Dieter Schott, Bill Luckin, Genevieve Massard-Guilbaud, eds. Resources of the City: Contributions to an Environmental History of Modern Europe. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005. x + 285 pp. $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-5081-2.
Reviewed by Hans-Liudger Dienel (Center for Technology and Society, Berlin University of Technology)
Published on H-Urban (July, 2006)
Modern Urban Environmental History
Environmental history has come late to urban history. According to the editors, environmental history is still a relatively new and rapidly emerging field. However, we now live in times where environmental threats have been eclipsed by other political topics (security issues, global economy and unemployment). In comparison to the 1980s, urban environmental history today has a different function, that of providing some continuity for environmental politics.
This book presents results of an international workshop on urban environmental history held in Leicester, England, in 2002, one of a series of biannual roundtables on European urban environmental history since 1998. The book's three editors from Germany, the United Kingdom and France were involved in the two previous roundtables as well. Since the editors and others have viewed U.S. scholarship as leading the field, they integrated North America into "Europe." This volume effectively gives an overview of the historiographic problems and questions in European urban environmental history.
Chief editor Dieter Schott presents a most instructive introduction to urban environmental history in Europe, which started as a history of urban infrastructure, then included city-hinterland relations (following Cronon's famous study on Chicago) and profited from the growing political importance of sustainable development since the early 1990s. According to Schott, urban environmental history in Europe still is weak in integrating other social (and physical) sciences to improve explanatory tools. Thus, Schott argues against academic fragmentation and for more theoretical approaches in the field. In order to analyze cities not only as regional areas but also as social actors, environmental history has to learn from institutional economics, sociology and political science to describe decision-making processes and analyze constellations and social forces. Some articles try to follow this integrative and theoretical approach, and some even go beyond the claims of Schott and include important bottom-up perspectives and analyze consumer behavior.
While not formally divided into sections, the book's topics fall into four groups. In the first group, Sabine Barles uses the phrase "urban metabolism" as a framework to describe the ups and downs of waste management cycle systems in Paris in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Joel Tarr and Clay McShane analyze town-hinterland relations used to feed urban horses. Between 1870 and 1900, the number of horses in the United States tripled. More than 50 percent of the land in the New England states was used for hay production (mostly for urban horses) around 1900. Tarr and McShane might have strengthened their chapter by offering comparisons to modern bio-fuel concepts, which are so important for rural areas in industrialized countries today.
Four articles cover bottom-up approaches to developing urban nature. Michèle Dagenais analyzes suburbanization in Montreal as a way for upper-middle-class citizens to experience urban green space in summer homes and vacation residences. One can hardly overestimate the effects on the appearance of these areas as a result of spatial partnerships between the city and the countryside. In a complementary approach, Helen Meller presents the attempts of European urban citizens to develop and defend green niches within cities. She convincingly describes an almost "subversive" garden movement and urban agriculture, especially in times of food scarcity, which slowly disappeared after World War II. One would like to read more about the conversion of allotments into flower gardens from a user perspective. Gabriella Corona shows the effects of a "total failure" of land use planning because of speculation and corruption in Naples, Italy, after 1945. Natural areas disappeared despite legal protections; the regulations were so rigid that they were rarely enforced. Even so, according to many visitors, the Neapolitan region is rich in natural beauty. Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud compares industrial land use in two French cities, in Nantes (1830-80) and in Clermont-Ferrand (1900-30). The latter is the hometown of Michelin, the world's biggest tire producer, and a family-owned company with closed archives. The author notes the very strong political influence of the local industrialists and a willingness of the governmental authorities to support the local economy in every respect, yet she presents hardly any archival substantiation for her plausible ideas.
Nicholas Goddard, Ulrich Koppitz, Simone Neri Serneri, Christoph Bernhardt and Laurence Lestel present interesting case studies in the so-far most established field of urban environmental history, the emergence of urban water resource systems. Goddard explains, with reference to scientific, social and economic networks, why the establishment kept an outdated sanitary system in Croydon, a small suburb south of London. Koppitz details how the possibility of real estate development facilitated big investments in expensive sewage systems in the German town of Düsseldorf around 1875-1905. Serneri looks at the centuries-old fresh and waste water system in Milan, which became too complex and obsolete in the period of rapid industrial growth (1880-1940). Serneri's approach to understanding the rebuilding of old systems could be a model for future discussions of how to rebuild existing water systems. Bernhardt assesses the special development of water systems in East German "New Towns" after 1945. Their rapid industrial and ambitious housing developments led to huge water problems and large-scale, centralized solutions in the 1960s. However, the GDR had little ecological awareness in the 1970s and the problems thus grew to a nearly unmanageable size in the late 1980s. Lestel analyzes the debates in Paris on water quality and safety in a time of political unrest and instability, around 1870. He tries to understand why many experts in the most active public debate tried to calm public questions and fears. A comparison to the participatory policy of experts today would have been interesting.
The final group of articles introduces relatively new perspectives and fields in environmental history. Michael Toyka-Seid discusses noise pollution. Covering the situation in Germany especially, he argues that this important environmental issue should play a more prominent role in future studies. Doing so would not only address an important pollution problem but utilize new approaches to understanding how urban societies reacted to noise. Jens Ivo Engels compares environmental movements in towns and the countryside. He shows that cities generated more and better organized protest movements, but that rural movements were better linked by local networks and politics. Two articles assess the situation of environmental urban history today. Bill Luckin compares the status of environmental history in the United States and the United Kingdom, and follows Schott in stating that the U.S. cultural and social history of the urban environment, including class, race and gender, is still more advanced than the European. In the last article, the U.S. mandarin of environmental history, Martin Melosi, tries to convince environmental historians who are interested in the policy implications of their historical work, to apply the concept of path dependency, an approach which, since the 1980s, brought history back to economic sciences as an explanatory factor and fostered the emergence of institutional economics. Without theoretical frameworks and concepts, without interdisciplinary exchange of explanatory tools and methods, environmental history cannot shape environmental policy. Looking back on his own book, The Sanitary City, Melosi criticizes himself in that he only introduced the approach of institutional economics at the beginning but did not apply it later in the book. This lack of follow-through can be found in many historical books.
Schott, in his introduction, and Luckin and Melosi, at end of the volume, argue in support of similar goals. Most papers in between present case studies which would benefit from more of the kind of integration that Schott, Luckin, and Melosi promote in order to give environmental urban history more public visibility and political influence. Nevertheless, this is a great book on what I hope is a "rapidly emerging field."
. William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).
. Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
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Hans-Liudger Dienel. Review of Schott, Dieter; Luckin, Bill; Massard-Guilbaud, Genevieve, eds., Resources of the City: Contributions to an Environmental History of Modern Europe.
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