The Sewers of Paris and the Making of the Modern City, Part 1

Sewers are a relatively modern phenomenon. For centuries, people in cities lived intimately with their waste. The price paid for that lack of awareness about hygiene was of course disease and plague — as well as unbearable stench. Understanding how germs and diseases are spread led to sanitation and sewers — and to the modern city. The rebuilding of Paris in the mid-19th century was a great civic achievement and a new idea of society only made possible because it was built on sewers. Philip Coulter goes underground in the City of Light to visit the City of Smells.

Philip Coulter goes underground in the City of Light to visit the City of Smell. Part 1 of 2-part series.

A Nineteenth-Century map of the Paris sewers: in blue are the sewers from before 1878. The top half of the map is of the more fashionable Right Bank, where there were more sewers. ( Philip Coulter/CBC)

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.

The Paris Sewer Museum is, in fact, a working sewer. In the 19th. century you could eat dinner while taking a boat tour through the sewers. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

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.


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