In addition to studying cholera and the history of epidemiology, The Ghost Map is a meditation on the history and importance of urban planning—a field of study that many people are barely aware exists. In the 19th century, London was one of the only cities in the world to cram so many people into so little space. With its unprecedented population and density, London struck many writers and intellectuals of the era as being inherently unsustainable. For years, the city was so big and poorly organized that it couldn’t even dispose of its own trash in an efficient way—instead, “night-soil men” carried huge mounds of excrement to the edges of the city, where they added them to huge, festering piles. In the face of escalating chaos, officials had to find ways of organizing London, in the process developing many of the organizational principles that modern city-dwellers take for granted.
Perhaps the most important aspect of urban planning that Victorian London’s officials were forced to rethink was the urban space itself—in other words, the roads, sewers, and other infrastructure that connected the people of London together. In particular, London officials rethought the sewer system. Following the Public Health Act of 1848, a General Board of Health, funded by taxes and philanthropic donations, made recommendations about how to improve public health. In its early days, the Board’s most important project was disposing of trash and excrement. In order to do so more efficiently, Edwin Chadwick, the first president of the Board, ordered the unclogging of the existing sewer system—a policy that dumped millions of pounds of excrement into the River Thames and probably caused the deaths of thousands of people (since the water supply was now contaminated with countless diseases, including cholera). Later, in the 1850s, the Board ordered the building of a brand-new sewer system, which Johnson describes as a technological wonder to rival the Eiffel Tower or the Brooklyn Bridge. The new sewers moved trash and excrement out of London and isolated sewage from the water supply, preventing future cholera outbreaks. The London sewer system illustrates an important principle: the best urban planning is often the least visible (because, oftentimes, ideal urban planning allows urbanites to continue with their normal behavior, and therefore doesn’t call attention to itself). The new sewers solved a serious problem in London, but they did so without changing most people’s day-to-day lives. Today, few Londoners are even aware that it was once a serious question whether London would survive or drown in its own excrement.
Efficient, invisible infrastructure is important, but it’s not enough by itself to ensure a stable city. Urban planners need to be aware of city-dwellers’ constantly changing needs; as a result, there should be committees that survey local people and pass recommendations on to the general municipal government. During the cholera epidemic of 1854, John Snow recommended to a board of local governors at Saint James’s Parish that the pump handle at the Broad Street pump be removed; the board voted, and the handle was removed immediately. John Snow wasn’t just a scientist; he’d spent weeks interviewing cholera patients about their afflictions, meaning that, in effect, he was acting as an informed representative for the Soho community. As Johnson sees it, the board’s actions marked another milestone in the history of urban planning: a local government used science to make an informed decision about public health, setting a precedent for future municipal governments.
Urban planning is an ancient discipline, but during the Victorian era, city officials developed a new set of tools for dealing with the unprecedented population density of the modern metropolis—infrastructure built according to the principles of modern engineering, and boards whose job was to recognize local problems before they became citywide crises. Perhaps most importantly, Victorians realized that urban planning is an endless, unpredictable struggle against the inherent chaos of millions of different people living together.
Urban Growth and Planning ThemeTracker
Urban Growth and Planning Quotes in The Ghost Map
London in 1854 was a Victorian metropolis trying to make do with an Elizabethan public infrastructure. The city was vast even by today's standards, with two and a half million people crammed inside a thirty-mile circumference. But most of the techniques for managing that kind of population density that we now take for granted—recycling centers, public-health departments, safe sewage removal—hadn't been invented yet.
For Londoners, the specific menace of cholera was a product of the Industrial Age and its global shipping networks: no known case of cholera on British soil exists before 1831.
Fear might not have been a contributing factor in the spread of disease, but it had long been a defining emotion of urban life. Cities often began as an attempt to ward off outside threats—fortified by walls, protected by guards—but as they grew in size, they developed their own, internal dangers: disease, crime, fire, along with the "soft" dangers of moral decline, as many believed. Death was omnipresent, particularly for the working class.
In a very practical sense, no one had ever tried to pack nearly three million people inside a thirty-mile circumference before. The metropolitan city, as a concept, was still unproven. It seemed entirely likely to many reasonable citizens of Victorian England—as well as to countless visitors from overseas—that a hundred years from now the whole project of maintaining cities of this scale would have proved a passing fancy. The monster would eat itself.
No doubt he had done more than anyone alive to focus attention on the shameful condition of the industrial poor, and to mobilize forces to correct those problems. But some of the most significant programs he put in place ended up having catastrophic effects.
Snow's argument was persuasive—and, besides, they had few other options. If Snow was wrong, the neighborhood might go thirsty for a few weeks. If he was right, who knew how many lives they might save? And so, after a quick internal consultation, the Board voted that the Broad Street well should be closed down.
As for influence, it's pretty to think of John Snow unveiling the map before the Epidemiological Society to amazed and thunderous applause, and to glowing reviews in The Lancet the next week. But that's not how it happened. Its persuasiveness seems obvious to us now, living as we do outside the constraints of the miasma paradigm. But when it first began circulating in late 1854 and early 1855, its impact was far from dramatic. Snow himself seems to have thought that his South London Water Works study would ultimately be the centerpiece of his argument, the Broad Street map merely a piece of supporting evidence, a sideshow.
The construction of the new sewers was every bit as epic and enduring as the building of the Brooklyn Bridge or the Eiffel Tower. Its grandeur lies belowground, out of sight, and so it is not invoked as regularly as other, more iconic, achievements of the age.
Cities are invariably shaped by their master planners and their public officials; Chadwick and Farr had a tremendous impact on Victorian London—most of it positive, despite the miasma diversions. But in the last instance, the energy and vitality and innovation of cities comes from the Henry Whiteheads—the connectors and entrepreneurs and public characters who make the urban engine work at the street level.
We will enter a new era: a planet whose human population is more than 50 percent urban. Some experts believe we are on a path that will take us all the way to 80 percent, before we reach a planetary stabilization point.
The great cities of the world would start to look like giant bull’s-eyes: millions of potential casualties conveniently stacked up in easily demolished high-rises.
Perhaps urban nuclear explosions will turn out to be like hundred-year storms: a bomb goes off once a century, millions die, the planet shudders in horror, and slowly goes about its business.
The global challenges that we face are not necessarily an apocalyptic crisis of capitalism or mankind’s hubris finally clashing with the balanced spirit of Gaia. We have confronted equally appalling crises before. The only question is whether we can steer around these crises without killing ten million people, or more. So let’s get on with it.