The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant | Go to book overview

6
Urban Environments, 1850–1960

Late nineteenth-century industrialization was a second major phase in the development of the United States economy, following the market revolution of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Urbanization is a core topic for environmental history because the increasing density of industry, transportation, and housing transformed both the land and the lives of urban dwellers. After the Civil War, industrialization—particularly in large Eastern and Midwestern cities—was accompanied by air, refuse, noise, and water pollution. This chapter deals with the evolution of environmental problems brought about by and associated with industrialization, urbanization, suburbanization, and the efforts of engineers, citizens, and legislators to deal with them.


Urbanization, Industry, and Energy

Living nature disappeared from everyday experience for most Americans by the mid-twentieth century. Amidst the urban world's masonry, steel, and asphalt, manicured remnants of greenery camouflaged the built environment's dependence on the natural world of forests, waters, air, and wildlife. Urbanization and industrialization, the twin processes propelling this shift, had moved into high gear following the market revolution of the early nineteenth century.

In 1800, only 320,000 people—or 6 percent of the population of the United States—lived in urban areas of more than 2,500 persons. Except for the northeastern seaboard, the country was largely rural. By the advent of the Civil War sixty years later, urban dwellers had jumped to some six million (20 percent of the total population); by 1920 to almost 54 million (about 50 percent); and by 1970 to more than 149 million (72 percent).

The rapid growth of urban population was fostered by the growth of manufacturing on an ever-larger scale, using ever-more potent methods for extracting energy from the natural environment. Human muscle and animal power were first augmented by the energy of falling water, as stored be

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