January 16, 2013

Locating a city's place in environmental history

Image: View of 2nd Ave. Looking up from 42nd St., 1861, in The Greatest Grid, edited by Hilary Ballon, p. 81 (Source: New York History blog)

I came across a review of books about Boston's environmental history written by Andrew W. Kahrl in a recent issue of the Journal of Planning History.  (Note: the title of this post is taken from the review's title: "Locating Boston's Place in Environmental History".)  Kahrl reviewed five books:
  • Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland, by Sarah S. Elkind (1998)
  • Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston, by Michael Rawson (2010)
  • Remaking Boston: An Environmental History,  edited by Anthony N. Penna and Conrad Edick Wright (2009)
  • Mastering Boston Harbor: Courts, Dolphins, and Imperial Waters, by Charles M. Harr (2005)
  • Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston, by Nancy S. Seasholes (2003)
From these books, Kahrl argued two main points about Boston's environmental history.  One, human power relationships influence the ecology of a place.  Two, power also resides in the actual nature of a place which shapes the dynamics between people and environment.  Kahrl uses the remaking of the Boston Common from a space of production and extraction to one of leisure and recreation to illustrate his first point.  I was surprised to learn that hills were not always considered desirable locations!  They were associated with "poverty and vice", industry, were frequently threatened with leveling, and access with difficult and services rare. 

Boston expanded via a process of "landmaking" which is detailed in Seasholes' book.  Karhl points out that the "relative ease with which past generations could make land...by filling in shallow tidal flats" is being eroded as nature reasserts itself.  Groundwater levels are falling and foundations and pilings are deteriorating.  And interestingly, Kahrl notes, Boston is now more susceptible to earthquakes.  This is a fascinating review and I've added four of the books to my to-read list (I read Seasholes' book for a paper about the political ecology of park-making in Boston's Chinatown).

Inspired by the essay, I compiled a list of books that tell a story about New York's environmental history but it lacks books about the city's water supply and waterways.
  • The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon (2012)
  • Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City, by Matthew Gandy (2002)
  • The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, by Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar (1992)
  • Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, by Eric Sanderson (2009)

Which books tell the story of environmental change in your city?

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