Why is Urban Sustainability so Hard? The Trap of the Sanitary City

A few months ago, I was having a lively discussion with some serious and dedicated undergraduates at a university I was visiting.  The fact that they were disappointed with their training in sustainability came up — They felt they weren’t being told how to practice sustainability.  This provided an opportunity for interesting engaged discussion, and helped me clarify some of my own thoughts.  Here’s what came up for me.  I’ll frame these thoughts in the context of urban ecology, since that’s where I usually think about sustainability.  In fact it is hard to think about sustainability in any kind of ecosystem without including urban connections.
There are two basic reasons for the difficulty.  Sustainability is technically complex, and sustainability, unlike traditional strategies of urban management, doesn’t yet have a recipe.  Here I’m following a distinction between complicated and complex (Allen and Starr 1982).

Sustainability is Technically Complex

Sustainability was first introduced in the 1970s.  But its most famous articulation is that of the Bruntland Commission in 1987.   This canonical definition emphasizes not only the need to consider the effect of current decisions on future generations and on people and places distant from the seat of decision making, but it also emphasizes that three things must be considered jointly: environmental integrity, economic vitality, and social equity.
Right off the bat, it is clear that sustainability is a multifaceted pursuit.  So it is likely to be complex because there are many components of each facet, and the facets will most likely interact.  If one acknowledges that sustainability tacitly assumes the subject to be a “human ecosystem,” the reason for the resulting complexity of sustainability becomes clear.  Human ecosystems contain, at the minimum, biological components, physical environmental components, constructed components, technology, social structures, political processes, and economic resources.  And this long list is only indicative.  The interactions between and among components guarantee that efforts to assess and guide sustainability must involve all the components.  Non-linearities, multiple and scale-crossing feedbacks, and temporal lags would all lend considerable complexity to sustainability.

The Classic Sanitary Approach to Cities Is, in Contrast, Complicated

Contrast the complexity of sustainability to the way that cities have mostly been considered.  Most cities in areas that have experienced a history of industrialization can now be called “sanitary cities” (Melosi 2000).  The rise of the industrial city, especially when powered by coal, was a polluted affair.  Acidic and particle-laden smoke from factories and home fires made the air a “foul and pestilent congregation of vapours,” to quote Shakespeare (Hamlet Act II, Scene 2).  The concentration of so many people in new settlements hurriedly built to house the new industrial workers who flocked from the countryside, led to fecal pollution of streams and even in many cases well water.  The industrial cities on Europe and North America, although desirable to waves of new migrants due to economic opportunity and intellectual and other freedoms, were clearly bad for people’s health.  Bouts of mortality from waterborne diseases characterized these cities, and as late as the 1950s, significant mortality resulted from the “killer smogs” in some cities.
From the waste and disease of these industrial behemoths a new model of the city emerged.  Called by Martin Melosi (2000) “the sanitary city,” this city model involved new ways of laying out cities and the development of infrastructure to provide clean water and convey sewage away from the city, for example.  In addition, the sanitary city model required new forms of governance, new modes of financing infrastructure, and new zoning regulations aimed at reducing hazards and promoting health.  In some cities, these structures began to emerge in the mid to late 1800s, while in other cities of the Global North, the physical and institutional structures did not emerge until the early 20th century.  In the United States, the efforts to clean up both urban and non-urban environments continued through the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Clean Air Act in 1970.
Sanitary cities are governed through various departments charged with generating and maintaining the key infrastructure, or managing the solid and water-borne waste flows so that people were usually separated from the most noxious threats.  “Late” Sanitary Era development changed the strategy from shunting wastes “away” from the city, or at least away from districts inhabited by the wealthy and empowered, to reducing and treating wastes.  The ethical attention to populations and locations downstream and downwind was an important development in the sanitary city strategy, one that recognized the integration of urban areas with larger regional, and in the case of air pollution, continental-scale areas.

Constraints of the Sanitary City

The sanitary city strategy can be considered a success.  Sanitary cities are not the killers that the smoke shrouded, sewage drenched killers that Charles Dickens novelized.  But when compared with the more comprehensive strategy of sustainability, the sanitary city has some real shortcomings.  Some of these are in fact problematic legacies that must be overcome.  In the language of resilience theory, a sanitary city can harbor “rigidity traps” that hamper the transition to sustainability.  Here are some examples:

  • Sanitary cities are governed from the top down, with resources provided by public funds.  Shortfalls in city funding can impair the functioning and maintenance of the massive physical infrastructure required for sanitation.  The sustainable city may benefit from alternative funding structures.

