

The modern American city which emerged out of the Industrial Revolution was both recipient and disseminator of new technologies, benefactor and victim of their application. Out of the physical changes to the city born in the industrial era flowed a new form and structure for urban America. And while the modern metropolis may not resemble the city of the late-nineteenth century upon first glance, it has been strongly dependent on the momentum for change brought on by the development of several key technical systems in the industrial era.

There is no simple way to determine the moment when the modern metropolis--or the multi-centered, decentralized city--began to typify urban growth in the United States. Scholars have proposed several periodization schemes. Several have relied on the term "post-industrial city" to reflect the transformation of the urban economy from one dominated by the production of goods to one dominated by consumption of goods and services. Eric Monkkonen dates the latest era in American city growth from approximately 1930, arguing that "post-Depression" cities "made the innovations of the previous century [especially in providing services] permanent and somewhat invisible, by creating bureaucracies to accomplish the new services." In addition, "New federal government actions during the Depression helped dissipate intense local concerns about cities."

There are obvious merits to Monkkonen's scheme and that of other scholars who divide urban periods according to economic transformations or changes in municipal functions. However, there is also great merit in utilizing spatial distinctions (with accompanying technological changes), especially in the case of metropolitanism. What is most striking about modern urban growth is its regionalization, not only the expansion of urban "territory"--especially in the annexation-wild Sunbelt--but the trend toward population diffusion as well.

The deconcentration tendency accompanied by growth along the urban periphery became the prominent feature of American urban growth after 1920. In his book, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (1987), Robert Fishman asserted that "by the 1920s an interrelated technology of decentralization--of which the automobile was only one element--had begun to operate, which inexorably loosened the ties that once bound the urban functions of society to tightly defined cores." The blossoming of the modern metropolis, of course, did not occur on January 1, 1920, but the trend away from single core cities with dependent suburbs was clearly underway.

And to the same extent that technical systems--especially water and waste water systems, streetcars, central station electrical power, and the telephone/telegraph--contributed to urban cohesion as well as urban growth, new or modified technical systems--especially the extension of water/wastewater systems and other environmental services, the automobile and the airplane, long-distance power distribution, and modern telecommunications--encouraged deconcentration and the territorial expansiveness of urban regions.

Beginning in the 1920s, but accelerating after World War II, changes in the metropolis blurred city boundaries and undercut the conventional definitions of cities. The demarcation between core cities and suburbs was less clear as multi-centered metropolitan sprawl resulted in numerous "out-towns" and "no-towns." Jurisdictional disputes intensified as the traditional city, county, state, and federal interests collided with regional entities and special districts. Urban deconcentration made way for more rigorous diffusion.

Fishman has contributed an intriguing refinement to our understanding of modern metropolitan growth. In Bourgeois Utopias he contended that, especially since 1945, the suburb had "lost its traditional meaning and function as a satellite of the central city." It became part of the so-called "outer city" along the urban periphery which led to the creation of a new kind of decentralized city. He christened the new perimeter city the "technoburb" which eventually became part of a multi-centered region, the "techno-city." The real basis of this new urban form, Fishman argued, "is the invisible web of advanced technology and telecommunications that has been substituted for the face-to-face contact and physical movement of older cities." He added that "with its highways and advanced communications technology, the new perimeter city can generate urban diversity without urban concentration."

Fishman has made an effective case for the emergence of a new urban form in the late-twentieth century, and moves the discussion of the evolution of American urbanization beyond the limits of "the city versus the suburb" construct which has, until recently, made it extremely difficult to evaluate new patterns of urban growth and to distinguish modern urban forms from past models. His focus on the importance of modern technology and spatial realignments may not go far enough, however, and reinforces the need to examine more deeply the impact of technical systems on urban growth--not only in the metropolitan era but at least back into the nineteenth century. In other words, can the concept of "techno-city" be broadened to include what already has been described as the advent of the industrial cities during the 1840-1920 period?

City Systems

Two key ideas help us to understand the impact of technology on city growth and the urban environment: (1) Technical systems shaped the American urban infrastructure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and provide an effective way to understand the growth of the physical city, because they have an internal order which the city-building process as a whole lacked in the United States. These technical systems were quickly diffused nationally, unlike industrialization which remained local or regional for many years.

(2) The implementation of new urban technologies was not automatic, coincidental nor inadvertent, but the result of intentional efforts by decision makers to confront existing problems faced by cities as they grew upward and outward in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In several cases these new technologies accomplished their goal- -sewers removed wastes from the central city and improved health, for example. However, unanticipated consequences--or multiple feedbacks--often resulted, i.e., downstream pollution ensued from sewage redirected from the central city to outlying watercourses.

The very existence of cities has produced major impacts on the natural environment. As one geographer noted, "Urban areas are major modifiers of the earth's environment. Their existence can influence the course of basic physical processes, such as the hydraulic cycle." For example, urbanization removes much of the filtering capacity of soil and rapidly channels precipitation into available watercourses--thus encouraging flooding. Urbanization also affects the atmosphere, not only with increased pollutants, but also by creating a "heat island," where temperatures are greater than the surrounding area. As geographers Thomas R. Detwyler and Melvin G. Marcus noted, "...the city--population together with environment--is a relatively new kind of ecosystem on the face of the earth."(3.) On the broadest level, therefore, the implementation of urban technologies needs to be understood in terms of their physical impacts on the city and on urbanites themselves.

