The Sewers of Paris and the Making of the Modern City, Part 1
Philip Coulter goes underground in the City of Light to visit the City of Smell. Part 1 of 2-part series.
Public sewers might be a fairly modern innovation, but that's not to say that people in the past were entirely ignorant about disease and how it was transmitted.
The Romans had a sewer system that drained into the rivers, and they knew enough about to keep clean drinking water separate from more general purpose water. A couple of thousand years earlier, the palace at Knossos in Crete also had sewers and even a kind of flushable toilet.
Yet plague and disease swept across the world on a regular basis. So why did it take so long to figure out the causes and the probably solutions to the great pandemics?
Part of the reason is that for a very long time, there was no real idea of the public good, that in order for all of us to be healthy, we all pretty much have to have the same access to clean water, and similar standards of hygiene. The herd immunity idea.
But there was one other big consequence to our lack of understanding about disease: the big pandemics slowed down the growth of cities.
At a certain point, all that concentration of humanity – and its waste – bred disease, and growing civilizations would have to step back for a while. The modern metropolis is really only possible because now we have a better understanding of how disease is transmitted, and of the public good.
The French Revolution, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, proposed a big idea of the common good, a more equitable society, a social contract between the state and the citizen.
One of the offshoots of that was the notion of public health: it took about fifty years to get established with the rebuilding of Paris that started in the 1850's. We may suffer a little nostalgia for the beauty of the old medieval city that is lost now. But there's no question that the new city is beautiful too – and partly for what's below ground: the sewers.
This episode is Part 1 of a 2-part series by Philip Coulter. Part 2 airs Thursday, February 7.
Guests in this episode:
- Patrick Zylberman is Professor Emeritus of public health at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sante Publique in Paris.
- Jeffrey Jackson is J.J McComb Professor of History at Rhodes College in Memphis, and the author of Paris Under Water: how the City of Light survived the great flood of 1910, (St. Martin's/Griffin, 2010).
- Sabine Barles is professor of urban planning and development at the Université Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne; her research is in the history of technology and the urban environment.