Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

The Sewers of Paris and the Making of the Modern City, Part 2

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.

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)
Listen to the full episode53:59

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. This is the second of a 2-part series by Philip Coulter.

**This episode originally aired February 7, 2019.

There is a parallel between democracy in crisis and public health in crisis, because there is the same source: public opinion… and people today have decided that personal good is more interesting than public good.- Patrick Zylberman

The idea of the common good has deep roots. Ancient Greek philosophers thought about what "the good" might be, and how it might find expression in both individual action and individual lives, as well as in the good society.

Social cohesion was important, but that didn't mean that everyone was somehow equal, merely that knowing your role in the overall pecking order brought happiness and social harmony. It was more of a philosophical idea than a practical one, and a long way from our modern focus on equality of access and opportunity.


The French Revolution of the 18th century brought in a new idea – the Social Contract, borrowed from the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which promised not just a mutual set of obligations and responsibilities between the individual and the state, but also a new idea of the common good: that a state is successful when it responds to and reflects the interests and needs of its citizens.

Jeffrey Jackson is the author of "Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910". 1:34

We can draw a fairly straight line from these lofty ideas and ideals to the massive expansion of the Paris sewers in the mid-19th century. When the Emperor Napoleon III, his city planner Baron Haussmann and the engineer Eugene Belgrand set out to tear down most of the city and build something absolutely new, a large part of the impetus was to create a city that would be for the benefit of all, and not just the few.

The new water pipes and sewers built under the Boulevard Sebastopol. (Wikipedia)

The city in and of itself would be the expression of a civic ideal of equality: everyone would have clean water, clean air, parks, as well as wide, pleasant and beautiful streets. And proper sewers.

But all this depended on people agreeing on what their common needs are. It's one thing for an emperor, or a philosopher-king, to decide what the people really want and then give it to them. It's quite another thing, as Patrick Zylberman laments, when the people have the power to decide for themselves what they want, and decide through both collective action and inaction that the common good is less important than the personal good. That part the ancient Greeks got right.

Guests in this episode:

  • Patrick Zylberman is Professor Emeritus of public health at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Santé 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.
  • David Barnes teaches the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and is the author of The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

Related websites:



**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. 

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