  • Sanitary cities are managed by licensed specialists who are responsible to specific, issue oriented departments.  For example, drinking water, sewage, planning, justice, finance, housing, may each be managed by different departments or bureaus.  The sustainable city requires that all structures and functions in an urban place be thought of and managed as a system, not a series of loosely connected administrative units.

  • The sanitary city may be seen as a tool to preserve the health and productivity of an industrial work force.  The sustainable city must adopt a stance of environmental and social equity, rather than be driven by the economic interests of a wealthy elite.
Other contrasts can be drawn between the sanitary city and the sustainable city models (Grove 2010; Pickett et al 2013).  However, this short list points out that there are key differences between the two.

New Recipes for Sustainable Urban Transformation

To return to the question of why it is hard to learn the sustainable city, much less actually promote sustainable trajectories in real cities, another point must be made.  Urbanists, politicians, planners, designers, management professions, and even residents of cities, have had something on the order of 150 years to visualize, develop, and improve the sanitary city model.  Authors such as Graham and Marvin (2001) and Gandy (2003) have explained in depth the complicated nature of the sanitary city, and the long time it took to develop and deploy the physical, political, and social structures needed to build and operate it.  Yet, for many of us “urban/suburban fish” in the Global North, the sanitary city is the “water we swim in.”  It hardly elicits a second thought.  We don’t have to be taught what it means to run it.  We may be troubled by environmental injustices within it, or its growing susceptibility to climate change, or the buffeting by shifting global economic investment.  But we fundamentally understand what kind of thing and experience a sanitary city is.
Not so the sustainable city.  Those who are committed to the future of cities are in the process of creating a new model — a new recipe — for cities.   The recipe for sustainability must facilitate the internal environmental integrity, the regional effects, the social livabilities and equitability, and of course the hoped for economic productivity of urban places.  And this recipe hasn’t had long to mature.  The fact that sustainability requires input from a diversity of residents, citizens, and officials makes the initial visioning process difficult, yet crucial.  The fact that sustainability governance in many cases has to be built on top of existing legal structures, and indeed, to compensate for the fragmented management of what should be dealt with as an integrated system, adds its own kind of complexity.  But, from an ecological perspective, perhaps the biggest hurdle facing urban sustainability is beginning to see cities as hybrid systems — having inextricably linked biological and social-economic features.  The recipe can’t just deal with ingredients as independent parts.
It is no wonder that learning and practicing sustainability is so difficult.  But the students who today are struggling mightily with what sustainability is, how to apply that thinking to the hobbled sanitary urban systems they may have inherited, and how to make trajectories toward sustainability in and outside of cities the norm, are the folks who will ultimately be able to say: “This is the new post-sanitary model of urban systems, this is how the sustainable city works, this is how you apply the model to cities that are brand new or the large number of cities in the Global South and East that haven’t even had an industrial and sanitary phase, and this is how you structure governance networks to operate it.”  One day, the sooner the better, the Sustainable City models will be off the shelf recipes with high altitude and tropical variants, and suggestions for culturally different flavors.
Bon appetit!
Steward T.A. Pickett

Background Publications.

Allen, T.F.H. and T.B. Starr. 1982. Hierarchy: Perspectives for Ecological Complexity. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Cadenasso, M. L., S. T. A. Pickett, and J. M. Grove. 2006. Dimensions of ecosystem complexity: Heterogeneity, connectivity, and history. Ecological Complexity 3:1–12.
Childers, D. L., M. L. Cadenasso, J. M. Grove, V. Marshall, B. McGrath, and S. T. A. Pickett. 2015. An Ecology for Cities: A Transformational Nexus of Design and Ecology to Advance Climate Change Resilience and Urban Sustainability. Sustainability 7:3774–3791.
Gandy, M. 2003. Concrete and clay: reworking nature in New York City. MIT Press, Cambridge.
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Melosi, M. V. 2000. The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.
Pickett, S. T. A., C. G. Boone, B. P. McGrath, M. L. Cadenasso, D. L. Childers, L. A. Ogden, M. McHale, and J. M. Grove. 2013. Ecological science and transformation to the sustainable city. Cities 32, Supplement 1:S10–S20.