Cities may be regarded as specialized systems, that is, entities which have an internal order and structure, but they also are open systems--dependent on resources from the outside in order to survive. Cities in turn are a complex of a whole series of technical systems. Urban technical systems differ from technical networks insofar as networks may simply represent the linking of a single technology. For example, a telegraph network may consist of sending and receiving equipment, transmission lines, and a power source. A communication system, on the other hand, can incorporate the telegraph network, but may also include telephones, mail couriers and other conveyances of messages. A transportation system in the late-nineteenth century, as another example, would include streetcars, railroads, horse-drawn carriages, as well as roadbeds, track, stables, parking facilities, whereas a late-twentieth century transportation system incorporates automobiles, trucks, superhighways, airplanes, airports and more. Part of a system might also include what social critic Lewis Mumford referred to as the "underground city"--the water main and the sewer, the gas main and the electric main, the underground railroad. Or a system might take on the role of Mumford's "invisible city"--such as the electric grid which not only links places, but serves and furthers several different processes.(4.)

In the case of every technical system, essential components need not be material, but administrative entities mustering the technology--such as utilities, traction companies, and municipal governments; technical expertise; financial backing; and even the consumers who utilize the service. "[S]ystems involve far more than the so-called hardware, devices, machines and processes, and the transportation, communication, and information networks that interconnect them," historian Thomas P. Hughes argued. "Such systems consist also of people and organizations."(5.) Thus while technology is critical to city building, it is the human input into the systems that is crucial to urban development. As such, the systems--no matter how large or consolidated they are--do not become autonomous, but exist within limits imposed by the available technology, the hand of their operators, and the use put to them by their users.

Studying technical systems offers a useful way to explore the physical evolution of cities and the environmental impact of technology on urban growth from an historical vantage point. Attention paid to the change in technical systems over time may provide important insights into the physical transformation of cities.

But equally important is to devote attention to how decisions are made about the city's environmental needs. A fundamental basis for defining the environmental agenda of the city was built upon the common need for transportation, communications, energy and environmental services. To many, the infrastructure, various technical systems, and environmental services represented public goods and thus required municipal--and later state and federal--commitments to increased public spending. An important issue to consider is the degree to which the recognition of urban technologies as public goods was simply a pragmatic concern or linked to some broader environmental consciousness. If the latter, then modern environmentalism is more fundamentally city-based than we have come to believe--particularly in the case of pollution abatement and several quality-of-life issues.

To those in the "growth business"--utility companies, traction companies, realtors--investment in the physical city, however, emphasized private gain. Over the years, delivery of urban services has swung like a pendulum between public and private ventures. Accounting for both public and private inputs into the urban decision making process, historian Alan Anderson argued that the provision of urban services "switched back and forth between the public and private sectors as technology and markets changed."(6.) A clear pattern of such oscillation is difficult to establish, however. Suffice it to say that public and private ends are not always mutually exclusive, and the decision-making environment was never as rigidly public or private as some have suggested. Nonetheless, the development and maintenance of a well-functioning physical city was going to be determined by public and private inputs--sometimes in concert, and sometimes in competition--not by a singular elite nor by the autonomy of technological forces.

The studies of historians David Hammack and Christine Rosen have been particularly useful in understanding urban decision making with respect to technical systems and the environment. Hammack's argument that political power in turn-of-the-century New York was concentrated "not in one or two but in several distinct economic, social, and political elites" helped to avoid a simplistic interpretation of public versus private interests. "In their efforts to influence decisions," Hammack added, "these elites engaged in a shifting complex of alliances, bargained with one another, and sometimes made important concessions to secure the support of other elites and of wider publics." (7.)

Rosen's discussion of "frictions" in both the supply and demand sides of infrastructural development has good applicability to the questions surrounding technical systems. In her book, The Limits of Power: Great Fires and the Process of City Growth in America (1986), she uses the cities of Chicago, Baltimore, and Boston--after their great fires--as laboratories for examining the city-building (or rebuilding) process. On the demand side of infrastructure development, Rosen noted, market mechanisms collapsed because individuals were unwilling to pay for infrastructures voluntarily, especially infrastructures that others would use without paying for them. On the supply side, the market collapsed because producers--who normally held a monopoly over infrastructural development--could ignore the demands of its captive market. Little wonder that service was most readily provided to well-to-do neighborhoods and business areas where the rewards were greatest.

Thinking about cities in terms of technical systems raises as many questions as it provides answers. But in thinking about changes in the America urban experience over the years, the study of technical systems provides a valuable tool for understanding the profound physical transformation of American cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the degree to which those changes influenced patterns of growth, and how net outcomes of those technical cities affected the lives of the people themselves.


  1. Hans Blumenfeld, "Continuity and Change in Urban Form," in Larry S. Bourne, ed., Internal Structure of the City: Readings on Urban Form, Growth, and Policy (New York, 1982), p. 51.

  2. Jon Peterson, "Environment and Technology in the Great City Era of American History," Journal of UrbHistory 8 (May, 1982): 344.

  3. Detwyler and Marcus, eds., Urbanization and Environment, p. 10.

  4. Lewis Mumford, The City in History, pp. 478-80, 563-67.

  5. Thomas P. Hughes, American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870- 1970 (New York, 1989), p. 3.

  6. Alan D. Anderson, The Origin and Resolution of the Urban Crisis: Baltimore, 1890-1930 (Baltimore, 1977), p. 2.

  7. See David C. Hammack, Power and Society: Greater New York at the Turn of the Century (New York, 1982).

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