Academic journal article Environment and History

Expanding Sanitary Infrastructure and the Shaping of River History: River Vantaa (Finland) 1876-1982

Academic journal article Environment and History

Expanding Sanitary Infrastructure and the Shaping of River History: River Vantaa (Finland) 1876-1982

Article excerpt


This article investigates the environmental history of the River Vantaa, southern Finland, and its interaction with the spatial development of water-related infrastructures in an urbanising environment. The article argues that the overlapping use of the river as part of both waste water and drinking water infrastructures has shaped its ecological characteristics and consequently influenced communities' possibilities for using it. As a response to hydrological alterations, human activity focused on increasingly manipulating the river water and its flow. The study describes a gradual spatial expansion of the hydrological territory of the Finnish capital and a process of increasingly heavy engineered alterations in order to meet the water-related needs of communities in the region. This happened within the watershed and beyond, both above and under the surface. The study covers the time period from 1876 to 1982.


River history, water supply, sanitary infrastructure, River Vantaa


Water is one of the most essential resources that facilitate human life and wellbeing. Throughout history, rivers have been a crucially important natural environment for the supply of water to human beings. Rivers have been the subject of a great number of environmental historical studies. (1) The inherently dynamic nature of rivers has led scholars to adopt a view that emphasises ongoing interchanges between the dynamics of natural processes and human intervention. Both the appearance and function of rivers have been changed by human activity, but, simultaneously, as rivers are themselves active agents, they are also driving forces in history. (2)

The importance of rivers for city development is widely acknowledged. The urban perspective in exploring river histories often includes controversies and tensions between upstream and downstream communities about the uses of riverine natural resources. As a flow resource, water transcends administrative and jurisdictional boundaries that usually do not coincide with hydrological boundaries. (3) Thus, urban--rural or city--hinterland relationships and the spatial aspects connected to them are an essential part of river histories.

The multifaceted qualities of rivers make them subjects of disputes concerning such matters as water volume and the river's hydroelectric potential, the economic value in terms of fisheries or transportation routes or the waters' capacity to carry waste and wastewater away. These factors have made rivers an essential part of socio-natural-technological networks, infrastructures that are the material mediators of the water flows so essential for the functioning of modern cities and societies in general. (4)

The main task of several key infrastructural systems is to control natural processes and extract natural resources, or dispose of waste, for human benefit. (5) Human dependence on natural resources is managed through the infrastructures that regulate the material fluxes, in the urban context often referred to as 'urban metabolism'.(6) Infrastructure that regulates fluxes of water is a hybrid of man-made material constructions (pipes, pumping stations etc.) and natural elements (river bed, gravity). Together they convey the water over distances and make it available for management and manipulation, such as chemical treatment, regulation of flow and storage. They are by no means static constructs but continuously under observation, adjustment and improvement. (7) As one river can be part of several infrastructural systems throughout the watershed it becomes a crucial node connecting different places with each other and with socio-natural-technical systems managing water flow. The water flow unites communities that otherwise have no obvious links. They become 'involuntary neighbours' through the flow of water, but also of sewage, pollution and refuse. (8)

These mutual dependencies of locations along rivers and their watersheds (and beyond) densify the hydrographic network, where urbanised areas tend to have a predominant role. …

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