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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2011

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Books of Note

THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE PEOPLE IN AMERICAN CITIES, 1600s–1900s Dorceta E. Taylor, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.

If humans can be said to have a single greatest engineering and social accomplishment, it would be the city. Dorceta Taylor has written an authoritative and engagingly written account of the evolution of urban life in America. Her subtitle, Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change, reflects her emphasis on the social, economic, and environmental struggles that ensued as Americans transitioned from predominately rural to urban environments.

Along with Britain and other European nations, America was among the very first to feel the effects of the urban-industrial revolution. The history of American cities is substantially a story of a dramatic social evolution that accompanied the invention of new institutions, scientific discoveries, and technologies needed to cope with the challenges of massive urbanization. Professor Taylor organizes her analysis around seven major topics that challenge people in the urban environment: (1) alleviation of poverty and improved quality of life; (2) sanitary reform and public health; (3) safe, affordable, and adequate housing; (4) the creation of parks, playgrounds, and open space; (5) occupational health and safety; (6) consumer protection, particularly food and product safety; and (7) land use and urban planning. She correctly notes that “not only do many historical accounts of environmental activism focus on wilderness and wildlife issues; they tend to focus on elite white males.” Her emphasis is on understanding the “experiences and activism of the poor and people of color in addition to the contributions of upper- and middle-class males and females to environmental change.” This book is a major contribution to the academic literature on the role urbanization has played in the history of environmental and public health activism in America.

According to Taylor, a core theme of this history of the urban environment and society is the story of inequalities based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity, which resulted from the control that higher-income whites hold over access to housing, workplaces, parks, and cemetaries. Dorceta Taylor demonstrates in detail how social inequalities repeatedly informed the adjudication of questions related to health, safety, and land access and use. Her wise use of detailed notes and references will be welcomed by students and scholars who want to research specific topics in more detail.

In a press release from the University of Michigan, where Taylor is an associate professor of environmental sociology, she is quoted as saying, “The book takes on this very daunting and long timeline because it is important in getting readers to understand how the cities evolved and how the environmental needs of the cities changed over time.” This statement is especially relevant at a time when the National Science Foundation and the few other organizations that fund fundamental academic research are exploring interdisciplinary frontiers of knowledge. Urban growth will surely be one of the biggest challenges for humankind in the twenty-first century. The world's urban population is at present estimated to be growing by about 50 million people per year. So there is much discussion about factors determining land uses, the manageable size of megacities, and the demographic and social characteristics of future urban populations. Readers of The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s–1900s, will appreciate that understanding the past is critical to shaping better futures for our urban planet.

ROBERT HARRISS is President and CEO of the Houston Advanced Research Center.

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